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Dark Cornish broilers

Dark Cornish cockerelsWe dispatched the first third of our cockerels Tuesday morning.  They were quite small at 12 weeks old, dressing out to only 2.25 pounds apiece (not counting the necks and giblets), and they clearly don't compete with grocery store prices at $5.64 per bird.  Of course, we didn't set out to save money with these broilers or we would have stuck to the traditional Cornish Cross.  The real test will be flavor --- can we tell a difference between our pastured chickens and storebought?

We're going to kill another third of the cockerels in a month, and then the last third at 16 weeks old, testing to see how the price per pound and the flavor of the meat changes over time.  Although everyone is in agreement that Cornish Crosses should be killed at around eight weeks, the internet lists widely varying maturity dates for the Dark Cornish, and I like experimentation.

On the other hand, despite enjoying the experiment, I don't think we'll be raising Dark Cornish again.  They didn't live up to the hype of being good foragers --- they mostly sat around and waited for their feed, even going so far as to run away when I tossed grubs into their pasture.  Instead, I'm torn between several alternatives:

  • Cornish Cross --- This is the traditional way to go, but raising these grain-only-eating broilers at home is little better for the environment and our bodies than buying grocery store meat.  Also, since they're hybrids, we would have to buy chicks every year, which doesn't pass the sustainability test.
  • Freedom Rangers --- Many small growers swear by this breed, reporting that Freedom Rangers are good foragers (although they said that about Dark Cornish too.)  The major downside is that we couldn't create our own breeding flock since Freedom Rangers are a cross of carefully bred parental lines owned by European corporations.
  • Create our own Cornish cross --- We could save back the biggest cockerel and cross him with our Plymouth Rocks to create our own Cornish Cross.  We might get hybrid vigor, but I can't quite see where the foraging ability would come from, and I'm bound and determined to grow chickens without such large inputs of grain.
  • Eat the roosters from our layer flock --- Traditionally, farmers used to just raise dual purpose breeds and eat the roosters from their flock along with the old hens.  We've been well trained to think we want big breasts and tender meat, so I'm not sure if we could stomach this option.  But it would definitely be the most sustainable, and probably the best for our health if we stuck to a good forager like Rhode Island Red.

What do you think?  Have you given some of the above options a shot and think they've got merit (or should be avoided at all cost?)  We won't be raising another batch of broilers until next year, but we need to make a decision soon about whether to save back one of the Cornishes from the chopping block.

Our homemade chicken waterer is the perfect way to keep fast-growing broilers healthy.


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Sorry to hear the chickens were not what you had hoped for. Years ago when we raised chickens we tried the quick-growing Cornish Cross (I think they were). We lost a few to heart attacks, they grew so fast. It almost seems cruel the way the gain weight and sometimes their legs give out. If we saw one turning blue we butchered him before he keeled over (poor fellow). They were the best chicken we've ever had then or since but I think they cost us $10. a pound :).

One time we bought some chickens from someone who raised them - they weren't meat birds at all but rather layers she sold us (so I think). They were so tough that, even in the crock pot, one leg was sticking out and simmering them all day made no difference. Maybe a pressure cooker would have helped but they weren't edible.

I think I read about some people foraging the white meat birds (Joel Salatin maybe?) and this surprised me. If you could feed them something other than grain I would go for the meat birds but maybe one that doesn't gain weight so fast.

Comment by HeatherW Wed Jun 16 14:22:29 2010

Whatever kind you choose should be healthier than store-bought, since you don't stuff them with hormones and antibiotics, as seems to be the norm at large scale growers.

The more I read about intensive animal breeding, the happier I am to be a vegetarian!

Personally though, I consider the thought of creating a hybrid that has a good chance of essentially dying of overweight in a couple of weeks repulsive.

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Jun 16 14:48:37 2010
Yeah, they've definitely got that going for them. But happy, healthy birds are the bare minimum. I want to do better than that!
Comment by anna Wed Jun 16 15:05:48 2010

Heather ---

That's the biggest downside of Cornish Crosses. Like Roland said, breeding a bird so that it gains weight so quickly it basically kills itself doesn't quite fit the humane category, even if we were able to get them to forage. I think that Joel Salatin's version of foraging merely means they nibble on enough grass to get a few vitamins.

I suspect the chickens you bought that turned out tough were old. (That's probably why they were being sold --- they had probably reached the end of their economical laying life.) We turn old chickens into potstickers or something else sausage-like. Grinding the meat before cooking it is essential!

Comment by anna Wed Jun 16 15:18:04 2010

I've roasted a Barnevelder rooster, and it was really good. They seem to be pretty good foragers, and then hens lay reasonably well.

Australorps are supposed to pretty good for both egglaying and eating (and foraging!) too.

I'm not sure what's going on with the people reporting super-tough chickens. We made stew from a 2.5-year-old ISA Brown (hybrid layer) recently - sure, it needed a long slow cook, but it certainly wasn't tough.

Comment by Darren (Green Change) Thu Jun 17 23:50:35 2010
I'd never even heard of Barnevelder -- thank you! I actually raised Australorps years ago, but it was before I started looking at it from a permaculture angle, and a chicken was just a chicken. I'll add those to my short list.
Comment by anna Fri Jun 18 07:39:49 2010
Ive been breeding my own Blackrocks, also called Black stars in America I think. A cross of a RIR rooster and a barred rock hen. The cockerals weighed 2kg at 16 weeks and are quite a bit heavier than the pure RIR cockeral of the same age in with them. They've been in a run made by electric poultry netting which gets moved every few weeks and generally get fed twice a day on sprouted wheat and scraps with some high protein pellets occasionally. If they were 'tractored' and had a constant feed source I think they would have reached 2kg maybe at 14 weeks. Sprouting grain is a good way to effectively double the nutrition of wheat, with protein and vitamins all increasing from the sprouting process. I havent eaten one yet but we roasted a 6 month old barred rock roo that we soaked in brine for the day before cooking and it was delicious. In a younger group I have blackrocks, RIR, Langshan RIR cross, barred rock, barnevelder, light sussex. I weighed them recently at 10 weeks and top 3 were 2 blackrock roos and a hen, followed by langshan/RIR roo, barnevelder roo, then dissapointingly barred rock roo. They ranged from 950g for the heaviest blackrock to 850g for the heaviest barred rock. Barnevelders are pretty good birds, very fast feathering and developing and solid layers if you get the right strain.
Comment by Dave B3 Sun Mar 11 06:30:34 2012

Thanks for sharing your experiences, Dave! I need to try sprouting more --- you're right that it's great for increasing protein content and digestability (although it does cut down on carbs, although that's not so much of a worry.)

Those are some big chickens you bred! Over four pounds at 16 weeks! Is that a live weight or a carcass weight?

I wonder what their feed to meat conversion rate is. Did you keep any data on how much grain you fed them?

Comment by anna Sun Mar 11 13:42:16 2012

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