If you want homegrown meat, raising Cornish Cross chickens is a great choice for homesteaders, even though with a small backyard.
In 2020, when all the craziness happened, my husband and I decided to dive into the world of raising Cornish Cross chickens for meat, and we learned a lot. It helped to increase our self-sufficiency and gave us a new homesteading experience.
I have to tell you that raising Cornish Cross chickens is a bit different than raising chickens for eggs.
Before I selected this breed, I wasn’t too sure if I wanted to raise Cornish X chickens. I heard horrible things about these birds, so if you feel the same way and wonder if these meat birds are ideal for your homestead, here is everything you need to know about raising Cornish Cross chickens.
What are Cornish Cross Chickens?
When I first learned about Cornish Cross chickens, I was apprehensive about raising them. I heard people refer to them as “Frankenbirds” and I’m trying to feed my family healthier foods.
Why would I pick Cornish Cross chickens?
It’s important to understand this chicken breed. They’re not genetically modified as some suggest, but rather, these are hybrid chickens, created to grow faster than the average chicken. Hatcheries and breeders used selective breeding to create the fastest-growing chicken on the market.
We could debate whether this is a good or bad thing until pigs fly, but that’s for another time.
Farmers, especially commercial farmers, wanted a meat bird that didn’t take 20+ weeks to reach a mature size. That much time takes a lot of feed and makes it impractical to sell chicken for a profit.
They needed a bird that reached butchering size between 8-10 weeks old.
Enter the Cornish Cross chickens.
This breed is a cross between white Cornish and white Rock chickens. While most refer to them as Cornish Cross, some hatcheries call them Jumbo Cornish X Rocks. Other times, they’re called broilers, roasters, or fryers.
The Benefits of Raising Cornish Cross Chickens
In the homestead world, figuring out the “perfect” meat bird is quite the debate, and it’s one I considered (and still do) deeply. I can’t tell you if raising Cornish Cross chickens is a good idea for you, and we might change our mind.
I can tell you why so many farmers and homesteaders opt for this breed.
They Grow Fast
Let’s start with the most obvious benefit of raising Cornish Cross chickens – they grow extremely fast when compared with other chicken breeds.
On average, you need 8-10 weeks to raise a batch of Cornish Cross chickens from chicks to butchering size. This makes them an ideal source of protein for a homestead, even for small homesteaders!
The Meat Tastes Good
One of the first chickens we butchered was a Rhode Island Red rooster.
Guys, that meat wasn’t delicious. It was tough, stringy, and not what my family would eat. It would make yummy chicken broth for canning, but if you wanted roasted chicken, that wasn’t the way to go.
Cornish Cross chickens are the breed that commercial farmers raise, and since they’re butchered at such a young age, their meat is tender.
We actually smoked two whole chickens – one from the store and one we raised – and never told our kids or my in-laws. They had no idea!
Easier to Butcher
If you’ve butchered a heritage chicken breed and a Cornish X, you know that the meat birds are easier to butcher. It’s part of how the hybridization works in favor of these birds.
It might seem strange, but we noticed how easy the internal organs come out of the chest cavity. They have fewer feathers; sometimes, their breasts are nearly featherless. It makes plucking a lot easier.
The Disadvantages of Raising Cornish Cross Chickens
While these birds have benefits that have made them the most popular choice for meat birds in the United States, I would be lying to you if I told you they’re the perfect choice.
These birds are controversial, and they have problems. When you create a hybrid chicken that is designed to grow fast and reach butchering age before other chicks are ready to join the normal flock, it’s bound to come with some disadvantages.
Let’s take a look at the problems.
Not a Self-Sustainable Meat Source
One of the reasons I wasn’t too sure about raising this breed of meat birds was that they’re not self-sustainable. You cannot hatch these birds at home; you will always need to buy them from hatcheries or farm stores.
Now, that might not be a bad thing for some people. You might not worry about that too much, but I like to decrease my dependency on stores in general, but if I decide that I want to only raise Cornish Cross chicks, then I have to accept that these aren’t self-sustainable.
