When we think of meat chicken breeds, we often have a picture-perfect, fat, heavy-breasted, white bird in our minds. But the truth is, there are many different breeds of chickens to choose from. In fact, limiting your options will only guarantee that you’ll miss out on different flavors, experiences, and opportunities to get more out of your chicken.
In this article, you’ll soon discover that there’s a lot more to consider (and chose from) when looking for the right meat chicken to raise for you and your family.
What To Consider When Selecting a Meat Chicken
Selecting a meat chicken comes down to your own preferences. Because, when all is said and done, you can eat any type of chicken (or bird for that matter). Some just tend to have a larger body and will provide more meat than others.
If you’re looking for that picture-perfect chicken, the one you’ve probably seen in the grocery store or on TV, then your best bet is the Cornish Cross.
But if you’re interested in learning about other breeds of chicken that are often raised for meat, then you’ll want to take look at the following considerations to make your selection.
Size of the Bird
It’s no surprise that the larger the chicken (usually) the more meat on the dinner table. While the Cornish Cross is the standard for large meat chickens, there are many heritage and dual-purpose breeds that have plenty heft to “bring to the table” as well. If you’re looking for a good meat to bone ratio, go for the standard broilers rather than heritage, but if you’re ok with a little less meat but equally tasty meal, a heritage breed might be just right.
A Controversial Consideration
Some chicken owners aren’t comfortable with raising breeds that were developed for commercial processing. That is because these chickens were developed to grow extremely fast to keep up with supply and demand…and make more money.
What’s wrong with fast-growing chickens, you ask?
Unfortunately, these chickens can have a slew of medical problems due to unnaturally rapid growth rates. In fact, some chickens grow so fast, and abnormally large, that their legs cannot support their bodies.
They may also overeat and have heart and respiratory problems which can lead to death before they get to processing weight. Since you’re probably not in the business of raising meat chickens (yet) you’re most likely ok with a slower growing bird too.
Keep reading to learn about alternatives to the Cornish Cross chicken.
The Right Time for Everything
If time is a concern for you, and you’ve got a deadline to hit, you’re not going to find a faster growing meat chicken than the Cornish Cross. However, you can always check with your hatchery for recommendations on their favorite fast-growing meat breeds.
Taste-Testing Different Breeds
Believe it or not, not all chickens taste exactly the same. In fact, some say that heritage breeds, or chickens raised on pasture, taste different from one another. While the taste difference, from breed-to-breed, isn’t always noticeable, there is something to be said for how a chicken is raised…and how it affects the taste. All that to say, there are some breeds of chicken that are touted for their amazing flavor…like the Bresse, for example.
So if you’re looking for something new, dig around and see what people are saying about flavorful chicken breeds and how to raise them.
Appearance of A Processed Meat Bird
The first time I saw a dressed heritage breed (I think it was a Rhode Island Red) I was a bit put off. The breast bone was much more prominent than the broilers I’d purchased in the store. The skin color was a bit different, almost yellow, and I wasn’t sure what to think of it. In hindsight, I now realize that I was seeing a regular chicken for the first time (not a Cornish Cross). And it did in fact, taste great.
If these differences make your tummy turn, then consider sticking with the Cornish Cross and its large carcass and pearly white skin.
If you’re up for something new, go for one of the heritage breeds I talk about later in this guide.
Perhaps you’re not all that interested in how your meat chickens will behave, but if you’re planning to raise them as a dual-purpose breed, they might be around for longer than 9 weeks like a typical broiler. And you might prefer a friendlier resident rather than a feisty one.
With that being said, Cornish Crosses are quite lazy and calm…ie. easier to catch on processing day.
But if you’re looking for a pet-like chicken (and you can stomach butcher day) then consider researching the personality of your options before making a selection.
Other Desirable Qualities
Other things to consider are characteristics like free-range ability, egg-laying frequency, and even ornamental talents. Are these traits important to you? If so, I’ve got a few interesting breeds for you to consider below. Each of the following categories has something to offer, and there’s really no wrong choice here. So have fun and read on to learn even more about your meat chicken options.
Commercial breeds are typically a breed of chicken that was developed for quick growth and a large carcass. These are the birds that have been painstakingly bred for commercial farming.
When you think of the typical chicken breast in your local grocery store, you’re probably going to envision a white meat piece of chicken with some heft to it. In most cases, that breast comes from a Cornish Cross.
Size: Large (5lbs+ processed)
Taste: What you’re used to
Appearance: Pearly white flesh, large breast, picture-perfect
Growth Rate: Rapid!
Egg Production: Barely any (not recommended for egg production)
Again, the controversy surrounding the Cornish Cross stems from some of the health complications that develop in the chicken due to unnatural growth rates and overeating. Some consider it inhumane.
