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Selecting Organic Poultry Breeds

Using the right breed of chicken (written by Barbara Aaron in 2004):
Most organic / natural producers raising chickens for meat production choose the standard Ross or Cobb broiler chicks as their stock. These birds, specifically bred for intensive productions systems, perform well in the systems for which they were designed. On average, days to slaughter can be as low as 41 and even less under some conditions. Within this short time, there is a rapid weight gain (a feed to weight ratio of 2:1) producing the round chubby birds sold in grocery stores.

While these breeds do well under intensive systems, they are less satisfactory for organic/natural growers as some organic regulations require that birds be 'on the ground for at least 81 days prior to slaughter. As well, raising standard breeds under completely different production systems can result in major problems. Firstly, under organic systems there may be less weight gain. Generally, this is because feeding regimes do not 'push' birds to develop quickly and birds are allowed much more outdoor access, both of which influence body weight. Secondly, standard breeds are prone to heart attacks, the incidence of which increases as bird weight increases. Thirdly, these breeds are also prone to leg problems, which become more acute as body weight increases beyond the 41-day life span for which they were bred.

Other choices of breed.
Fortunately, there are specialty (or alternative) broiler breeds available to organic/natural producers. These breeds have been used in all parts of Europe for many years and are, in fact, the standard birds used in all extensive (as opposed to intensive) production systems. They have a proven track record for liveability, a wonderful range of feather colour, meat texture and flavour to suit a wide range of markets and tastes.

These specialty breeds have one main common characteristic - they are slow growing, some being slower than others. On average, alternative broiler breeds attain the desired slaughter weight of 2.4kg in 77 days. At this weight birds are healthy and can stand and run about well. The feed ratio is about 2:2.5 (and could be more if taken beyond this weight). These birds can also be taken on to the roaster weight (about 4kgs) with good liveability.

Other characteristics of alternative broilers are:
- enhanced flavour
- a range of quality and texture of meat
- a rugged, hardy nature that withstands outdoor systems extremely well.

Some breeds to consider are Redbro, MasterGris, JA 57, Colopak, Co'Nu and Gris Barre. The breeds vary in colour, size, breast conformation and, most of all, flavour. It is possible, by using the correct male to female ratio at the breeding farm, to enhance the flavour of the final carcass from a light chicken taste through to - for the discriminating buyer - a wild pheasant flavour. Given the availability of choice within these alternative broilers, producers can select birds suited to end markets: choices may depend on ethnic preferences, breast conformation, light or more intense flavour, or even feather colour for eye appeal on the farm.

Breed Information:
The following diets are based on organic/natural regulations requiring birds to be a certain age before slaughter. They are calculated in calorie levels or MemJ/kg, - i.e. energy amounts comparable to calories in a human diet - estimated to produce 2 kg live weight birds. As with humans, the calorie (energy) content of feed can either speed up or slow down the natural weight gain of different types of birds.

Calories/Days/Weight Gain Ratios:
Redbro Mastergris Cou Nu GrisBarre
Cals Days Daily gain (g) Days Daily gain (g) Days Daily gain (g) Days Daily gain (g)
3150 44 45.5 52 38.4 57 35.0 60 **
3050 46 43.4 54 37.0 60 33.3 63 **
2900 49 40.8 57 35.0 63 31.7 67 **
** Data not available

Normally, standard finished birds (fully processed birds ready for market) are about 1.8 to 2.0kgs. To deliver this finished weight, live weight should be 2.3 to 2.4kgs per bird as the average 'kill out' (percentage loss of live weight to processed bird) is 22 percent. Given the slower rate of weight increase in alternative breeds, it will take longer for birds on the ground to reach the desired live weight.

Taste and Texture:
Product flavour and texture are important market considerations, and in this respect alternative poultry breeds offer a wide range of each. Based on a scale of 0 - 12 where:

0 = bland taste and soft white meat; and
12 = gamey flavour and grainy textured meat,
the flavour and texture of alternative breeds can be measured out as follows:
Cou Nu
Intensive Diet (3150 cal)
Semi-Intensive Diet (3050 cal)
Slow Diet (2900 cal)

For potential suppliers check out Rare breeds Canada - Poultry

Elsewhere on this site
Pertinent Federal (Canadian) & Provincial (BC) Regulations
Organic Dairy Farming in Canada

Farm Equipment
Marketing Your Product
Organic Prices (fruit and vegetables)
Small Scale Food Processing
Pest Management
(Canada, USA) and Water (BC, Alberta) Testing Labs & Services

Rooster - Selecting Organic Poultry Breeds

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