If you're looking to raise meat chickens, the next natural step is to consider breeding chickens for a sustainable flock. Learn what it takes to successfully breed chickens, as well as tips and tricks if you're considering this option.
I talk extensively and have even written blog posts on how to raise backyard meat chickens. However, I get asked all the time how to breed meat chickens and I never knew how to answer because I have never done this.
That's why I'm so excited that Tom McMurray of Murray McMurray Hatchery is on the podcast today sharing all of his wisdom when it comes to breeding meat chickens.
This is episode #347 of the Pioneering Today Podcast. If you want to hear more of my podcasts, search “Pioneering Today” on any of your favorite podcast apps!
Murray McMurray Hatchery
I'm happy to say that Murray McMurray Hatchery is actually a sponsor of this post (and podcast), but I can honestly say that all opinions are mine!
Over the years I have bought both meat chicks and egg-laying chicks from different hatcheries. I have had horrible experiences of loss (at over 50% multiple times), but once I started getting chicks from Murray McMurray Hatchery I had fewer incidences of loss, the chicks were healthier and much more vibrant.
I've even noticed my egg-laying hens that came from Murray McMurray Hatchery lay much longer than the average hen (learn more about raising backyard egg-laying chickens here).
When it comes to backyard meat chickens, and if you've read my post on 10 tips for raising meat chickens, you all know how much I love my Cornish Cross. So naturally, I want to know if it's possible to make my flock sustainable and breed them year after year to have an endless supply of meat chickens for my homestead.
Can You Breed a Cornish Cross
Because of the features that make the Cornish Cross such a fabulous backyard meat chicken, this actually makes it impossible to breed them at home.
With the selected genetics of these birds (not GMO, just a natural selection from generations of birds) their reproduction capabilities have been eliminated.
That's why they're true meat chickens and no longer dual-purpose birds because they've been selectively bred to no longer lay eggs.
Common Misconceptions of Meat Chickens
There are many people looking to start raising their own meat chickens, and to most, a dual-purpose bird seems ideal because you can get both eggs from them as well as butcher them for meat later on (say once they're done laying).
But what needs to be cleared up is that when raising dual-purpose breeds you will not get the same amount of meat off a bird in 8 weeks as you would a Cornish Cross, the breast size won't be as large, and even the quality and tenderness of the meat will differ because you'll be raising those chickens much longer (8 weeks vs. 2-3 years).
When you buy strictly meat chickens, one of the things you're giving up is that those chickens won't lay eggs because they've been naturally selected to no longer have that capability.
Heritage Meat Birds
This is where a heritage dual-purpose breed comes in. If you're truly wanting to breed chickens, you will have to look for a dual-purpose breed. The caveat here is that you might need to change your expectations of what the meat will look and taste like.
Tom explains Cornish Cross birds as all-white-meat birds with very tender meat. They've been bred to no longer lay eggs, “fatten up” in a short 8 weeks, and have a very tender meat consistency.
You won't get the good muscle meats (dark meat) as you would from other breeds, such as Murray's Big Red Broiler, but those breeds also won't have as much breast meat. They're taller with longer legs, so you will get more dark meat.
It's important to know what you want in your meat birds. Do you like more white meat, or would you prefer more dark meat?
After discussing this with Tom, my husband loves dark meat, so I think we'll be trying a few different options next year to really see what varieties we prefer flavor-wise.
How to Start Breeding Chickens
Before you can begin breeding chickens you need to first start with chickens that are able to reproduce. This automatically eliminates the meat chicken varieties.
You would need to keep a line going for your birds to keep them from getting too much inbreeding. In order to do this, you would keep three separate pens each with ten hens. We'll call them line “A”.
Then you would have one or two roosters (Tom recommends two, just in case one “falls over”) that will be your breeding rooster for line “A”.
From the eggs that hatch out of line “A” you'd keep all the hens for line “B”. You'd also keep two roosters from line “A” and those roosters would breed line “B”.
This pattern will continue and Tom says you could theoretically get 50 years of meat birds until those lines would get too inbred and need to be started over.
If, however, you can keep five pens of 10 chickens, then you could keep the line going indefinitely.
As you can see this would take quite a lot of space, time, and money for feed costs. When we look at all the facts and consider our space and time, sometimes it becomes clear that it's better to buy chicks each year from a trusted hatchery like Murray McMurray.
If you're wanting to raise meat chickens, Avian Flu is something every homesteader should be aware of. McMurray Hatcheries were hugely affected by this back in 2015 when Avian Flu came to one of their farms.
They had to cull 15,000 of their breeder hens (the entire farm) and that was very difficult for them on a personal relationship level with those birds.
Avian Flu is carried by waterfowl. It can live almost indefinitely in cold wet or frozen ground. As birds fly overhead they drop their manure and this is how it's spread.
It's required of farms with outbreaks of Avian Flu to put down all birds on their farm.
Best Tips to Protect Against Avian Flu
Because the Avian Flu is transmitted so easily, it's important to take proper precautions to protect your own flock.
None of us will be able to prevent a flock of geese flying overhead and dropping their manure on our property, but we can prevent viruses from spreading from farm to farm with a few simple steps:
- Have a “farm pair” of shoes and a “town pair” of shoes (anything for another pair of shoes, am I right ladies?). If another farm is dealing with an Avian Flu outbreak (or perhaps they don't even know it's there) and that farmer has been walking through the coop, they can transmit that virus all over town if they're wearing the same boots. So to protect others and yourself, don't wear your work boots to town!
- Wear boots that can be washed/sterilized. When wearing boots out to your own coop or around your flock, make sure they're able to be hosed down and sterilized from time to time.
