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The Cornish Cross:
What is wrong with this picture?!

The Cornish Cross is the most commonly used meat hybrid. Not only is it the foundation of the broiler industry—most pastured poultry producers also base their broiler operations on this “generic chicken” hybrid.

I wrote this article years ago (January, 2001) for “Grit!”, the newsletter of American Pastured Poultry Producers Association. (It was recently included in APPPA’S compilation Raising Poultry on Pasture: Ten Years of Success, along with a “producer profile” of yours truly as “The Chicken Man of Hume”.)

Since then, I have stopped raising the Cornish Cross or fast-growing meat hybrids altogether. Our poultry for the table comes from successive culling of our flocks throughout the growing season. I have also experimented a little with caponizing as an alternative to the hybrids.

But many homesteaders and would-be small producers are interested in an option for a meat chicken without the flaws of the Cornish Cross. I hope to have more information in the future. In the meantime, try online searches for “Freedom Rangers,” “Label Rouge,” and “Corndel.”

I stopped raising Cornish Cross chickens for several years because of their many weaknesses and flaws, known only too well by anyone who has worked with them. I returned to raising “barnyard chickens”—the old standard dual-purpose breeds—to put broilers on the table and give to family and friends. But my wife and I missed those plump roasters you can produce with the Cornish Cross but not, in my experience, with the standard breeds (without caponizing, at any rate), which are simply too tough at a dressed weight of 5 to 7 pounds. So last year, when I learned that Tim Shell was producing Cornish Cross chicks from parent stock on pasture, I decided to try again. When I called Tim, he confirmed that he and others who have been using his chicks have found them to be hardier and more robust than the ever-deteriorating equivalents from the large commercial hatcheries. I ordered a batch of 60.

All was well through the brooder phase—just a single loss—most impressive in comparison with past batches of Cornish Cross. I moved them onto pasture at about four weeks, in a netted area along the lines of Andy Lee’s “day ranging model.” They showed the usual Cornish lethargy about foraging; but weight gain was as always impressive, especially in comparison with a group of standard chicks (New Hampshire Reds) hatched by natural mothers in my main flock.

Then in June we had a spike of hot, humid weather. When I went out one afternoon to check on the birds, I found a number of Cornish—now right at broiler stage—either dead or seriously distressed with heat exhaustion. (I lost 22 of them over the next day or so.) Despite the fact they had been on that pasture more than two weeks, drinking from a float-operated waterer right outside their shade shelter, they sat on their butts inside the shelter and died rather than walk ten feet for a drink of water!

I turned 180 degrees from the sight of scattered bodies and looked at my young standard chickens—the same age to the day— in a separate netted pasture. They were bright and active, scooting about in the hot afternoon like water bugs. Whenever they felt the need for a drink, they would cross the entire area to the waterer.

Turning back to the appalling sight of dead and dying birds, my shocked mind wailed: “What is wrong with this picture?!”

We in the pastured poultry movement have turned our rhetorical guns on the Tyson’s and the Frank Perdue’s of the broiler industry. We have blasted the waste, the pollution, the lack of sustainability, the inhumanity, and the contamination of both our groundwater and our food supply that flow from a debased production system. Striving for a model which both protects natural and agricultural resources and offers our customers poultry fit to eat, we have rejected all that—all, that is, except the very heart of the industry’s flawed system: the Cornish Cross chicken.

The Cornish Cross’s greatest virtue is also its greatest vice: its phenomenal rate of growth. That growth is constantly outstripping all its bodily systems—its internal organs and nervous system as well as its skeletal structure. The inevitable results include not only the well-known leg problems and tendency to heart failure—the digestive system clearly lags behind as well. Look at the droppings: They always contain a fair amount of undigested feed—indeed, sometimes look like nothing more than a wet feed mash. Whatever the statistics about conversion of feed to flesh seem to imply, clearly there is a great deal of waste and inefficiency here. A standard chicken’s droppings, in contrast, are usually firm, gray or greenish with a white coating, and show no trace of undigested feed.

The Cornish Cross—like the huge supermarket strawberry whose growth has been forced by over-fertilization and irrigation—is lower in flavor than a bird that has had a more natural growth curve. Of course, to folks whose only experience of chicken has been the supermarket version—or worse yet, Mega McNuggets—pastured poultry has been a revelation: “Man, chicken was never like this!” But I would be happy to put one of my “barnyard chickens” (slaughtered at about 12 weeks) up against any pastured Cornish broiler in the land in a taste test: They unquestionably have more flavor. And, if flavor is a measure of nutritional value—as I believe in a natural, unprocessed food it is—then again we should be asking, “What is wrong with this picture?”

