ALLEGANY CO., N.Y. — Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Program (SWNYDLFC) is committed to helping farmers produce safe, high quality products for their communities by providing research-based support to poultry producers across the region. Nearly 20% of farms in the region raise meat chickens (broilers), and these producers have harnessed modern science to preserve their farming tradition.
It’s the height of chicken BBQ season and local churches, fire departments, organizations, and farms are all sharing in the tradition of slow-roasting half birds over an open charcoal pit, fixed with sides such as rolls, salads, and baked beans. At home, we’re firing up the grill and cooking leg quarters, drumsticks, and beasts, typically marinated or slathered in a rich, sweet sauce. Chicken is a summer staple – but have you ever stopped to think of where your bird comes from?
Back on the farms, farmers are working with great care to produce high quality chicken for us to enjoy. 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. 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. Dual-purpose breeds 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 whole lot of meat on one bird. After World War II ended, the United States Department of Agriculture and A&P supermarkets realized 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 bird meat bird, the latter of which takes about 25%-50% 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 SWNY 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 and you can sometimes find their chickens at local BBQs. 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, remember that behind every bird is a farmer who cares for their craft and is excited to share their wholesome, nutrient-rich chicken and farming story with you. So, as you sit down to your summer feast with family and friends, take a small moment to send an ode to the chicken and the farmer who produced it.
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.
If you would like more information about this topic, please call Amy Barkley at 716-640-0844 or email email@example.com. For more information about Cornell Cooperative Extension, contact your county’s Association Executive Director. Allegany County – Laura Hunsberger, firstname.lastname@example.org or 585-268-7644. Cattaraugus County – Dick Rivers, email@example.com or 716-699-2377. Chautauqua County – Emily Reynolds, firstname.lastname@example.org or 716-664-9502. Erie County – Diane Held, email@example.com or 716-652-5400. Steuben County – Tess McKinley, firstname.lastname@example.org, or 607-664-2301.
–Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Program
Cornell Cooperative Extension