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