I may be accused of waxing “mystical” here: But I believe that when we eat another living thing, plant or animal, we are eating not only its physical nutrients but its vitality as well. We have quite rightly condemned the broiler industry for producing chickens all of whom are sick, propped up by antibiotics, growth hormones, and other industrial voodoo. And yet we continue to offer the same bird—raised without those contaminants and in a far more sanitary manner, to be sure—but weak and low in vitality, propped up by high management inputs.

Let me emphasize as strongly as I can: These observations are not intended as a criticism of all those good folks who are working so hard to make pastured poultry a viable alternative. I know that the market has come to expect and demand that broad, plump Cornish breast. I know that the economic pressures on pastured growers are fierce; and that most feel they must have that seven or eight week grow-out in order to stay in business. However, I believe that the pastured poultry movement has matured to the point that we should be setting as a goal the production of an even better product. We should start by finding a viable alternative to the Cornish Cross.

In the long run, of course, the solution is to breed a better bird. And since no corporate or governmental agency is doing any breeding research relevant to pastured poultry needs, we are going to have to do that job ourselves. We should all start learning about the genetics of breeding. Some of us can contribute by making experimental crosses of our own; or working with one of the standard breeds that were the foundation of the broiler industry before the Cornish Cross, selecting for traits that will maximize both vitality and production on pasture. Perhaps APPPA could put together a working group and/or sponsor a conference to explore options in breeding a better pastured bird.

Recently I talked again with Tim Shell, who likewise is frustrated with the weaknesses of the Cornish. Excited about the prospects for “line breeding,” he has begun crossing cocks from one of the former broiler breeds [Delaware] onto hens of one of the Cornish Cross strains; and plans to continue crossing and selecting until he has a bird more suited to pastured production. He believes that careful selection through 10 to 14 generations will develop a genetically consistent chicken adapted to our model. [Note: In developing his “Corndel” cross, Tim actually found that he was able to get a stable pastured hybrid in about four years.]

Such a bird would:

Tim’s goal is to produce such a bird with an ideal grow-out of about nine and a half weeks. The costs of the increased “turn-around” would be offset by lower mortality, lower labor input, and reduced feed costs. Note that the latter two factors assume a model more along the lines of Andy Lee’s “day-ranging model” than the now-classic Polyface mobile pens, developed before the availability of electric net fencing in this country. I agree with Andy that the future of pastured production lies more with net fencing than with the pens in any case, given the lower initial materials and equipment costs and the reduced labor. But netting is essential if we develop a less lethargic, more active bird, which will need more space to range and forage a greater percentage of its feed.

The expanded foraging range may be the key factor in the sustainable production of an improved broiler. I regret that, due to the mixed nature of my own flock, I cannot give accurate feed-conversion comparisons. Years of experience has convinced me, however, that—when standard chickens have a large enough pastured area in which to roam—their per-pound slaughter weight has a lower feed cost than the Cornish, even with the longer grow-out factored in.

In the short term, there are a couple of things that might be useful to try. I urge producers who have been working exclusively with Cornish Cross to raise a few of the standard breeds for broilers as well. (The White and Barred Rock, Delaware, New Hampshire, Wyandottes and others, as well as crosses among them, have at various times been important in broiler production.) See if you don’t agree that these birds “work with you” in a way which is encouraging, in contrast to the fragility of the Cornish. Put some on your own table and see if you too find the flavor superior. Provide some to your more long-term and/or discriminating customers and ask whether they prefer the flavor. Certainly there is now a large enough universe of “pastured poultry palates” to ensure that there are many with the discrimination to recognize poultry that is even better.

For a larger fowl suitable for roasting, I would like to see poultry folks reviving the almost-lost art of caponizing. Capons of some of the standard breeds could give us roasting fowls even larger than a Cornish roaster. (I have begun caponizing some of my young cockerels, and will report on my results later.)

We must of course keep Andy Lee’s warning in mind: That the wing-walker makes sure of the new hand-hold before letting go the old! Certainly those who have worked so hard putting into place a model which works for them should not abandon any element of the system—including its foundation, the Cornish Cross—without due care, experiment, and thought. In the long run, however, we must adopt the goal of producing a better bird. Let Perdue and Tyson have the Cornish Cross—we can do much better than that!