The Case for the Cornish Cross

I started raising Cornish Cross meat birds in the Fall of 2020 as an experiment. After harvesting that first batch of broilers and cooking my first bird, I knew I had to raise more.

Rescue Chickens

My journey with raising chickens started one February when my sister brought over three of her older hens that had slowed down on egg production. She was getting new chicks soon and needed to clear up some space in her coop. As luck would have it, I already had a barn with a built in chicken coop. I decided this would be a great way for me to try out chicken keeping without having to purchase my own. As time went on, my sister brought over one more hen that had almost totally stopped laying. For the sake of barnyard education, I took in all four of these rescue chickens. I gathered more knowledge than I did eggs, but collected enough for family breakfast and the occasional batch of cookies.

As all chicken owners know, you cannot simply own “just a few chickens”. There is something that happens in your brain that just tells you that you need more… and more… and more! Pretty soon I was building a large, enclosed chicken run, automatic feeders and waterers, custom roosting apparatuses, and shopping hatchery catalogs to see which breeds I wanted to add to my flock.

About a month later, more luck came my way! My neighbors had a relative who bought six baby chicks from the feed store. Her parents instantly shot down the idea of her keeping them. Knowing I had some chickens already, they brought them over to my house in their Happy Meal-like boxes. These six new additions brought my grand total to ten adopted chickens.

By the Summer, I had purchased six more discounted chicks from the feed store and started to realize that this fun new hobby was turning into a full blown addiction. Soon my kitchen counters were overflowing with farm fresh eggs!

Where’s the Meat?

Fast forward to September. I am fully entrenched in the hobby farm lifestyle. I had watched every chicken keeping tips video on YouTube at least twice. Now I felt like it was time to try something new: meat birds.

Yes, any chicken can be a meat chicken. However, some are better suited for meat production than others. Up until this point, I had only raised egg laying hens (and a couple of roosters). I had already been toying with the idea of raising meat birds when I happened to see Cornish Cross chicks on sale during what the farm store flyer called a “Meat Bird Special”. It was a deal I couldn’t pass up. I brought twelve home and started building an enclosure to house them in, separate from the egg layers.

A group of CCs relax on fresh pasture

A Different Animal

Cornish Cross chickens are not your typical backyard bird. They are a hybrid that comes from mixing two other breeds, typically a White Rock and a Cornish chicken. These birds are bred specifically for meat production, so they grow really big, really fast! In fact, they reach butcher weight as early as six weeks!

Because Cornish Crosses have been bred for specific meat production traits, they behave differently than other breeds of chickens. You don’t see them off foraging and scratching through the garden and yard as much as egg layers would. Cornish Crosses love to lay around all day eating as much as they can. In fact, they can eat so much that they actually grow too fast and develop health problems, so they require a little more care than chicken keepers are used to. You have to monitor how much they eat, even to the point of keeping them on a twelve hour on/twelve hour off feeding schedule and removing their feeders so they don’t gorge themselves. Overeating will cause them to have leg problems and heart problems, among other things.

Admittedly, they were more work than I anticipated. They required more care, adding a lot more time to my daily chores. Like I said, they eat a lot. All that eating equals a lot of “litter” covering the ground! Not only did I have to refill feeders and waterers multiple times a day, I also had to move their enclosure constantly so they could always be on fresh, clean grass. Honestly, I had to wonder if it was worth all the effort. I vowed that if I ever raised Cornish Crosses again, I would have to be more prepared and upgrade my accessories. I would need higher capacity feeders and waterers, and definitely an upgraded enclosure to house them in.

A young farm-hand checks the progress of the CCs

What’s So Special About the Cornish Cross?

The development of the Cornish Cross around the mid-1900s completely revolutionized the food industry and single-handedly changed the way Americans ate. They are the chickens you are buying when you shop at the grocery store. They are the ones raised in the giant factory farms for Tyson, and other big brands. They are the go-to source for commercial chicken due to their fantastic feed-to-weight ratio, speed of growth, and size. For meat production volume, they are a no-brainer.

It isn’t all good news, however. Not all chickens are raised the same. A bird raised in a factory farm facility is a drastically different product then one raised outside on grass. I chose to raise mine on fresh pasture for a lot of reasons. First of all, it just seems like a more suitable and natural environment for a chicken. Being raised in a cage, standing on top of layers and layers of feces doesn’t exactly seem ideal.

Joel Salatin, a veteran grower of pastured poultry, points out the utter disgust of factory farming conditions. In his book, “Pastured Poultry Profits”, he reveals that up to 30% of the weight on the package of the chicken you are buying at the store is feces. Thirty percent! How can this be, you ask? Well, to make a long story short, the chickens are entrenched in it their entire lives.