- Tom mentioned farms that had Avian Flu being checked by inspectors, and those inspectors would go to neighboring farms to check and see if any of their flock had the virus, only to be spreading that virus to those farms on their boots! So know your rights and make sure those inspectors sterilize their boots first!
Best Time to Purchase Meat Chicks
If you're wanting to start raising meat chickens, the best thing to do is to pre-order your chicks.
Murray McMurray Hatchery only wants to raise what they know they'll sell, so by pre-ordering in November, you'll be guaranteed your chicks along with breed choice and delivery date.
If you wait until Easter to order chicks, then you'll likely miss out for that year.
More Posts You May Enjoy
- Raising Backyard Meat Chickens
- Troubleshooting Chicken Health & Best Herbs for Chickens
- Raising Chickens for Profit
- How to Can Chicken (SAFE & Easy Raw Pack Method)
- How to Butcher a Chicken at Home
- Integrating New Chicks to Existing Flocks
- Breeding Chickens Naturally: Selective Breeding for Eggs & Chicks
- Using Chickens in the Garden (13 Things You Need to Know!)
Melissa: Hey there pioneers. So welcome to episode number 347. Today's episode, we are going to talk about self sufficiency with chickens, including what it would take to breed your own Cornish Cross meat bird breeds, how hatcheries work, the impact of the bird flu or the avian flu on chickens and what that could look like or mean long term for us; as well as other breeding aspects of heritage birds versus the Cornish Cross hybrids that we're used to.
Melissa: And all kinds of chicken talk today on the podcast. I am very excited. Not only do I have an incredible guest on, but this podcast episode is sponsored as well by McMurray Hatchery.
Melissa: McMurray Hatchery is a hatchery that I have used, oh, goodness way before they were ever a sponsor of the Pioneering Today Podcast. And I initially tried them after I was frustrated with some other hatcheries that I had used and had horrible, horrible mortality rates.
Melissa: I'm talking of, we got in 45 meat birds and lost over half of them the first day of arrival. They shipped me replacements, lost half of them. That happened three times from one hatchery, just on one batch. And I finally only ended up with about half of the birds that I had originally ordered after multiple replacements, because the chicks were so weak and just did not do well.
Melissa: So I had tried numerous different hatcheries, throughout the years, and found McMurray and have had excellent success with them. Have ordered for them for a number of years, and then they came on board last year as a sponsor of the Pioneering Today Podcast. So not only is Tom, it's a family owned company, you'll get to hear more about the hatchery story in today's episode, but it was a great episode. And we also talked about hatchery practices.
Melissa: When most people are ordering females or hens on birds, and what happens within hatching, is there a way to control the females or male rooster ratio, and what happens when you have more male birds than you do females than people are ordering. So really informative podcast episode.
Melissa: And I think this is one that you are going to thoroughly enjoy. So without further ado, let's get to it. Well, Tom, welcome to the Pioneering Today Podcast.
Tom: Thank you. I'm really excited to be here.
Melissa: Well, I'm actually excited for this, because I don't personally know the answers, and I get asked a ton when people find out that we are raising all of our own chicken needs for the year, both with meat birds, and of course with our egg laying hens. And we love the Cornish Cross for a lot of reasons. That's our particular meat bird.
Melissa: And I'll link to it in the show notes for this episode, guys, for those of you who are listening, and I've got a complete podcast on meat birds, and why we particularly, personally like the Cornish Cross the best.
Melissa: But after that, the next question that I get, because homesteaders, we are a breed that likes to be self-sufficient is, "Can I just breed my own Cornish Cross? And what would I need to get started? Pitfalls? Issues?"
Melissa: And I have never attempted to do that. So I have nothing to give them. So I'm really happy that you're on here today, and could kind of guide us, if that's a road we would want to go down. And if not, why not? And if so, what do you need to know to be prepared? If that's something that you think you want to attempt on your own?
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. I've got some answers for this.
Melissa: I thought you might.
Tom: Do you want me to run down how that goes right now?
Melissa: Yeah. We'll just... Sorry. We will get into the nitty gritty.
Tom: Yeah, let's do it. So, all right. So essentially, in the grand scheme of things, the Cornish Cross is a Cornish breed and a Plymouth Rock breed. So your Cornish Rock, or your Cornish Cross, or whatever you call that, is adapted from the Cornish and the Plymouth Rock.
Tom: They're white, because white is easiest to pluck, leaves less amount of feathers. But when you talk about being sustainable, and producing your own Crosses, there are generational lines of breeding that go into this Cornish Cross. There are between seven and five generations, before you get to this end product.
Tom: And so, if you think you're going to do that yourself, you could take a white Cornish and a white Plymouth Rock and breed them together. And you're not going to get anything like the Cornish Rock or the Cornish Cross that is what your grocery store food, or what you're currently raising for meat, anyway. That's because there's seven other generations of breeding going into this one bird.
Tom: And so when the first time everyone's, "I want to do that. I want to make my own, so I can just be sustainable." It's like, "Okay, well, the minimum size block that you're going to have for each generation is got to be between 100 and 300 birds, in order to keep your genetic diversity high enough to be sustainable for any term of length."
Tom: So all right, so you had five generations of birds to get to this one thing, or you've got 10,000 birds to produce one chick. So the math doesn't work out. You're feeding all of these other birds and only using them as breeders and you could eat them. But then at that point, it's not what you came here for. That's not the goal that you had in mind. So it's only feasible on an industrial scale, and little industry secret here, there's this few as five companies in the world that produce these Cornish Cross breeds.
Tom: So when you talk about, every grocery store in the United States is supplied the same bird. Well, how do they do that? Well, it's industrial scale, like it's mind boggling. And that goes, like I said, the genetics and the breeding and the selection. And I've actually met what who's considered the grandfather of modern broiler. And I'm going to draw a blank on his name, but chickens are just selection. There no such thing as a genetically modified chicken. It is only selection.
