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The Difference Between Cornish Cross Hybrid Chickens, Red Ranger Hybrid Chickens, and Heritage Chickens

When you go to the grocery store, the chicken you buy is almost certainly a Cornish Cross chicken. This chicken is a four-way cross between two different lines of the White Cornish breed, and two different lines of the White Rock breed. The result is a chicken that grows to enormous sizes in just 8 weeks. The breast on these chickens is massive - a single breast from a Cornish Cross chicken can weigh more than what a 16-week-old meat chicken from the 1940's would weigh!

The Cornish Cross is a hybrid chicken, which means if you breed one Cornish Cross to another, they will yield offspring of many different body types. Why use two different breeds to make these behemoths? Because they grow so fast that they have health problems and will die before they reach reproductive age. Cornish Crosses are also lazy -- their massive weight means that they can't walk and forage on pasture the same way that heritage chickens can. Because of this, the meat is very soft -- mushy even (except for the breasts which sometimes are affected by woody breasts as a result of their rapid growth). As a result of their sedentary nature and young age at processing, the meat from Cornish Cross chickens is not as flavorful as from chickens that live longer and have active and healthy lives on pasture. We do not raise Cornish Cross chickens at all.

We will sometimes raise hybrid meat chickens, though -- if they are of slower growing and more active breeds. Most of these chickens are known as "Red Ranger" chickens because they have reddish feathers. These are also hybrid chickens (the exact breeds are closely guarded secrets, but they likely involve the breeds raised for meat before factory farming, like the Delaware, New Hampshire, Plymouth Rock, and Rhode Island Red. These chickens are usually ready for butcher at 12 weeks, and because the grow a little more slowly, they can forage actively on pasture and develop better flavor and texture than the Cornish Cross. Their breast is not as freakishly large as that of the Cornish Cross, and they are a bit meatier than heritage chickens. We sometimes raise hybrid red broilers early in the season before the heritage breed that we hatch out on farm is ready for processing.

Our favorite chicken to raise and eat are heritage chickens -- these are breeds of chickens that existed before factory farming, that breed true, are active foragers, and are ideal for pasture based systems! These chickens take longer to grow out, and are butchered at 16-20 weeks old. Their meat has a firmer texture, and getting to 4 months plus before processing allows much richer flavor. Their bones also make much better stock than those of the hybrids. Most of the heritage chicken we offer on farm is of the American Bresse breed, reputed to be one of the best tasting chickens in the world, and hatched right here on the farm. One flaw that American Bresse have is that they are slow to start laying in spring, so we will sometimes raise a batch of heritage chicken from hatchery in order to have something to offer before July. Although these chickens are more active and independent, they cost more to raise and hence the price per pound is higher than our hybrid chicken. We can also process some at 10-12 weeks old for a tiny but tender and flavorful game hen type of chicken.

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