Cornish Crosses vs. Rangers

A pair of Freedom Rangers work the pastures at Moxie Ridge

A pair of Freedom Rangers work the pastures at Moxie Ridge

Having raised both breeds of bird this past season, here are my takeaways.

FREEDOM RANGERS

The Rangers were a natural fit at the farm - they were so athletic I switched management systems from pastured to free-range in order to accommodate this natural behavior. They are excellent foragers and love to hunt and chase the tiny creatures - they are also very sneaky about absconding with the goods once they've got their prize. They grow slower than CCs, but not by too much. They are ready for the butcher 1-2 weeks later than a Cornish Cross would be. I also like to process smaller batches in order to offer fresh chicken to my customers weekly, and while it's pricier for me to do so, the chickens continue to thrive as they reach 12-14 weeks.

Milk-finishing also went incredibly well with this hybrid breed. The combination of a high-forage diet with a milk finish resulted in meat that was both savory and delicate. Rangers have a much more even ratio of breast-to-leg meat (which is why they don't have the problems CCs do), and are much closer to the heritage birds I would ultimately like to be raising in taste and make-up than the CCs.

A consequence of the more "natural" bird is leg meat that must be cooked longer in order to reach peak juicy-ness (the meat should fall off the bone when done). For this reason, I think I will start offering breast and leg meat as options with my next round in the fall. 

CORNISH CROSS

The Cornish Cross look GREAT on paper and great in their final packaging. Fast rate of growth, breast meat is half-again as much as a Ranger, and they look familiar on a consumer-level once they are processed and packaged. They also took to milk-finishing incredibly well, and resulted in a very delicate meat. If I were doing this with the single intention of making money, I would be a fool not to raise Cornish Crosses as they have literally been engineered by people to be raised as efficiently as possible while yielding supermarket-style results.

I don't run my farm on paper, however. In real life, even though those CCs came from a reputable hatchery and were bred for pasture-raising, they still fell apart after 10 weeks. By that I mean I was hand-feeding food and water to birds with broken legs and it was heartbreaking.

THE FINAL DECISION:

ETHICS

The reason I decided to raise meat animals in the first place was to do so in a responsible and ethical manner, giving these animals the best possible life before their final day (and to make that final day as stress-free and pain-free as possible). By doing this, I hoped to replace even just the tiniest little corner of the industrial meat system. For me, raising Cornish Crosses is just not aligned with my beliefs and ethics on meat. Conversely, Rangers are a natural fit and are much closer to the heritage meat breeds I hope to be raising one day.

MEAT QUALITY

On the product side, there is no comparison in flavor of a milk-finished Ranger to a milk-finished CC. The depth of flavor along with the moisture and delicacy of a milk-finished Ranger in my opinion is far and away superior to a milk-finished CC - in the same way a farm-raised bird is superior in flavor to a supermarket bird. 

While management practices make an enormous impact on the quality and flavor of meat, no one can change the fact that the Cornish Cross is an industrial breed and ultimately will produce industrial meat.

 

IN SUMMARY

Out of the two, the Freedom Ranger wins. This isn't surprising as I had an opinion going into the season, but this has solidified things for me. The Rangers may not have the breast-to-leg ratio we as American consumers are used to, and they may look a bit different in the final packaging, but even leaving out the ethical questions I'm raising here I'd choose Freedom Rangers.

As we always said in wine, "you can make bad wine from good grapes, but you can't make good wine from bad grapes," and the same goes for cheese and milk. While the Cornish Cross isn't a "bad grape" if it comes from a reputable hatchery, it will always be an animal engineered for the supermarket and while management practices can improve on this, it will never have the health, vigor, or depth of flavor that an animal bred for a farm has. I hope in future seasons to move to heritage breeds, but in the meantime the Freedom Ranger is a perfect fit for Moxie Ridge.

Not So Fast: Cornish Cross

This is an image from Wikipedia showing a "beaked" cornish cross chicken. This is an industrial practice and we DO NOT practice this at Moxie Ridge!

This is an image from Wikipedia showing a "beaked" cornish cross chicken. This is an industrial practice and we DO NOT practice this at Moxie Ridge!

So... an unexpected update on chickens.

Not long after I wrote the previous post on Freedom Rangers and why I'm not doing Cornish Cross, I found out that the previous farm had ordered 200 cornish Cross pastured chickens that had been delayed in delivery. Well, they were delivered last week and I will be raising them alongside my first batch of Freedom Rangers. I'd rather not, but when the post office calls and tells you there's 200 live chicks waiting there... it is what it is.

It's interesting to see them so far. We'll see how the behavior changes as time goes by but they seem to be much more hyper and skittish as chicks than the Rangers. The Rangers are learning who I am, are really active and seem to be growing quite nicely. I'm interested to see any differences in behavior.

