Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Evolution of Breasts

Chicken breasts, that is.

We take for granted the plump, broad-breasted birds that line our grocery store shelves but these bad boys (and girls) have only been a dietary mainstay since the 1960s. The modern broiler is typically a Cornish cross, a bird that was developed by breeding naturally double-breasted Cornish chickens with Plymouth Rocks. The Cornish cross is not actually a breed – it is a hybrid that has been developed by hatcheries. This means that you cannot breed your own chickens and expect the chicks to conform to specific breed standards. The hatcheries breed along carefully tracked bloodlines to produce consistent birds.  

The Cornish cross is a meat bird, pure and simple. They’ve been developed for extremely fast growth and are ready to slaughter at about 8 weeks, dressing out at around 5 pounds. Thanks to consumer demand for white meat, they have gigantic breasts and, since they’re slaughtered so young, the meat is genreally very tender. They were designed specifically for commercial meat bird operations but in recent years smaller farms have been raising them on pasture with considerable success.

When you compare this to your typical dual-purpose chicken, it becomes very apparent why commercial growers favour the Cornish cross. Dual-purpose chickens are used for both meat and egg production. Depending on the breed, it takes any where from 12 weeks to 6 months for them to reach slaughter weight and no matter how large they are, they won’t match the white meat production of a Cornish cross. However, these chickens do exactly what they’re supposed to do: strike a nice, middle of the road balance for the small farmer or homesteader who is looking for a more versatile bird.

Although the super speedy growth cycle of the Cornish cross is very appealing from a practical (read: financial) standpoint, it’s left me in a bit of a moral quandary. These chickens turn all that grain into succulent white meat with such lightening efficiency that the rest of their bodies can’t keep up. Their legs and joints just can’t cope with such rapid growth and, sadly, crippled birds are not uncommon. They’re also more likely than other breeds to die from heart attacks and other internal issues.

So, where does this leave me? I’ve been thinking about the ethical implications of raising these animals and have decided that as long as I give them the best life possible for the short time that they’re with me, then I’m not going to suffer any guilt. That being said, I do think I might experiment with some dual-purpose breeds in the future. Freedom Rangers look pretty interesting…

 15 day old cornish cross chick, 13.9 ounces. Not including the poop he just deposited on my horse's hay.

Cairo picking out which one he wants to eat first. :) They aren't avoiding him, Tina was just in there grabbing a couple to weigh them.

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