One man’s meat chickens

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The subject of the e-mail was ‘“soon”???’ The e-mail itself went like this: “Your definition of “soon” must be waaaay different from mine. Since Aug 11, virtually every day, I go to “Starving”, to see the new post, and it’s never there. I’m aware that you also write to make a living, but it seems to me that a nice person [emphasis hers] could spare a few free words for a harmless (voyeuristic) old lady.” Helen, my correspondent, added one of those sideways winking smiley faces to make sure I understood that no offense was meant.

None taken.

Helen, I will offer my apology publicly. I promised a post on Kevin’s new handy-dandy automatic chicken waterer “soon,” some seven weeks ago. In my defense I will point out that, in some contexts, seven weeks can certainly be soon. So, for example, if I were building a rocket to Jupiter, and promised it “soon,” I’m guessing you wouldn’t start looking for it until at least 2016. A blog post, though, is not quite as time-consuming a project, and I think you could have reasonably interpreted “soon” to be a matter of days, or maybe even a week. Seven weeks is clearly unreasonable.

But, you see, shit happens. The handy-dandy automatic chicken waterer was put on hold so Kevin could re-focus his efforts on something completely new: meat chickens.

We’ve thought about meat chickens every year since, it seems, the Eisenhower administration, but always decided against them. For several years, we had turkeys, and were very happy with their contribution to our freezer. We tried ducks as well, and while we were even happier with their contribution to our freezer, we didn’t care much for the pre-freezer stage. Our ducks were charmless, alarmist birds.

We’ve also heard that raising meat chickens isn’t really all that fun. The birds bred for the purpose – Cornish cross, they’re called – are so incredibly fast-growing, and so unnaturally large-breasted, that they don’t really act like birds. They eat and they poop. They don’t generally roost, but they spend a lot of time lying on the ground, conserving energy. Their legs sometimes don’t support them, and they’ve been known to lose the ability to walk altogether.

Although we know people who find the utility of being able to raise a chicken from chick to dinner-weight in six weeks outweighs the eerie blobbiness of the birds, we also know people who find the eerie blobbiness downright disgusting, and will never raise meat chickens again. That made us balk, from the Eisenhower administration until just last month.

What changed our minds was Pat. Pat is the brother of our friend Bob, who regulars might remember as the guy who catches fish. Pat and his wife Jill live in Maine, and do a lot of the things we do, and then some. They grow vegetables, they keep bees, they have laying hens. They also have sheep, and we are trying to come up with something good enough to trade for a lamb (a pig just might do the trick).

And they have meat chickens. Standard, Cornish cross meat chickens. But they don’t treat them like meat chickens. They feed them so they grow slowly, and they encourage them to walk around outside. They also grow them quite large, so they dress out at some ten pounds each. Their legs apparently function quite well, even up to that weight, and Pat says they’re not disgusting at all.

Had it been just me, I’m not sure that would have put me over the edge.  But it was enough for Kevin, and he wanted to give the Pat method a go. If I have learned anything in the thirteen years of living with Kevin, it’s that his judgment is often better than mine.  So we ordered fifteen birds from Murray McMurray, and they arrived in the last week of August.

Cornish crosses, at one week

Cornish crosses, at one week

When they’re little, they look a lot like other chickens. As they grow, though, the differences become apparent. And the good people at Murray McMurray make sure you notice those differences by including an extra, non-Cornish cross chick in with each order of meat chickens.

(An aside about that practice: It’s nothing but trouble. The regular chick grows more slowly, needs the heat lamp longer, has trouble competing for feed, and will not be ready for slaughter with the other birds. And it’s all but impossible, in my admittedly limited experience, to introduce a solo pullet into a coop full of mature laying hens. So what to do with the poor thing?)

The meat birds have what briefly made news when Idaho Congressman Larry Craig denied allegations of mens’-room shenanigans: a wide stance. Their legs are far apart, no doubt to prevent them from tipping over, which they certainly would if their feet were closer together, as their breasts start growing well before the rest of them.

And they keep growing.

Cornish crosses, at five weeks

Cornish crosses, at five weeks

Our birds are now five weeks old, which would be a mere one week from slaughter if we were raising them at maximum speed. Since we’re not, they weigh about three to four pounds each (instead of the four to five they’d weigh otherwise). So far, their legs are holding up, and they can all waddle around. They even run on occasion, if Kevin’s coming to the pen door with food can be said to be an occasion.

We feed them only twice a day, morning and evening, and they are good and ready for their meals by the time we show up with them. They crowd around the feeder in a way that our other chickens never did, and generally exhibit only feeding and resting behaviors. They’re puffy and flabby and eerily bloblike. They’re not very bright.

