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By Katie Thear

Until just after World War 2 most poultry farms had their own breeding flocks to produce both egg layers and table birds.

The barn-door fowl – he has his fill of the finest corn; he has his fill of fresh air and natural exercise, and at the last comes smoking to the table, a dish fit for the gods.
(Mrs Beeton, 1859)

Sex Linked Cross

A favourite cross was Rhode Island Red male with Light Sussex females because the chicks could be identified as males or females at hatching. Male chicks have silvery white down feathers while the females are yellow-brown.

Incidentally, the cross does not work the other way around, ie, male Light Sussex and female Rhode Island Red. Most of the females became replacements for the egg laying flocks, while the males were raised for the table.

Capons & Caponisation

It was common to caponise or castrate these males so that they put on a lot of weight, rather than running it off. At first, caponising was physical, followed later by chemical methods, but now thankfully, the process is no longer carried out.

Dual Purpose Breeds

Breeds such as the Rhode Island Red and Light Sussex were also raised independently, as table or laying birds, because it was still the time of dual-purpose breeds, rather than the highly developed hybrids that were subsequently bred for specific markets.

Egg laying hybrids, for example, were small and produced lots of eggs but were too thin for the table, while the broiler hybrids laid few eggs but grew at a phenomenal rate. From the 1950s onwards, the days of the dual-purpose breeds were numbered. It was the Americans who first developed quick-growing broiler hybrids (so named from their term broil meaning grill).

To come back to the dual-purpose breeds, others that were traditionally raised for the table included Barred Plymouth Rock, Dorking and White Cornish (Indian Game). My parents’ choice was the Barred Plymouth Rock, with the hens providing eggs, while the males were raised for the table. Crossing them with male Rhode Island Reds also produced chicks that could be identified as male or female at the time of hatching.

This was at a time when good utility strains that had been bred for production were widely available, as distinct from the exhibition strains that were less productive but looked beautiful for the show. Today it is more difficult to find utility strains, but the Utility Poultry Breeders’ Society is currently trying to reverse the situation.

Cornwall developed the Indian Game breed (also referred to as the Cornish). Based on the Malay, Red Asil and Black-Breasted Red Old English Game, its wide-legged stance provided a large quantity of rather dense breast meat, but it was slow growing, with breeder flocks producing comparatively few eggs.

However, when Indian Game males were crossed with females such as Sussex, Orpington and Dorking, the progeny were large, relatively quick-growing and with an abundance of less dense and succulent breast meat.

An interesting fact, for those who may wish to experiment with producing their own table birds from traditional sources, is that the Transylvanian Naked Neck carries a gene for reduced abdominal fat. This becomes apparent when it is crossed with other traditional heavy or table breeds.

Copyright © Katie Thear 2005