These two videos document the “Chicken of the Future” contest from 1948, showing what, for the time, were the best chickens and the best practices for raising them (some of which most of us would envy, even today!)
They’re worth watching just for the glimpses they give of good chicken-raising technique, but be careful to take a good hard look at the butchered carcasses! They look just like rubber chickens. And the chickens of 60 years ago grew more slowly, had higher mortality, and were less productive than modern hybrids.
This contest was very well run. Earlier egg-laying contests were easy to game, and the results of the contests had nothing in common with what you’d get if you bought baby chicks from the contestants. They were basically an accidental scam.
For the Chicken of the Future test, they started with a large number of hatching eggs — too many to cherry-pick the ones from the best hens — which were all incubated together. The day-old chicks were brooded in identical pens, then moved into different identical pens after the brooding period. When the cockerels were 12 weeks old, they were all butchered at the same time (with winning pens giving a dressed carcass weighing probably a little more than two pounds!) subjected to USDA inspection and grading, and generally compared with one another.
Feed consumption and overall profitability were kept track of. Profitability was affected by chick mortality, carcass value of the cockerels, rate of lay and size of eggs of the pullets, mortality among the pullets, and feed consumption. Careful records were kept. In the Forties, dual-purpose breeds like New Hampshire Reds usually won in total profitability — so much so that no one seems to have bothered entering any White Leghorns!
Another interesting point was that the contest flocks had outbreaks of disease, which was considered routine at the time. Up until the Twenties, when small farm flocks were the rule, sickness in poultry flocks was uncommon, but it got worse and worse as flock sizes increased, reaching its peak in the Forties and Fifties, in spite of the introduction of antibiotics. Gradually, better biosecurity methods were introduces and the amount of disease plummeted. An outbreak of disease in a contest flock would not be considered routine today.