– Stan Smith, OSU Extension PA, Fairfield County
Indeed, around the Smith farm back in the late 50’s and early 60’s, perhaps the greatest treat one of the kids could experience was being chosen to help Grandma snare an old hen and make pan fried chicken for supper out of her. Back then those old leghorns were a dual purpose critter that served most of the neighborhood farm families well. The extra eggs were sold to the creamery in Pickerington, and the spent hens had just enough muscle to make a pretty good meal.
This year, our youngest expanded his FFA SAE into raising a batch of broilers – aka: meat chickens – for our recent Fair, and subsequently, as an experience in marketing the birds. That escapade began by turning an 8 foot by 16 foot section of the farm shop into a make-shift broiler barn. Starting with 52 just hatched day old chicks, the project culminated 8 weeks later with over 375 pounds of dressed poultry in the freezer.
Normally they would have been harvested at 6 weeks of age with a live weight of 7+/- pounds but due to the Fair schedule, these critters were a couple weeks older when harvested after the Fair. Regardless, think about it . . . eggs from cornish rock crosses were set, 21 days later a group of full siblings hatched within hours of each other, and in this case, 8 weeks later there’s a uniform group of broilers dressed and in the freezer each weighing within a few ounces either side of 7.5 pounds.
By now you’re wondering why on earth I’m sharing all this. It’s pretty simple actually. In fact, the first title I considered for this piece was something like, “Lessons a cattlemen can learn rasing broilers.” In no particular order here’s what we observed that might seem applicable to the beef cattle industry . . .
* Considering the big picture, the poultry industry doesn’t utilize ‘dual purpose breeds’ any more. Chickens are bred specifically for the purpose intended, be it meat or egg production.
* It’s ‘all in – all out’. All the eggs are set the same day, hatch the same day, and all the birds go to market the same day. Remarkably, each broiler had a similar appearance, muscled similarly and weighed about the same at harvest. Guess what? When they got to our freezer, they were similar. While I’ve yet to sample them all, I bet they even taste the similar!
* Each bird appeared to be equally efficient. Evan’s SAE project records show that the feed conversion was better than 2 to 1.
All that being said, there are a few things that are similar between a beef cattle project and broilers. First, there’s no truth to the rumor that you’ll blow all their feathers off if you dry a chicken with a cattle blower . . . it’s just that the technique is slightly altered. See below.
In all seriousness, there are perhaps a few take home lessons we might consider that are adaptable, and that would lend themselves nicely to enhancing profitability for Ohio cattlemen. Admittedly, the same beef cattle genetics won’t work in every part of the country, or even across Ohio. But certainly there must be advantages to having an entire single herd with the same genetic make up. Going a step further, each component of the breeding plan that results in calves with identical genetics could be included because of it’s distinct advantages. IE: Maternal trait female breeds being mated to terminal sires that compliment the females with performance and desirable carcass traits.
Consider calving dates. While we likely will never get a cow herd of significant size to the perfect ‘all in – all out’ situation we observed with Evan’s broilers, certainly there are some things we can do to tighten up the calving season, thus allowing for easier herd management. Add a fairly tight calving season to a herd of similar genetics and you’re moving closer to not only critters that can be marketed in a large group together, but also carcasses that might look similar in the cooler and ultimately the meat case.
And if you stretch the lesson to include layers, I’m betting that when a hen quits laying, it doesn’t take long before she’s culled. I can’t recall ever hearing a laying barn owner say, “Let’s give her one more chance.” I doubt they’re raising their pullets in the same barn as their laying hens either!
At the end of the day, raising this batch of broilers was quite a learning experience, and certainly different than the beef cattle projects our kids have managed over the past 25 years. And, at the supper table, it wasn’t Grandma’s pan fried chicken, but indeed it’s pretty tasty. All that being said, it still can’t hold a candle to the ribeye that resulted from the Beef Performance and Carcass Quality show champion!
Indeed, these aren’t your Grandma’s chickens, but what they do offer seems to work for the poultry industry. Every cattleman should raise a batch of meat chickens once!