The Cornish crossbreed is pretty much designed to not live past eight to ten weeks, and the people that I've talked to and have read about who raise them are pretty clear on the chickens reaching the end of their life by their processing date. (Processing is the farmer word for going to the butcher.) If you come to Moxie Ridge this summer sometime before June you'll be able to see both sets of chickens at comparable ages there only one week apart and you can observe the different behavior and potential health differences as they grow.

I am not planning on ordering anymore Cornish Cross for personal reasons, but I'll do right by this batch. They will be raised on pasture in the same manner as my Rangers.

Freedom Rangers, ho!

The Freedom Ranger(tm) chicken from Freedom Ranger Hatchery

The Freedom Ranger(tm) chicken from Freedom Ranger Hatchery

I have been agonizing over meat chickens. Let me explain.

The type of chicken that we as consumers purchase in the grocery store here in the US is a breed of chicken called the Cornish Cross. It is what is called an "industrial breed" in agriculture. It was developed specifically to produce a ton of breast meat (what we consumers want to buy) and to produce it quickly. A bird that grows quickly means that it needs less feed and care through its life because it will reach eating age faster. So it's more profitable to "produce."

The issue with the Cornish Cross is that it has been bred for these characteristics to the detriment of the overall health of the birds. Their breasts grow so fast that their bones and muscles struggle to keep up and by the time they reach market weight, they can barely stand. Some have broken bones in their legs because their legs literally cannot support the weight of their breasts. The birds that escape these issues simply end up spending their time laying near the feeder once they grow out. This is just one of the many issues with these industrial breeds. (If you are interested in learning more about what happens with this type of breeding, I highly recommend you pick up one of Temple Grandin's books.)

Philosophically, I obviously have a huge issue with this. The Cornish Cross breed is the result of irresponsible, small-minded breeding designed to make a buck and damn the consequences. It is also the meat that consumers expect to purchase when they buy chicken. It is ALSO the cheapest bird to produce as a meat chicken.

While I have made it no secret that my goal is to transition to heritage breed livestock in the future, financially we can't swing it just yet. The previous owners of the property were big proponents of the breed in their own meat bird program, purchasing them through a pastured poultry-specific hatchery that I can only imagine produced healthier specimens than most. I initially agreed to continue purchasing those chicks, as they and their customers had been very happy with them, and I was assured that the extra time to grow a different breed would be a waste of feed and labor. But I felt terrible. I felt like a hypocrite. I put off ordering. I searched for a different option that would make financial sense and not lose money. I was stuck.

Finally, after speaking with a new lady farmer friend about options the other day, the answer finally came. Freedom Rangers. These are chickens that have been bred to grow swiftly in a healthy way. They don't grow as fast as Cornish Crosses and are excellent free-ranging. They also mature to market weight just a couple weeks after the industrial hybrid. Hooray!

I've heard of Freedom Rangers before, but I was not aware that the name had been trademarked. In fact, the only place to get these birds is from the Freedom Ranger Hatchery in Pennsylvania, as I learned from my local farmer friend. 

I'm thrilled to say, Moxie Ridge's first Freedom Ranger chicks will be on their way this week! Even if they do cost more to raise and take a bit longer, I'm happy to pay the price. Who said you can't buy peace of mind? 

Hopefully my customers will feel the same way.

Moxie's Babies

The skittles have arrived.

The kids settling in to their new home in the Baby Barn at Moxie Ridge.

The kids settling in to their new home in the Baby Barn at Moxie Ridge.

In order to grow the herd, we've brought in 16 babies from the illustrious Laini Fondiller at Lazy Lady Farm. These girls (and two boys) will provide the foundation lines for the Moxie Ridge herd for decades to come. These little nuggets are the future of the farm.

Lazy Lady Farm founder Laini Fondiller says goodbye to the kids before their trip to Moxie Ridge

Lazy Lady Farm founder Laini Fondiller says goodbye to the kids before their trip to Moxie Ridge

 

We have 13 Alpines and 3 Saanens. Of those, we've got 2 bucklings (males) - 1 Saanen and 1 Alpine. They are all about 2 weeks old, and so are "bottle babies," and we feed them a combination of fresh goat's milk (thanks Tinkerbell!) and a special milk replacer that helps them grow.

Me and the babies leaving Lazy Lady Farm in the Joy Jeep

Me and the babies leaving Lazy Lady Farm in the Joy Jeep

They've started nibbling on hay and they will start to drink water from their buckets. We'll be introducing some non-GMO solid feed soon for them to start nibbling. Kids grow up so fast, you guys!

So far, the main troublemaker is Milton, the Saanen buckling. Just look for the biggest white blur in any photo and you've found him. He eats enough for two and is trying to mount at 14 days old, so I'm sure we'll have our hands full. Fortunately, he's also a love bug.