As I mentioned, these birds defecate a lot. Much more than you might imagine. In the factory farm setting, fecal matter is everywhere. They are standing in it, they are ingesting it from their feeders and waterers, and they are breathing in fecal dust. Not to mention what is absorbed into the meat during slaughter when the carcasses are dunked into a chlorine bath containing a layer of fecal sludge at the bottom. I can’t imagine the health issues the birds, and human workers, must be exposed to because of this environment. This knowledge is enough to make a person lose their appetite. But, take heart! There is a solution: pasture.

One way to combat all the health hazards of factory farmed birds, pumped full of poor nutrients, fecal matter, and antibiotics, is to raise them on fresh pasture. This gives them access to grass, which contains chlorophyll. Chlorophyll keeps the chickens healthy. When the chickens have access to the outside, they can eat grass for chlorophyll, forage bugs to get protein, and soak up the sunshine for vitamin D, as opposed to fluorescent lights.

Chicken Tractors

One thing you have to keep in mind is that these chickens may look big, but they are very young. A Cornish Cross chicken at full butcher weight is still only around 6-8 weeks old. Even if the survival instinct had not been bred out of these birds, they are still just too young to know how to avoid predators. Therefore, it is your responsibility to keep them safe from harm.

A tried and true method for doing that is by housing them in what is known as a “chicken tractor”. A chicken tractor is basically a mobile pen that can be moved around fairly easily. Some chicken tractors have wheels to assist with moving, or are simply pulled across the ground by hand with a handle or rope.

The one I built is a simple 6’X6′ square, wrapped in hardware cloth, and covered with a tarp. I attached a rope to the front so I can simply lift up slightly on the rope and drag it to a new location. I’ve added a couple accessories to hold feeders and watering buckets up off the ground for easy mobility. Each day, or sometimes twice a day, I move the tractor to a fresh patch of grass so the chickens always have a fresh salad bar to eat, and stay cleaner when lounging around on the ground. After moving to a new location, I simply rake the grass to spread the manure so it will break down quicker into the soil and become fertilizer for the grass.

Occasionally, when I am out in the yard to supervise, I will let them out of the tractor to roam freely to search for bugs and exercise their legs. I want to encourage them to walk around to avoid future leg problems and to build muscle. You want to make sure they go back in when you are not around because they are very easy targets for avian predators like hawks and owls. They are easily lured back into the safety of their tractor with food.

The time and money you invest in buying or building a chicken tractor will be well worth it! It gives your chickens the added health benefit of accessing fresh grass daily, cuts down on your feed costs, is more sanitary, and greatly reduces the chance of losing birds to predators.

Solar powered motion lights help keep predators away at night

Taste Test

I started raising Cornish Cross meat birds in the Fall of 2020 as an experiment. I just wanted to see what it consisted of and if it was worth the effort. I had promised seven of the twelve birds to family members early on in the process, and gave a few more to friends. That left me with only a couple to keep for myself.

After harvesting that first batch of broilers and cooking my first bird, I knew I had to raise more. The chicken we bought at the store did not even come close to the size, taste, tenderness, and quality of these self-raised birds! One thing was for sure: I had to get more!

The following Spring I doubled my flock of Cornish Crosses to be able to provide even more high-quality chicken to our family and friends. They too doubled their orders from last time! The difference in quality and taste was obvious to all who tried it.

If you are wanting a better, healthier alternative to the current factory farm food system we have now, please consider pastured poultry. The health benefits of a pasture raised chicken vs an industrial farmed one are a great reason to make the switch! It is well past time that we started thinking about how our food is being raised and making correlations between our food and general well-being.

Try one of these pasture raised chickens and you’ll never want to buy chicken at the store again. I know I don’t.

7.30.21


Additional Resources:
*Lumnah Acres

Below are some great videos and step-by step instructions from Lumnah Acres. At the links provided, you will see how to make some cheap and easy accessories to get you started raising meat birds as quickly as possible.

-Chicken Tractor: The chicken tractor I built was based heavily on a design by Lumnah Acres. I added a couple of my own twists, but you can get step-by-step building instructions, and even video demonstration, by clicking here —> “DIY $30 Chicken Coop you can Build in 30 minutes“.

-Automatic Bucket Feeder: One of the feeders I use was a quick and easy project made from a plastic bucket. See it here —> “Diy Automatic Chicken Feeder (easiest way to feed your chickens with a 5~gallon Bucket)“.

-Automatic Bucket Waterer: With this waterer, I don’t have to worry about running out of water throughout the day. See it here —> “DIY 5~Gallon AutoMatic Chicken Waterer (Using Horizontal Waterers)

*Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms

-“Pastured Poultry Profits” by Joel Salatin will tell you all you need to know about raising, and selling, pastured poultry. This book covers information about Cornish Cross broilers, pastured egg layers, and even turkeys. It is a wealth of knowledge about poultry, how to care for pastured animals, and even how to build chicken tractors and other structures. Every chicken owner needs a copy of this book to reference.

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