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Raising Cornish Rocks for Meat

We processed all of our meat birds this past spring.  Raising the popular Cornish rock chicken for meat was a first for me, after having raised free range chickens. I swore for most of my farming life that I’d never raise them, based on the opinions and observations of others. Like many things, I tend to form different opinions once having the experience myself and this was no different. Having said that, there is a definite difference between raising dual purpose breeds, free-range style, and raising Cornish rocks. I will share what I learned over the past 11 weeks.

My original opposition to raising Cornish rocks was – and still is – the inability for me to breed them myself. It kind of goes against my view for a self sufficient farm in that I still have to source, order, and invest a chunk of money before the chicks even get here.  I much prefer a breed of chicken I can breed, incubate, and hatch myself. Very little initial investment.  In this case, the birds came with very little initial investment and I thought this would be a great opportunity to get some hands on experience in an area I have never been.

Other reasons I have steered clear of these birds was because “everyone else” said they are stinky, messy (“all they do is lay around in their poop and eat”), don’t move around, won’t forage (meaning they rely 100% on their broiler feed) and perhaps the biggest turn off for me was that they lack quality of life, get so huge they can’t move, and can suffer heart attacks or leg issues due to their rapid growth.  I have heard of people butchering a good size Cornish rock in as early as 6-8 weeks. The general timeframe for butchering is 10-12 weeks. We butchered birds at 10 and then 11 weeks and the majority of the birds were between 4-5.5lbs. This was the size we were aiming for.  We could have gone a little longer if we had wanted to for a bigger bird.

I can confirm that they are messy.  As chicks in the brooder, I was cleaning the brooder out on a daily basis due to all the poop.  These types of birds are machines. They will eat as long as food is in front of them (which is why a suggested 12 hrs of feeding and 12 hrs of food removed Is recommended).   But as chicks they were as active as any other chick I have raised – even trying to fly out of the brooder, until they got so heavy they could no longer fly high.

Once we moved them outdoors, the mess wasn’t so bad.  I built them a coop that sat on the ground (because meat birds don’t roost – the risk of leg injury is too great if they were to land wrong off the roost.  These guys are not the most graceful) and fenced in a grassy area for them to enjoy.  I have heard over and over again that the birds won’t forage, but regardless I wanted them to have plenty of room to walk around, lay in the sun or take a dirt bath under the trees, and I had hoped they would eat something green.  Because they had grown so heavy, they couldn’t fly over the 4 ft fence that surrounded their pasture.  Also, because they had grown so heavy, they couldn’t fly from, or run fast from, predators and I felt it was in their best interest to remain pastured vs. free ranged. It also made it easier to feed them – I don’t feed my layers broiler mix, so having the meat birds pastured meant I could feed them their broiler mix without my layers partaking.  I noticed they didn’t move as much as my free range chickens and probably wouldn’t have moved further than what I had fenced in, anyway. I like my free range birds, so I kind of felt bad for pasturing the Cornish rocks.

Happily, they seemed to have a great quality of life.  They enjoyed grass (but didn’t know what to do kitchen scraps), scratched and bathed in the dirt, laid in the sun, played in the water, had enough sense to put themselves in the coop each night, and behaved like, well, chickens.

I did notice they seemed to be a little lacking in the common sense department. I lost a few to overheating/suffocation because the group seemed to like to be exactly where everyone else would be night– even if that meant piled on top of one another.  We had a couple heat lamps through the brooder at the correct height that everyone was happy under during the day, the weather wasn’t very cold, I would break up the pile several times before going to bed however they still piled back on at night. I watched them one night and saw that once one bird sat on anothers head, the one being sat on didn’t fight to get his head out from under the other chicken.  Some died this way.  I also noticed some young roosters learning to fight with one another as young roo’s do.  As soon as one grabbed the others comb, it laid down and refused to fight back.  Another thing – if the chickens run out of food at any point during the day when food is available, they would start eating one another. Wings were the biggest problem – they’d peck to the bone very quickly if you didn’t notice it right away.   We didn’t feed through the night but I had to put food down as soon as I let them out of the coop in the morning and laid enough out to last all day.  In the end, this was an entire 50lb bag of food. Every day.  We were raising over 100 chickens at a time.

Let’s look at cost. It cost us more than it needed to the first few weeks because we were buying name brand chick feed at our local farm and pet supply store.  I later found a grain mill about half an hour away that mixes their own feeds and sold all the food I bought (for my entire farm, including the meat birds) for much less – some as much as $13 less than the store I used to frequent.  Shavings were cheaper, also (I wish I would have known about them sooner!). I think I kept pretty good records on feed because I wanted to track our expenses but I am questioning if I kept track of the feed the first few weeks.  We went through 43-50lb bags of feed in 11 weeks, and the last several weeks we were feed one bag per day. I did not keep track of shavings, or the cost of running the heat lamps in the brooder (we built the brooder, it was 12×3), or calculate the extra cost of additional feeders and drinkers (however the cost of those will be absorbed into future chicks).  With feed costs alone, our chickens broke down to be less than whole chicken at the store.  If you take your birds to be processed at a licensed facility there is usually a cost of about $2-3 per bird.  Additional expense includes the cost of the chick at the time of purchase (if you buy them at full price from your farm supply store, or order them in bulk you still need to include this expense).  We processed the birds ourselves, and the cost of the chicks was minimal due to a great deal. Typically the birds cost about $2 each at farm stores, but you can find better deals if you order them from a hatchery.

My goal is not to compete with the store, although my husband is always trying to find ways to make things cheaper.  My goal is to put home raised meals on the table, but they do have to be affordable.  I don’t mind the labor involved with home raised food – it tastes better and is more often than not cheaper than what you can buy in any store anyway.  I am happy with the outcome, cost-wise, and I know if we ever do this again I can start off with cheaper feed right from the start, and perhaps buy in bulk for an even greater discount. I have an idea of how much feed they go through and I can be prepared and mindful of ways I can do it for less. I know about mid-way when the birds started eating through a bag of food per day that I was really questioning whether this was going to be worth it, cost-wise. Happily, it did work out to be cheaper (especially when you consider the cost of cuts of chicken vs. the whole bird) and I know it can cost even less with our next go round.

We butchered the birds in two days, a week apart.  We gathered a group of people both days who were interested in learning and helping. We paid in chickens (lol) for their hard work with helping.

Learning from my experience, I can look back and see how I could do things a little differently.  The Cornish rocks put out a heavy bird that has more meat than my dual purpose birds will ever have. It’s also in a much shorter time, reducing the risk of predator attacks as dual purpose birds mature much slower. They do eat a LOT.  There is some cost in raising them due to that.  While I have heard of people free ranging them, they must still be fed a broiler feed to bulk up.  I would like to try heritage meat breeds next year – something that bulks up a little more than dual purpose breeds, that I can also breed, incubate, hatch and raise right here on the farm without the repeated investment of chicks every time I want to raise birds for meat.

Would I raise Cornish rocks again? Most likely.

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