Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Meat Birds

If you were reading last spring, you'll remember our cute new chicks, ordered from Murray McMurray and living under a light in the garage. My aim was to have a laying flock small enough to subsist mainly on household food scraps, since feed has been so expensive. We had friends who also wanted a small flock, and so I ordered 10 Cornish Cross meat birds to make the 25 bird minimum order.

The meat birds were something of an afterthought, but I was curious about what they would be like. We have killed and eaten our too-old-to-lay-anymore flocks, with varying success. It took me years to figure out how to cook those "tough old biddies". I wondered if it was possible to raise meat as tender as what we bought in the supermarket, or, as the animal rights people claim, if you had to confine chickens to small areas to get that sort of meat.

I have raised mail-order chicks more times than I can count, and I approached the job like a cook with a familiar recipe. I skimmed the direction, but I didn't worry too much, especially since it was May and the weather had warmed up. But raising those Cornish Cross birds was a very different chicken rearing experience. They simply have no "off switch" on their appetites. They would eat until they passed out with their heads in the food dish. Here is a picture of the difference in size after only a few weeks. We had some that had leg problems at only ten days. I had to ration the feed more closely and give them extra B vitamins.

Our friends had wanted some banties, and I had worried about the big meat birds picking on the little banties. I turned out to have the opposite problem. The meat birds were so sparsely feathered and moved so seldom that the smaller more active chickens started picking on the meat birds' bare patches. When we moved them out to the barn, the laying breeds readily took to running up and down the ramp to the outside pen, but only a few of the meat hens could make it. My account of their behavior at that time read like this:
I've had quite a time trying to keep their breasts from being soiled by laying in dirty straw. When I put this bird down to take a photo next to a normal sized hen, it pooped a copious pile, then immediately lay down in its own poop, as if it couldn't fathom the idea of making a choice where to lay down.

This is what they looked like at 8 weeks. We didn't time the project very well, as they should have been slaughtered then, but we don't like to slaughter in the heat of summer. When we did slaughter in September, they were huge, and I wasn't sure if they would fit in the freezer, so we only did the roosters. We had 5 roosters to kill, but they were so delicate that one died the night before, apparently from the stress of being caught and carried. So we killed 4 roosters, and I thought it was great because the hens started laying eggs the next day, well before our laying birds the same age had begun to produce.

Cornish Cross are not a laying breed, though, and my plan to keep some meat "on the hoof" instead of in the freezer was a bust. Very soon those hens were laying very large eggs and two got "egg-bound" and died. One more died of no apparent reason, it didn't even get sick, just died one night. The last hen is still in the barn, not very mobile, but surviving along with the layers.

I would characterize the whole project as a flop, except for one thing. The meat was amazing. I saved the smallest rooster to roast whole, all 13 pounds of it, and it was our Thanksgiving dinner. The meat was tender and nearly without fat. I packaged the rest of them as legs, skinless split breasts, soup bones, and stock. With three of us home now, one split breast, about a pound and a half of meat, makes a meal with leftovers. I was wondering if we could raise meat that wasn't as tough as an old tire. What we got was some of the best chicken I've ever eaten, meat that makes those supermarket birds look third rate.

Would I raise these birds again? Probably not. With the price of corn going so high, it makes more sense for a backyard bird to grow a little slower and be less dependent on the feed store. If I was growing grain for market, and had lots of corn to spare, I would raise Cornish Cross chickens again, but start them later in the year so that they would be slaughtered in October. And I would--duh!--read the instructions and follow them to a T.

Do I think that breeding these birds is intrinsically wrong? No worse than the over bred specimens in the dog world.

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