Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Chicken for dinner?

I happened to be in a feed store on April Fool's Day, and if you've ever been in a feed store in spring, you know that they often have chicks, ducklings, and turkey poults for sale. I've always ignored these little birds, because we've bought large quantities of baby birds directly from hatcheries. I don't know what inspired me that day, but I decided to buy eight of the Cornish cross chicks.

Cornish cross are the hybrid chickens that are sold in supermarkets, and they're the number one chicken raised for meat by small farmers, including Joel Salatin, who is one of the gurus of the better-than-organic food movement. We have never raised them, because they're prone to all sorts of medical and orthopedic problems. Besides that, one of the reasons we moved out here was to raise heritage animals. Like heritage turkeys, heritage chickens can mate naturally and fly, and they are extremely healthy. They have almost zero mortality or orthopedic problems.

But "everyone" tells us we should raise the CC hybrids. The Amish who process our chickens for us have told us more than once that we should be growing the Cornish crosses, because they get so much bigger than our heritage chickens. Other farmers talk to us like we're clueless, and they're going to enlighten us -- don't you know how big CC chickens get? Maybe I decided to do my little experiment with the CC because I was just tired of not having my own experience to share. You can't believe everything you read, right? So, maybe I should give the little mutants a chance and see if they are as great as "everyone" says.

My son met me in the driveway as I was getting out of the car. I had called from the feed store and asked him to get a brooder ready. "Cool!" he said as he looked at the little box I was holding. "So, we'll have chicken in three or four months?"

"No, we'll have chicken in six weeks," I said. He looked at me silently as if thinking that I were joking.

"Are they organic?" he asked.

"Well, we'll raise them that way, but they're the mutant chicks that grow really fast," I explained.

A flurry of questions came from him and later from my daughter, who asked incredulously, "You're not going to eat them, are you?"

"Well, I don't think that eating eight of them is going to kill us. They'll be our junk food for the year." I laughed. She didn't see the joke.

"I can't believe you're going to eat them." She sounded genuinely disappointed.

When I posted the news on the Antiquity Oaks Facebook page, someone said that I should get eight heritage birds to compare them side by side. What a great idea! So, the next day I went back to the feed store and bought eight barred rocks. I also bought a separate bag of feed, so we could keep track of the food intake of the two breeds individually.

The first thing I learned is that you do have to restrict their feed intake. One of the eight mutant chicks died at a week of age. They already weighed 50% more than the heritage chickens at that point. Although the feed store gave us no information on raising them, I knew that many of the hatcheries advise you to provide feed for only 12 out of every 24 hours. (This photo shows the chicks at two weeks of age.)

"I can't believe we're putting babies on a diet!" I told my son, who is in charge of taking care of the meat animals on the farm. "Every night you have to remove their feed, and then put it back in there every morning. I guess it's true that they will eat themselves to death if you let them have access to feed 24 hours a day."

It's been four weeks since they hatched, and the difference is amazing. All eight of the barred rock chicks are still healthy and active. The mutant chicks are half naked because their feathers can't keep up with their body growth. They just sit and eat. They remind me of the stereotypical overweight American sitting in front of the television, mindlessly eating and drinking beer. One of them looks like his back end is going to explode. It's ascite, a common disease in these birds, which leads to heart failure. Basically, he has developed hypertension from all the eating. From what I've read, it sounds like he's going to die prematurely.

Now I'm starting to ask myself -- do I want to eat these birds? They're genetically predisposed to eat constantly and develop hypertension and heart disease. Of course, the industry didn't want to develop a sick bird. They wanted to create one that gained weight really fast, so they could make money faster. The disease is a side effect of growth that outstrips anything nature ever intended. I understand why the Animal Welfare Approved program does not approve farms that raise the mutants. The act of raising these birds -- regardless of what you do -- is not humane.

I feel like Michael Pollan after he grew the genetically-modified potatoes in his garden when writing Botany of Desire. He could never bring himself to eat them, knowing that they contained their own pesticide. He had actually watched a potato beetle die after taking a bite out of a leaf. Yet he also knew that he had been eating GM potatoes, because like all GM food, they are not labeled in stores or restaurants.

These are the chickens that 99% of America eats. They are the only chicken sold in stores and restaurants. What happens to your body if you are eating an animal that is genetically predisposed to over-eating, obesity, hypertension, and heart disease? Since we haven't eaten commercially-grown meat in 21 years, it is not something that I worry about for myself, but it is a question that I have about everyone else who is eating this meat. And since almost everyone is eating this meat, it is a question that no one can answer.

Will we eat these chickens in two weeks? I really don't know. But I do know that I will not be raising them again, and I also know what I'll say next time someone asks me why I don't raise them.


Caroline in NH said...

I felt much the same way after raising these birds for 2 years in a row. Right now I have Chanticlers, and I'm hoping to hatch a bunch for myself and butcher the roosters. They are good layers, and the males are quite heavy-bodied. I'd put them up against CC any day in any category except the quick-growth factor. I've also been known to take in others' "spare roosters." I just tell them that if they don't really want to know what happens to them, don't ask. (I also make it clear that I'm available to show others how to butcher their own birds if they're interested.)

goatlady said...

Thats just not right.

EcoLife said...

I agree, it's fast food at a genetic level. Nothing should get to harvest size that fast. When we raise our own meat birds we won't be choosing CC's. Heritage breeds all the way!

Tammy said...

It's obscene. I eat very little chicken (or meat) these days, mostly because of things like this, and it also has no flavor. I'm not vegetarian (yet) but with things going the way they are, I will probably eventually be there. Anyway, raising animals so that they are crippled and dying or incapable of reproduction says some sad things about our society.

Michelle said...

That was very educational and eye-opening for me...and I'm more then a little grossed out at the moment! That's horrible.

