Check it out, there’s a designer profile of me over on the Tangled blog right now! If you ever wondered what my favorite technique is or what I’d do if I quit my day job, now you know. I really like working with the wonderful folks over at Tangled Magazine, and apparently they like me too!
In fact, if the main reason you’re here is knitting, you may want to just head over there and skip the rest of today’s post. I won’t mind. Because now I’m going to talk about something completely different.
I can tell it must be spring because I’ve been recommending my new favorite breed of meat birds several times per week to just about anyone who’s considering raising their own. The breed is called Freedom Rangers, I got mine from JM Hatchery last year, and since they’ve sold their breeding stock to their son’s family I’ll be getting them from Freedom Ranger Hatchery later this week. Hopefully they’re just as good!
What do I mean by good? I’ll start at the beginning. Most meat birds are from one of the main hatcheries selling Cornish Cross broilers. These are the big, fat, white meat birds of many a horror story. They’re not lab-engineered (yet anyway) but through years and years of careful breeding for quick growth of large quantities of white meat that’s now pretty much all they do. These are the avian equivalent to the “before” pictures from those weight loss TV shows – birds that have the genetic and lifestyle misfortune to be able to literally eat themselves to death. If they don’t make it to slaughter day it’s usually because they grew so fast that either their hearts or their bones couldn’t keep up with their body mass.
To avoid this you have to either feed them something lower in protein to slow their growth, or you have to take the food away from them so they can’t eat. In both cases these birds still don’t have great lifestyles. They’re lazy, they’ll lie around all day in their own sh*t (and man can these bird make a mess of themselves) waiting for you to bring the food back so they can eat more. We raised them just once in our layer coop. They hogged the feeder all day and ignored the wide open door and greener pastures outside of it, even when the rest of the flock ran outside. The only way to get them outside is to cage them up outside so they can’t go in. And then you have to move the cage daily so they can lie around on fresh grass instead of poopy grass. Good times? Probably not, although I’m sure it’s better than the conditions of their factory farmed cousins…
Enter the freedom rangers. There’s a lot about these guys in internet-world. They’re a fairly new to the meat-bird scene and I think the variety of experiences has to do with the fact that Freedom Ranger is not yet a specific breed with precise specifications. What I mean is each hatchery is working on improving their own strain by selective breeding and so their results may vary. In general freedom rangers are a cross of several breeds, at least some from France’s meat bird program – part of Label Rouge. I heard about them first from my CSA farmer, and so when I was ready to try meat birds again these are the kind I bought. And I loved them.
Secondly, they grew quickly. I had tried raising heavy heritage breed birds for meat – a common alternative to the in-bred broilers. But those birds still take 6-9 months to reach full sized, which is a long time to have that many extra chickens (and that many roosters!) in my coop. These guys grew fast enough to dress off in 12 weeks, but ate slowly enough (without me restricting their food) to not kill themselves. It’s a good combination.
Thirdly, they loved to go outside! At just 4 weeks they were already feathered out enough (see growth comment above) to let out in a fenced enclosure:
The biggest problem we had at this point was them jumping OVER the fence. Not usually a problem with meat birds. At 5 weeks we gave up and let them free range, as their name suggests:
They love to range, even as they got really fat they still ran outside every morning to eat bugs and seeds. Watching them jump to catch flying insects was nerve-wracking but not a single one damaged it’s legs. Although towards the end they’d run a stretch, and then have a little lie-down to catch their breath… Again, they’re clearly meat birds and not some dual purpose breed!
I dressed off the roosters at 12 weeks. All cleaned up I believe they weighed in at 6-8lbs each. I say “believe” because my kitchen scale only goes to 6lbs. So it was mostly a question of how quickly each bird clunked to the bottom of the scale. The hens were a bit smaller at that point, so they stuck around for another month.
At 16 weeks they were all up around 6lbs, and I dressed them off in two smaller batches as the fall turned to winter. Well, almost all of them. A few stuck it out for the winter:
These last few are still in my coop now. Once winter hit they were eating just grain (and occasional left overs) and I’m letting them enjoy a little spring food before they go to the great freezer in the sky.
So, that’s my ringing endorsement for Freedom Rangers (they don’t even know I’m doing this). Your mileage may vary depending on your setup, type of food, weather, and the chicken-spirits who control such things. But compared to the alternatives, I don’t think there’s much to loose in giving them a try!