Why some Vermont farmers love the Cornish Cross—and others don’t.
Written onMay 27 , 2015
Many people greet the arrival of spring by poring over seed catalogs and scanning for new varieties of vegetables, but I have a slightly different tradition. When March rolls around, I plan my broiler chickens for the year. Few things are easier and more rewarding (provided you have the right infrastructure) than raising a dozen backyard chickens for 8 to 12 weeks, then getting a freezer full of tasty, healthy meat.
The only pressing question is: Which breed to raise?
The first year I raised meat chickens, I chose the Cornish Cross broiler. Anyone who’s been to the grocery store knows the Cornish Cross, by taste if not by name. A hybrid animal developed by industrial agriculture from two highly specialized parent strains, the Cornish Cross has no peer in its ability to convert grain into meat rapidly, thereby maximizing profits for the farmers who raise them.
But the metabolism that allows this astronomical growth in such a short period of time can have a dark side. Sudden heart attacks and leg weakness among Cornish Cross birds are common; birds collapse, or simply spend their time sitting on the ground because they can’t get up. Thin feathering, which enables rapid plucking, leaves the birds more vulnerable in harsh weather. And their impractically large breasts—which consumers value—can sustain injury due to ground contact.
When I raised this breed, I noticed that instead of foraging a portion of their diet on the large field they occupied, my Cornish Crosses plopped themselves down near the grain dispenser waiting for food to arrive. I raised and ate these birds, but I didn’t respect or enjoy them.
I was not alone in my feelings. Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Georgia—one of the nation’s leading large-scale, pasture-based farms—has called the Cornish Cross “the most despicable creatures I’ve ever seen.” Animal welfare advocate Temple Grandin has called the Cornish Cross “genetically lame.” And several leading animal welfare organizations, including the ASPCA, are examining whether Cornish Cross broilers should even have a place in welfare-certification programs, as their compromised immune systems and altered metabolisms may make suffering and discomfort inevitable no matter what management system is used.
Disaffected with the Cornish Cross, I sought an alternative. I knew that hatcheries routinely dispose of unwanted male chicks born to egg-laying hens—and eventually I had little male Barred Rocks, pure Cornish, Delawares, and Jersey Black Giants scooting around the brooder. But I soon learned why more people don’t raise layer-breed males for meat: The birds ranged far and wide, farther and wider than I could deal with. Containing them and preventing predator losses with high fencing were big challenges and became a significant expense. They ate less grain, but it took an extra month and more grain overall to get them to a good weight, and even at their slaughter weight of 5 lbs. they were tall, bony, and rangey. The meat was boldly flavorful, but there was definitely less meat in proportion to the bone, and much more leg and thigh meat than breast meat. To add insult to injury, the Jersey Black Giants were mean!
I still was not satisfied. I was aware that over the past few years independent hatcheries had developed several meat breed hybrids, known by trademarks such as the Red Ranger, the Freedom Ranger, the Kosher King, and several others. These new meat birds are bred to outperform Cornish Crosses in health, vigor, and foraging ability, while growing more meat at a faster rate than layer-breed cockerels. I was intrigued—could these birds offer the sustainable, happy medium of health and strong growth in a pasture-based system?
I called on some Vermont farmers to share with me which breeds they raise, and why. I contacted about a dozen of them, and most replied with valuable information about their pastured broiler breeds and systems.
David Zuckerman and Rachel Nesbitt of Full Moon Farm in Hinesburg raise Cornish Cross broilers organically. Dave feels the strain they raise grows well on pasture, maintaining good health. Full Moon uses open-bottomed pens moved twice daily, and they provide grain. Dave says they would like to give alternative broiler breeds a try but feel the Cornish has proven profitable and manageable so far: “Our customers are looking for moist birds that are not complicated to cut. They are looking for easy cooking, and they are looking for organically fed birds so that they feel they are eating healthier for both themselves and the planet.”
At Maple Wind Farm in Huntington, the tremendous size of the flock and the need of farmers Bruce Hennessey and Beth Whiting to support their on-site slaughter facility with a high volume of birds makes feed efficiency a major consideration. John Smith, Maple Wind’s poultry manager, managed 8,000 Cornish Cross and Red Rangers in 2014 and plans for 15,000 birds in 2015. Like Full Moon Farm, Maple Wind pastures their birds in chicken tractors, which John feels allow Cornish birds to forage effectively. Comparing Cornish Crosses and alternative breeds, he notes, “The Cornish grow faster, are less hardy, are more efficient converters of grain to meat, and have more breast meat.”