Melissa: Amen. Thank you. I have gotten into this with folks before, who they just don't understand, and yes, I've had to go deep into this conversation on what is, even within gardening, but also, yes, as well within livestock, like what is actually GMO and genetically modification versus hybrid. And so thank you. Thank you for saying that, because it's a very big misconception with it.
Tom: Yeah, it is. And when you look at those birds, you go, "Oh, they've got to be modifying those." It's like, "No, that's that's selection." But every one of those genetic lines is basically infertile. So they're having to... The same, like if you would do cows, you'd artificially inseminate them. So you're collecting semen and you're inserting it into a female for them to produce fertile eggs, which you would incubate.
Tom: And so, it's not a viable option for a home consumer to do. There are other alternatives. But when I think about homesteading, I just go back to my grandfather's farm. And that's, "We're going to do it ourselves." And that mentality of we're growing our own food and they had to, because that's Depression era mindset, this is where, we're kind of, I'm not say we're there yet, but that's the mindset that people have.
Tom: And that was the mindset my grandfather had, but the birds that they were raising were not Cornish Cross. They were Leghorns. And so the birds that they ate were Leghorn roosters. And the idea that you can have a true dual purpose bird is flawed from the beginning.
Tom: There are good examples, but they fail in comparison to a true meat bird versus, and a true egg layer. You don't get both of those. It just doesn't exist. We've gone so far from being able to like the selection that's gone into these birds is only for meat. And so you gave that up at the expense of fertility. So you're manually creating these fertile eggs to get these meat lines, because you've given up all of that.
Tom: So it's not an option for people to do this. And I wouldn't want them to. To be truly sustainable, select an egg layer flock, and then select it for size. And it's not going to be a Cornish Cross. You're never going to get five pounds of meat in eight weeks. You're going to get five pounds of meat in 16 weeks. But that is actually the sustainable model, because you didn't have to give anything up within that chicken and within that breed to do it. Does that make sense?
Melissa: Yeah, it does make sense. And it's funny when you mentioned the Great Depression era, because my dad was a child during the Great Depression and my mother is 20 years younger than my dad, because that's the next question that people always ask like, "Wait a minute, how old are you?"
Melissa: So I share that because, yes, they were raising their own chickens for eggs and then they would cull the roosters, or that's where you get stewing hens, because once that hen is older and she stops laying, they weren't about to waste that meat. But that meat off of a laying hen, especially one that's older as you well know, I'm sure, but it is nowhere near the tenderness. That's why it's a stewing hen only.
Melissa: And so with the meat birds that we're all, most of modern society I should say is most familiar with, I think also adjusting expectations.
Melissa: Like if you were going back to say a Depression era, or where you are just culling out of your flock, extra birds that are older, if you're not just purposely having her hatch out, some that you're getting and your letting go longer, that don't expect the same from the meat.
Melissa: So don't expect the same breast size. Of course, you know that there are some, what we call the dual purpose flocks, that do have a larger breast on them than others, even within your laying breeds. But it's like apples and oranges almost, trying to compare them.
Melissa: I think it's kind of similar to like taking a 100% Jersey dairy cow and trying to get the same meat harvest you would get off 100% Hereford or black Angus. It's never going to be the same. So having those expectations is really key there.
Tom: Yeah. And that's all of it. And well, there are no true dual purpose, if your expectation is a Cornish Cross. There isn't. That's so far off of the scale of an actual viable chicken that breaks it.
Melissa: Yeah. Now, I do have questions for though, because we have only raised the Cornish Cross as our meat birds. And for the very reason, I only want to be dealing with them for eight weeks, quite honestly. That's my goal. I want to be able to get the food in them and get the largest bird that I can in an eight week period, and for our time and everything else that we have going on. So that's very purposeful intent for this, but I am curious, I have to say very, very curious. So you guys have more of a heritage line, I think is how you guys state on meat bird options. And is that the Freedom Rangers? Am I getting that correct?
Tom: So, yeah. It's the same Cross as the Freedom Ranger. It's McMurray's big red broiler. So it's our own branding on that. Freedom is from Freedom Ranger hatchery, which is-
Melissa: Okay. Sorry. I really, I don't know.
Tom: No, absolutely. That is. And I use it. And I tell people the first thing I say, "Oh, it's a Freedom Ranger." We're producing this Cross, instead of they are. That's good marketing on their part.
Melissa: Okay. Yes. Sorry about that, but, yes, it was.
Tom: You know people say Bobcat, you mean skid steer? It's such a euphemism, or Kleenex. It's like, "Well, do you mean tissue?" They did it-
Melissa: Yeah. It's almost becomes generic now for that breed.
Tom: So they did it.
Melissa: They did do it. They did. So with that bird, because it is still a meat bird, but it does go a little bit longer. So you've got extended your labor time. And of course, a little bit extended feed costs. But my curiosity here is the Cornish Cross are, I call them little piranhas. They like to eat, man. Do you end up feeding the same amount of food, because the Freedom... Excuse me, the red broilers... I'll get this down.
Tom: No, it's fine. It's absolutely fine.
Melissa: Do they eat less per day, but they eat for longer. Does that end up being the same feed costs that amount, or do they truly eat more food over those extended weeks that you're feeding them? Or have you noticed that?
Tom: Yeah. No, they're going to eat more feed. It probably in some of the midweeks, say three to five to seven weeks old, the Cornish Cross are going to eat more food than the Freedom Ranger in comparison on a day to day basis. But even at that point, it's still pretty minimal in variation. So over the long haul, when that bird gets larger and grow, it's eating more food per day, than it would've in that week, at three weeks old.