Not Great at Pasture Raising
These birds will eat grass; I saw that with my own eyes, but they aren’t like other birds. These aren’t amazing foragers. If you want to focus on pasture raising, I don’t believe that Cornish Cross are the ideal choice for your homestead. They won’t be able to take enough of their needed protein or calories being pasture raised.
More Likely to Die Before Butchering
Another serious disadvantage of this bird is that they’re vulnerable and more likely to die before butchering. They’re prone to heart issues, leg issues, crop issues, and other ailments.
That’s frustrating when you raise the birds you want to have for your family, and they die. You need that meat to feed your family. I suggest ordering or buying more than you think you need; you’ll have a number of deaths.
How to Start Raising Cornish Cross Chickens
Let’s start with what you need to know about raising Cornish X chickens and how to get started.
Set Up a Brooder Space
You’re going to need a larger brooder space than you use with typical baby chicks. I often use rubber totes, but those are too small for Cornish Cross chicks after a week or so. They’ll outgrow this space quickly.
Keep that in mind when preparing your brooder space. Have a small, cozy area for them to start off inside; they need to be warm. It’s the same as raising baby chicks. You want the brooder around 95 degrees F.
Their brooder space needs to be enclosed and have proper bedding, like pine shavings. Be prepared to change out their bedding regularly.
Source Your Meat Birds
You also have to decide where you want to buy your Cornish X chickens. I have bought them from local farm and fleet stores and hatcheries.
In the future, I would prefer to stick with local farm and fleet stores because I’ve found that the shipping process from hatcheries tends to result in more chick deaths. It’s frustrating when you order and lose several within the first day or two of arrival.
Get The Right Feed
Unlike baby chicks raised for egg-laying, meat birds need a feed with a higher amount of protein to support their rapid growth. I usually give my chick’s chick starter feed for the first one to two weeks and switch them over to meat bird crumbles.
Some homesteaders use only meat bird feed from the beginning. No matter what you use, make sure it has a protein amount between 20-24%. I like to give them extra protein snacks as well.
Create a Feeding Schedule
Another difference when raising Cornish Cross chickens is that they cannot be allowed to eat constantly. I use a 12 hour on, 12 hours off schedule after they are a week old. For the first week, I give these chicks free choice food; they’re so vulnerable in the early days you don’t want to risk hunger.
These chickens will eat non-stop, leading to leg issues and heart issues. They will eat so much that their bodies grow too fast for their legs to handle and support.
I stick with this schedule for most of their lives, and they are on pasture as well. We use moveable tractors and bring them to new grass each day – sometimes twice per day. You will need to increase how much you feed them. I found that I need to feed them twice per day, and then I remove the feeders at night.
Write Butcher Date on the Calendar
When your chicks arrive, mark the date on your calendar. Then, go forward eight weeks and keep that as your tentative butchering date. It’s recommended that you butcher them by the time that they’re 10 weeks, but I’ve found that if you focus more on pasture raising, you might need more time.
You Have to Increase Their Food Intake
Over time, you’ll need to start giving them more food at a time. If you think your chicken flock is going to attack you when they see the food coming, you probably aren’t feeding them enough.
At the same time, that means they need plenty of water. I find that I need to give them water more than my other birds. They’ll even get inside of an open water container and play until it’s gone.
These birds are wild!
Move Them Outside Quickly
Depending on the time of year, we moved our meat birds outside into movable tractors around two to three weeks of age. They need to have supplemental heat at this point, but remember, they grow much faster than other birds.
A heat lamp is really a must, even if you think the temperatures are warm enough. Nighttime temperatures will probably go below what they need.
Make sure your birds have shelter from the rain because Cornish Cross chicks cannot get wet, especially if they are cold as well. Chicks are susceptible to hypothermia.
