CORNELL – Chickens, long a staple of grillers, families and picnics, have come a long way in how they grow and are readied for marker, according to Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Program.
The program is committed to helping farmers produce safe, high quality products by providing research-based support to poultry producers across the region. Nearly 20 percent of farms in the region raise meat chickens (broilers), and these producers have harnessed modern science to preserve their farming tradition.
In an effort to educate consumers on where their chicken dinners come from, the program issued a press release regarding the ways chickens are raised from incubation to broiler or grill.
Baby chicks arrive at farms when they are between 24 and 72 hours old. They are placed in warm barns or under heat lamps, where they are provided with fresh water and a balanced feed to meet their nutritional needs. These birds are raised to between 5 and 8 weeks of age, at which point they will weigh between 3.5 and 6 pounds,” a program spokesperson said. “While the growth rate of these birds is remarkable, it is not done with any hormones or steroids, which have been illegal to use in chicken production since the 1950s. The history behind these chickens’ ability to grow so well is tied to their genetics and a contest called “The Chicken of Tomorrow.”
Prior to this contest announcement in 1944, farms producing meat chickens were raising dual-purpose breeds, chickens that are those whose females (hens) are good egg layers and males (roosters) are suitable, but not ideal, meat birds. The meat on these birds was sometimes tough and stringy since the birds foraged on the homestead or farm and were older in age when they made it to the soup pot.
Furthermore, there wasn’t a lot of meat on one bird. After World War II ended, the United States Department of Agriculture and A&P supermarkets saw the potential to develop a better meat bird and set forth the contest. Contest rules were simple: every farm would raise their own genetic line of meat-producing bird, send the eggs to a centralized location to hatch and rear the offspring, and then the birds would be processed, measured, and taste-tested. State, regional, and national contests ran from 1946 – 1948.
The national contest culminated with 2,000 birds from various farms across the country that were evaluated on criteria including skin color, meat texture, overall meatiness, feathering, and the amount of feed needed to produce a pound of chicken. The winning birds of this contest went on to continue improving the genetic lines of meat chickens at a rapid pace, and still serve as the building blocks for the majority of meat bird genetic lines raised around the world to this day.
Demand in recent years has shifted slightly from the traditional white-feathered fast-growing bird to a slower-growing, more traditional bird for reasons related to texture and flavor. Today, consumers can choose from a traditional or slower-growing meat bird, the latter of which takes about 25 to 50 percent longer to mature, but has a richer flavor and greater proportion of dark meat. While it’s difficult to find these slower-growing birds in the supermarket, farms across southwestern New York have them for sale, in addition to many local farms which also raise the traditional broiler.
There are many small and mid-sized farms in the region which produce two main categories of broilers: barn-raised and pasture-raised. Barn-raised birds are reared in a barn with plenty of light, soft litter, good ventilation, ample feed, and clean water. These farms typically have a larger number of birds for sale.
Pasture raised birds are reared in a barn for the first 1-2 weeks from hatch to ensure that they get a good start before continuing their life outdoors. After this time, they are let onto pasture where they are able to forage for bugs and grass. These birds are fed a grain diet as well to make sure that they receive proper nutrition, which they are not able to get from foraging alone. Pastured broilers take longer to mature compared to barn-raised broilers, but may have a slightly richer flavor profile since their diet is more varied. Typically, these flocks are smaller in size than barn-raised flocks. Many producers of slow-growth broilers choose to rear their flocks on pasture.
While there are some differences in how chickens are raised and the breed of chicken raised for the table, behind every bird is a farmer who cares for their craft and is excited to share their chicken and farming story.
Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Program specialists are here to help provide research-based resources and support during this challenging time. Their team of four specialists include Katelyn Walley-Stoll, Farm Business Management (716-640-0522 or firstname.lastname@example.org); Joshua Putman, Field Crops (716-490-5572 or email@example.com); Alycia Drwencke, Dairy Management (517-416-0386 or firstname.lastname@example.org); and Amy Barkley, Livestock Management (716-640-0844 or email@example.com). While specialists are working remotely at this time, they are still offering consultations via phone, text, email, videoconferencing, and mail. They are also providing weekly updates with timely resources and connections via email and hardcopy and virtual programming.
The Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Program is the newest Cornell Cooperative Extension regional program and covers Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, and Steuben Counties. The Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops regional specialists work with Cornell faculty and Extension educators to address the issues that influence the agricultural industry in New York by offering educational programming and research based information to agricultural producers, growers, and agribusinesses in the Southwestern New York Region. Cornell Cooperative Extension is an employer and educator recognized for valuing AA/EEO, Protected Veterans, and Individuals with Disabilities and provides equal program and employment opportunities. For more information about this program, or to be added to their contact list, contact Katelyn Walley-Stoll, Team Leader, at 716-640-0522, firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their website swnydlfc.cornell.edu.