Raising Meat Birds

I read and research a lot, both online and via magazines like Mother Earth News.  I also listen to podcasts related to farming and homesteading.  Time and again, when someone refers to raising meat chickens, it turns out they are raising Cornish Cross. So, I thought it might be worth talking about an alternative to the traditional Cornish Cross meat bird.

First, what is a Cornish Cross?  Well, technically it is a hybrid bird, created by crossing a Cornish with a White Rock.  In reality, I know of several people who have tried to recreate the Cornish Cross using these two “ingredients” and the chicks that resulted did not grow nearly as big or fast as the chicks sold in the feed store.  So I have my suspicions that the hatcheries have their own secret “recipe” – a closely guarded secret – to creating the fast-growing meat bird labeled only as “Cornish Cross”.

Regardless of how it is created, a Cornish Cross is “engineered” to grow to eating size in only 6-8 weeks.  That’s right!  From hatch to butcher in under two months.  This is all wrong in my book.  In order to achieve that kind of growth, something has to give and in this case it is quality.  Quality of life for the bird.  Quality of the final result: the meat.  Cornish Cross chicks have little desire to do anything but eat.  Towards the end of their lives they sit in front of a feeder and eat almost non-stop.  Their growth rate is too fast for organs to keep pace so if not butchered by 8 weeks of age, it is highly likely their heart will give out.  But worse, their legs cannot grow strong enough, quickly enough to support their weight, so they cannot walk far, and frequently one or both legs are broken by the time they are butcher age from the stress of trying.

Chicken meat sold in grocery stores – even that sold in health food stores and at farmer’s markets labeled “free-range” – is almost exclusively Cornish Cross.  Regardless of the labeling there is nothing healthy, humane or wholesome about a Cornish Cross.  It doesn’t matter that they have access to free-range if their legs and hearts can’t support their actually doing it!

On our homestead our primary goal is to produce food that is better than food we can buy.  Our feeling about raising Cornish Cross is that if we sit a bunch of chicks around a feeder all day – how is that any better than food we could buy?  We decided there has to be another way, and it turns out, there is.

Several years ago I traveled across our state to acquire my starter flock of heritage Barred Rock and New Hampshire Reds.  Most people are familiar with these breeds and don’t think highly of them.  That is because all they’ve known are hatchery birds of these names.  The lines I acquired can be traced back over 100 years and bear little resemblance to their hatchery counterparts.  Hatchery barred rocks are scrawny, with irregular barring and they are bossy and unfriendly, both to the other birds in the coop and to people.  By comparison, my barred rocks are huge and meaty.  Their barring is known as “zebra barring” because it is tight and well-spaced.  And in the coop they are quiet, docile and non-aggressive.

A barred rock hen (front) with a cockerel behind her.  The cockerel still has a lot of growing and filling out to do as he is only 5 months old in this picture.

A barred rock hen (front) with a cockerel behind her. The cockerel still has a lot of growing and filling out to do as he is only 5 months old in this picture.

My New Hampshire Reds are similarly striking.

New Hampshire Red rooster.  The vivid orange color is a beautiful contrast to the zebra stripes of the Barred Rocks.

New Hampshire Red rooster. The vivid orange color is a beautiful contrast to the zebra stripes of the Barred Rocks.

Both Barred Rocks and New Hampshire Reds were developed as “dual purpose” birds.  In other words they can be kept to provide either eggs or meat.  No, they don’t grow to eating size in 8 weeks like a Cornish Cross.  But they do grow to eating size in about 16-18 weeks.  So, what I do whenever a batch hatches, is to make a notation on my calendar when they are 16 weeks of age.  Then my calendar sends me a reminder that it is time to butcher and that way I don’t risk raising them too long.  I’ve found that age to give me optimum meat to feed ratio.  Yes, they will grow bigger if raised for longer, but the amount of feed it takes to add on every pound after this age isn’t worth it.

So – my meat birds get to live for twice as long as their Cornish Cross cousins.  And their lives are ever so much more worth living.  They start their lives with a mother who protects them, teaches them how to forage and keeps them warm under her at night.  Almost from hatch they free-range and get to eat lots of greens and bugs.  As discussed in previous posts, this makes for healthier, happier birds but I believe it makes for healthier meat as well.

Which brings me to the meat.  Is it tougher or stronger in flavor than Cornish Cross?  That is hard for me to judge as I have not eaten commercial chicken in so many years, but I can attest that the chicken meat we produce here is very tender and tasty.

So for anyone who has previously raised Cornish Cross and sworn they’d never do it again due to the smell, or for anyone wanting to raise healthier meat than they can buy, there IS a viable alternative.

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