It all started when I wanted the perfect self-perpetuating homestead meat chickens.
CornishX were out. They eat too much, and they die too easily. They go down on their legs too easily. The livibility problems are multiplied if you live in a very hot region like I do, because they can’t take the heat! And although CornishX are good foragers if you limit their feed, it’s not their first choice.
I heard about Freedom Rangers and researched them a bit, and they sounded like what I was looking for: better livability, fewer leg problems, and good foragers. They grow a little slower than CornishX, which is largely the reason for fewer problems, since their skeletal growth is able to keep up with their muscle growth.
I got a shipment of Freedom Ranger chicks, and was pleased with their active natures and good growth rate. But I ran into problems once they were past several months old. Now and again one would go down on it’s legs. Now and again one would have a heart attack and die. Oh yes, those were heart attacks- a seemingly healthy bird would flip on it’s back or side, exhibit a brief seizure or convulsive wing flapping, and expire. Those are classic heart attack symptoms in chickens.
Occasionally, I would find a dead bird under the roost in the morning, where it had died during the night, even though it had seemed healthy the day before. This is also characteristic of a heart attack.
I had a number of other breeds and crosses at the same time running with the Freedom Rangers, and none of them were having heart attacks.
That wasn’t the only drawback with Freedom Rangers. The roosters are BRUTAL with the hens. I don’t mean just during the horny teenage stage- even two year old roosters were mean to the hens. They never wooed them, they just raped them. And I would frequently witness gang rapes when the roosters teamed up together. The hens did their best to avoid the roosters, but they were too often ambushed.
Ok, so it was looking like I was back to square one. I needed to come up with a new plan, or find a breed that would work better for my purposes.
Then I had an unexpected breakthrough leading to a new plan.
I had tried to get started in Marans as far back as 2005. I spent a tremendous amount of money on hatching eggs, and got a pretty good start in several colors. Then two disasters struck. First, raccoons moved into the neighborhood and killed almost all my chickens. If that wasn’t bad enough, in the summer of 2007 we had some unprecedented flooding, and what the raccoons didn’t kill, the floods did.
That kind of flooding is a once-in-a-century event around here, but predators are abundant, so I knew before I could get going again, I needed to make sure everything was predator proof, and I needed good sturdy, protected pens. I wasn’t going to try to get into the “chicken business” again until I had a proper setup. This was an expensive proposition, and due to a small budget, it was a long slow process, but I finally got it all done.
But at last I was ready to get going with Marans again. I carefully researched sources, and bought both eggs and chicks from a number of different reputable breeders. This resulted in a wide variety of strains, and as I grew out these various chicks, I received a bit of a surprise. *Some* strains exhibited a phenomenal growth rate for the first several weeks. They were growing almost as fast as the Freedom Rangers for the first 3 months or so!
The following picture is an example of two strains of Marans.
These two chicks were only 3 days apart in age and raised in the same brooder box. The fast growth strain quickly outstripped the others in size, and looked like giants walking around in the brooder box amongst the normal growth chicks!
Upon further research, I’ve learned that in Europe, two kinds of Marans have been developed- meat strains and egg strains. Both kinds have been imported into the US. And of course some people have crossed Marans with other breeds, and various strains have been crossed together. That’s why you’ll see the growth rates of Marans all over the scale- ranging from normal growth, like ordinary dual purpose breeds, to the other extreme: very fast early growth.
This was my breakthrough- I got the idea of crossing the fast growing Marans with the Freedom Rangers, and working with that cross to develop the perfect self-perpetuating meat chickens which would not have the heart and leg problems common to broilers.
Here’s my idea of the perfect broiler:
Fast early growth, but not so fast that their skeleton can’t keep up with muscle growth
Good egg production
They should go broody often enough to keep the flock replenished.
The roosters need to be gentle with and protective of the hens.
Livability needs to be very good. I want two year olds to be as healthy as 6 month old birds. I don’t want heart and leg problems.
Let’s see how the following 3 breeds stack up (Cornish X, Freedom Rangers, and select strains of Marans).
|Early Growth Rate||Very Fast||Fast||Extremely Fast|
|Egg Production||Very Good||Fair to Good||Good|
|Gentle, Protective Roos||No||Yes||unknown|
What I decided to do was to cross Freedom Rangers and Marans and select for all the traits I want in the perfect homestead broiler, but I also decided to throw in some CornishX for genetic diversity and also for the dominant white plumage color.
I’m now three generations into my project. For the first time, in this current generation, I eliminated all the pure Ranger males. I have:
Roosters that are 1/2 Marans 1/4 Ranger 1/4 CornishX
Roosters that are 1/2 Marans and 1/2 Ranger
Hens and pullets are as follows:
Pure Freedom Ranger
1/2 Marans / 1/2 Ranger
1/2 Marans / 1/2 CornishX
1/2 CornishX / 1/2 Ranger
1/2 Marans / 1/4 Ranger / 1/4 CornishX
In a few generations I hope to have exactly what I’m going for, by selecting for all the best traits.
The picture at the top of the page shows part of my broiler flock (ignore the red sexlink and the dark brown Leghorn, they aren’t part of the project).
The pictures below show various individuals. The birds showing the red and white color combination are my goal for the final color. In future generations, I’m going to keep only the red and white males, and eventually the entire strain will be colored like that.