Differences between raising heritage chickens and cornish cross for meat (part 1)

Today we harvested our five biggest heritage cockerels and it was an eye-opening experience. We didn’t kill them because of the 4 am crowing, or the fact that one of them bit our daughter, or because we are in dire need of adding more chicken to our freezer.  We did it because this is why they are here, why we are raising them.  We are exploring the sustainability of heritage breeds, as well as taking note of our experience raising different breeds.  They are here to feed us, and we thank them for their role.  We took the opportunity to compare to a batch of cornish cross chickens we also raised for meat, and in this post I’ll go over some of the key differences in the actual raising of the birds.

In planning this series of posts, I knew it would be worth talking about taste and texture, which is an important factor for consumers.  But I’m not just going to talk about taste and texture, because let’s face it, that’s not the only thing people really care about.  The more we learn about how chickens are bred, raised, and processed, the more we question the values involved and whether it is all really worth it to save a few bucks.  How it tastes is really a small part of the story for people who eat chicken.  People want to feel good about the animals from day one.  We wanted to experience the differences first hand, and now we’ll share what we learned.

Heritage chicks In the brooder

We got our chicks from a local supplier, and I cannot speak to the conditions at the breeder.  But once we got them home into our brooder, I was surprised at how much more active and curious they behaved compared to cornish cross chicks.  I’m not saying there were completely black and white differences between the two, but these little heritage chicks were definitely more like what you’d hope to see in chicks.

Heritage Breed Cockerel Chicks
Heritage Breed Cockerel Chicks

So already we’re more into the heritage chickens.  They seem healthier, they act funnier, and we feel good.  We watch them grow.

The next difference I observed over the first 3 weeks was how completely terrified the heritage chicks were of us.  Refilling water may as well have been the day of reckoning for them.  They ran and jumped and basically lost their marbles anytime we tried to give them their necessities.  This is a reaction that was surprising to me after having raised many cornish cross chicks, who, for the most part, ignored us when we replaced food and water.  Some of them would run and get nervous, but this reaction was much less pronounced and only happened with a portion of the birds.  Interesting stuff!

Cornish Cross Chicks
Cornish Cross Chicks

As they grew larger and the feathers started coming in they began to practice running and jumping and even sort of flying.  I added a roosting stick for them and loved watching them practice jumping and flying up to it and relaxing.  At first only a few of them used it, but eventually they would all line up for the night on it, finally calming down a bit.

As an experiment, I offered a roosting stick to our cornish chicks from 3 weeks up to slaughter day.  I never saw them use it.  Instead they always huddled together on the ground, basically snuggling for warmth, with their heads resting on each others’ backs.

Heading outside with the heritage chicks

Once the feathers were in, we brought the heritage chicks out to a chicken tractor I’d made.  They immediately pecked and scratched at the earth, instincts coming in like I flipped a switch.  They seemed to be more and more comfortable as time went on.  Cornish chicks did the same, pecking and scratching and seeming much more lively and, well, normal, out on pasture.

Heritage Breed Cockerels for meat
Heritage Breed Cockerels on Pasture

The biggest difference I observed in the first few weeks outside was that the heritage breeds would often sprint around flapping their wings with great power and excitement.  The cornish chickens rarely used their wings, and when they did the flapping was minimal in comparison to the heritage chickens.  In a way, this was problematic for a meat farmer, as it could be construed that more activity means tougher meat.  I am not sure that difference is worth mentioning though.  The real problem with the different activity levels would come later, when it came time to catch the birds for processing…  More on that in the next post.

Feeding Heritage Chickens and Feeding Cornish Cross Chickens

One of the most important differences to point out is how each type of chicken eats.  It is well known that cornish cross chickens devour food like machines, and often develop health issues as a result of their high growth and compulsive gobbling of feed.  To solve this you have to restrict feeding, which, while easy enough, does require more time maintaining a flock overall.

cornish cross chickens in tractor with restricted feed
Cornish Cross Chickens on Pasture

Heritage chickens do not require restrictive feeding practices.  They don’t overeat, and blatantly prefer scratching around and eating plants and bugs.  Because of this, you can leave their food out all day, and only fill it when it is getting empty.  This means less work overall.  It also means the chickens will not get sick as easily as the cornish cross breed.

Heritage breed health

We had a 95% survival rate this year with cornish cross chickens, which, while relatively great, means we did lose a couple of birds to health issues.  This stressed us out, as a lost chicken at a later stage in development is a loss of money and/or food for the year.  I was always taking time to study the cornish cross chickens closely to identify any health risks as early as possible.  This is just the way it is raising high growth breeds.  As we approached harvest date, I did decide to cull two birds based on observations.  Even with our restrictive feed practices and pasturing, these birds are prone to health issues unfortunately.  We’re thankful to have experienced an excellent survival rate, but the added stress and maintenance is something we do not take lightly.

Heritage breed cockerel chickens for meat
Heritage Breed Cockerels Free Ranging

We have had a 100% survival rate with the heritage chickens.  I have watched them closely every day, and not one of them seems even close to sick.  Weak is not a word to describe these heritage chickens.  They are fast, loud, and hilarious to watch.  I don’t worry about them developing health issues.  I’m not even that worried about predators, having seen how quick they are.

The amount of time required for heritage chickens

There is no denying that raising heritage chickens costs the farmer more in feed and time.  Heritage breeds have not been bred specifically for meat, so they do not “convert” feed to meat as well as the impressive cornish cross.  And it takes heritage chickens longer to reach market weights.  These statistics from this year’s harvest sum it up pretty clearly:

  • Average processed weight of cornish cross on restricted diet harvested at 7 weeks: 5.2 lbs.
  • Average processed weight of heritage chicken harvested at 15 weeks: 3.3 lbs

That’s an average of 1.9 more pounds of meat per chicken, two months sooner.  It’s no wonder the vast majority of folks raise the cornish cross breed!  But then again, that’s just looking at the economics.  Should economics be the only factor in the food we eat?

Black heritage breed cockerel for meat

I’ve summed up the differences in processing these two types of breeds in the next post in this series, which you can check out by clicking here.

And in a third post we talk about how the actual meat tastes and cooks, which you can read by clicking here.  (Spoiler alert: Mmmmmmmm)

Advertisements