Cornish Cross versus Heritage Chickens
There are a lot of misconceptions about Cornish Cross (or Cornish X) chickens. I’ve heard them called Frankenbirds and GMO chickens…they are neither. I guess a Frankenbird would be a chicken that has been sewn together from parts of different chickens…not a viable way to produce a chicken, quite ‘frankly.’ Genetically modified chickens would be chickens that have had their genetic material altered by adding genetic material from other organisms in a laboratory setting.
Cornish X are actually produced by hybridizing chickens, resulting in a bird that is the genetic offspring of several distinct breeds. The hatcheries that produce these chicks guard their secrets very closely so that hobby farmers, like me, aren’t able to copy them and come up with a home raised Cornish X. The breeds used in this hybridizing program include White Plymouth Rock and Dark Cornish, but that’s as far as I’m privy to the whole operation.
Why would anyone want to raise these ‘freaks of nature?’ Mainly because they grow fast and produce a nice sized, tender roasting bird in about 2 months. This means that the cost of raising these birds is lower and the result is a meaty bird…just what consumers want. Mainstream America is used to the meat of the Cornish X…it’s the only kind of chicken you can buy in the grocery store these days.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are heritage breeds. These are dual purpose chickens that lay a decent number of eggs and the extra roosters will grow out to a nice dressing size in about 6 months.
The problem with raising heritage breeds for meat is mainly the length of time needed to grow them out, and the cost of the feed they consume in the process. Some folks swear up and down that these chickens are more flavorful than the Cornish X, and others swear up and down that these heritage birds are tough and stringy. I think both camps have a point.
I’ve butchered many chickens, from the tender Cornish X to Black Broilers, from old stewing hens to young heritage roosters. I find it to be very true that the older a chicken is when you butcher it, the tougher and more flavorful the meat will be. I don’t necessarily find the flavor to be better. To me, it seems a bit more like dark meat…and I tend to like the flavor of white meat best.
Last fall I decided to order a batch of Black Broiler chicks rather than the Cornish X to butcher for the winter. I had a rather high mortality rate, even without a possum attack. I finally got tired of feeding the little blighters after 4 months and butchered them for the freezer. The largest weighed less than 3 pounds. The feathers were black, which made the dressed birds less appetizing. We don’t mind that much, but I’m sure many people would prefer not to have little black feathers left on their chickens.
The Black Broilers were probably a bit faster growing than some heritage breeds, but they paled in comparison to the Cornish X.
Raising Cornish X for Meat Production
This year I am going back to the Cornish X for my meat chickens. I can expect to have birds dressing out to around 5 or 6 pounds each at about 8 weeks of age. This will allow me to grow out 25 or so chickens and have them in the freezer before the weather heats up too much for the young birds.
There are some things that you need to keep in mind if you decide to raise the Cornish X.
- They need to have their food and water in easy reach. If they have a coop with access to pasture, be sure that they have food and water in the coop and outside in the pasture. If the sun is too hot on them, they will stay in the shade of their coop rather than go searching for water outside.
- Don’t give them roosting bars. Roosting on bars can cause a thick spot or blister to form on the breast of these birds.
- Be sure they have a shady place to rest. Their feathers won’t cover their skin and they are susceptible to sunburn.
- Follow the hatcheries instructions for feeding. These little feathered piggies may eat too much if they have unlimited access to food. Hatcheries will give instructions for taking their feed away in the evening to prevent overeating and heart attacks.
- Don’t ‘chicken out’ when it is time to butcher the birds. These chickens will not live long, productive lives if you keep them around as pets. The size of their bodies will outweigh their skeletal and cardiovascular systems’ ability to cope. I have heard of broken legs and heart attacks causing early death in Cornish X. I’ve never seen this happen in the ones I raised, but I don’t doubt that it could happen.
If you are a proponent of ‘slow food’ or heritage breeds, by all means, order some good old fashioned dual purpose breeds of chickens. I have found the Buff Orpington, Barred Rock, and Black Australorp to be fine birds for eating. Order straight run so you’ll have some laying hens too. Just be prepared to keep your roosters around for about 5 to 6 months if you want a decent sized chicken for dinner.
If you would prefer to raise a quick flock of meat birds in about 2 months and have a lot of tender breast meat, then Cornish X are probably your best bet. There is another hybrid available called ‘Freedom Rangers,’ but from the reading I’ve done, these hybrids are similar to Cornish X. They might be a bit slower growing and have brown feathers, so keep that in mind if you are thinking about trying them. I can’t speak from experience, since I haven’t tried raising the Freedom Rangers.
A More Humane Way to Do Chicken
Although some folks think that raising Cornish X chickens is not humane, I must say I don’t see it the same way. Raising your own chickens at home allows you the opportunity to raise them in clean conditions with access to pasture and fresh food. You have the ability to butcher any bird early if they are getting too heavy for their skeletal structure. I am happy to know where my chicken comes from and that it isn’t mistreated or doused in chemicals before it reaches my plate. How about you?
What is your favorite breed of meat chicken? Do you prefer the fast growing hybrids or the heritage breeds?
Update: Since I wrote this post, I have found out more about the inhumane conditions at many of the hatcheries that sell day old chicks. One of the reasons I wanted to raise my own chickens for meat and eggs was to bypass the inhumane conditions of factory farms. After much consideration, I have decided to hatch and raise my own dual purpose birds for the table instead of ordering meat chicks each year.
I also had one Cornish X pullet from the last batch that was a runt. She wasn’t large enough to butcher when the others went in the freezer, so I kept her around. At this point, she is one of my most productive laying hens. Go figure! Read more about her on my post Can You Keep Cornish X Chickens as Laying Hens?