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Meat Chicken Comparison

Christine NelsonWhen we set out to raise our second batch of broilers last fall, I really wanted to try out another breed. We had previously raised the Cornish Cross that we ordered from a hatchery out of Missouri.

That breed is fantastic for marketing a pastured broiler. With the large breasts and great size, it looks exactly like what folks who may normally purchase from the grocery store expect a chicken to look like. They range in size from 4.5 to 6 pounds butchered weight. Our spring batch turned out juicy and most of them reached the six pound mark, much larger than we expected. Cornish Cross also are ready for processing in a mere 8 weeks. Very pleasing for our first batch ever.

The broiler mess left after moving the chicken tractors in the morning. 

The broiler mess left after moving the chicken tractors in the morning.

Although this breed grows fast and has all of the characteristics desired by buyers, they do have their downside. They've been so specifically bred that they grow extremely fast and therefore can encounter health problems, resulting in higher bird mortality. They grow fast and so obviously eat ferociously. In fact, that's pretty much all they want to do. You can not free range a Cornish Cross out like your laying hens. They are much more susceptible to predators because they are fat and therefore not quick on their feet. They eat like crazy, so they poop like crazy. Thankfully because we used a chicken tractor they could be moved around to mess a new area each day.

I think anyone who has raised the Cornish knows what a mess they make!

I really wanted to try out a meat breed that acted more like a normal chicken, could free range safely and grew a tad slower, hopefully resulting in a healthier bird.

After comparing a few breeds on the hatchery website, we chose the Pioneer breed. They take 12 weeks to reach maturity and were said to be able to free range more safely. Some people on the site even commented that they raised the hens for layers as well. I wanted to compare what it was like to care for a different breed and what ended up on the dinner table.

When they first arrived, we couldn't tell much of a difference except in color. Just cute, fluffy chicks.

Day old chicks. Pioneer on right, Cornish on left

Day-old chicks. Pioneer on right, Cornish on left.

By week three, there was a distinct size difference between the two.

Pioneer at 3 weeks 

Pioneer at 3 weeks.

Cornish at 3 weeks 

Cornish at 3 weeks.

At eight weeks, we processed the Cornish and moved the Pioneers to a stationary coop where they could be better protected from the elements.

This is the size difference at about 8 weeks.

Side by side of breeds at processing time for Cornish

Winter came upon us much faster last fall than we were planning, so a stationary coop provided more adequate shelter for them from the blowing snow that we ended up getting.

At first they were hesitant to venture out. After a few days though they were out and about with all the laying hens and getting along just fine with the rest of the animals.

Pioneer enjoying a ride 

Pioneer enjoying a ride.

At about 12 weeks, we processed the Pioneers and the size difference was pretty distinct. They averaged about 4.5 pounds butchered weight.

Below are photos of the finished product on the dinner table. It's pretty obvious which one is the Cornish with the large, wide breasts.

The finished product

In the end, the Pioneers took longer to reach maturity, therefore essentially costing us more money. But on the other hand, if we raised just Pioneers they would probably go through a hair less feed per day than the Cornish because they are better foragers and aren't quite the same eating machines. We also had some mortality with the Cornish, but not with the Pioneer.

I think it would take a lot of buyer education to be able to only market the Pioneer breed. People like what they like and sometimes it's hard to make them understand the benefits of a slower growing animal that isn't proportioned the same. I'd like to make that a priority soon though. 

All in all, I'm glad we tried the Pioneers, and I plan to try another alternative breed in the future.

It got very cold, very fast last fall, and I do think that might have affected the growth of all of the broilers. I noticed that we were going through the same amount of feed as in the spring, but we did not end up with quite as big of chickens in the end. I'm no professional, but if I had to guess I'd say the chickens had a higher metabolism in order to stay warm so feed was going to that instead of bulking them up. The next time we do a fall batch we'll definitely need to be careful to get the chicks raised before winter sneaks up on us.

Have you raised spring and fall broilers? Did you notice a difference in the growth rate when it was colder?