The Great Chicken Debate – Cornish Rock Crosses vs. Heritage Breeds

Monday, April 1, 2013

Today’s grocery store chickens are hybridized to be exactly the same as all the other grocery store chickens. They are bred to grow the same, finish out the same and be similar in weight. This fast-growing breed is called a Cornish Rock Cross. Typically, they range in age from 4-weeks, for a Cornish Game Hen, to 8 to 10 weeks for a full grown roaster. The chickens are the same; only their name has been changed, taking labels given to chickens from days gone by.

So, if you’re thinking that a Cornish Game hen is not a Cornish Game hen at all, but rather a baby Cornish Rock Cross, you’d be right. Cornish Game hens are not raised commercially any longer because they take too long to grow to a marketable weight.

Modern grocery store chickens also have white feathers and were developed in the 1980’s to gain weight fast on a limited amount of feed. It is true that some birds grow so fast that they sometimes have heart attacks or break down in their legs before ever reaching a butcherable weight. But, I think that is a factor in commercially raised birds more than homestead or small farm raised birds. Some growers even limit the feeding schedule to slow down the birds’ growth.

And, what about those white feathers? Well—the average consumer wants a pretty carcass to make a pretty roasted chicken to put on her family’s dinner table. Non-white feathered chickens can have black spots in the skin where the pin feathers broke off during plucking. This happens to white chickens too; only the consumer can’t see them because they are white.

Heritage chickens on the other hand are breeds that were historically raised on farms before the commercial breed was developed. There are many different breeds of heritage chickens that come in many different sizes. Traditionally, breeds were chosen for their ability to thrive in the area of the country you lived in. White chickens were not popular because they stood out to predators, while natural colored birds would blend in to their surroundings. The comb size and heartiness of the chicken was also taken into consideration when selecting a breed. Chickens with flat combs were favored by people in the north because their combs wouldn’t freeze and break off, while breeds that did well in warmer climates were favored in the southern states and in the west.

Breeds that made the best layers were not traditionally used for meat production because their carcasses were scrawny. Conversely, chickens that made good meat birds were not used as layers because of their terrible egg production. The most popular chickens were those that were considered “dual-purpose”—breeds that could provide a good egg production as well as a good Sunday dinner.

In days of old, chicken production went something like this…a rooster would breed a hen, who would in turn lay a clutch of eggs. The hen would set the eggs until they hatched, producing 6 to 8 live chicks. Assuming predators didn’t snatch a few chicks they would grow up. As the chickens grew some would show themselves as roosters, who would then be butchered. A few roosters might be kept longer, until they reached roasting size. But, the outcome of the rooster was mostly the same—slaughter to oven to table.

Hens on the other hand were kept as replacement layers for those past their prime in egg production; at which point they too would be butchered and used for stocks and stews or chicken and dumplings. I bet if you ask your grandma or your great grandma she will swear that “old chickens” make the best broth. “Old chickens” were also cooked slowly over a low heat, and then the meat was pulled off the bone to make casseroles and salads.

So, what’s the debate?

It’s still the same.

Are heritage breeds or commercial breeds better?

My answer… it all depends on your goal.

As a small homesteader trying to manage my resources on a limited amount of ground, I prefer the Cornish Rock Cross. Mainly because I can grow 25 chicks to 2 to 3 pounds with one 50 pound bag of feed in just a few weeks. If I want a 6 to 8 pound roasting size bird it may take me 2 to 3 bags of feed and a few more weeks.

A heritage breed will take much longer and eat a lot more feed to reach the same weight. Skin color, black spots where pin feathers use to be, and carcass have very little to do with it, at least for me. I want to be able to raise a year’s worth of meat in as reasonable amount of time as possible because my growing spaces have to be used for other animals.

It’s as simple as that.

Although my birds are not pasture raised they do have the run of the barn and outside pen area, giving them lots of light and fresh air. In all the years we’ve raised meat chickens, only one has died; a pretty good outcome I think.
As for meat quality…every bird we have raised on our farm has been plump, juicy and full of flavor, especially when cooked with our favorite white wine and garlic recipe. The same can’t be said for a grocery store chicken.
For me the bottom line is…raising good quality, healthy meat that is free from chemical additives or growth hormones and processed in a humane manner. So, the breed becomes a matter of choice, not a matter of quality.

Oh, and those old girls who are past their prime…they spend a few days on the crockpot before becoming the base for chicken soup and chicken and noodles. Grandma would be proud.

Creative Commons License photo credit: UGArdener

3 Responses to “The Great Chicken Debate – Cornish Rock Crosses vs. Heritage Breeds”

  1. AmyE says:

    I just can’t bring myself to raise the Cornish X. Too many of my friends do, and it’s grotesque. They are TOO fat, legs broken, etc. We raised Freedom Rangers this time, and I am happy with those. I will try the suggestion of butchering earlier for the smaller game hen size. Good article, I appreciate the information.

  2. Author says:

    Hi AmyE,

    I don’t totally disagree with you, but I have a small (1/3-acre) homestead and the 10 to 12 weeks it takes Freedom Rangers to reach butcherable weight cuts into the time and space I need to raise other meat animals.

    In the years I have been raising the CornishX I have never had any break their legs or drop dead. I’ve only lost one and that was due to an injury he inflicted on himself. Meat birds are not bright:)

    Maybe some day I’ll have more land with the chance to raise heritage breeds. For now, just having homegrown meat without the worry of eColi and all that other junk is a blessing.

  3. jenn says:

    I don’t have Twitter. I’m not a master at social networking.

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