There are a lot of contentious issues in the food/agriculture world: GMO vs. Non-GMO, Organic vs. Conventional, Grass-fed/finished vs. Grain Finished, and on and on and on. Perhaps the most misunderstood of these issues, however, is the Cornish Cross chicken. If you’ve ever watched any food or agricultural documentary or read any books on the subject, you have most certainly seen a Cornish Cross meat chicken. Many documentaries and bloggers in the sustainable food movement paint a pretty nasty picture of these so-called “Frankenchickens”. You’ll hear that they’re genetically modified or that they are pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics and they aren’t a good, natural meat source for chicken. A lot of people see these poor birds crammed into factory confinement and assume that that bird is bad and anybody raising the bird is bad. And unfortunately we live in a world with quick access to all kinds of misinformation that can cause us to make rash judgments without drilling any deeper than surface-level. I’m not going to try to convince you that the Cornish Cross is the best meat chicken, but I’d like to provide you with a little bit of information about them and talk a little bit about why we are trialing them on our farm.
Cornish Cross chickens are not genetically modified, laboratory-created birds. There are multiple strains of Cornish Cross chicken from various hatcheries, but they are all the result of rigorous cross-breeding to create a desired set of genetics that produces a fast-growing, double-breasted chicken. My understanding is that these birds are simply an F2 hybrid. I’m sure you all feverishly study Mendel’s peas and play with Punnett squares in your free time, but if not, I’ll try to give the simplest explanation I can of how the F2 hybrid comes about. If you take two different breeds of purebred chicken and mate them together, the resultant offspring is an F1 hybrid. Now, if you take an F1 hybrid and cross it with a different F1 hybrid, you will end up with an F2 hybrid offspring. Now, geneticists have been working to perfect their strains of chickens for a long time, so let’s not pretend it’s that simple, but for our purposes it should do. So, as you can see, the only genetic modification comes in the form of cross-breeding.
I’ve seen people comment online that Cornish Cross chickens are injected with growth hormones. I guess here we just have to trust that the USDA is doing its job because the use of growth hormones in the poultry industry is illegal and has been for decades. Now, the use of prophylactic antibiotic use in commercially raised chickens (and other livestock) is an issue. If you have seen a commercial chicken house, it’s easy to see why they would need to employ antibiotics to keep the chickens alive for the 5 weeks or so it takes them to get a chicken to market weight. Disclaimer: I’m not fully against antibiotic use; if an animal becomes sick and needs treatment, it has a place. I do not agree with prophylactic antibiotic use because it stems from issues that could be remedied with better management practices. I personally use antibiotics when I have bacterial infections that warrant antibiotics as appropriate treatment. There are a lot of complexities in this issue, but simply put, I think there are appropriate uses for antibiotics in agriculture. Unfortunately, I think there has been a lot of misuse that has led to a lot of problems and has allowed farmers to prop up their animals instead of really creating an environment for them to thrive. Sorry for the tangent. We have never needed to use antibiotics and probably won’t need them in our poultry operation, so perhaps this is a moot point. There is a laundry list of other issues with commercial poultry production, but in my opinion, the bird of choice is not one.
Okay, let’s cover some of the reasons that we think the Cornish Cross is going to be a good fit for our farm. When we first started raising chickens I was 100% against using Cornish Cross birds for meat and didn’t even really want hybrid egg-laying strains. I wanted heritage breed dual-purpose chickens in the pasture and heirloom vegetables in the garden. I still like the heritage breed chickens and we still use them (along with crossbred mutts from our heritage birds) in our laying flock and will continue to do so into the future. They don’t perform as well as production hybrid layers, but they have a much meatier carcass and tend to produce eggs over a longer span. Essentially we won’t have to turn over our laying flock as frequently and when we do we will have bigger stew hens that will make out-of-this-world stock and meat for soups and pot pies and such. Since the first batch of chickens we started we have culled most of the roosters for our freezer. We have found that our heritage birds reach a processed weight of 3-4 pounds by about 16 weeks of age. We will be sending our Cornish Cross birds to the processor on May 7th and hope to have birds averaging in the 4-4.5 pound range at 8 weeks of age. There is not another chicken that can convert feed as efficiently as that. So, being able to cut our labor time in half to get marketable birds was a big influencer.
