All over the Thunder Bay area there are tiny peeping sounds coming from sheds, coops, “tractors” and even out-of-the-way corners in homes. Local suppliers like Thunder Bay Feeds and Thunder Bay Co-op Farm Supplies have been bringing in baby chick pre-orders for a couple of months now and most of us planning to raise a few birds this year have our babies in and growing.
This was our first year raising both meat chicks (“broilers”) and laying chicks – and the differences have been startling. We thought you might like to hear about it.
Meat chickens like the Cornish Giants we’re raising this year have been bred to grow amazingly fast. They put meat on so fast that their little hearts’ growth often can’t keep pace with their bodies, resulting in tiny overloads and higher, earlier mortality. This aspect tends to go unreported in industrial settings where losses are expected and accounted for in advance and the focus is on profit and turnover of product.
On a small scale, on the other hand, seeing a third of your new livestock fail due to heart attacks can be nothing short of heart-breaking, and can put a big dent in your wallet and your freezer for the winter if you’re not expecting it. The overbreeding of commercial chickens is a sad symptom of our culture’s quest for cheap food, unfortunately, resulting in animals that don’t do much other than move between the feeder and the waterer, plopping themselves down in front of whichever they like better at the moment. We sometimes joke that we’re raising mushrooms.
In the four weeks that we’ve been observing our Giants they’ve gone from tiny yellow chicks to large, fully-feathered chickens. It has not been a pretty process; as the cute chick-fuzz has been replaced with feathers they’ve gone through ugly patchy phases with naked bottoms and stringy necks sticking out all over the place. A couple of them weigh almost eight pounds already. Half of that is inedible, so the big guys are probably about four pounds of meat each – just the right size for a grocery-store bird. Four weeks to eating-sized animals – it seems unnatural, doesn’t it? That’s because it is.
By comparison, the Black Sex-Link laying chicks – just a week younger – are still the size of sparrows, probably less than a quarter the size of their meaty counterparts. Unlike the lazy and food-focused meat birds, the laying chicks are busy in their coop learning how to fly short heights, roosting on every elevated surface they can reach and scratching down through their bedding to discover the floor and any interesting tidbits that may be hiding there. Not one of them has suffered an untimely passing, and their feathers have come in over the chick fuzz gradually, with no nakedness involved.
BSLs are bred to lay large eggs, not for meat, so their rate of growth is geared to making sure all their inner parts function properly together. When they’re 16 weeks old they’ll start producing tiny eggs and will be moved into the main coop where they’ll join the adult hens. By then the meat birds will be long gone in the freezer.
Because there is no abattoir processing poultry, local chicken cannot be inspected when it is slaughtered unless farmers want to drive to Rainy River or Oxdrift to use the facility there. This is why you don’t find local chicken available in our area: it is very illegal to transport – note the word transport, meaning whether there is cash exchanged or not, birds cannot be moved – uninspected poultry from its place of slaughter.