Melissa: Okay. So they do over the long term, they do actually end up eating more. And then as far as measuring them at about 16 weeks, do you feel it like as breast size, pretty comparable? Is the texture of the meat, et cetera... Do you feel like it's a pretty side by side, it's just a longer grow up period comparison?
Melissa: Or is there differences in the meat itself?
Tom: No, there's big differences. So you're not going to get the... That big breast is strictly a Cornish trait. And so that's why the Cornish is kind of the foundational of the Cornish Cross. And you can find that on heritage Cornish as well. We have a couple of other options of Cornish and it's not quite to the same proportion as the Cornish Crosses, but that's just selection. But the red Rangers are not going to have nearly as much breast meat, but they're going to have more dark meat where the Cornish Cross doesn't have dark meat. So your thighs and your legs are actually bigger size. They're longer too in proportion, because the Cornish don't get very tall.
Tom: Where these do. They're more chicken light, more upright, I should say. So you have longer grains. They have more texture. I think sometimes the Cornish can get kind of mushy to say, so they're, I don't want to say grainier, but they're more muscular and within the legs and the thighs. To me, they taste better and that's, I think true for a couple of reasons.
Tom: The longer that chicken lives, the more it tastes like chicken, we talked about old stewing hens. There's a really intense flavor there, but you sacrifice the tenderness, because of the time, but you also can't get that same depth of flavor in an eight week old bird. So when you make chicken noodle soup and you've got those old hands or those old roosters that you stewed down, you get a intense broth, or stock, whatever you choose to make.
Tom: So that's, the benefit of having the older birds, is they do have more flavor. They taste more like chicken, more like the chicken of old too, that I kind of... I think so. So there's trade offs in the size of the bird. You're still probably going to end up with the same poundage, but it's going to be proportionally different, more thighs and legs, less breast.
Melissa: Okay. That makes sense. Actually, it's funny. My husband loves the dark meat, whenever I'm cooking a turkey or anything like that, he always is going for the dark meat, because it does have more flavor. That's the reason that he likes it. He actually prefers the texture and the flavor. So that's, very interesting. It's really funny. I guess I never really paid attention on the Cornish. I know that sounds so silly.
Melissa: I didn't even pay attention that it wasn't dark meat with the turkey. But now that you're saying that I'm like, "Oh, we may actually like them. We might test out doing a batch of it, just for curiosity to see what we like on the flavor versus from the Cornish Cross." But I am curious, because you're mentioning the heritage Cornish versus the Cross. So with the heritage Cornish, I guess, what are the differences going the heritage Cornish route? I'm assuming it's going to be a longer grow out period, but then you do have the similarity of at least that large breast and the white feathers, et cetera. Is there any other, really drastic is the wrong word, but drastic comparison between them?
Tom: Oh, it's so different to see a heritage Cornish. And I actually don't have a white heritage Cornish. We have a dark Cornish, which is laced and it's a mahogany brown. And then we have a white laced, red Cornish, which is like a baring pattern in white and red. And they're super pretty, but they wouldn't look like you think of the Cornish roaster, or Cornish broiler looks like. They're tall. They're very tall, upright stance. And they look small.
Tom: But that's all feather pattern, because they have really tight bound feathers. And so they're extremely dense birds. So you pick them up and go, "Oh, I wasn't ready for that." And so, they're very cool. We sell a tremendous amount of our dark Cornish and for people who grow them out. So you're not looking at eight weeks, you're still looking at probably a 16 week, 18 week bird. You don't get the ease of plucking that you do with the white birds, because that feather pattern is very tight. But they're very unique in stature and type, but you do get a big breast. So you can see that on the Cornish.
Melissa: So with the heritage Cornish, if somebody wanted to get those, again though, with going back to breeding stock, but because they are a standardized or long time heritage breed, so traits have been stabilized within the heritage Cornish, but however, even in breeds that have been what we would, or I call in our world, I should say, like more in the beef cattle is standardized, you still need to have enough genetic diversity, no matter what. So how many birds would you need in a home flock of the heritage Cornish, if you wanted to have your own breeding stock and do that?
Tom: So that's, a great question. Typically, there are a couple of ways to go about this and there's a line breeding where you would keep three pens of birds and every, you would have a specific rooster that would stay with those pens. You could have 10 hens in each one in one rooster. I would like to keep two just in case one fell over, because that does happen. And then theoretically you keep all of the hens that would hatch out of that pairing.
Tom: So pairing A, all of the hens that would come off of those would go back into that block and you would keep one or two roosters and you would move the rooster to the next, to B line. And the same thing with B, all of the B hens would stay with that group, and you'd move the B roosters to C. And so you could continually perpetuate that. I think that way to do that, you could get 50 years. If you had five pens, let's say, you can breed that way, pretty much indefinitely without getting into-
Melissa: Too much inbreeding.
Tom: Yeah. Inbreeding issues.
Tom: And so, at that point, if you look at it between 30 to 50 hens, you could perpetuate a line indefinitely.
Melissa: Okay. So depending on how much you ate for a year, or then it would be with neighbors or whatnot, you'd be the small scale.
Tom: If you're doing clan breeding, which is actually what we do at the hatchery, you maintain one line, but it's a lot bigger. So at that point I have 200 hens that I will maintain in between 20 to 30 roosters. And so we don't have to mark anything, but that keeps the genetic diversity up, because you're looking at 200 females in 20 to 30 roosters, which you can run into there, is not keeping enough roosters. You could have less roosters to keep fertile lines, but then you do limit your genetic diversity at that point too, because of not every rooster will make the same number of females. So you'll have one really aggressive rooster that might do 50 females and he'll actually keep other males off of that. So then you're going to perpetuate that line a lot stronger than one that's probably only doing one to two females.
