On chickens, and meat birds


Coming soon to a field, then dinnerplate, near us

Welp, I have placed my meat bird order yesterday. We should get them in a week.

So: did you know that Cornish game hens were simply really young chickens, and not necessarily hens at all? As a kid I was under the impression that these precious tiny things on our dinner table were something very exotic. Nope; we were just eating babies! Cornish chickens were developed around 1870 in Cornwall, England, out of a couple strains of southeast Asian chickens and some local heavier-bodied birds: in the breed’s native Cornwall, they are called Indian Game birds because of their heritage. “Game” birds, in chicken parlance, mean cock-fighting birds. Asils and Malays, the predominant Cornish ancestors, are skinny, big-boned, fight-inclined things with powerful long legs. Cornish chickens are heavy, long-legged, upright birds with close feathers and a fat and fleshy breast.

Most of the roasting chickens you eat are white Cornish cross birds, or Cornish X. The cross is usually white Plymouth Rock. Why white, you ask? Well, aesthetics, mainly: white feathers if missed at the plucking won’t look as disgusting as dark ones. The birds we’ll be getting are someplace along this tangled line of crosses with crosses. The Hubbard White Mountain Broilers (who comes up with these names, anyway?), like all the Cornish X birds, have been bred to go from hatched egg to your table in as little as 4 weeks. They are the ultimate production bird.

Chicken history is rather fascinating. It’s more interesting than garden flower history, and at least as interesting as vegetable history, in my humble gardener’s opinion. The hand of the breeder is so very evident in everything that we eat and that we plant.

Now, considering my slow lifestyle and insistence on DIY everything and heirloom breeds of vegetables, why in the world would I consider the most processed of processed bird breeds for my first batch of meat chickens? I ask myself this all the time. I suppose the only answer I can give is that, first time around, I want to make sure it’s a relatively easy process for me (as it is me, myself and I who will be killing, gutting and plucking these creatures). So the very idea that these guys have been bred for such a short lifespan does have a certain appeal. Sorry, babies.

19 responses to “On chickens, and meat birds

  1. so exciting!!!

    I can’t wait to hear how the processing goes for you. I’m all shaky just thinking about doing it, but know that it’s in the future for me. The hens won’t lay forever.

    Once we get a little permanent structure built for them, I’d like to try doing some meat birds.

  2. It’s kinda like home brewing…you start with the kits to give yourself some early success then move on to the more challenging stuff 😉

    As to chickens I just found out that in my town they aren’t allowed which is ridiculous. No horses, cows, buffalo (buffalo??), chickens, ducks, turkeys, etc. Might have to work to change that. I want fresh eggs and the natural lawn care a chicken helps provide.

  3. I can’t wait to hear about this experience. This raising and processing is in the future for me too.

    Thanks for being a trailblazer and letting us learn vicariously through you!

  4. Hooray for spring & chicks. I go pick up my meat chicks next Thursday, can’t wait!

  5. As much as I love this site, I’ll be bugging out for the chicken killing days.

  6. Yes, you are the true DIY girl. I haven’t decided yet whether I will bow out on chicken-killing day or not yet. Of course, my journey with chickens has only just begun, so I figure it’s ok if I’m not at all ready to raise meat birds yet. I may never be, but I’m certainly willing to leave myself open to the experience. Good luck!

  7. Yay! We’re thinking of doing the same thing. In fact we were discussing dispatching methods last night. We may wait and do a late summer / early fall batch instead. We’ve got enough going on right now.

  8. Hi Kelly, yeah, I suppose it’s exciting…gotta lotta work to do before the real fun can begin. But isn’t that, like, the definition of spring? Too much to do?

    Oy, Jkratz, you’re kind of touching on why I never tried to brew my own beer. But speaking of projects we are going to attempt to make our own wine from our grapes this year. I am surprised about that about your town. Usually chickens were exempt: it’s a holdover from the victory gardens from WW2 that they were usually “allowed.” I was surprised they were allowed in Minneapolis when I lived there, for example…

    Angie, you are quite welcome. I can only HOPE many people chase me down my path…makes it worthwhile, you know?

    Kelli, do you get them by the 50 or so? My hatchery was telling me about all these deals I could get by getting them at that number and I am such a penny-pinching noob I actually PAUSED for a minute. Then, of course, common sense took over.

    Pamela, you and my husband. He swears he’ll be out of town on that day, which proves yet again he’s morally bankrupt (as he will gladly be eating them). But don’t worry. I won’t be visually graphic, and I won’t ruin anyone’s breakfasts.

    Danni, well, we are on Year Three of chicken herding. Baby steps, baby!!!

    Laura, well, you guys are certainly taking on a LOT in your first spring of homesteading, so yeah, ease into it. I’m actually a bit jealous of how much you’re doing, but then I look back at my own first days here and realize I was handicapped: I had an infant at the time! definitely puts a damper on hard manual labor on the farm. But anyway, this will be Batch 1 of 2 this year, the second will have turkeys, too.

