When we started looking at the food chain, finding out where our food came from, and wanting to grow our own, we were introduced to the Cornish-X (Cornish Cross) chicken early on. Many of our farming friends would order 50-100 chicks, raise them in chicken tractors on pasture for 6-8 weeks and then fill their freezer. They touted the fast growth rate, high meat to feed ratio making them very low cost to produce, and all told us that “they don’t raise them like everyone else does”.
I didn’t really know what that meant. Until we went to our first “processing day”.
We wanted to butcher our own chickens, and a friend put out an “all hands on deck” call to help process chickens, geese and rabbits. We were thrilled to participate, as our friend takes his butchering pretty seriously, so we knew we would learn a lot.
When we arrived, we walked out to the chicken tractor in the middle of the lawn. Now, admittedly, the chickens were 2 weeks past “ideal” processing age, but when we looked in the pen we saw Frankenchickens. I had chickens at home, and they weren’t so distorted. Their breasts seemed oversized, their feet were ginormous, and they had little “teen chicken” heads on full sized bodies. They were the scariest, most freakish looking chickens I had ever seen. I turned to Tony and said, “I don’t ever want to eat a store bought chicken again.”
The Cornish Cross chicken was produced by the commercial poultry industry to supply the huge market base in the U.S. They grow from tiny chicks to full grown broilers in 6-8 weeks. They are internally programmed to eat and eat and eat. They will literally eat themselves to death. While farmers like to portray these are “pasture raised”, the truth is that their dinosaur-like feet are standing on pasture while they injest chicken feed – as fast as it’s put in front of them. These chickens do not know how to truly free-range. It’s been bred out of them – they are simply “feed eaters”.
Old timers will tell you that they “free-range” their birds, allowing them to grow slower (12 weeks instead of 8) and run and chase bugs. This is partially true. The birds, given the opportunity, will run and chase bugs and roam freely. What they can’t do (because it’s been bred out) is fully survive by foraging for food. If any of our chickens escape, they can become fully free-range (pretty sure, “feral” is the correct term), finding their full diet in the wild. This is something lost in the generations of production breeding for the Cornish Cross.
Chickens are raised for meat. So, with this cross, the skeletal and internal organs are left behind in growth, to put as much meat on the bird as fast as you can. Oversized breasts are the most prominent feature of this bird, as that’s what the consumers want. It’s quite the mutant. At the 10-12 week mark, these birds will break their legs, as they can’t support the 4-5 lbs of their body, since their skeletal system hasn’t developed. Don’t believe me? Feel the wishbone on your next supermarket chicken – there’s nothing there.
Farmers will buy 100 and if 70 make it to harvest, that’s an acceptable loss? I often hear, “I only lost ___”. We raised chickens, and we weren’t chicken experts – but we hadn’t lost ANY. So, why did every Cornish X farmer delight in telling us “in my last batch I only lost ____”.
The other issue with the Cornish X – a rooster and a hen cannot produce a chick. Of course, the hens aren’t even raised to maturity, where laying an egg is possible. But if you were to try to breed, they are incapable of natural breeding. To acquire chicks, you are forced to order day old chicks through the mail from a few select hatcheries in the U.S.
Now, to be fair, this bird was developed to feed the masses. To butcher a “Cornish Hen” at 1 month old and a “Broiler” or “Chicken Parts” bird at 6-10 weeks saves on the amount of feed and increases the number of birds a farm can grow in a year. It becomes a FAST way to produce meat. Much faster than raising a cow or a pig. The only thing faster than Cornish X are rabbits – which are not as popular in the U.S.
A Cornish X is able to be fed cheaply, by large producers. Costco just started producing their own chicken in Nebraska. They will be slaughtering 1.7 million chicken per week to produce just 1/3 of the demand for their “$4.99 Rotisserie Bird”. When you’re selling chicken for $1.25/lb, you better be able to produce cheap chicken.
We’ve lost our connection between the animal we’re eating and our plate. By the time it reaches our mouth, we’ve sometimes not even seen it raw…just fully basted and spinning on the rotisserie, coated with amazing spices, golden brown and we know it’s going to taste like…chicken.
We hear about polar bears, spotted owls and orca whales being endangered by the actions of humans. But what about farm animals? And should we care?
With the rise of “disposable food” (you can bet your grandparents weren’t tossing half of a chicken into the garbage during the Great Depression), “fast food” or food that grows extraordinarily fast, has taken center stage. If a farmer can’t sell what they are producing, they stop growing it. It’s simple. There are no “species preservation” farms – the cost to feed the animals would be prohibitive.
We’ve lost breed diversity. This is what creates resiliance and longevity. It’s what decreases the risks of widespread pandemic among one particular variety of animal. For example, the blight that hit Irelands’ potatos only affected one variety of potato. The problem was that there was only one strain of potato grown there, so it wiped out an entire countries food supply and caused the Potato Famine.
Within the past 15 years, 190 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct worldwide, and there are currently 1,500 others at risk of becoming extinct. In the past five years alone, 60 breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry have become extinct.
The other issue is taste. Chicken tastes like chicken, right? Well, if it’s grown ultra fast, and doesn’t have the time to develop the rich taste and texture of a “heritage chicken” – then yes. You’ll need to drown the chicken in spices, sauces and gravies to get some sort of flavor out of the meat.
With heritage chicken, the minimum age for harvest is 16 weeks. This gives the meat time to mature, to develop the flavors and textures unique to the muscling of that breed. Just like all varieties of fish taste different, so do all varieties of chicken. We strive to harvest our birds at 20 weeks, to produce a larger bird, full of rich taste – some with a darker meat, some firmer, some more tender.
Farm to Table
When we set out on our quest to make consumers more aware of the food they were putting in their mouths, we were totally unaware of the heritage connections. We knew something had broken somewhere in the shift to supermarket meat. We knew that it should be impossible to sell pork chops for $1.99 lb. We knew that buying a chicken for $4.99 couldn’t possibly cover the food, shelter, processing, transportation and packaging to bring it to market, unless something was very broken in our food system.
Today, very few people could afford to truly “eat heritage meats”. At least not without effort. We would love to have people make a decision to shift that direction though. Even if it means ONE heritage chicken on a Sunday dinner table each month. Or a half of a heritage pig in the freezer. Buying local eggs from a neighbor or a local farm (commercial breeds of layers are very rarely seen in a backyard farm).
There are a few small farmers who are involved in the heritage meat movement. These farmers are raising heritage for two reasons: 1) to preserve breeds and protect our breed diversity, which is so important from a genetics standpoint 2) to reintroduce flavor and taste back to the dinner table.
Yes, we need the Frankenchickens. There is no way to keep up with the populations demand for meat by producing meat that takes 3 times longer to grow. But for those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to splurge on a dinner at Applebee’s, let’s also take the time to rediscover what the flavor of traditional chicken was. Let’s put Grandma’s Sunday dinner back on the table. Let’s invite our family to join us. Let’s get back to the way things used to be…if only for a moment in time.