Melissa: That makes sense.
Tom: Yeah. And some of them, you might have an infertile rooster, but he's keeping the other roosters from breeding too.
Melissa: This is really, really fascinating. And you guys, one of the things that I wanted to talk about, I have a couple other things. Like I wanted to make sure that we definitely got into this, because this is the number one questions that I guess get asked and had questions as well about, but with COVID and different current events, I'm assuming that you guys have had a much larger influx of orders in the past couple of years. Is that an accurate statement?
Tom: Yes. So we've been very busy. It's not unprecedented though. So in 2000... avia influenza went through Iowa in 2015 and they killed 32 million birds in the state of Iowa, within that disease. And so we were actually busier then, than we were because of COVID in itself.
Melissa: Okay. That's fascinating. On your hatchery work, because I think a lot of people have in their mind that big is never a good thing, seriously. Big agriculture... And I know there's a difference between the size of your guys' hatchery and huge slaughter houses, or even huge, where they're raising chickens for eggs and the chickens are jam packed and never see daylight and all of those things. But I did want to ask, because I've never been to your guys' place. So how your hatchery works, like how do you operate? How are the birds taken care of, those types of things?
Tom: So my perception of big is different. And I'll throw some numbers out and you go what? But to be honest, I think when you take yourself out of direct contact of people, when I'm like the president co-owner of McMurray Hatchery, I saw you this weekend. We have one marketing person. We have one office manager, we have two hatchery managers. All of our phone staff is in house. We have six full-time guys who work in the hatchery and with the flocks. I am accountable to every one of those people. I am accountable to every customer. I think when you get to a size where you are no longer accountable to direct people, that's too big. That's my perception of big.
Melissa: I like that actually, because numbers don't always tell an accurate story, which is exactly what I think the kind of the point that you were making. Like number of birds, et cetera, doesn't mean the same thing.
Tom: So we will ship out close to 2 million birds this year.
Melissa: Wow. That's a lot of birds.
Tom: All right. Yes it is.
Melissa: So I see why you led, I see why you led with that.
Tom: Our average order is less than 25 birds and they go all across the United States. Well, we have 40,000 customers who will get birds this year. And we do the bulk of that in under four months, but then up through 10 months is our entire hatching season. So we have about 45,000 laying hens that we take care of. All of those are hand selected and hand called by me or our hatchery manager. We do all of the vaccinations, anything outside the day to day care, which just includes feeding, watering, cleaning pens, is all done by the six staff and our two hatchery managers.
Tom: We are directly responsible for the care of these birds. And to be honest, what makes McMurray different is our team cares a lot. And so they're a live animal and not just an animal, but the better take care that you take care of something, the better it takes care of us. And that goes into every facet of homesteading.
Melissa: Yes. Extremely true. I do I have-
Tom: So I don't know.
Melissa: No. That's good. So are the birds all in one large central location, like one huge barn? Do you have them in... Is there different barns at different locations? And-
Tom: We have six farms. We call them our growers, our flock owners. They're all within an hour of Webster City here. And they're responsible for the day to day chores. They're basically just row crop farmers who had a building and we've kept chickens in, but that goes a little bit deeper than that. One of our flock owners is third generation. So they've been with the hatchery for 60 years.
Tom: His grandfather started with us and his dad did it and now he's doing it and his kids are getting ready to do it. We're going to set them up as a flock owner here. That's all he's ever done. Literally 45 years old. He's only raised chickens for McMurray Hatchery and plants a couple 100 acres on the side. So one of them is a second generation. So out of the six farms we have, they're just people... Like I don't even know how to-
Melissa: No, I appreciate it. So it's not all factory. Like you have-
Tom: No, it's very much not factory. The closest thing to, I would say, a confinement type is actually the own barns we've put up, but they're not even... And I only say that, because we did a raised floor system on these. So they're actually on slats instead of chips, like everyone else's chicken coops. They're on some kind of bedding. These I put slats under, so we could remove the manure.
Tom: Easier. We weren't worried about water spills or flooding, because that's killed more birds. And I know it to my own personally, too. I think I had something set right and go away and come back and the water [inaudible 00:28:57] spilled all over. And then some of the breeds we get, I take them home and I'll raise the... I'll go buy eggs on the internet from somebody, something I think is neat and I'll incubate them on my counter at home. I'll brew the chicks. Our Bielefelder line was perpetuated by my kids, because they liked them. We raised them in our backyard. And then once I got enough numbers built up, we could really select for the traits that we wanted. And that's exactly what we do. If I want a nice bird, I select a nice roosters.
Tom: If I'm looking for eggs, I select eggs and that can go different ways. We always select our breeders at the end of the year. And that actually is a very uncommon, but it's un-thought of way.... When you select your eggs, when you pull your breeders from the end of your year, so the hens that are still producing eggs are the hens that are actually producing the most eggs.
Tom: So they're passing that genetic ability to produce eggs and produce eggs longer into their offspring, which is the ones we select. And so we're kind of unintentionally selecting for egg lane by perpetuating the hens that have laid the longest. So when you talk about hybrid egg layers versus heritage egg layers, hybrids are meant to lay the most eggs in the first 18 months of their life, and then fizzle out. So heritage breeds are looking at more like a five to six years, expand the produce. That's not the same number of eggs, but the bulk of their eggs of their life. So you're at a five year laying ability versus a 18 month laying ability. And there's caveats to both of those, but-
Melissa: That's actually funny, because you hear, I don't know, certain statistics thrown around or certain things thrown around and that is one of them. Like, "Oh, you're really only going to get good egg production for about two years, after that, once birds hit three years old, it drops off and you might as well just pull them and you have to replace your flock."
