Supermarket Frankenchicken – The Cornish X

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.”

Cornish Cross

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.

Cornish Cross on right with Buff Orpington on the left. Same age. Photo Credit Ebey Farms

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.

The Problem

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.

Shelton Farmers Market – June 11

We’re just two days from our next Farmers Market, and after looking at what went really, really well and what really, really didn’t, we’re changing up our gig.

And that’s one of the things we love about this particular Farmers Market. There’s no power-hungry market manager creating rules and regulations – our market manager just wants all of the vendors to co-exist peacefully (which can be challenging during set-up) and to bring some sort of wares to offer the customers.

Last week, Frankie (one of our Serama Roosters) was a hit. He did really well being handled all day by “kids” of all ages – probably the happiest kid was a retired gal who swears she’s going to be getting Serama’s in a few weeks. We didn’t bring any Serama’s to sell (as our littles are too little and we just have one hen right now up for adoption). But if I would have had a dozen at the market, they would have all sold.

Our vegetables did not fare as well. We sold one bunch of cilantro. The rest wilted and became happy bunny food by the time we returned home. Granted, we weren’t a huge vegetable stand, which, I think, is the way to sell vegetables at the market. Perhaps next year, when we have all of the infrastructure in place, we’ll do one of the markets as a vegetable stand.

What DID get attention was the Fall Basket CSA program. We are offering 10 families a basket-every-week delivered beginning on August 15. We’ve got the right vegetables (and plenty of them) and can be here full-time now, both critical pieces to bringing a weekly basket to a doorstep. We’re offering a basket with 7 or more vegetables, a salad mix, a carton of microgreens and a dozen eggs, delivered to the doorstep for $30. It’s priced low, so our customers can be more of a “partner” with us – offering ideas and suggestions for how we could make the process better, for when we launch our baskets next Spring.

So, this week at the Farmers Market, we’ll be bringing Frankie (he’s been asking all week to go back), possibly a breeding pair of Seramas – two rabbits (we’ve got two boys who are ready to go now, but this will also allow us to introduce our rabbitry to customers) and possibly a chicken. We’ll also highlight the Fall Basket program, and show a sample of what people can find on their doorstep.

This year is all about learning. If we make some money with it…bonus. So far, we’re $50 for the space and $2.00 for the revenue. We’re only -$48.00, which in the world of education, is a pretty small amount to still recoup.

IF you’re in the Shelton area this Saturday, you’ll find us downtown – from 9:00-2:00. Stop in and say hello!

When do my new chicks move to the coop?

Your cute little fluff balls scurrying around in the feed bins at the local farm store seem tiny. You bring them home, put them under the lights and go to sleep. The next morning, you swear they look bigger. They are.

Chickens grow fast! They go from tiny three day old fluff balls to 6 week old birds resembling hawks. If you think you’re going to wait until they are “big enough” to look at getting a chicken coop, you’ll be late.

In addition to growing in size, they also grow in stink. As their body develops, their digestive functions “change”…and some of the changes are not super welcome in the family room, where they were cute as little chicks.

Before you purchase your chickens, know how and where you will house them when they get to the chicken stage. At the feed store, you’ll see cute little chicken coops on display advertising for “4-6 chickens”. Don’t kid yourself. Unless your chickens are a banty breed, they will need more room than those miniature toy chicken coops offer. (See our How Much Room do my Chickens Need article)

When you first brought your chicks home, you set the heat at 85-90 degrees, to keep them warm. By moving the light farther away, and lowering the temperature of the brooder by 5 degrees per week, you should be close to outside temperatures now. If it’s cold in your area, you may want to put a heat source in their coop for another week or two. But your chickens will be feathered out enough by weeks 5-6 to be ready for the big coop.

One of my favorite parts of raising chickens is the move to the new coop. Watching the “chicks” turn into “big birds” as they explore the immense space they now call home. The first scratches in the dirt, picking up twigs and leaves. Chasing bugs on the ground.

This is why we are chicken people.

Frost decides to make a nest for baby rabbits

Marshmallow has been tending her babies and Frost has spent the last day just being odd. Still eating the hay, chewing on the nest box and showing absolutely no sign of giving birth.

She didn’t feel pregnant, not that I really know what pregnant feels like. But Marshmallow had a really big belly and Frost doesn’t. So, today, after giving Frost an additional day and a half to show me something, I decided to remove the nest boxes.

I pulled Frost’s nesting box and placed it on top of her cage. I walked across the rabbitry and pulled Doe Whites and placed hers on top of her cage. She seemed happy to get the room back in her cage.

rabbit with mouthfull of strawI turn around and Frost grabs a full mouth of hay and stares me down. It was a fierce stare. I don’t really feel like I’ve gotten in sync with what the rabbits want all of the time, but there was no doubt in her eyes, she wanted the nest box back.

Sighing, I grabbed her nest box and put it back into the cage for her. “Are you kidding me? This is not an enrichment activity. You’ve got 2 more days and then it goes” She looked approvingly at me. I refilled her cage with some straw that I had in a nearby pail and she set about playing with the hay again.

Rabbit batch 2I returned one hour later. One hour. Frost has managed to get her nest built and in the middle of the day, she’s giving birth. I found the babies right after they were born. Within minutes. Frost was still cleaning her fur from the mess that comes with birthing baby rabbits.

Frost almost missed her chance. 2 days late. Playing silly games in the cage.

From now on Frost, I’ll listen to you. Everything in perfect time, and your timing was perfect. Welcome to motherhood!