Sunday Dinner Chicken:
Alternatives to the Cornish Cross
This article was first published in the Apr/May 2009 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine.
It was posted to the site February 10, 2010.
“The bird everybody loves to hate”
One option for putting on our tables chicken worth eating is simply to cull our flocks as needed. There are many advantages to this approach: If we are hatching our own stock or buying in straight-run chicks, such culling is something we have to do anyway. And eating “current account” chicken as we do successive culling throughout the flock year reduces the need for packaging (and production of plastic waste) and increasingly energy-expensive storage of dressed poultry in the freezer. Such a strategy opens up culinary experiences not available to those dependent on one-size-fits-all chicken from the supermarket. These varying taste adventures have everything to do with the age at which the culled bird is prepared for the table: really young chickens that dress out at almost the size of quail (the French call them poussin), incredibly tender and delicate in flavor; fryer/broiler size (what I call “spring chicken,” twelve to fourteen weeks old for traditional farm breeds) for sautéeing, broiling, or grilling; birds approaching maturity, four to ten months old, for braised dishes such as coq au vin; and old stew birds for incomparable broth.
But there are many flock owners who do choose to raise freezer-filling batches of “meat chickens.” For too long, the bird of choice for the backyarder has been the same as for the poultry giants: the Cornish Cross, an astoundingly fast-growing hybrid that has been the foundation of the broiler industry for several decades now. These birds can reach a dressed carcass weight of almost four pounds in as little as six weeks. But we never get something for nothing, do we? The development of the Cornish Cross has pushed muscle tissue growth to extremes, at the expense of balanced growth of all other systems—resulting in failed tendons and crippled legs, compromised immune systems, heart failure, and other problems. One would think the industry would seek a sturdier bird with a more natural growth curve, but their choice instead is to force still faster growth with antibiotics and even arsenic (that’s not a misprint). Indeed, preventing catastrophic collapse of 55,000-broiler flocks in filthy, high-stress conditions requires feeding antibiotics from day one to slaughter. Perhaps I’d be more inclined to excuse such abuse of one of God’s noble creatures if the result were the best-tasting chicken in the world; but everybody I know who compares them with more traditional chickens—even folks who raise them for a living—admit that the Cornish Cross is “flavor challenged” at the very best.
There are many backyard “flocksters”—and small producers for broiler markets—who find they can successfully grow the Cornish Cross without growth hormones and antibiotic feeds. I did so many times myself, in the early years of my backyard flock, typically with few losses. The key to success, however, is to substitute more intensive management input for the pharmacological voodoo of the industry. I found the limits of my own willingess to coddle such a compromised bird one year when a sharp, unseasonal temperature spike resulted in the loss of twenty-two Cornish Cross broilers, right at slaughter weight, in a matter of a couple of hours before I discovered their distress. They had sat on their butts in the shade of their pasture shelter, panting desperately, and died—rather than walk six feet for a drink of water outside the shelter. I have no doubt that with more intensive management I could have ensured against future such losses—by placing the waterer inside the shelter, or sprinkling the shelter’s top frequently to create evaporative cooling. (Yes, some growers actually do that.) My inclination instead was to turn 180 degrees to ponder a group of young New Hampshires, the same age as the Cornish Cross to the day, scooting about the pasture like little waterbugs, crossing their entire electronetted area when they needed a drink of water. My conclusion was that the problem was not so much the broiling sun, as my choice of breeds for putting chicken on the table. Since that day, I have never raised a batch of Cornish Cross.
A Better Alternative: The “Freedom Ranger” Tribe
I was not much surprised last year when the publication of two articles in the Feb/Mar 2008 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine (“Stepping Up to Production for a Small Broiler Market” and “Serving a Small Broiler Market: Three Examples”) was followed by a flurry of inquiries about the “Freedom Rangers” I had referred to as the preferred alternative to the Cornish Cross for a number of small market producers I had interviewed. Doubtless many backyard flocksters had despaired as well of working with “the bird everybody loves to hate,” and were looking for another option for filling the freezer. Both Elaine, BYP’s editor, and I (via my website), referred readers to the only source of Freedom Rangers we knew: an enterprising business run by a Canadian couple with hatchery associates in the US, Barbara and Brian Aaron (B & B Agriculture).
