This summer we plan on embarking on a new agricultural adventure — not commercially, but just as a hobby for ourselves: raising chickens. Although we have friends and family with experience raising chickens, for us it is a completely new and somewhat scary prospect. Having living creatures depending on us for sustenance is a responsibility of great weight.
Our first decision has been choosing a breed. The issue of breed is actually quite an interesting and important story. The almost universal choice for broilers (chickens raised for meat) among both confinement and free range farmers is the Cornish Cross, a breed developed in the 1950s for confinement houses. This breed was designed to grow very fast and to have a high proportion of breast meat. Unfortunately, when one selects for certain traits (such as quick growth), other traits get neglected. And so the Cornish Cross is a very frail animal. Its growth rate outstrips its internal organ development. It can’t walk well and easily becomes ill, which is why confinement operations feed a steady supply of antibiotics.
Sustainable farmers raising birds outside have corrected most of the unsustainable and downright sickening aspects of confinement poultry. But they continue to use the same breed, the Cornish Cross, which is designed for a confinement operation and although it certainly enjoys more humane conditions outside, it is not necessarily healthier. It is not a breed intended to range on grass, and it typically doesn’t. Cornish Cross birds raised outside certainly taste better than confinement birds because they tend to be fresher and cleaner, but their flavor is not that of older, heirloom breeds.
So it would seem obvious that sustainable farmers should use an older breed more suited to life outside. But they don’t. The reasons are largely economic. Because the Cornish Cross grows so quickly, it is efficient and profitable to grow. Many consumers already balk at the price of pastured poultry. If the cost increased significantly due to the slower growth rate of an heirloom breed, the market would likely just shrivel up in most places. To make matters worse, people have become accustomed to the large portion of breast meat of the Cornish Cross, and wouldn’t be satisfied with the heirloom alternative. Pastured poultry guru Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm has admitted that his use of the Cornish Cross is the least sustainable aspect of his operation. Still, as he says, there is no market for heirloom meat birds.
I don’t fault farmers at all for using the Cornish Cross for commercial production, because it really does seem to be the only economically viable option within our current culture and view toward food. Perhaps the real answer lies in a new breed which grows quickly but has better genetics for health and ranging. Unfortunately, there is little profit to be made in such work, though some are trying.
Fortunately, for those raising chickens as a hobby or for the pleasure of it, there are alternatives. After much research, we’ve settled on the Delaware breed, a dual purpose breed developed in the 1940s and intended for commercial production of both meat and eggs. In fact, it was the universal choice for commercial production until the introduction of the Cornish Cross in the 1950s. The Delaware is a relatively quick-growing bird, though it requires about 12 weeks (double that of the Cornish Cross). Another option is the Freedom Ranger breed, which was developed in the 1960s in France. But we’ll probably choose the Delaware for nostalgic reasons (it’s my home state). Either breed will have much less breast meat than a Cornish Cross, though I agree with Mario Batali that the breast meat is the least interesting part of the bird. I would happily trade more flavorful dark meat for a reduction in white. Just as important, the Delaware is a friendly, docile bird, but happy to range on grass (though all chickens derives most of their diet from grain). A big part of our interest in raising chickens is to give our young children an experience of livestock on the farm. Our three year old asks all the time about when we’ll be raising the chickens.
I’m not sure the enterprise will be profitable or the best use of our time from an economic point of view, but that’s not the point. Our hope is to get our feet wet with livestock while giving our boys an important experience and providing our family with a truly humanely-raised chicken.