Broiler chicken is a popular dietary staple. In Pakistan, people consume more chicken compared to any other food. It’s healthy and nutritious bird but we haven’t always been consuming it at such rates as today.
Surprisingly, chicken wasn’t a mainstay of the dinner table until 1950s around the world.
Before 1950s, most farmers kept small flocks and there were dozens of varieties of the bird that you can add to your dinner table. These small farms kept around 200-300 chicken per farm and they were usually kept for eggs.
The first electrically heated incubators and broiler chicken
It was in 1923 that humans invented electrically heated incubators. This freed hens from hatching and gave farmers more time with the bird – increasing bird’s productivity cycle.
Although mass production now became possible, chicken was yet to become a dietary staple as it was mostly being raised for eggs only. It was considered a clever way to get maximum protein from a bird without having to kill it. That seems sensible unless you bring the modern broiler chicken into the picture.
It wasn’t until the end of the WWII that poultry farmers and producers thought about upsizing the chicken to meet the ever-increasing needs for chicken meat. It was the only way to use the bird for meat and not for eggs. A famous farmer and a researcher Howard C. Pierce talked about this same problem at a poultry meeting in 1944. This was the first time that someone talked about having a chicken with a breast size that matches that of a turkey.
It didn’t take long for this idea to become popular among poultry farmers. USDA organized a contest to find out the best breeding chicken the next summer. All major poultry farmers and producers participated in this contest.
The rise of broiler chicken
What they aimed to achieve was droolingly described in the Saturday Evening Post in 1947, after the contest was two-thirds through: “one bird chunky enough for the whole family—a chicken with breast meat so thick you can carve it into steaks, with drumsticks that contain a minimum of bone buried in layers of juicy dark meat, all costing less instead of more.” Anyone who wanted to compete—and they ranged from small farmers to large, established companies—was granted one year to devise and breed a bird that possessed the sturdy, meaty qualities the contest was hoping for. If they reached that goal, they then had to prove their bird was reproducible, by breeding enough birds in enough generations to last through a three-year beauty pageant.
This was a significant challenge. Creating better poultry varieties had been a goal for decades, but maintaining reliable crosses had been challenging. Farmers distrusted crosses, worrying they would be sickly and not breed true, so most of the aspirants to the Chicken of Tomorrow contest competed by tuning up pure breeds that they were already raising. In the final stage of the contest, only eight of the 40 contestants entered birds crossbred from the historic standard breeds.
By March 1948, all 40 breeders, plus six more in case any were eliminated, shipped 720 eggs each to a hatchery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The shipments came from 25 states and were loaded onto trains according to a precise timetable so that each arrived at the right hour to go into incubators. The batches were coded so that only a few people knew their identity and put into one hatching pen per breeder, dark chickens next to white in case any got loose and tumbled into the pen next door. Once the eggs hatched, 410 chicks—400 for judging and 10 extra in case any came to harm—were picked at random from each batch of 500 and driven to new purpose-built barns.