I was keen to try the Freedom Rangers myself. Despite the poultry cornucopia on our table listed above, Ellen and I missed the plump roasters we had produced with Cornish Cross, allowing them to grow a couple of extra weeks for even greater size. I had tried caponizing for producing roasting fowl (see below), but an easier option was unquestionably an alternative meat hybrid, if I could find one I could enjoy working with. I ordered a batch of thirty-six Freedom Ranger chicks from the Aarons (a dozen each of Bronze, Red, and Grey), which arrived pert and healthy, with no losses in transit. I passed them on to my next-door “chicken buddy” Mike Focazio, who cared for them in a makeshift brooder in a tool shed, without a single loss in four weeks. Then we each put eighteen of the feathered chicks out on pasture areas fenced with electric net fencing.
Both Mike and I fed our birds feeds free of antibiotics and growth hormones. In my case, I fed a mix I made myself, at seventeen percent protein. That’s low by any recommended standards, but the birds grew well all the same, supplementing what I offered with live, natural foods they eagerly foraged on their own. (I did get a boost in available protein by feeding earthworms from my vermicomposting operation.)
Since I raised my Freedom Rangers with the rest of my pastured flock, I cannot give feed conversion figures. Their active foraging had to have made a dollar-saving difference, however, in comparison with Cornish Cross I had raised in the past. (The Cornish Cross is known as an exceptionally “lazy” forager. And a stupid one as well: Mike told me he once saw one of his growing Cornish Cross broilers pick up an earthworm out of curiosity—and then spit it out!)
Though many producers prefer a white-feathered broiler like the Cornish Cross (since colored pinfeathers tend to mark the dressed carcass), I found that these birds plucked easily and dressed out very clean. (Reports from American Pastured Poultry Producers Association members confirm this observation.) They dressed out at four to five pounds when slaughtered at twelve weeks. Not as impressive as typical performance for Cornish Cross, but the flavor was incomparably better. (I received a report from one APPPA associate of dressed weights for these birds of seven to eight pounds for cockerels, five to six for pullets. The feeding ration was twenty percent protein, with slaughter at about twelve weeks.)
Unfortunately, shortly after I raised my experimental batch of Freedom Rangers, the Aarons abruptly went out of business. Wondering if any other hatchery was continuing to offer the Freedom Ranger, I called my friend Matthew Szechenyi (featured in “Serving a Small Broiler Market: Three Examples”)), who last year had switched to Freedom Rangers exclusively. Matt told me that initially he ordered chicks from an Amish farmer in Wisconsin who had been hatching for the Aarons—and who in desperation started shipping thousands of chicks to former customers of the Aarons himself, in order to avoid losing his investment in brooding facilities and breeder stock.
Matt has since been getting all his chick stock from J. M. Hatchery in New Holland, Pennsylvania; and has been most pleased with both the chicks and the service he gets from JMH. When I checked the JMH site, I saw no mention of Freedom Rangers, only chicks for “Colored Range” broilers, whose pictures looked identical to the Bronze, Red, and Grey Freedom Rangers I enjoyed growing on my pasture last year.
I recently called Joel Martin (thus “J. M.” Hatchery) to find out more about his “Colored Range” birds, and their relationship to the Freedom Ranger. As it turns out—they are one and the same. Joel explained that “Freedom Ranger” was simply a catchy name, a savvy marketing ploy, on the part of the Aarons. In reality, the stock they offered were a set of proprietary hybrid broilers developed by Hubbard, a French corporation that provides breeder stock for producers of broiler chicks world-wide. Though Hubbard has long offered several strains of Cornish Cross for the broiler industry, they developed a number of slower growing, colored genetic strains as well, under a variety of names: Redbro, Redpac, Color Yield, etc. Many of these hybrids were bred specifically for the rigorous production standards of the Label Rouge system in France, organized to guarantee high quality, humane husbandry and slaughter, sustainability, and environmental responsibility, all within pastured and free-ranging production models. The good news for readers who have been trying to find a source of Freedom Rangers is that there are a growing number of hatcheries in this country selling broiler chicks bred to the Label Rouge model. Such broiler strains are more likely to fit into homestead production models than the unhappy Cornish Cross. (See sidebar below.)