Kevin, who is better at keeping his eye on the prize than I am, and whose mind’s eye is looking at freezer full of ten-pound birds, is fine with them. I find them a little disgusting. I’m withholding yea-or-nay judgment until we’ve gone through the full cycle, including roasting. Right now, though, I’m not leaning toward yea.

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Comments

  1. I think you’ll probably change your mind once you eat one (just don’t forget to brine it).

    They do have a bizarre, cocks-on-steroids appearance, though. Maybe with your next post you could tell us how much you are feeding them twice a day. I’ve never heard of raising Cornish Crosses this way (I guess it would work as well for Freedom Rangers or any other meat chicken) and I’m intrigued by a method for reducing the ‘disgusting’ factor of raising meat chickens. Also because I imagine a ten-pound chicken could feed two people for a long time. That would be a lot of enchiladas.

    • I hope you’re right about the taste part, and I know you’re right about the ten-pound part. If we end up with a dozen of ’em in the freezer, it’s worth a lot of distaste in the raising.

  2. Colour me ignorant, but why can’t any breed of chicken be bred for meat? In the Philippines for example the birds they call “native chickens” are bred for both eggs and meat, and are prized for their flavour compared to caged birds. http://www.backyardchickens.com/a/philippine-native-chicken-on-the-spot-light

  3. I tried Cornish X a couple of years ago. They are disgusting and flabby. I now raise Red Rangers or Freedom Rangers. They are big and grow fast, but don’t have the problems with leg and heart failure.

    I hope Kevin gets his 10 pioneers. I let one go to about 12 weeks, and the dressed carcass was almost 8 pounds. I have a picture of the dressed bird on a dinner plate, and you can’t see the plate.

    I have 35 Freedom Rangers in the brooder right now, so I will be butchering around Christmas.

  4. “Pounders” not “pioneers” Ducking autocorrect!

  5. So you’ve NOT been building a rocket to Jupiter? Color me disappointed.

    And as a person who has never raised a chicken but has perhaps a strange obsessive admiration for chickens, I have to agree that your Cornish cross chickens are creepy and blobbish and slightly unnatural looking. And finally, I second the question someone else posed above: why are other (less freakish-looking) chickens not considered suitable for meat? Is there something inherently untasty about them, or is it some arbitrary rule that a meat chicken should weight a freakish 10 lbs to be considered worthy (which I find additionally creepy, since generally when I’m buying a chicken at the store, they top out at 6 lbs for roasters)? Or did the genetic engineers decide people would have an easier time slaughtering the mutant chickens because they’re just so ODD looking?

    So glad to see you back here, Tamar, btw. I’m still recovering from The Worst Year Ever, so every bit of sunshine and mutant chickens helps. Do please finish up the Jupiter rocket soon.

  6. We’ve taken care of the neighbors cornish cross chickens when they’ve been out of town and I’m convinced I could never become attached enough to not be able to harvest them. They’re nasty looking birds with zero personality from what I can tell. Meat chickens are on my list, along with turkeys but I think I might be more tempted by the Freedom Rangers just because they seem more normal. . . .

  7. Hi, All! Nice to see you back here.

    You can raise any chicken, any chicken at all, for meat. They’re all edible. They’re all tasty. But they’re not all equally economical. The point of the fast-growing birds is that they grow bigger on less feed, and they do it quickly, so they take less of your time, coop space, and any other resource involved (these are bigger issues for commercial growers, who are growing thousands).

    The question is whether the economical part outweighs the eerie blobbiness part. And there are a few other considerations, too. Since these birds don’t go up into their coop at night, we have to physically put them there (because the pen isn’t predator-proof but the coop is, we hope). They are also more prone to strange afflictions, and we have one who recently developed a crook neck, so she’s always looking up at the sky (although she’ll look down at the food!).

    The jury is still out, but I do like the idea of Freedom Rangers, which strike me as an excellent compromise.

    (And, PQ, I’ll prod Kevin on the Jupiter rocket …)

  8. Tamar, I just love this story…all the starts, stops, twists and turns. Chickens are somewhat romantic beasts when we see them in paintings, or look at lovely photographs of them, or see a wonderfully braised one on our plates, but it really is hard to raise them and make it all work according to plan isn’t it?
    But it seems you are on the path and I really, really enjoyed reading this story.

  9. Is it wrong that the picture of the Cornish crosses actually makes me a little… mad? Not at you for raising them, Tamar, at humanity for engineering them? I’ve heard of but not seen the turkeys engineered with breasts so large they can barely walk, and it’s just kind of sickening to me in a way. Like the humans in the Matrix, to make an extreme and not really accurate comparison.

