2011 21.2 Chicken Pickin’

Raising fryer chickens can be a challenging enterprise. The market for farm-raised poultry is strong because consumers appreciate the rich flavor and texture of these birds and seek to support the local economy. A decision to raise these birds presents a myriad of choices.

“Not Just White Fatties Anymore ”

The American Pastured Poultry Association published an article entitled “Organic Pastured Broilers, Not Just White Fatties Anymore” by Jody Padgham. Ms. Padgham obtained a SARE grant (Sustainable Agriculture, Research, and Education. www.sare.org) to study six breeds: Cornish Cross, Freedom Rangers, K-22, Silver Cross, Red Rangers, and Super Dixies. In this study, the Cornish Cross had the fastest weight gain, followed closely by Freedom Rangers, which were harvested one week later at nine weeks of age. The principal advantages to the five breeds Padgham studied besides the Cornish Cross were that they are more active foragers and don’t have mobility issues due to their bodies getting\ too big for their legs. Other issues identified in this comparison were that the Cornish Cross breed has a slightly higher mortality rate (6-14%) as compared to the other breeds (10-13%) and that the meat of the non-Cornish Cross breeds had more flavor, was moister and firmer in texture.

“Seeing Red in Georgia”

Another article in a recent Acres USA issue, “Seeing Red in Georgia, Rethinking Pastured Poultry” by Tim & Liz Young, presents an excellent historical review of how the Cornish Cross has risen to prominence. The Youngs compared the Cornish Cross with traditional birds under the Label Rouge of France (a set of standards rather than a specific breed of chickens). What the Youngs learned in their season of raising Cornish Cross and the Label Rouge meat birds was that the Rouge meat was definitely more flavorful and the Cornish Cross were more voracious eaters and less active. Growth rates differed significantly, with the Cornish Cross reaching harvest size in 6-8 weeks and traditional Rouge birds taking up to 16 weeks.

The Youngs found that processing Cornish Cross chickens was a bit easier, principally due to the light colored pin feathers, whereas the Rouge breeds didn’t look as “pristine”, due to the darker colored pin feathers. The meat in this study yielded similar results as the Padgham study: the Rouge birds had firmer, more flavorful, more moist meat, and the Cornish Cross meat was drier and larger breasted. Other differences between the two breeds were that the Cornish Cross didn’t tolerate weather fluctuations (i.e., drafts or very hot temperatures) as well as the Rouge birds. The Youngs concluded that they preferred the Rouge breeds for flavor. For market, they plan on continuing to raise the Cornish Cross while putting effort into “growing” their market demand for Label Rouge birds by educating customers’ palates.

Freedom Rangers

In the Fall 2010 Tilth Producers Quarterly, Clayton Burrows of Growing Washington described his positive experience raising Freedom Rangers. He harvested his birds at twelve weeks with an average weight of 4.75 pounds each. Clayton discussed details of raising, feed, and market prices in his article. He describes the meat as “delicious,” and concurs with the above articles about the Freedom Ranger’s foraging and general hardiness.

Consider the Trade-Offs

The advantages are clearly delineated, but there are trade-offs to consider. For feed to meat conversion, the Cornish Cross comes out on top with 2.5 pounds of feed for pound of meat – impressive! If you are willing to feed longer, 4-8 weeks in some cases, the other breeds yield moister, more flavorful meat. Cornish Cross present a higher mortality rate, less foraging instinct, and drier, less flavorful meat as compared to the other breeds. With any breed, make sure your feed quality is good and that your birds have access to fresh pasture. In each of the above examples, some form of chicken tractor or day range setup was utilized.

Having done a little research, we at Pine Stump Farm will experiment with several different breeds this season. While we had noticed the slower growth rate in the past, homegrown chicken beats store –bought so completely that we hadn’t focused so much on comparing flavors. Here’s to summer BBQ!

Tags: Chickens, Cornish Cross, Poultry