Archive for the ‘chickens’ Category

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.

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