Big Breasts Sell… On Chickens Too

A controversy has been brewing in natural farming circles over a chicken, particularly a big-breasted chicken.  Read on as we describe our chicken thoughts and plans below.

The Cornish X (pronounced Cornish Cross)

Have you heard of this bird?  If you saw Food, Inc, this is the breed that was touted as industrial farming gone mad.  It’s a corn-eating machine.  It can literally go from chick to fully-grown (5 lbs +) in seven weeks.  As Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm says, this is the same growth rate as a radish.  If you eat that huge juicy breast meat at Chik-Fil-A or in your own kitchen, you’re eating Cornish X.    

It’s actually good that the Cornish X lives for only seven weeks.  If it lived longer, it would probably be in terrible pain.  This chicken grows so fast that it often gets too big for its internal organs and legs to keep up.  Broken legs are common in the confinement (chicken house) industry, and are even reported in the free-range model.  This breed was designed by humans and would not survive without them. 

Sustainable Ag’s Reactions

The natural farming community’s reactions to this bird run the gamut.  Polyface Farm has no problem with the Cornish X.  They see the fast growth rate as a huge opportunity for small farms to turn a nice profit (unheard of) with healthy pastured poultry.  Joel’s chickens are raised on fresh pasture and slaughtered in small batches on the farm, resulting in way healthier eating than your grocery store bird.  Joel has a passion for grass farming, and he’s devoted to making a profit as well.  A good combination for a farmer! 

On the other hand, Nature’s Harmony Farm rejects the Cornish X as a sustainable breed.  They believe it’s inhumane to raise this breed outside, as it is designed to live in confinement.  They use heritage chicken breeds exclusively.  Nature’s Harmony Farm breeds, incubates, and hatches out their chicks.  They’re proud to do this themselves and to not rely on hatcheries, which they see as an unsustainable practice.

What We Think… So Far

We haven’t raised chickens yet, so in theory only, we find ourselves in between Polyface and Nature’s Harmony:

  • Taste:  We dine on Polyface’s chicken every few weeks, and man it’s tasty!  Chik-Fil-A and grocery store chicken do not compare.  We’ve heard that slower-growing heritage breeds taste even better, but all reviews we’ve read put the Cornish X (raised on grass) right up there too.     
  • Humane Treatment:  We do agree a little with Nature’s Harmony Farm’s concerns about raising the Cornish X outside.  When we’ve visited Polyface, the birds that are approaching their end look a little lifeless.  Heritage breeds are very active because they have the bodies for movement, not for sitting and packing on the breast meat.   
  • What the Customer Wants in Chicken:  If you’re into cooking and recipes, ask yourself, how many more recipes call for boneless chicken breasts compared to thighs, legs, etc?  Americans have come to love white meat and lots of it!  Polyface’s chicken breasts are nearly always sold out.  Heritage breeds’ breasts are there, but much smaller, sort of like how a D-cup compares to a barely B.    
  • What the Customer Wants in Price:  Would you pay $20+ for a chicken?  Heritage breeds grow out in 12 to 14 weeks, double the time as the Cornish X.  Time means a lot on the farm.  It means double the labor and feed cost, which translates into higher prices for customers.  Nature’s Harmony Farm charges $5 per pound, so that’s at least $20 for a good-sized bird!  I don’t know many people who are willing to dish that out for a chicken.
  • Sustainability:  First off, a farm needs to make a profit to be sustainable.  We agree with Polyface that the Cornish X’s fast growth offers an opportunity for small farms to keep their cash flow going and to make a profit sooner rather than later.  With regards to relying on hatcheries for chicks, we’re not sure this is unsustainable. Barring the Collapse, hatcheries are here to stay.  We’re not planning to put all our eggs into this basket, but we think the sustainable argument can go too far.  Eating olive oil and avocados might be unsustainable because we rely on far-away places to provide them, but we love olive oil and avocados.  Living in modern times is nice.       

 Our Chicken Plan So Far

We want to go both routes and raise both Cornish X and heritage breeds. 

http://www.backyardchickens.com/forum/viewtopic.php?id=325493&p=7

Slow growing 5-week old Cornish X with their adopted mother hen backyardchickens.com forum

We’ve been reading how to raise Cornish X more slowly.  The method is to take away the feed for a certain number of hours.  They eat more grass and stay very healthy and very active, and you end up with a large-breasted bird at the end of about 10 weeks.  Raising these birds will involve ordering chicks from a hatchery, keeping them warm in a brooder for a few weeks, then moving them out on grass.  We can offer these chickens at a lower price point, hopefully close to Polyface’s $3.25 per pound price.

We’re really excited about heritage breeds too.  Back in the days of yore, many small farms bred their chickens and developed strains that were ideally suited for their farm’s climate and growing method.  Wouldn’t that be cool if we still had that?  You could take a country drive and come home with different chickens to sample.  Farms could build reputations on the taste of their particular chicken, like wine producers do in Northern California.

Dark Cornish rooster

The Cornish X’s original parents were a Dark Cornish rooster and a White Rock hen.  We plan to buy these breeds from different hatcheries and start selecting the ones that do best on our farm.  We’ll breed these chickens, hatch out their chicks, and select their progeny based on how well they thrive on our farm, their growth rate, and their breast size.  After many generations of chickens, we’d like to end up with a Sweet Bay chicken that eats lots of grass, grows out in under 12 weeks, tastes really good, and has a C-cup breast. 

White Rock hen and her chicks

What’s your opinion?  If you buy farm-raised chicken, have you ever thought about this?  Do you have a preference for breast meat or do you seek out heritage breeds?

Part of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday.

16 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mriiam on July 15, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    Wow. Thank you for sharing! This is fascinating. As a B-cup human, I’m routing for the little guys :-) It’s not all about size!

