The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Sustainability of meat chickens

Homegrown chickensUnless you raise your own meat birds (often called "broilers"), you have probably only eaten one kind of chicken in your life --- Cornish Cross.  This hybrid is a wonder of modern breeding since it can reach a carcass size of nearly nine pounds in just eight weeks.  The Cornish Cross also has a lower feed conversion rate than any other variety of chicken, which means you give the birds less grain for every pound of weight they put on --- a boon for your wallet and for the environment.

Homesteaders groan about the Cornish Cross because of the multitude of health problems that come along with their rapid weight gain, but what prevented me from raising these efficient birds is their proprietary genetics.  Not only is the Cornish Cross a hybrid, the parent lines are owned by corporations, so the only possible way to get Cornish Cross chickens is to buy the chicks from a hatchery.  I want our flock to be as self-sufficient as possible, and that means raising our own chicks, so Cornish Cross are off the table, as are other hybrid broiler varieties like Freedom Rangers.

Butchering chickenOn the other hand, there are two problems with raising heirloom chickens for meat, and both are so serious that you probably won't find heirlooom broilers for sale even at the farmer's market.  The first problem is aesthetics.  Since we all grew up with big, plump-breasted chickens on our plates, we think that heirloom chickens look odd, with their big thighs sticking out and their skinny breasts.  I crunched some numbers from one of our batches of Black Australorps and discovered that they gave me twice as much dark meat as light meat, which would be a problem if I was afraid of animal fats.  Luckily, I believe that fat from pastured animals is good for me, so I cherish both light and dark meat from our homegrown birds.

The second problem with heirloom chickens is the real sticking point --- feed conversion rate.  The chicken industry claims that factory-farmed Cornish Cross chickens have a feed to meat conversion rate of 2:1 meaning that you feed the chickens two pounds of feed and get back one pound of meat (and bones.)  Third party studies of pastured Cornish Cross chickens report a rate of 3.5:1 at the best, so this is what I'm aiming for.  And I fell far, far short --- more on that tomorrow.

Our chicken waterer keeps broilers at peak health with unlimited clean water.

This post is part of our 2011 Chicken Experiments lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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The industry is lying when they say Cornish-Cross have a feed conversion of 2:1. I just raised 60 Cornish-Cross broilers and it was closer to 4:1. Don't get me wrong, they will eat like crazy. It's almost disturbing to see them literally swarm the food trough.

What was disappointing was how much raw grain and mash was in their manure. It simply passed through their bodies unused. I don't think I will raise the Cornish Cross again for broilers. I am interested in trying a batch of the Freedom Rangers.

I am very interested in your breed choices for a self-sustaining flock. Ultimately we will do the same.

I don't post comments much, but I love reading your blog daily.


Comment by Whit Thu Oct 6 15:21:24 2011

Yeah, I kinda figured you should take the industry's figures with a grain of salt. :-) I do think that 3.5:1 is possible in optimal conditions (if the birds don't have to spend any energy walking to the feed trough or heating themselves up or cooling themselves down.) 4:1 is probably much more realistic for a backyard operation.

Thanks for commenting with your experience --- it's unusual to hear from another backyard broiler raiser who actually keep stats on feed to meat ratio!

Comment by anna Thu Oct 6 15:35:39 2011
The industry figures would also be for birds fed a daily dose of prophylactic antibiotics to promote weight gain. Not something we backyarders want to get into!
Comment by Darren (Green Change) Mon Oct 24 22:03:27 2011
I definitely agree that we don't want to mimic the industrial system. On the other hand, I think we should hold their results up as the bar we want to surpass --- surely we can raise a chicken on less storebought feed on a diversified homestead than they can in their industrial facilities!
Comment by anna Tue Oct 25 12:37:35 2011

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