Get Prepared and Gather Butchering Equipment
While you wait for your meat birds to grow, you have to gather supplies for butchering day. Some things that you need to make sure you have include:
- Killing Cones – these make culling the animals easier and more humane.
- A Sharp Knife – you need to sever their necks as fast as possible.
- A Chicken Plucker – You can do this by hand, but a plucker saves so much time. If you don’t want to have a huge plucker, consider a plucker drill attachment that helps remove the feathers.
- Poultry Shrink Bags – these are great for storing your birds in the freezer!
8 Things to Know about Raising Cornish Cross Chickens
1. Their Poop STINKS
One of things I wish I knew about raising Cornish Cross chickens is that their poop stinks so bad. Since they eat a lot and produce a ton of manure, they are stinky birds.
You HAVE to clean their brooder and coop more often than you will need to with other birds. Since they’re white, they are hard to keep clean.
My meat birds loved to spend time under my mulberry tree, and they ended up stained purple for WEEKS!
2. They Need New Pasture Regularly
When I raise egg-laying chicks, I don’t need to move them as much. I try to move them daily, but with their feed, they don’t seem to eat as much pasture.
Meat birds are different.
I discovered while raising Cornish Cross chickens that they need new pasture regularly. Between their nasty poop and constant hunger, they will eat through a patch of pasture in a quick time.
3. They Eat a TON
I can’t tell you this enough – I wasn’t prepared for the amount of feed that meat birds eat on a daily basis. I raised chickens for about six years before we dove into meat birds, and I was surprised at how often their feeder dishes were empty.
Other chickens spend time on their roosts or running around. Not these birds. Their favorite place to be is right beside the feeders, eating until I’m sure they feel like they’re going to explode.
How much do meat birds eat?
Each chick will eat 10 pounds of feed within the first 5 weeks of life. They’ll continue to eat more until they’re butchering weight, around 5-6 pounds.
4. Don’t Leave Food Out 24/7
I mentioned this before, but it’s worth mentioning again. Don’t leave food out 24/7 for them. They will constantly eat if it’s available, and that’s not good for them.
Yes, we want them to grow quickly, but with constant access to food, they will grow even faster, and they will end up dying before you can butcher them. That’s no good to you and your freezer, so trust me here!
5. They Are More Aggressive With Food
Whenever I give them food, I’m always surprised at how they run and attack the feeders. Sometimes, it might be because they weren’t fed enough, but I think it’s part of their breed and how they behave.
Food is their life, passion, and love. Nothing stands in their way!
6. Don’t Raise Them With Other Chicks
I learned the hard way that other chicks must be kept separate from meat birds. These birds are too aggressive with their feed, and they grow so rapidly. They will injure or kill other chicks that aren’t the same size as them.
Now, you could raise them with older chickens who are larger. Their aggressive nature makes them dangerous for small chicks, but next to older chickens, they are fine and rarely cause problems.
7. Free Ranging Cornish Cross Chickens is Possible
One of the questions I see regularly is whether or not it’s possible to free range your meat birds. The answer is yes, you can, but know that they’ll grow slower and need more feed.
Free range birds get way more exercise than ones kept in tractors. We love to let our birds free range and roam with our other chickens. They dust bath, forage, and seem happy.
However, they grow slower and don’t reach butchering size by 8-10 weeks. A few of my totally free ranged meat birds take 12-15 weeks to reach butchering size. They have access to food, but they are busy.
I realized that these birds will forage better when they’re with other chickens and observe what they’re doing. Despite what people think, these birds are intelligent, and they’ll adapt. Keep out plenty of water and food for your free-range birds.
8. They Won’t Lay Eggs
Okay, so these chickens are possibly able to lay eggs, but since they are born and raised as meat birds, it’s not attempted by most homesteaders. I have a friend who has a Cornish Cross who is over a year old, but she’s never told me if she lays any eggs.
If you’re looking for good egg-laying chickens, this isn’t the breed for you. If you want to experiment and find out if these birds can live longer, I would say you need to raise one with other birds and see if it adapts.