Melissa: But personally, it's probably because I've been getting McMurray hence for so long now, I have not noticed that. Yes, they don't lay as long each year, but I have a six year old Olive Egger and she still lays very consistently in the spring for me. Now of course, she used to go from spring all the way through, until late into the fall. And now that's every, I have to say every year, she's not going as far as she did.
Melissa: But she still lays first thing in the spring for me really well. And it's funny, because she's almost six years old. And so I've told people like, "Well gosh, half of my flock is going on five and six years old and they're still laying pretty consistently, not as long as the younger girls." And that makes a lot of sense.
Melissa: And I also love, because what I was hearing is you guys are not, which I know because I have a personal relationship. I've gotten to know you and Ginger, who's one of your guys' team members really well throughout the years, but you are looking specifically for these traits. It's not like let's just hatch every egg that we can, so we have a chicken to sell and get them shipped down the road. You're very purposefully and intentional about what you're keeping for your breeding stock and what you're putting out into the world. And I really appreciate that.
Tom: That's the difference is, if you... The old goes back to the middle McMurray. So Charles McMurray was the son of the original Mary McMurray, said, "If you don't want to see something, you never breed that." And that starts with the egg. So if you have visual defects on the egg, whether they have calcium spots, or all of that, a color that you don't... You don't even set that egg. Don't even give yourself the opportunity to go, "Oh, well." No, it starts with the egg. It starts with the chick, you are un-vigorous chicks, those aren't your breeders. And then at every step along the way, you are actively selecting for the traits that you want to see and actively calling for the traits that you don't want to see again.
Melissa: Yeah. I appreciate that. I do have a question for it, because I think this is probably one of the other ones that I get asked a lot is, that is because a lot of people don't want roosters, or when they're ordering birds, they want to make sure that the majority... Now I'm the opposite when it comes to the meat birds, because I want the roosters, because they get bigger, faster. But when it comes to hens, ordering egg layers, they should say, "The majority of people want hens. They don't want a big flock of roosters." So is that something that you have somewhat control over during different... I've heard old wives' tale, I don't throw wives' tales or not, because I've never bred, but certain temperatures will produce a male versus a female. Or how do you guys handle that? How does that work on an operation your size?
Tom: So there you get in the scheme of things, you're going to hatch out 50/50. If I wanted to, I could hatch more males than females, but here's to deal with that. You're going to get a reduced hatch overall. And so, I've not actually tried to do this on any at all, because when you're incubating and you... What happens, we have some kind of issue, whether the power goes out, which we do have generators and stuff, but it can cause... One night the generator was kicking on and off, and on and off, and off, because the power in town was kicking on and off.
Tom: And so, one of the motors blew, because of the hammering of the electrical or the surging. And so we had to replace that motor quick, which we have, but then the temperature and humidity get too high in the incubator. And so when you have issues in incubation and it stresses the birds, you will get more roosters to hatch than hens. And I don't know if that's a bigger embryo or a bigger chick, even at day old, or why specifically that happens, but that does happen, but overall you lose hatchability. So it's not something I would want to try to do, but no, I can't. It's 50/50.
Tom: That's a long story to say. You couldn't really beat these eggs up and then you'd get more roosters, but-
Melissa: But you're losing.
Tom: But you're going to have beat up eggs.
Melissa: You're always going to need a higher hen proportion to the roosters. So even within in breeding and whatnot, so-
Melissa: And I'm not trying to be controversial, or put you on the spot, but how do you handle then the excess of roosters that it's more than people are ordering, or more than you can use in your breeding program?
Tom: So we do sell quite a few roosters, just because of our customer base. But the vast majority, they get euthanized and that's it to hatchery level here. So American Veterinary Associations recommended we gas them and they get disposed of. So that's, what happens.
Melissa: Okay. Well, thank you for answering. I know it's a touchy subject for people, but I think people who are in home setting for the long haul understand-
Melissa: Understand that and appreciate... At least I appreciate it. And I hope I would assume my listeners do too. Appreciate actually knowing and [inaudible 00:37:05]-
Tom: Easy thing to fix and I'd love to be able to do it. There is no outlet for a Polish rooster to be-
Melissa: Right now. Yeah.
Tom: Well just, they don't have any qualities. They're not going to be a meat bird. They don't really like... So where some of the breeds you could find outlets for, if we grew them out. There's a dog food plant down the road, I could grow all of [inaudible 00:37:29] roosters and sell them to the dog food plant, but a Polish or a Sultan or a Sumatra, there is zero economic quality to that bird. And so to be honest, if people have issues with how that's done, then buy the roosters. Don't buy just females, buy males and females and I will happily sell them, or just straight run where we don't have to sex them. If we didn't have to sex them, I'd save so much time.
Melissa: I bet. I bet you would, because that has got to... And it so funny, because every now, you'd be like, "What?' I ordered 25 hens and I ended up with one rooster and I'm like, "It is so hard to sex them when they're that little." That's actually really good odds.
Tom: Yeah. We guarantee 90% and it's probably closer to 95%, but I don't really argue with people, but-
Melissa: Yeah. I think in all the batches I've got from you guys, I think only once have I had one rooster, when it was an order of all hens, but that's on multiple and multiple and multiple of orders. So I would say in my case, I guess that's 99%, so pretty high. I do have questions. So this will be our wrap up. I know we could probably talk for hours. I think all of this is very, very interesting and I'll ask you one question and then that will be get like five more.
Melissa: Where is things that are happening right now, still in the world, or current events I should say? And there is, you mentioned 2015, there was avian flu in your guys' area, but again, we're seeing avian flu impacts. I know you guys had to deal with that at one of your hatcheries. So if you could just speak to the avian flu impact processes that you have to take, and I know none of us can actually predict the future, no matter how much some people would like to. Do you see any, based upon your previous experience for 2015, anything that folks who are wanting to raise chickens either for meat or hens, should be aware of with the market that avian flu sometimes has an impact on a little bit further down the road?