Addendum February 2010: At the time the above was written, Joel Martin was not calling his Label Rouge broiler strains “Freedom Rangers,” since that name had been copyrighted by the Aarons. Apparently he has since come to an arrangement about the name with them—J. M. Hatchery's colored Label Rouge chicks are now sold as “Freedom Rangers.”
Other Homestead Alternatives
Whatever your needs for table poultry, you are not stuck with the high-input, flavor-challenged Cornish Cross. Indeed, if you are growing only for your own table, and not constrained by the “bottom line” considerations of small producers for broiler markets (some of whom feel they have no choice but to grow Cornish Cross)—you have all the options. If you want to make your “meat bird” a traditional farm breed—skinny and narrow-breasted in contrast to the market standard, but tasting better than any chicken around—you might experiment with breeds used to grow broilers before the “Cornish Cross revolution”: White and Barred Rock, Delaware, New Hampshire, Wyandotte, and others. By judicious selection of breeders, you might find you can get increases in weight gain and rate of growth in less time than you thought. Don Schrider managed an American Livestock Breeds Conservancy breeding project with the endangered Buckeye. Careful breeder selection over a mere three generations achieved a reduction of grow-out to slaughter age from nineteen or twenty weeks, down to sixteen, with an average increase of one pound live weight in the process. (And the increase in performance as a meat bird did not reduce levels of egg production in this traditional dual-purpose breed.) (Get downloads from ALBC on selective chicken breeding.)
Will Morrow of Whitmore Farm in Emmitsburg, Maryland, has been trying to restore Delawares as utilitarian meat fowl, a role they served before the “Cornish Cross revolution”—using the work of Don Schrider and ALBC as a template. Will has found as well that three years of selective breeding has resulted in significant gains in rate of growth and slaughter weight at twelve weeks (without sacrificing performance of his Delaware hens as layers).
Matt John of Shady Lane Poultry Farm believes that the four traditional breeds with the most potential for selective improvement as meat birds are the true, original strains of Naked Neck, New Hampshire, Plymouth Rock (either White or Barred), and Delaware.
How about breeding our own hybrid meat strains? Joel Martin was emphatic that such a breeding project is not a task for amateurs, and requires a lot of detailed knowledge of genetics and financial resources. But he was talking about the development of stock that is absolutely and reliably uniform, for commercial flocks. For backyard flocksters, a more laid back “let’s see what happens” approach would be in order. How many hobbies are both fun—and allow you to eat your results, however successful, or not?
Years ago, a young farmer friend of mine, Tim Shell, developed his “Corndel”—a broiler strain with reliably consistent performance and conformation in pastured production systems—starting with Delaware cocks (which I helped him locate) crossed onto hens of one of Hubbard’s Cornish Cross strains. (Tim subsequently moved to China with his family as missionaries. I have been unable to ascertain whether the breeders who took over his work with the Corndel are offering them commercially.)
If you are inclined to experiment, that approach—traditional breed cocks crossed onto existing broiler hybrids—might be fruitful. Or you might start with the original slow-growing but stocky, broad breasted Dark Cornish, crossed with faster-growing breeds. That was, after all, the “recipe” for developing the Cornish Cross: Dark Cornish X White Rock. Selection for superior performance in a pastured model, not just for faster growth and meatier carcass, could yield a better meat bird that does not make the compromises in health and foraging skills seen in the Cornish Cross.
Finally, for producing Sunday-dinner roasters, truly brave souls might want to start with excess cockerels of sturdier traditional breeds and caponize them—that is, surgically castrate them. Like steers (castrated bull calves), male chickens with no testosterone in the system grow larger, plumper, and faster—and remain tender and juicy even at ages of a year or more, when their intact brothers are likely to be tough as an old shoe.