By Don Schrider — What is considered the largest breed of chicken? With standard weights of 13 pounds for males and 10 pounds for females, the humble Jersey Giant chicken is the breed that comes to mind.
My first encounter with this breed was through a friend’s grandmother who kept laying hens for meat and for the money the eggs brought. Grandma Ziegler was a big fan of the breed for the jumbo-sized dark brown eggs that the hens laid, and she had some very good stock. The birds were large, even enormous, and came in Black, White, or Blue color. Once you’ve seen a good Jersey Giant chicken, it is hard to forget the breed—pictures just don’t convey their true size.
The breed originated in New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania during the late 1800s. It was the product of farmers breeding for the large roasting chicken markets of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Because these markets were so competitive, and because various Asiatic crosses of the time were so readily available, the farmers paid great attention to the size, quantity of flesh, and table qualities of their poultry. In fact, it is said of the Jersey Giants that by 1924 they were the most uniform of all the American breeds of poultry.
In 1895, farmers referred to this breed as simply “Giants.” Some of the best specimens, during the breed’s early years, were to be found on the Jobstown, New Jersey, farm of John and Thomas Black of Burlington County. Their flock had so much influence on the breed that it became known as Black Giants, even though black was not the only color this breed came in. In 1917, breeder Dexter P. Upham of Belmar, New Jersey, added “Jersey” to the name and they soon were being referred to as Jersey Black Giants. By 1947 the white color was standardized and the breed became known simply as Jersey Giant chicken.
So how was the breed developed? The best records available reveal that the breed was developed between 1870 and 1880 and was created by crosses of Black Java, Black Langshan, and Dark Brahma chickens. There were two other breeds found in the same region that have never been credited as contributing to the makeup of Jersey Giants, they are Mammoths and Jersey Blues. Both breeds were similar in size to the Jersey Giant chicken and are long gone now. In fact, the slightly smaller Jersey Blues were not so dissimilar to the Blue Jersey Giants, which were never successfully bred until 1981. It is possible that the Jersey Blues and the Mammoths were amalgamated into the basic stock that formed the Jersey Giant—this being the practice of the farmers of that area, and indeed nationally when one of two or more similar breeds wins the majority of public favor. If so, we can say the development of Jersey Giants began another 50 years earlier.
What advantages does the massive size of the Jersey Giant chicken give, and for what were they used? First and foremost meat was the purpose of this breed and it would be correct to say of them, like Brahma chickens, that they are of the meat class of chickens. Specifically, the Jersey Giant chicken was bred to produce large capons and roasting chickens to compete with turkeys when a large bird was needed to serve on the table. At this, Giants excelled, having a large flesh to offal proportion and very tender flesh. Traditionally, the Jersey Giant chicken produced nine-pound cockerels at six months of age, capons weighing twelve pounds by seven months of age, and pullets that would start laying as early as six months and lay between 135 and 160 eggs per year — quite outstanding in a meat breed. The breed was a farmer favorite because it did quite well on feed rations that could be produced and grown on the farm and its massive size gave it good cold weather tolerance.
One of my favorite stories about this breed comes from my friend and a Giant breeder Kay St. Amour. Kay was visiting the famous poultry stringman by the name of Henry K. Miller of Pennsylvania. (A stringman was someone who took a large number of poultry of many breeds from one fair to the next—this being known as a string of poultry—with the object of winning prize money.) Henry had a flock of black chickens and she noticed many different types and sizes and asked Henry, “What kind of chickens are those?” and Henry replied, “What kind do you want? The large ones are Jersey Giants, the middle sized, long backs are Javas, and the ones with white soles on their feet are Orpingtons and Australorps.” Though Kay certainly knew the differences, Henry’s comments revealed what is generally true to this day — many people do not recognize the differences from one black breed of chicken to the next.
Golda Miller of Bern, Kansas is arguably the most famous Jersey Giant chicken breeder. Golda Miller bred her birds for 50 or more years, up to the 1980s. Mrs. Miller had a reputation for quality stock that was unsurpassed and shipped her Giants to all over the U.S. and even exported them to other countries. I remember reading one of her stories in which a rather well-known poultry judge entered the aisle to judge the Giants. As he walked the aisle he walked from Giants into Javas and Mrs. Miller decided to act before he could make a mistake and confuse the breeds. She walked up to him and said, “My, the Javas look good this year, but come and see how nice and large the Giants are and how they are so clearly different from the Javas.” She politely brought him back on track without embarrassment.
