Raising the Cornish Rock Meat Chicken (There, we did it – won’t do it again)

We started keeping chickens after one of those quick trips to TSC during their “Chick Days” a couple years back. Typical, I know, but it wasn’t without research. Before we bought our first chicks I did tons of research. I devoured every “Complete Chicken Guide” and “Top 10 Chicken Tips” article I could find – watched every chicken how-to on YouTube. I read about different breeds, and chicken keeping history, and somehow became quite opinionated on the topic. While I LOVE eating buffalo wings and buckets of friend chicken, thinking about the commercial poultry industry leaves a bad taste in my mouth. So of course, I’ve chosen to only raise heritage chickens and I’m not shy about telling people why. The “Cornish Rock” or “Cornish Cross” or “Cornish X” are genetic freaks, they aren’t sustainable for small farmers, I could go on (and I do – I talk smack on them here). However, my perspective was completely one-sided. I had never actually raised a commercial meat bird, so who was I to knock it?

So, this year we did it.

Since the Cornish Cross is just that, a cross between a Cornish-type bird and some other breed (typically said to be a Plymouth Rock), its exact genetic recipe is guarded by the mega poultry companies that produce them. Their hybrid genetics mean that they won’t breed true: even if two Cornish X are artificially reproduced, the offspring would lack their hybrid vigor and other desirable qualities. You can’t just order Cornish X hatching eggs from a local breeder, so again, we stopped at TSC, which was carrying day-old chicks. We bought 6.

Holy s#!t…

1457061360222.jpgAs day old chicks, there was no visible difference between the Cornish X and any other fluffy little chickee. They would peep and chase each other from the food dish to the water and back. Normal active chicks. The first thing I noticed though, was their appetite. They eat and drink like they’ve never been fed before. All this food consumption started turning into growth quickly. I checked on the chicks to refill food and water twice a day, and I swear they were visibly larger each time I saw them. Tremendous food consumption also means tremendous waste production, and these chicks also got new litter every single day to keep them on dry, clean bedding. As they grew, their activity waned. After a week or so, being fed a non-medicated 20% protein chick starter/grower diet, they had easily doubled in size and most running/chasing behavior had ceased. They plop themselves down in front of the food and gorge until they’re full, maybe taking a few steps to get a drink of water before laying down again.

At two weeks their feathers were coming in, but they had grown so fast there were large tracts of naked flesh between the patches of feather. The breast was nearly naked from constant sitting, and their plump little bodies struggled to balance on top of their stocky legs, even for short periods of time. At this point they were a sight for sore eyes. To keep up with their demand for fresh feed and water, I built a nipple drinker system to give them a constant supply of clean drinking water. Despite being so inactive, they quickly learned to peck the drinkers for water, which they would do with great gusto before drumpfing down again.

Their behavior consisted of laying in front of the feeder, gorging mercilessly, and spurting poop. Oh, and staring at you, wincing between labored breaths.

Three weeks into their growth, their feathering was a bit more complete, making them look more like healthy chickens – but they still acted like sloths. At this point, they wouldn’t even get up to defecate. Their behavior consisted of laying in front of the feeder, gorging mercilessly, and spurting poop. Oh and staring at you, wincing, between labored breaths. Pretty hard to watch. Also, pretty gross. I completely understand why some people think these chickens are “GMO” or pumped full of steroids. They are neither of those things, but by god, they do not seem natural.

After some bad weather in week 3, the meat balls were moved out to pasture on week 4. Sunlight, fresh air, bugs and grass – none of it seemed to matter to these guys. In fact, they voluntarily left the chicken tractor 0 times to forage or move about on their own. The up-side for me was that I could move the tractor, and no longer needed to add a daily layer of clean bedding, but I’m not sure the birds got much benefit from their short time outside.

I processed them at 5 weeks, and this is where the story turns positive. These chickens, which had only been kept for a short time, were enormous. Almost too big to be considered “Cornish Game Hen”. Of the 6, 1 was a cockerel, and 5 hens. They were very easy to catch, and despite such a small “lobe” (the naked skin below the ear), were very easy to dispatch. Evisceration was also a breeze, as their wide carcass gave lots of room to work. This sped things up immensely. I also processed 2 of our heritage roosters that morning, and the comparison was stark: The Cornish X were easier, faster, and looked just like a store-bought chicken.

Cornish X processed at 35 days
Chicken Live Weight Processed Weight
Cockerel #1 5.3lb 4.19lb
Hen #1 4.55lb 3.56lb
Hen #2 4.1lb 3.19lb
Hen #3 4.65lb 3.62lb
Hen #4 4.75lb 3.75lb
Hen #5 4.2lb 3.25lb

Grow fast, die young…

And thus concludes our experience raising the Cornish X. If you’re a Cornish X fan: I get it. There is technically nothing unnatural or wrong with these birds. They seem to eat twice as much, but also grow twice as fast and get twice as big as their heritage counterparts. The whole thing happened so fast. I totally understand the appeal. For economies of scale, where the bottom-line is driving every aspect of operation, there is no other choice. If your business is to produce pounds of meat, as fast as possible, with as little input as possible, the Cornish X is for you!

While this experience backed up many of my preconceived notions of these birds, it also helped me understand the benefits of these chickens. Overall it was a great learning experience, but I probably won’t do it again. I used to think these birds were victims of their environments – that growers were pumping them full of food and antibiotics, and raising them a special way to make them grow. Really, the thing these birds suffer is their own genes. I’ve heard of people doing all sorts of things to get around this. I’ve heard “Restrict the feed, so the bird grows slower!” more than once. My opinion is, if you want a slower growing bird, that doesn’t appear to suffer from simply being alive, there are more than a few others to choose from.

After less than a year keeping the American Bresse, a French heritage chicken, we’re producing our own chicks and sharing humanely-reared, antibiotic-free, pasture-raised roast chicken dinners, and cage-free eggs with friends and family. Our heritage birds keep easy, breed naturally, are beautiful, and taste great!

Update 4/20/2016

I don’t always agree with these types of “documentary” videos, but this one is shot and narrated by chicken farmers themselves, so I wanted to share. It’s not about how the birds are neglected or mistreated –  these farmers care about their birds and they came to the same conclusion about the Cornish X genetics as we did. It’s easy for people like me to be critical, I don’t depend on farming to live and my experience is rather small, but even farmers are saying that these birds are just genetically screwed. Check it out:

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2 thoughts on “Raising the Cornish Rock Meat Chicken (There, we did it – won’t do it again)

  1. Mark Nebodowski says:

    Wow. Your description of the life-cycle of these birds, victims of their own genes, makes me think that if reincarnation is really a thing, I will pray I don’t come back as a Cornish X! This post, as usual, was packed with good, eye-opening information. I’m glad I found this site. Keep up the good work!

    1. Roman says:

      Thanks Mark. If you did come back as a cornish cross at least it wouldn’t be for long!

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