Speaking of being marketable, that perhaps should be viewed as the key to all of this. I came into chicken production with personal ideals that said we should only be raising heritage breed chickens. Well, ideals are great in theory, but we also have to live in the real world. I had never even eaten a heritage chicken before we started raising them and while it’s true, they have a richer flavor because they age longer, I actually prefer the meat of pasture-raised Cornish Cross. The heritage birds have a toothier meat that has a lot more dark meat and a very small razor breast. We’ll show you a picture of the difference between a Cornish and heritage bird when we get ours back from the processor. The Cornish on the other hand has a very large, double-breast with lighter meat and a softer texture. Now, confinement chicken tends to be overly soft and not very flavorful, but pastured birds are able to add some texture and flavor since they grow out a bit longer than commercial birds. The difference in the two may not be as significant as the difference between commercial pork and pastured or forest-raised pork, but it’s noticeable nonetheless. All that is to say that even though I didn’t want to raise a bird that I could not breed on my own farm (for sustainability purposes), I had to admit to myself that I prefer the meat of the Cornish Cross and it’s going to have a familiarity for customers. People already don’t place a premium on chicken compared to other meats, so it’s just not reasonable to expect that we could find a market for a product that would have to be at a higher price point (higher chick cost, processing cost, feed cost, and labor cost) and not really have the taste and texture people associate with chicken in modern days. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t do us any good to raise idealistic food that consumers won’t or can’t buy. Pastured poultry is already at a price premium over factory-raised chicken and ours will likely be even a little more expensive than others in our area just because we are using organic feed instead of just non-gmo feed like most pastured poultry producers use. Again, our ideals and values come into play with our feed choice. We realize the cost of organic feed over conventional and non-gmo feed is significant, but we also think that it’s worthwhile. We think there is a market for organic-fed, pastured poultry, but if the market won’t bear it, we will have to reconsider our feed choice.
Beyond the market for pastured chicken, we had to consider the labor required for raising the chickens. If you are familiar with typical pastured-poultry set ups, you’ll know that they usually consist of moveable coops called “chicken tractors”. These “tractors” are bottomless coops that get moved forward to new pasture every day to allow the chickens to be protected from predators while still allowing them to forage on grass, clover, bugs, mice, snakes, and anything else that ends up in front of the chickens on a given day. Our birds will spend about 5 weeks out on pasture after a 3 week brooder stay, so that means that we will have to move their tractors every day for 35 days straight (for one batch). It may not seem like a big deal, but that also means hauling water and feed farther down the field every day and the tractors are just heavy anyway. If we wanted to raise heritage birds the same way we would have to do this daily move for about 12 weeks. That’s a significant increase in labor. Some of you may be wondering why we don’t consider one of the other hybrid meat chickens that grows a little slower than a Cornish, but faster than a heritage bird, like a Red Ranger or something similar. I personally don’t really see the value in those birds for our purposes. They’re still a hybrid designed for pretty rapid growth. The carcasses don’t get as big nor do they look like a typical carcass that consumers are used to dealing with. Maybe someday we will try them, but I don’t see enough benefits from them to make me want to pursue them at this point. The added labor, additional processing fee, longer time on farm, and the fact that I still can’t breed them on-farm really is a non-starter in even considering them for our farming context. As we plan for future expansion of our pastured poultry operation we really have to try to figure out efficiencies and if we can condense our labor time significantly just by choosing the appropriate chicken breed it will allow us to focus that time we don’t have to spend dealing with chickens on other aspects of the farm.
Another attractive reason for using Cornish Cross birds is that the initial cost of the chicks and the processing fees at our processor are less. If we were to use another chicken in our program, we would either have to eat roughly $2 per bird in lost revenue or raise the price of what would already be a higher priced bird (due to additional labor cost) to cover the additional cost. If we had no intention of selling chicken, this conversation would likely be different, but we have to take these things into consideration as we try to make a sustainable business out of the farm. You can’t have sustainable farms if the farms can’t sustain themselves.
While we would love to be able to hatch and raise meat birds on our farm at a scale that would be economically viable, we don’t see a market that would support it at this point. It has taken me several years to get to the point that I’m actually willing to try Cornish Cross birds for our meat production, but I can honestly say that I’m really excited with the results we’re seeing in the brooder phase of production. If we can successfully get this first batch to the processor I think we are going to have the best chicken available in our area given the environment and quality feed we are providing for them. If you’ve never had pastured poultry, I would urge you to find a farmer in your area that is doing it and see the difference for yourself. Most pastured poultry producers are using Cornish Cross birds, so you will be able to see and taste how something as simple as animal treatment and management practices can create a vastly superior product. As a bonus you will also be directly benefitting your local economy and not buying a product rooted in the corporate exploitation currently bolstering the factory poultry industry.