Luckily, there is an alternative to the Cornish Cross, which is also considered an excellent broiler with fast growth and large carcass. You’ll often find this chicken referred to as a variety of names, depending on the hatchery: Rainbow Ranger, Grey Ranger, or Freedom Ranger (among others)
From here on out most chicken carcasses skin will not be pure white or pinkish like the Cornish Cross broiler, so keep that in mind if you prefer the photo-perfect chicken on your dinner table. (and as a side note, it’s merely a difference in color…not quality or flavor).
Size: Large, second to the Cornish Cross 5lbs+
Taste: Mildly sweeter
Appearance: Smaller breasted, variety of skin colors
Growth Rate: Fast!
Egg Production: Not recommended for egg production
Special Note: Some enjoy raising this as a free-range meat bird as it is savvier than the Cornish Cross in the yard.
Either of the above-mentioned breeds will grow faster than the heritage or specialty breeds I’ll be covering in the following sections.
The Livestock Conservancy’s definition of a heritage breed is, “A Heritage Chicken is hatched from a heritage egg sired by an American Poultry Association Standard breed established prior to the mid-20th century, is slow growing, naturally mated with a long productive outdoor life.”
In short, these chickens are your typical farm chickens. In most cases, they do well living in a free-range or outdoor environment. They don’t have the same genetically developed health issues as the Cornish Cross and they don’t need to be processed before their body cannot support itself anymore.
While the skin and appearance of the finished product may be different than the Cornish Cross, some swear the flavor is much better.
I’ll let you make the call!
The following two breeds are common favorites for heritage breed meat chickens.
The Buff Orpington is only one of many Orpingtons in this breed category. They come in different colors, like splash, lavender, black, and even blue.
The Buff Orpington is a large-bodied chicken with fluffy feathering and an extremely docile temperament. They are also very good layers and do well in both hot or cold climates with the appropriate accommodations.
Size: Large (8-10 pounds prior to processing)
Appearance- whiteish skin (also depends on variety)
Taste: Mildly sweeter, more flavorful and fatty than other breeds (in a good way)
Growth Rate: Slow (process at 18 weeks)
Egg Production: Good Can lay up to 180 eggs per year
As the name suggests, the Jersy Giant is a very large bird. If you’ve got some extra time on your hands, the Jersey Giant will mature slowly but provide a large carcass.
The Jersey Giant is also considered a gentle giant, and a good breed for those with kids. They are gorgeous chickens with iridescent black feathers.
Size: HUGE 11-13 pounds live
Appearance: Yellow skin
Growth Rate: 6 months to 1 year
Egg Production: Good- Approximately 200 per year
While the heritage breeds, mentioned above, are also good layers, the following two breeds are known to be fantastic dual-purpose breeds because they tend to both finish out well and provide plenty of eggs over a year.
Rhode Island Red
Usually prized for its egg production abilities, the fact that this large breed is also a fantastic meat chicken is often overlooked. The Rhode Island red can lay up to 250 eggs per year and will dress out at around 4 lbs.
Additionally, the Rhode Island Red is a hardy breed that tends to do well in either a free-range or a confined environment.
While roosters have a reputation for being aggressive, not all are.
Size 6-8 pounds live
Taste: Mildly sweeter and full-flavored
Growth Rate: Medium (5 months)
Egg Production: Excellent! 250 per year
If you’d like to enjoy a little color and ornamental offerings (as well as eggs and meat) the Wyandotte is perfect for you.
It’s a larger heritage breed that lays a fair amount of eggs. The Wyandotte’s coloring is breath-taking with solid feathers laced with contrasting colors.
This beauty is another friendly, docile breed of chicken that provides plenty of protein for your family.
Size: 8lbs live
Taste: Less plump not as juicy, mild flavor
Appearance: Yellow Skin
Growth Rate: Medium 4 months
Egg Production: Excellent! 200 per year
The Bresse is a meat chicken that was developed in France and is sought after for its delicious meat.
It may be hard to get your hands on a live Bresse for raising because “true” Bresses are only available in Bresse, France
If you ever get the chance to try a Bresse, go for it!
Size: 6lbs processed
Taste: “The best in the world”
Growth Rate: Good 10 pasture weeks plus 2 weeks organic feed
Egg Production: Excellent 250 per year
While the Silkie is small (a Bantam) it’s an interesting chicken to raise for meat. In a sense, it could be considered a novelty meat chicken. They are small, tender, and their skin is black.
In fact, this might be a fantastic niche market to try to sell.
Size: Tiny (cornish hen size)
Appearance: Black skin
Growth Rate: Slow 10 months to 12
Egg Production: Poor 100 small eggs
As you can see, when it comes to meat chickens, your options are hardly limited to the Cornish Cross Broiler. In fact, before the broiler was developed, the only chickens people had the pleasure of eating were heritage breeds.
So go ahead, pick something that suits your needs, give a few new chicken breeds a try, and stick with what you like best!