Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Ah, meat birds! Alas, a lot of what I was told about meat chickens turned out to be wrong. Maybe the same thing has happened to you. I've found that the main points to keep in mind are:
- The younger, the tenderer.
- Chickens on full feed grow faster and are also tenderer.
- Carcasses from standard-breed chickens look just like rubber chickens and are not very meaty.
- You're doing okay if a standard-breed chicken gives you a 2-pound carcass at 12 weeks, and if a hybrid broiler gives you a 4-pound carcass at 8 weeks.
- So-called "meat breeds," such as Jersey Giants, are slow growing and are likely to give even smaller carcasses than other standard breeds, unless you keep them around long enough that their meat is like shoe leather.
- I recommend butchering at 12 weeks no matter how small the chickens are. By doing this you only have one problem (small size) instead of two (small size and toughness).
The breed descriptions in the poultry catalogs are derived from the American Poultry Association's Standard of Perfection,which has always contained a lot of nonsense where practical issues are concerned. Milo Hastings pointed out 100 years ago that the entire class of "meat breeds" was useless for meat production, and this is even truer today. Last time I checked, no one had bothered to update the breed descriptions. Watch out for that venerable nonsense!
Hybrid broilers have little personality and are hard to raise until you get the moves down. In particular, learn to be a brooder-house wizard. Problems during the brooding period light a long fuse that lead to explosions of (apparently unrelated) ill health weeks later. (These problems will mostly become "things that happen to other people" when you follow the instructions in my book, Success With Baby Chicks.
Some recipes call for tougher chickens, but for these, hens and the occasional egg-type cockerel that gets mixed in with your order of pullet chicks, may supply your needs.
In general, the American consumer prefers tenderness over flavor, and always has. I find that I am not immune to this myself. I'm happy to settle for tenderness and flavor — easily obtained from grass-fed broilers butchered while still young. But I don't have a lot of use for tough, flavorful meat. This is probably also true of you!