  9. Wow, you’re doing all the processing yourself!? Kudos. I’m just in charge of feathers here. Jim kills, brings them to me to scald and pluck, then he eviscerates, and I finish with any pin feathers and bag up. That’s our assembly line set up, and it suits me just fine. The most we’ve done is 20 in a day, and that was a mighty grueling day.

    I do the slow growing broilers, which do better on pasture and suffer fewer health problems. I need to get those ordered, speaking of which….

    by the by, thank you for the book recommendation! I’ve been meaning to email you back and well, life and all just keeps getting in the way.

  10. I recently sent off an email to the woman I buy chickens from – asking if I can come and watch on one of her processing days. She brings in help from off the farm – two local women that she tells me are amazingly fast – and, with her husband, the four of them do the job. I figured that I can learn a lot from watching, if she doesn’t mind…

  11. Danielle, sounds like you and Jim have worked out a pretty good system. I have the feeling that’s the way it’ll turn out to be here, after Tom gets over his bluster. (He swears he has a low gag threshold but he sure changed a lot of cloth diapers without a problem.) And I hope you’ll like that book: it will give you a lot of ideas if nothing else! I know completely, too, how life kinda gets in the way. Just glad to learn you got the email.

    Hayden: I have a feeling she would be happy for the help. That’s how I learned how to do it (and I got a free chicken out of it for dinner). I think most farmers really just wish that their customers connected with their food. What better way than to participate in the messy work of butchering.

  12. I ordered my first batch of meat birds, 25 in all. I went with the Dark Cornish. That way my hubbie and I have extra time and wont have to do it on a time crunch. Please post about it so I know what to expect.

  13. Hi,
    I have heard from chicken people that cornish x’s have lots of health problems. I hope you are aware of this. Here’s a link
    and a quote: “Many pastured poultry producers perceive the Cornish crosses to have weak legs, excessive rates
    of heart attacks, a high incidence of congestive heart failure (ascites), poor foraging ability, poor heat tolerance, and other liabilities when raised on pasture. While most producers value their rapid growth rate, others find it unnaturally fast. In most pasture-based production systems, Cornish crosses usually produce a four-pound carcass by eight weeks of age.
    Keeping the birds longer than eight weeks and allowing them to get larger can contribute to even greater leg problems.”


    PS I don’t mean to be too negative- your blog is great!

  14. Michelle: good for you! Where did you get yours from? I think when I get more adept at the meat bird thing I will branch out beyond the Meat Blob birds (CornishX)

    Eva: Thanks! I know they are prone to problems, especially in confinement. I don’t expect them to live beyond 16 weeks, though, and they won’t be confined, so here’s hoping they are all okay. Like I said, for this first go-around, I really wanted a bird that looked and acted differently than my egg-laying pampered pets. Cornish X was the ticket. My heart will be hardened and later I will probably venture into different chicky territory.

  15. el
    sorry I didn’t resond until now, I just read your reply. I got my chicks from Murry McMurry, 25 chicks and shipping was $63. I thought it was reasonable. I’ll blog on the progress, taste, etc. Children in the Corn blogger recommended them last year, I am hoping to keep a few for next years batch. We’ll see.


  17. I’ve got a chick in my tub for the last week because of a leg problem… Breeding birds so fast/big so they are crippled before old age – sinful! Shameful! Disgusting!

    I would no sooner eat this bird or any other animal for that matter. Man does not need “meat” to survive. We exist fine on a plant based diet. It is better for human health, better for the planet and certainly better for the animal. Eating flesh is so cruel… so gross – Go Vegan

  18. Thanks, Michelle. I know Angie has had fair success with her chicks; I hope yours went well!

    Hi Ray! Your experience mirrors mine. Some of them really just do not have the food-regulating mechanism at all. Makes me think of some “reality-based” tv shows in which rather heavy people are set up to lose immense amounts of weight for our public enjoyment. Like these sad chickens, I am not sure how much they control, especially if crappy food is everywhere.

    Hiya Bea. I agree with you. Even as an agnostic there is something quite sinful in the idea that some birds can’t ever even have a decent standard of living because we’ve messed so much with their genepool that they’re bound to ascites at 6 weeks is nothing but a bad idea. However. I do have, and maintain, a decal on the back of my car from PETA that says “GO VEG” in the shape of a carrot that looks exactly like one of those Jesus fish. In other words, sure, we can all go vegan, and by doing so we can all starve. Or we can go vegetarian and most can live. Or we can become compassionate carnivores and try to find a balance on this earth, wherein we all live. OR…we can all continue down this current path and starve. You can see where my choice lies, can’t you?

  19. I just discovered your wonderful blog! We are preparing for our first Cornish Rock meat chicken delivery (June 16) — 30 birds from the Ideal Hatchery in TX — and I’m trying to prepare. You have covered the subject well…
    I also blog http://www.farmlet.wordpress.com, and would like to use your wonderful photo of Cornish Rocks in this week’s post called “Chicken Guilt.” I’ll credit you, of course. Is this okay? Thanks!

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