In contrast to smaller farms, Maple Wind sells their birds primarily through wholesale outlets, with one-third of their birds being sold in parts, not as whole roasters. John notes that in the wholesale market, the larger breasts of the Cornish are necessary, and he does not believe that his customers are prepared to pay more to eat an alternative breed. Consumers demand breast meat, in his experience, and their demand increases the value of the breast relative to the thighs and legs.
John has raised alternative breeds at home, and believes that their stronger chicken flavor derives from the birds being a few weeks older and much more active. He further notes that the few extra weeks that alternative breeds require for growth incur extra grain costs, but more significantly, four weeks’ additional labor expense. John concluded, “My personal opinion is that the alternative breeds make a lot of sense at the homestead or very small commercial scale (they’re easier to raise) but if you’re wholesaling a lot or cutting birds up then I think Cornish are the way to go.”
Misty Knoll in New Haven, Vermont’s largest chicken producer, raises a breed of broilers that is very similar to the Cornish Cross; however, they do not pasture their chickens.
Other farmers have moved away from the Cornish Cross. Jennifer Megyesi of Fat Rooster Farm in South Royalton has entirely abandoned the Cornish Cross broiler due to a number of issues she found with the breed: “I am displeased with the taste of the meat, their lack of interest in foraging (and consequent lower concentration of omega-3 fatty acids because they only eat grain and not forage and insects), and their health concerns such as broiler ascites, breast blisters, leg problems, and chilling problems due to lack of feathering.”
Jennifer raises Barred Rock males from other historically dual-purpose layer breeds. She finds that the breasts are smaller, the legs and thighs are larger, and the meat is redder. Similar to my experience, Jennifer feels that the Barred Rocks pasture more effectively than her prior Cornish Crosses due to better health and mobility. She notes that the birds have more flavorful meat, but she finds herself educating customers about the visible black pinfeathers on the carcass and the leaner appearance of the bird. Jennifer acknowledges charging more to cover her higher feed and labor costs, as her birds take approximately four extra weeks to reach 4 to 5 lbs. dressed weight.
Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park, another farm that switched from the Cornish Cross to an alternative broiler breed, corroborates that alternative broiler breeds take approximately four extra weeks to achieve slaughter weight. While this extra time incurs additional grain costs, farmers John and Rocio Clark estimate that their birds forage up to 50 percent of their diets, compared to perhaps 15 percent for Cornish Cross broilers.
Green Mountain Girls Farm in Northfield is another farm that has raised Cornish Crosses and now raises alternative broilers. Laura Olsen sums up many of the issues mentioned by others: “Almost every time we have them I vow to never raise them again. They do okay on pasture, but require a lot more management. We can’t fully trust them to get out of the sun, to drink water, or to get out of the rain, so we have to spend time encouraging them to do what other chickens do on their own. Some will always park at the feeder and get too big, too fast. We’ve almost never had leg problems with Freedom Rangers, but always have some Cornish with that issue.”
Noting the tenacity of their Freedom Rangers, Laura mentioned observing one of the broilers catching a small snake and eating it! Although economics often govern farm activities, Laura values one important, intangible asset of the alternative broiler: “For me, I like raising animals that seem hardy and viable, and I don’t think the Cornish [fit that description].”
Several themes emerged as I reviewed farmers’ experiences. Generally, larger operations favor the Cornish Cross, whose predictable timing and ample breast meat fit well into wholesale systems. The reduced activity of the Cornish also permits the more compact, pen-based pasture management approaches that larger farms tend to favor. And pasturing the Cornish appears to reduce the likelihood of health problems.
For their part, smaller farms may find that the extra time required to pasture range-oriented birds is a better option than paying a larger grain bill for the Cornish. They also uniformly agree that their chickens necessarily cost more due to this increased length of time to maturity.
And farmers who have raised both kinds of broilers agree that alternative breeds forage more effectively and consume proportionally less purchased feed. They also agree that alternative breeds taste different—stronger, darker, and more richly flavorful than Cornish. Many farmers raising alternative breeds also claim that the meat is more nutritious.
As for me, I ordered 15 Red Rangers this year from my favorite hatcheries. I’m happy to care for them for a few extra weeks and to spend a little extra on food because I value an animal that hunts, pecks, and scratches over a wide-ranging area, as its instincts tell it to. I will have a backyard with chickens I can be proud of, instead of ones that I often find myself apologizing for.