    In a happier related note, I have a good friend vacationing on the island of Kaui in Hawaii, and apparently feral chickens are A Thing there. Google-image-search “feral chickens Kaui” and feast your eyes–they’re beautiful! (and a terrible nuisance, apparently, but SO PRETTY!)

  10. If you decide to continue raising chickens, you might consider Privett Hatchery’s Slow Cornish (http://www.privetthatchery.com/Home/prdDetails.aspx?id=SC). They look just like regular Cornish X Rocks but they grow more slowly. We’ve raised them for years. Often there’s a hen or two we never get too. They are actually pretty charming and make great mothers.l We have a pair right now that are 3+ years old. We had one hen that raised 6 chicks to adulthood which is really rare; she didn’t lose one!

    I give Privett Hatchery a qualified recommendation. Their prices are considerably less than McMurray and I’ve been happy with my poultry. That said, we had an order that went astray and while they replaced it immediately, when it did arrive, most of the chicks had died. And they got another order wrong. Again, they made it right but I ended up with a bunch of birds I did not want (ultimately I traded them so it worked out.)

    If you do order from them, tell them you want a Monday hatch. The lost order was hatched on Wednesday and arrived at our post office Saturday after close and we were not called until Monday morning, so I always get a Monday hatch.

  11. I want to clarify my post. When the order got lost, Privett sent out a replacement order. The first order arrived (after five days in transit) before the replacement order and most of those chicks were dead (9 out of 26 survived). The second order arrived on time and all of the chicks were fine.

  12. Teresa — I think it’s hard to make just about anything go according to plan. Throw in livestock, and it’s even harder. But thanks for the kind words. I appreciate them very much.

    PQ — I know what you mean, and I have some of that same feeling. Birds like this really shouldn’t exist.

    Sasha — Thanks for that referral. I suspect that we may indeed be looking for an alternative kind of meat bird, should we do this again, and those sound like an excellent candidate. I’m sorry you had a bad experience with the hatchery — I’m always saddened by chicks dying in the mail. We’ve been happy with Murray McMurray, but we’d be willing to give another hatchery a go, if they had a bird we were interested in. But all this won’t happen until next year, and maybe they’ll breed a perfect, fast-growing, healthy, big-legged bird in the meantime!

  13. Love the EB White reference in your title. Nice coincidence for me since I have just finished re-reading “one man’s Meat” for maybe the third time over a period of years. It never fails to satisfy. Anyone who loves chickens should certainly read EBW.
    Bobbie

  14. Privett is out of New Mexico which is kind of far from the East Coast, unfortunately. One of the reasons I stick with them is I love their Gold Sex Link layers. They are really great hens. They start laying at around 4 1/2 months (the batch I got this summer was hatched on 4/1 and started laying on 8/20) and lay about 250 eggs per year; they lay through the winter here in Southeast VA and they have good temperaments. I highly recommend them

  15. We have raised both Slow Cornish and Cornish Cross in small groups in our small backyard. Both worked well but since we had no problems with either we will probably stick with the Cornish Cross. We have a Golden Laced Wyandotte who goes broody often and we use her to put the chicks under and she raises them as her own. As a consequence they integrate into the flock as they get older and she trains them them to go into the coop. We allowed them to free feed and also free range the backyard with our laying hens and I think the free ranging allowed them to develop enough leg muscles to support themselves. They were quite active and sounded like a flock of dinosaurs(think Jurassic Park) when they ran across the yard! We have also raised Brahmas and Delawares and the are lovely chickens too (we kept 2 Brahmas and one Delaware as layers) but take a long time to get up to weight.

  16. Bobbie — One of my favorite EBWhite essays, Security, is in that collection.

    Sasha & Sue — Thanks for chiming in with your experience here. Every data point I get from every other chicken-keeper out there helps us make better decisions next time around.

  17. Tamar, give Freedom Rangers a try. I ordered 35, they sent 36, and I have lost one to some unknown cause at about 2 weeks old (I suspect that the chick ate wood shavings because this happened shortly after I switched from paper litter to shavings in the brooder). They are healthy, grow like weeds and are able to jump up on a roost and play chicken games (similar to reindeer games, but with a lot less snow and ice).

    Earlier this year I fell victim to the siren call of those ultra cheap dual purpose cockerel chicks, so I ordered New Hampshires and Buff Orpingtons. They eat almost as much as the meat birds, hang around a lot longer to get to a usable weight and I spent the last month or so they were around in constant fear of being arrested for illegal cock fighting. And the crowing! They produce a scrawny carcass, even when they are 20 weeks old, when the Cornish Crosses and colored rangers have long ago gone to Camp Kenmore fat and sassy. The only way I would raise them again is if I had good pasture to put them on so that I would not have to buy feed.