Abiga/Karen said...

The more I read about all these things the more my regular store food turns my stomach and I don't want to eat it. We currently eat as healthy as we can but with a big household here and some people not convinced on every issue we still buy "bad" meat for the most part. Thanks for sharing this as I didn't think much about the issue of our health in eating the Cornish. So many things can be behind the poor health in our country. Hope you get Trouper's training going ok. Blessings.

Sparkless said...

Oh wow! I knew about the turkeys but I didn't know they did that to chickens too. I may end up a vegetarian yet!

Franna said...

We've raised Red Broilers and Poulet Rouge type chickens for the last two years. Much better flavor and flock health! The CC are just wrong.

Heidi Sloan said...

Wow. Just wow. We are getting a batch of Colored/Freedom Rangers in about a week and, after reading this, I'm sure glad we're starting with them. I wouldn't have thought to watch out for the chicks 'eating themselves to death.' I tend to think animals know what they're supposed to do better than we do, but I suppose that's not the case when we breed the sense out of them.

Spring Lake Farm said...

Yeah, it's just not natural (on so many levels)....

Thanks for the post.


Mary said...

We decided to try out cornish crosses this year (and to make up for the required 25 chicks from the hatchery). I really hate these birds. They are sad, gross, and I have reservations about eating them. Our Buff Orpington roosters dressed out really well last year and tasted great. Everyone tried to say CC were better due to not having to feed them as long, but all my Buff O roos survived, barely cost anything on feed as they free ranged and ate garden scraps, and they had a nice white skin. We're hoping our Welsummers, Buff Os, Barred Rocks, and Easter Eggers will have chicks of their own next year. We have two Standard Cochins in hopes they will become our broody hens.

Tara said...

What types of heritage chickens do you raise and what hatcheries do you get them from?

Amy Manning said...

How coincidental, I just finished my own blog entry about my experience: http://amysoddities.blogspot.com/2010/04/raising-cornish-cross-chickens.html

Anonymous said...

This is a timely post for me as we're about to build our brooder and get some broilers. I was thinking CC, but gross, I don't know now.

Thanks for submitting this to RFW.

Deborah @ Antiquity Oaks said...

Tara, we have raised quite a variety of heritage chickens -- buff Orpingtons, speckled Sussex, salmon faverolles, silver laced Wyandottes, Rhode Island reds, New Hampshire reds, and more. The only ones I would not recommend are the faverolles, as they have the tiniest breast I've ever seen on any chicken. There is a picture here of a stew hen (3-4 year old heritage hen) after processing, so you can see the difference:

I also explain more on heritage chickens on this page:

As for hatcheries, we've tried McMurray, Privett, Ideal, and Cackle, and my favorite is Privett. Unfortunately they no longer have online ordering. Unlike a lot of hatcheries though, they really do hatch! In fact, they have one of the largest heritage turkey farms in the country. Cackle is the cheapest, but there is no consistency from one year to the next when you order a certain breed from them, probably because the birds are coming from a variety of flocks. The last time we ordered from them we got buff Orpingtons that weighed 2.5 to 3.5 pounds at 4.5 months, which is way below the average weight for that breed and far less than any we've ever raised.

Anonymous said...

Wow! What is the protein content in the feed you were feeding them? I'm curious, I grow the white rock here in Canada, free range/pasture grown and although they do grow faster, they don't look as red or plump as yours.. Just curious. I'm trying my first batch of heritage this summer.


Deborah @ Antiquity Oaks said...

Lu, it's only 20%, which was the lowest I could find for starter. Some suggest 22 or 24%. It's the same feed that the barred rocks are getting. I wonder if you have a different strain in Canada, because I found a Canadian site that said to prevent ascite, you should make sure feed is available at all times -- exact opposite of what the U.S. advice is.

Diane@Peaceful Acres said...

Poor things. We bought Freedom Rangers this year from J R Hatchery, for their slow growing bodies. They are raised the Label Rouge way that was a feature article in Acres USA last March. Yesterday they were moved outside. Other than that they all made it through a 32* night. Today they are 3 wks old and will hopefully fair better than the Cornish x. They will be on pasture for no less than 81 days and max 120.

Ellen said...

I had no idea how horrible and prevalent this problem is. Somehow I always pictured the heavy, immobile factory chickens from "Food, Inc.," not the chicks they must have been first. It's an incredibly sad situation.
I agree: How can we begin to measure the health effects when almost everyone is eating these modified birds?

Christy said...

How interesting. We just got some Buff Orpingtons and Delawares from a friend. It is our first try at chickens. Glad we went with heritage breeds.

rachel whetzel said...

Thank you so much for sharing what you've learned so far!! I own heritage chickens. Never plan to own the Cornishes.

Twwly said...

We raised those once and will never do it again.

They didn't act like chickens. It all felt wrong.

Karmyn R said...

Whoa. What an amazing post. My husband grew up on a farm and every spring his parents would buy 100 "fryers" (leghorns) and do the butcher and freeze in early summer.

We have 12 hens purely for eggs and now that I've seen this, I might give into his desire to raise some poultry for eating. (or I just might make a trip to the local organic poultry farm and buy their chickens).

Anonymous said...

My boyfriend Sam and I have raised these birds for two summers now. I really agree with what you are saying and the state of the poultry industry in our grocery stores. I also agree with you that these cornish cross's are to be honest distgusting...However, my boyfriend and I do a completely different approach. Instead of an 8-12 week slaughter we tried to stretch to 16 and it worked! We completely pasture raised them.At first starting in chicken tractors and then creating a good size run for them. We only fed them at night. During the day they foraged all day eating slugs, worms, ticks you name it...we were completely amazed! Everyone looks at us like we are crazy because youare apparently suppose to shovel grain down their throats,but we too put these birds on a diet.


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