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The Modern Meat Bird

Meat Chickens

Everything you wanted to know about Chickens but were afraid to ask!

Today is the 22nd of October and soon, the kids will be receiving their Broilers and Turkeys for their local county shows. At Callahans, we will begin to stock the feed that is necessary to prepare these animals for their respective shows.

In the past, I’ve written about different breeds of chickens, primarily egg layers, and the history of their impact on civilization but, I don’t think I’ve ever gone into depth about the development of the modern meat bird.

Poultry came to the Americas as a food source for the sailors and the settlers that they transported. Those birds that were not eaten on the long voyage were put on the farms that popped up in the New World. There were no particular breeds so, the resulting hodge podge consisted mainly of cross breeds.

In the 1700s, Sir Robert Bakewell of England began experimenting with the selective breeding of livestock. This amazing man spent a lifetime developing distinctive breeds of cattle, sheep, and horses. Bakewell’s work became the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s, Theory Of Natural Selection, and, perhaps, “The Origin Of The Species”.

In the 1800s and 1900s, progressive farmers and industrialists joined together to form societies and clubs – then breed associations, to further the development of purebred animals. The first of these in the United States was the American Poultry Association.

Poultry, during this era, was judged by certain criteria as set forth by the “Standard Of Perfection”. This work, first published in 1874, classifies and describes the standard physical appearance, coloring, and temperament for all recognized breeds of poultry. It includes chickens, ducks, turkey, and geese.
To be deemed acceptable in the world, birds would have to live up to those ideal specifications. As one might imagine, experimentation would have been pointless from an economic perspective and frowned on socially by other breeders. Birds still had to produce meat and eggs but the restrictions stifled any evolutionary progress in those areas.

Before 1950, farm meat chickens were usually harvested at 30 – 40 weeks and were very very lean. They were, for the most part, young males that were obviously not going to become egg layers and were turned loose to roam the farms. At harvest time, they would have been mature sexually and were problematic to each other and the attending humans; basically, a by­-product that was to be eaten.

When the egg laying folks began producing hybrid birds, it wasn’t long until experimentation began on the meat side of things. Actually, most of the meat chicken industry grew out of the farms that specialized in standard breeds because those places had the seed stock (in this case, birds) to experiment with hybridization. I guess you might say that, today, the winner is the cross between the White Plymouth Rock and the Cornish.

These are the birds that will be presented and judged at the county fairs and shows all over the United States. This particular hybrid is also the chicken predominantly sold in your local supermarket. Today, you are buying a young bird, male or female, that was processed at approximately 42 days old and weighs 3-4 pounds, dressed. The product is considerably plumper, juicier, and much more tender than the earlier model meat bird.

By the way, if you reside in a northern state, you will cook a Broiler. In the South, we call the same bird a Fryer. That’s about it for now because I’m getting hungry for some fried, not broiled, chicken.  One question that I would like to have answered before I check out is, why do we refer to a dead, plucked, totally naked chicken as dressed? Seems backwards.


Mike Young

Callahan’s General Store