There is a lot of debate in the land of “raise your own chickens” over which breed of chicken is best. It seems to generally come to down a Cornish Cross type of ultra fast growing breed, or a “ranger” line (Freedom, Red, Black, I’m sure there are more) that grows slightly slower but still fast enough and meaty enough to be considered a “broiler” chicken.
Cornish Cross chickens have the meaty chicken breasts we all know and love, but they’re hybridized (through normal breeding, not genetic modification) to grow very quickly. Sometimes they can grow so quickly that their legs physically cannot support their body weight, or they have health issues because their circulatory system just can’t keep up. The upside to their quick growth is a savings in feed costs- they turn the food they eat into meat, and they do it fast. They can reach slaughter weight in six to eight weeks.
Freedom Rangers, on the other hand, grow slightly slower than Cornish Cross and thus don’t experience the health problems. They still grow to slaughter weight in a very reasonable amount of time (11 weeks-ish), but are more hardy and are known to be better foragers.
Since we’ve now raised, slaughtered, and eaten a batch of each, I wanted to weigh in on this discussion with our personal experiences.
We’ve most recently raised Cornish Cross. We raised them on pasture in a coop surrounded by electric poultry netting. I tracked costs and it worked out to about $2.08/lb. Fifty birds finished out at 4- 6.5 lbs in 11.5 weeks and consumed 900 pounds of feed (a homemade ration that worked out to about 17.5% protein).
- Mortality. We lost a total of five either in shipping or as tiny chicks. That was the first time we’d experienced anything like that, and I can’t help but wonder if this had anything to do with the general non-hardiness Cornish Cross are known for.
- Health Issues. We had one chicken stop walking around week ten. We slaughtered it immediately and made a batch of chicken soup just in time for those of us on the front end of the flu. A week and a half later when we processed the remainder of the chickens, there were three with fluid in their body cavities. It was (we believe) ascites, aka waterbelly. Things like high altitude, cold weather, poor ventilation, and rapid growth have been said to result in ascites. We’re thinking the cold weather was an issue, because they lived in a well ventilated (but not drafty) coop and were fed a relatively low protein diet (although we gave them access to feed 24 hrs/day).
- Foraging. While they were not as interested in foraging as Freedom Rangers and egg laying chickens are, the Cornish X did indeed forage. Some more than others. But even the lazy ones were enjoying the sunshine when they were holed up by their feeder. There were also some that roosted and some that slept on the ground. Now that I think about it, the roost pole was probably a little too high for some of them.
- Personality. I mean, they’re chickens. Maybe I’m not as closely connected to my chickens as many who claim to not like the personality of Cornish Cross, but I liked them just fine.
- Meat. The Cornish Cross had meatier breasts and less fat on them than the Freedom Rangers did. Note though, the two flocks were fed different rations (although of course the Cornish will have meatier breasts no matter what they’re fed).
We raised Freedom Rangers for our first batch of meat chickens back in 2013. They were housed in a mobile chicken tractor that, in hindsight, was semi-disastrous. We fed them a 15% protein feed the entire time, and they weighed 4-6.5+ lbs by processing at 11-12 weeks of age. Unfortunately I did not track the quantity of feed they ate, so I can’t give an accurate price estimate.
- Mortality. We lost none. Except to predators when they were in the chicken tractor, but that was our fault, not a breed flaw.
- Health Issues. We had one Freedom Ranger develop a breast blister, which we discovered upon processing.
- Foraging. They were contained in the chicken tractor, so we couldn’t fully see their foraging capabilities, but they sure were super excited each day when we moved their pen. If we raise them in the future, I’m really looking forward to giving them the freedom of the electric netting.
- Personality. Happy, normal chickens.
- Meat. The Freedom Rangers had more fat on their bodies than the Cornish Cross, presumably due to the higher corn content and lower protein content in their feed ration (only 15% protein).
You’ll note the Freedom Rangers grew to the same weight in the same amount of time as our Cornish Cross, even though theoretically the Cornish Cross should have been to slaughter weight a month or so before the Freedom Rangers. The Cornish Cross have more breast meat and less fat; the Freedom Rangers were fattier (probably due to the higher corn content in their feed) with leaner breasts.
We suspect the extremely cold weather may have impacted the Cornish Cross’ feed conversion.We raised them in November and December, and it was “really chilly,” to quote my three year old. It’s also likely that their genetic predisposition for fast growth is only realized when using an appropriately high protein feed (our 17.5% blend was lower than recommended for Cornish Cross).
So all in all, I’d say we liked Cornish Cross just fine. I am weirded out by the health issues, but I do believe they were possibly preventable and likely our fault.
I’m actually torn between which type of meat chickens to raise next.
- Will we nix a fancy meat breed altogether and just create a large flock of dual purpose birds?
- Will we give Cornish Cross another go and try to increase their protein and get them to slaughter weight a little faster?
- Or will we go back to Freedom Rangers and let them really enjoy the pasture life now that we’ve switched from the chicken tractor to the poultry netting?
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