Tom: Yeah. So avian influenza is primarily carried by waterfowl, and so it can live almost indefinitely in cold wet or frozen ground, or basically that's manure. So as they're flying over, they're dropping manure. And 2015 was a little bit different than this year. Yes, we lost 15,000 of our breeders to an outbreak. We lost an entire farm and that was really, really difficult for us. Not even from a monetary position, just from a personal relationship with those birds. And so we're rebuilding on that. We met a lot of very good caring vets within the USDA and the hardest part was going, "Well, you didn't do anything wrong." And I've had to tell that to customers before and, "Oh no, I'm just not doing it."
Tom: Well, you can do everything right and still have issues. And that was very much the scenario there. The flock owner didn't do anything wrong, but we saw increased mortality. That's the problem with avian influenza, is it has like an 80% mortality rate. So you know it when you have it. It's not necessarily, yes, we test for it as well. But even before we got the test back out, I already knew what was going on. We were losing birds. Waterfowl are really hardy and so they don't hardly get sick for anything. And so they're able to pass this on to chickens and turkeys, and turkeys are actually the most susceptible to almost every avian disease.
Tom: Yeah. So it's waterfowl chickens and then turkeys. Turkey is the bottom of the [inaudible 00:41:40]. You look at a turkey wrong and then they can fall over.
Melissa: I have heard that about turkeys. We've not raised turkeys yet, but I have heard that they are much harder to keep alive.
Tom: Yeah. I've had fine success doing my own and I've done everything wrong and managed to keep them alive. But except for the time they've roosted the neighbors trees.
Melissa: Uh-oh. That sounds like a fun story.
Tom: They decided they liked her bird feeder better than their bird feed that I was giving them, and they don't come down.
Melissa: Oh well, they might not have been to the size we would've wanted.
Tom: Yeah. And so that the avian influenza this year was being different than 2015 was that, it was primarily spread by people. So when they went into an infected premise, they would then, "Oh, we're going to go check Joe's farm." And so they'd go across the street or across the county. And then people were spreading it. And this year that has not been that... We thought it was a... You need those reality checks within your industry sometimes. It didn't really affect the backyard poultry at that time, as much as it affected the commercial, like the huge egg layer houses. And it's like, "Well, okay." It's much like COVID. Even influenza has been around forever. It's seasonal cold. It just happened to be highly pathogenic strain. So it's easily mutated and it was deadly.
Tom: And that was much like COVID. COVID has been part of the cold cycle for generations. And it just happened to be that this year was the year that it got really bad, almost the same with avian influenza. But this year it's worldwide. It's on every continent, it's affecting poultry at every level, backyard flocks, even waterfowl turkeys, chickens, peacocks, everything, even Eagles Hawks and Raptors. There have been a increased sightings of dead birds of those two that have tested positive to avian influenza.
Tom: So when you talk about what person can do, any type of structure that keeps them directly covered is ideal. They're not having birds perched over your coop and that's hard, because trees and all of that other stuff, but because of how it's spread, it's affected the Midwest a lot, from Iowa to Minnesota. We're in the migratory bird path, we're actually on both of them, they follow the Missouri river and they follow the Mississippi river and we just happen to be right smack in the middle of those.
Tom: So when you look at the numbers, it follows the migratory birds, and it follows them seasonally too. So heightened awareness of the time of year, spring or fall for migratory birds is really key. And then actually the number one thing, and then this is just good bio-security anyway, have a pair of chore shoes that you only wear to the chicken coop.
Melissa: That you're not going around town or other people's places.
Tom: Yes. And a lot of farmers do, but then they're like, "Oh, I'm just going to go get a cup of coffee at the gas station." And well, so did five other farmers and now you've got manure tracked home from somebody else that... That's just good bio-security practices for everything.
Tom: Wear shoes that you only wear on your farm, or you're only wearing for this set chore, like pair of rubber boots, something you can wash off and sanitize now and again. That's the key. That will solve so many problems for anything.
Melissa: Okay. Well, that's good. I typically do have town clothes and town shoes, just because what I wear on the farm isn't necessarily what I would wear in public. So I'm going to tell my husband, I now have permission to have the nice town shoes now. So Alrighty. He's going to love my rationalization of going actually boot shopping. I could care less about most shoes, but boot shopping... Anyways, that's a whole nother subject.
Melissa: Yeah, I'll take us on a tangent. Well, like I said, this has been really great. If we have a bunch more questions come in, we may just have to have you back for a part two, but this was really, really fascinating and really exciting. And now I'm going to have to go and take a peek at some of your guys' different meat bird breeds, because I'm very curious about testing out, just to see what we like and think of the meat.
Melissa: And as you were talking about the flavor and the texture, even if it is a longer grow up period. I actually do have one question for you before we sign off here. And that is on the meat birds. We raise got ours in the spring when we normally do, but, and it was a Cornish Cross this year. We happen to have the coldest May in 50 years on record. So normally eight weeks with the roost, I'm going to be averaging, dressed out anywhere between five and six and a half pounds on average.
Melissa: This year, same feed, same growing time, but we were much, much colder. Still using the heat plates and the heat lamps and all the things, but I was averaging between like two and a half and I was lucky. I think I only had out of 40 something birds, I think I had three, four pounders. The rest for about three pounds.
Melissa: And I'm assuming that is just because it was colder more, the energy was going to keeping warm than it was to putting on weight. But my question for you this whole big lead up is, do you think that any of the heritage breeds, because they grow slower obviously, that the end weight would be less affected by colder weather, or that's going to be the case with any bird?