    Reply

    • Thanks for reading Miriam! I’m with you rooting for the little guys. Sometimes I think the Cornish X has too much breast meat, and the thighs are the tastiest anyway. Still thinking…still thinking…

      Reply

  2. I think it’s wonderful that you’re giving this issue such thoughtful consideration. As for us, we’re not interested in preaching to others, only sharing the values that we have arrived at. We know, and perhaps you’ll find out, that the quick and easy path to sales (and perhaps profits) is the Cornish X. Consumers expect it and the feed efficiency allows for a lower price. We respect any farmer who works hard to take care of the land, and even though we don’t raise this breed, their fertilizer will benefit your land.

    That said, we operate a VERY natural farming model and mimic nature more than any farm I am aware of. This model requires specific animal characteristics. Whether it’s pigs, turkeys or chickens, the rare/heritage breeds are FAR more hardy. The same goes for a heritage turkey vs. a broad breasted white, which we would never raise. I’ve picked up dozens of dead Cornish X after a rainstorm where not one Poulet Rouge was dead out of hundreds on pasture.

    Finally, we simply don’t see how the Cornish X can be considered to be sustainable. You cannot get them unless you order from distant hatcheries, for the most part, and this becomes yet one more input on your farm. It’s why we made the difficult and time consuming decision to breed and hatch on farm.

    Again, best of luck with your decision. Either way, you’re making a meaningful contribution to the land and your community.

    Tim
    Nature’s Harmony Farm

    Reply

  3. Tim, thanks SO much for reading and commenting! Our minds might very well change when we actually start raising chickens. I’ve been following your and Liz’s farm for a long time, and I really look up to what you’re doing. Wish I lived closer to you all so I could sample some of that glorious cheese!

    Reply

  4. Good post, on an important issue. I’m somewhere in the middle myself, although I am generally skeptical of anything that I feel takes excess advantage of nature in order to meet human tastes. Nita at Throwback at Trapper Creek has written on this topic several times. I’m not on board with her 100%, but her perspective is practical and useful in considering your options.

    Reply

  5. This was a fantastic post (found you through Fight Back Fridays!). I hadn’t thought much beyond the Food Inc. commentary about other options re: heritage birds. Both viewpoints are very interesting and make important points.

    I do think, that as a society we need to take a step back as to why we want so.much.meat at every meal. an entire chicken breast is usually too much for me to eat- especially if I have enough veggies to my meal.

    good luck with making your choice!

    Reply

  6. Posted by Kelly Niles on September 23, 2011 at 9:16 am

    Just going through a bit of your blog. I will hopefully have more time to go though the stuff I should be reading about soil and stuff but chicken topic seemed a little more entertaining.

    We got 5 Cornish X’s this year. They went free range with the rest of our chickens. They got some organic feed, scraps the rest they had to forage. They were 14 weeks when we butchered them and still really healthy. I kept waiting for a few to fall over. They were gigantic. All over 6 and 7lbs. We waited to long I’m sure and I don’t really know because we haven’t eaten one yet. My husband and I needed a some distance from chicken after the butchering.

    I was hesitant about the X’s but they did well on our property (maybe soil isn’t too bad). I do know some folks who have tried the heritage because they didn’t like the idea behind the X’s but went back to the X’s after a year because they didn’t like the taste/texture etc. Maybe it is acquired?

    I am looking forward to exploring this blog more. Thanks for everything.

    Reply

    • Thanks Kelly! I’ve been reading more and more accounts like yours that say Cornish X’s can be really healthy. We plan on growing some next summer. Have you tasted one of them yet? I wonder if they get tough at all at 14 weeks.

      Reply

  7. Great post! I love the balanced middle of the road view on the Cornish x. We to are raising Cornish x and heritage breed on our farm, and I appreciated this article!

    Reply

  8. [...] “I don’t want to see that movie; I like my meat,” people tell me.  Even if they don’t want to hear it, factory farms are hell on earth. Pigs stuffed into gestation crates and standing in their own piles of feces. Piglets –without anesthesia –castrated by workers’ bare hands, and chickens bred to grow “so fast that [they] often get too big for [their] internal organs and legs to keep up.” (Sweet Bay Farm) [...]

    Reply

  9. Posted by Bill on December 26, 2012 at 8:53 am

    As someone who has raised many flocks of chickens, both for eggs and meat, let me give this advice: Your decision lies entirely with your customer base. If you produce in an area where enough people have the money (and desire) to pay $3/lb (or more) for chicken, then go for it. Here in rural Indiana, people are poor and are looking to feed their families the best they can for as little as they can. They can’t afford to be elitists and buy $3/lb chicken. My wife and I raise part-time for family, freinds, and friends of friends and strive to produce a good product at a good price. Even among them, if we can’t match or undercut the supermarkets then there are no sales. These people are not in a position to worry about sustainablity. They are too busy trying to sustain their families. We raise Cornish X on feed and pasture. The pasturing cuts the feed costs, but not by a lot. We don’t make much money on them, but enough that we can help folks out with good-quality, inexpensive meat, pay for our own meat, and have a few bucks left over. Don’t get me wrong, I detest the things. They are dirty, stinky and unattractive, but they have a feed conversion rate better than any other birds out there and isn’t that part of sustainability too?

    Reply

  10. where do they sell these chickens?I do not have room to raise my own.Is this what Sweet Bay sells?

    Reply

  11. I think people need to know the truth about how our food is raised I am glad someone is smart enough to let people know and I will not buy chickens from the people who are ruthless to the animals they are not fit to eat. Good jo0b on the information. hope more people get informed. Thank You Barb Orr

    Reply

  12. […] of domestic cattle and grossly exaggerated seed size in maize (i.e., ears of corn), and those absurdly big-breasted roaster chickens you find at the […]

    Reply

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