For years, we have raised chickens here on the farm, both for meat and eggs. The standard breed to raise for meat is the Cornish Cross. It is the same bird that the major producers raise and has been bred for quick development and large breast size. Wanting the best quality meat that we can produce, we raised our birds on pasture and supplemented their feed with locally milled grain, free of animal by-products and chemicals. Last year, I built several pens following the model of Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms, and moved this every day so they would have fresh pasture.
Over the years, though, the Cornish Cross has been hybridized and genetically manipulated by the poultry industry to suit their confined farming style. The Cornish Cross has been bred to put on weight at an astronomical rate, reaching 5 pounds of live weight by 42 days of age. The aim was to produce a bird that basically sits, eats, and grows quickly while producing a lot of breast meat. However, this incredible fast growth is detrimental to the birds welfare and health. Since they have been selected for high muscle-to-bone ratio, the Cornish Cross bird often suffers from joint, ligament, and muscle problems as well as hock burn and other skin ailments. Their heavy weight makes them prone to heart strain and sudden heart failure. Their immune systems have been compromised through selective breeding, and they are susceptible to many infectious diseases. Due to these health concerns, the common practice is to keep the birds on antibiotics their entire, short life. Because of all of these problems, the Animal Welfare Approved association has determined that the Cornish Cross breed "is inherently flawed as a high-welfare pasture-raised bird," and they are encouraging small farmers like us to experiment with other breeds that do not have the problems that the Cornish Cross have.
This year, I am going to switch to an alternative breed of bird to raise for meat. Freedom Ranger Chickens are derived from the American and European old heritage breed of chicken and was developed in the early 1960’s to meet the highest standards of the French Label Rouge Free Range program. Currently, the Freedom Ranger genetic stock is used by most non-factory farm production models (alternative) all across Europe and also by small pastured poultry producers in search of a traditionally raised farm chicken. They are naturally better suited to the higher welfare and all true natural rearing systems (full pasturing, free range, organic, certified, backyard etc.…). They reach 5 to 6 pounds live weight in 9 to 11 weeks. Because they are allowed to grow longer, their meat is more tender and firm. They are also bred for flavor rather than rapid muscle-to-bone ratio. Therefore, they are highly sought after by chefs. As always, our chickens will be pasture-raised, giving them the benefits of exercise and sunshine. I plan to house them in a movable coop with temporary fencing, giving them more space for free range pasturing. We will also continue to feed them with locally milled grains free of antibiotics and animal by-products.
We put several dozen chickens in our freezer from last summer, and are still eating them. I like to roast a bird once a week. We get several meals from the meat, and I put the bones in a pot of water with scrap vegetables to make fresh, natural chicken stock. I generally can get 3 - 4 quarts of chicken stock from 1 chicken.
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