Tom: No, I think you're going to get more consistent results. We've raised black Minorcas for over a 100 years. Our line of black Minorcas goes back before the founding of the McMurray Hatchery in 1917. They've been through every type of winter season, spring... And so when you get heritage breeds, you are less affected by the variations of things, in temperature and time. So here's the other thing about the Cornish Cross is that, because of the type of year that we had...
Tom: Well, all right. Just two things. So you didn't think this question was going to take that long. When we talk about having five people in the world who do the Cornish Cross breeding, every selection across [inaudible 00:48:32], sometimes, and we saw a little bit last year, the pairings that they put together don't produce as well as expected.
Tom: Does that make sense?
Tom: Like you could, "Oh, we've tried to do this pair this year," and it just like, you don't know that until after the fact, but it's such a scale. That's like, "Well, next year we'll try-"
Melissa: We try again.
Tom: But that affects the global market. And so you'll have people go, "Oh, that was us too, but we were in the South and it was fine." You can get variations within the breed, because of the lack of control in that. I don't get a say, me or any other hatchery. I don't know until after the fact.
Melissa: Okay. So it might not have been the weather-
Tom: It might not have been-
Melissa: It could have contributed, but it might not have been that. Okay.
Tom: Yeah. And the other part of that, because of how the spring went with avian influenza and the cold snap in Texas, and there was storms over... Those all have long term effects. There was tornadoes through Arkansas and Memphis and had a snowstorm last year. So there were actually less broiler houses in production going into this year to produce those eggs, which I considered the breeder broiler flux. And so what we saw at different times within last year, and then this year as well, is they were using younger birds or younger flock, and older flock that you typically wouldn't use in otherwise normal market.
Melissa: Oh, okay.
Tom: And that can affect your overall bird weight. But then again, these have global repercussions across everybody's scale. So maybe you did it right and maybe it wasn't cold, and maybe... There's always some options, but-
Melissa: Yeah. Okay. And I think that was supposed to be our wrap up question, but now we kind of circled. I love this. See, this is why I said we probably will just have to have another episode. I'm sure there's a lot more, but it did bring me to a wrap up moment. And that is with the avian flu. And really when you have any market, I don't care what the product is, that is monopolized when you only have five places in the world producing something, or even smaller.
Melissa: When something goes wrong with those places, it has drastic impact. So not as a doom and gloom, or everybody panic, because I don't believe anybody, but especially homesteaders should live with that type of mindset. Do you have any thoughts or words of wisdom, or just expectations with raising birds and getting birds within the next couple of years, based upon you and I just talked about, and what you've seen previously?
Tom: Do I see anything changing? No. Do I think that's still going to put the most meat on your table? Absolutely. Do I have my own concerns with, like I said, that monopolization of it? Yeah. But chicken is the number one protein source for the world and that's not going to change. So raising it yourself provides benefits that are outside of just the bird's livelihood, but then you know exactly what you put into it. Everything that I'm going to do can continue to perpetuate these for exactly this market, for exactly the homesteaders and exactly the people who want to know what they're putting into them, their body and how they're raised.
Melissa: Okay, great. So for those who are like, "I need to get some new birds," or maybe it's our first birds, or are looking at getting in any type of bird, you guys do waterfowls as well. I actually got ducks for the first time from you guys this year. However, I know that you encourage last year, I'm assuming it would be the same this year, that pre-ordering, or getting orders in by a certain time so that you guys can breed accordingly to what the market demand is. So that, will be my final thing. And then I promise we will wrap up, but if you could just give anybody, who's looking to order from you sometime within the next year, when is the best time for them to place orders or for pre-ordering, when is that done, et cetera?
Tom: Yep. So one of the reasons I'm not having [inaudible 00:53:16] years, just because I don't change our flock all wildly. It's like counting your chickens before the hatch. So I watched the trends of individual breeds that we sell, and I might adjust the numbers of the birds on an individual basis, but across the board, we maintain what we consider, what we know we can sell. I don't want to go, "Oh, we have such a big year last year that I'm going to just scale up," and then have stuff that I would have to throw away or euthanize. And so our goal is to sell everything. And so that comes in were pre-ordering is really important. We open up our availability for next year in November. And so you could start ordering... If you have a date that you want and a specific breed that you want, you can start November 1st for anytime through October of next year.
Tom: So the sooner you put it in, the more likely you're going to get the time, the date you want and the specific breed that you're looking for, especially for really in demand breeds. Black Copper Marans lay those really dark brown eggs.
Tom: Those go within the first week typically. And that's at that point, I'm guesstimating. I have the size of our flock that we're growing for next year, but until I actually get eggs. So we always add something later. Once I have eggs in house, which takes three weeks to incubate, but start November, if you have specific timing that you would like to meet. November, December, we start hatching again in January. If you wait till Easter to get chickens for the next week, well, then you're going to have a sad day.
Melissa: Okay. So November 1st is when you want to start getting in those orders and then popping in the dates. Doesn't mean you're going to be getting them right then, but you can get your pre-orders in for what you want and what you want. Awesome.
Tom: It's kind of like seeds, if you wait until it's spring to try to order your seeds and you go, "Well, they're out."
Melissa: Yeah. [inaudible 00:55:23] planning ahead. Awesome. Okay. Great. Well, thank you so much and really appreciated having you on. Thanks, Tom.
Tom: All right. Thanks, Melissa.
Melissa: I hope that you enjoyed that episode just as much as I did, and for links, including all the things that we talked about in today's episode, you can go to melissaknorris.com/347. Melissaknorris.com/ the number just 347, because this is episode number 347. And you will find a plethora of information there for you. Thank you so much. And I can't wait to be here back with you next week. Until then, blessings in [inaudible 00:56:05] for now my friend.
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