Bob Pettit of Zanesville, Ohio, sold me a nice pair of Giants one year. If I remember correctly, I think his stock came from Tim Johnson, also of Ohio. I had decided to add an American breed and thought the large size of the Giants was captivating. I still think the Jersey Giant chicken is a wonderful breed, but one morning I discovered they were not for me. It was first thing in the morning, just at sunrise. I opened the hatch to let my flock out for the day and stood there, as I usually do, and watched as my Leghorn hens came running and flying out — then doing little joyful dances with each other. Lastly came the Giants. As they plopped out and stood calmly beside me I looked down; one hen slowly turned her head and looked up at me — that was the only movement. I asked the hen, “Are you even alive?” and at that moment I realized that while I respected the breed, they just were not for me. I do much better with my “flighty” Leghorns and very active Buckeyes. There is a breed that is right for each of us…
I sent the best of those Giants to my friend Richard Schock of Boonville, North Carolina. He hardly needed them, though he accepted them graciously. Richard had a hen and her son that are clearly the best two Giants I have ever had the pleasure of seeing—they were massive in every possible way. To this day I can picture that hen in my mind and for me she is truly the very definition of a Jersey Giant. When you see good ones like this you understand that there is no mistaking a well-bred Jersey Giant chicken for anything else.
Speaking of well-bred Jersey Giants, back in 2006 I had the pleasure of handling the fine Jersey Giants owned by the Vaughns at the Crossroads of America show. This was with permission of course and was a great experience. The birds had great heart girth and width of back in the lateral process area, with abundant flesh on their breasts — truly good Giants with characteristics of both good brown egg laying ability and superior fleshing.
By now you should have in your mind that the Jersey Giant chicken is large and well-fleshed, though it grows slowly by today’s standards. One thing Richard Schock once told me about breeding good Giants is important to note: Do not keep as breeders the cockerels which grow and flesh quickly — they never develop the extreme size this breed is noted for. Rather, select the tall, long, lean cockerels that are poorly fleshed; these will be later to mature, but once they put on flesh will be tremendously larger. I can’t help but think that this one selection method was the defining influence that gave rise to this gigantic breed of chicken. The frugal farmers likely sold the meaty cockerels early in the season after discovering that the tall, lean, long males eventually fleshed out too. A few generations of selection and extreme size arrived. Seed stock was also protected because most poultrymen would choose those cockerels which grew and fleshed quickly — thinking they would “improve” the stock. But these would never maintain the extreme size of the best of the breed.
The Jersey Giant chicken had a productive place on farms across America once and can again. They should be large and are meant to produce capons or large roasting chickens — not young broilers. The breed’s calm disposition keeps them from ranging too widely and gives the flesh tenderness — Jersey Giant capons having been known to be tender even at 18 months of age. Their slow growth rate also means that grains that can be grown on the farm are suitable to form the basis of their diets. The jumbo size of their eggs, combined with a good rate of lay, means potential profits in maintaining an adult flock.
Today, folks like Golda Miller of Kansas and Henry K. Miller of Pennsylvania are gone. But there are still quality flocks of Jersey Giants out there. But if you find this breed of interest, be careful on your choice of source — some hatchery “Giants” would never weigh more than seven pounds. While these small birds probably do descend from Giants, a combination of selection for egg production, with no regard for size, and the possible, standard cross to Commercial Leghorn has stripped them of their worthy ancestry and the abilities that give the Jersey Giant breed its unique place in poultrydom.
As the National Jersey Giant Club says, “Them Giants Got Class!” Once you see and handle the real thing, you will say so too.
The National Jersey Giant Club can be reached at: Robert L. Vaughn, Secretary, National Jersey Giant Club, 28181 Chickadee Ln., Pequot Lakes, MN 56472; (218) 562-4067; rjvaughn [at] USLink.net; or visit their website.
Special thanks to Maria Hall, Maria’s Jersey Giants, Indiana; Tim Johnson, Johnson Jersey Giants, Ohio; and Robert L. Vaughn, Secretary, National Jersey Giant Club, Minnesota for the photos in this article. See the Breeders Directory for full contact information for these breeders.
Don Schrider is a nationally recognized poultry breeder and expert. He has written for publications such as Backyard Poultry, Countryside and Small Stock Journal, Mother Earth News, Poultry Press, and the newsletter and poultry resources of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. To visit the online poultry resources of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, visit: www.albc-usa.org/EducationalResources/chickens.html. Text © Don Schrider, 2011. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine and regularly vetted for accuracy.