Cornish cross broilers: to butcher, or not to butcher?

Photo Courtesy Ellis Farm. Cornish cross broilers, age 1 week.

Miranda Ellis

• Warning, the content of this article may be too graphic for some readers.

With chick season right around the corner, I figured this would be a good time to write this article in order to help my fellow chicken lovers out- especially those who are looking to get their first batch of chicks/chickens this spring.

Before I started working here at The Pampa News, my husband and I opened a hobby poultry farm known locally as Ellis Farm.

During my time raising chickens, turkeys, rabbits, goats and more, I learned a thing or two about raising and caring for poultry and other small animals. It has been my privilege to care for and learn from hundreds of incredible, loving little critters.

On the other end of that spectrum, I have also experienced butchering poultry and small game- whether it be for a medical reason, an injury or for food.

With that said, I have had the opportunity to meet several other good-hearted chicken enthusiasts within the Texas Panhandle, whether they had been raising chickens for a long time or they were new to the world of chickens. 

One of the most common occurrences among new chicken owners, whether through my hobby farm, Facebook or otherwise, is that they end up with a cornish cross chicken in their newly-bought batch of chicks. 

Cornish cross chickens are a hybrid breed of chicken that were bred for meat purposes. They can grow into a fully sized chicken in the span of just eight short weeks, making them ideal table birds.

Sometimes these new cornish chicken owners will know exactly what kind of chicken they just bought. However, more often than not, a new chicken owner will have bought the chicken without knowing exactly what they were getting into.

Regardless of how they end up with a cornish cross chicken, intentionally or not, there is a common string of questions that will eventually cross their minds in one form or another: 

• What kind of bird is this? It is growing twice as fast as my other chicks, and eat all day long.

• Should I butcher this chicken? 

• I love this bird, it’s so sweet. Is there a way I can keep this bird alive?

• What happened? I came home, checked the coop, and the bird was just dead.

• I bought a batch of chicks earlier this spring, and they all keep ending up with broken legs. What is going on?

• I knew when I bought this bird that it was bred for meat purposes. However, I can’t bring myself to do it. What can I do to keep this chicken alive comfortably?

These are the common questions I see in the many Facebook chicken groups I am in, as well as from local chicken keepers who have bought chickens from a feed store, ordered chickens online, or were given a “mystery chicken” from someone they met and bought chickens from.

Many times, this person will take their question to someone they know who keeps chickens, like me- or turn to the internet for help. 

Considering this is one of the most controversial topics among chicken keepers, or a “hot button” if you will, there are a wide range of answers a person with one of these questions can get, depending on where or who they go to. 

Not to Butcher

Some people will say that cornish cross chickens can and do live long lives, and make great pets because of their sweet temperament. They will show you pictures of their beloved fat-butt chickens, and tell you how to manage their feed to keep them alive. 

They will tell you to contain them in smaller pens to restrict their movement. Presumably, this would be to prevent the two most common causes of death among cornish cross chickens: 

• Heart attacks.

• Their legs break, causing them to have to be humanely dispatched. (Broken legs are a common occurrence in this breed due to how quickly they grow. Their legs simply cannot support the collossal size of the bird itself, subsequently breaking.)

To Butcher

What these people don’t tell you is what they don’t know and can’t see- and that’s what happening on the inside of the bird. This is only something someone who is willing to butcher these birds will know. 

It is a fact that no matter how much you limit the feed or movement of these birds, they are simply not bred to develop into adulthood properly. 

I have butchered many of these birds. It is not a fun nor easy task to do, but in this particular breed’s case- it is my opinion that it must be done. 

The most astonishing part of butchering these birds is seeing what happens on the inside of their bodies. I have found that their muscle mass grows much more quickly than everything else, and it has a devastating effect on the organs. 

In every single cornish cross bird 10 weeks of age or older that I have butchered, I have found that the organs of the bird are essentially a tangled, squished mess inside. 

Their hearts are typically misshapen, elongated or even twisted. I honestly don’t know how their little hearts are able to beat in a few of the ones I dispatched. This is true for almost every other organ in their body as well.

The sad truth is, managing their feed to keep them alive is actually hurting these animals. Just because they are alive, it does not mean they are not suffering. 

With that said, I would encourage my fellow chicken keepers to please butcher your cornish cross at an appropriate age. And if it is something that, understandably, you’re unable to do- I encourage you to reach out and find someone who can. It truly is better for the bird.

Identifying a cornish cross bird

After reading the information at hand, it is understandable that someone who is new to the world of chickening would want to avoid getting one of these birds altogether. That’s not always easy to do! However, I can offer advice to help you.

• Feed stores. 

Oh, feed stores. I love them, and I love all of the stores we have locally that sell chicks. However, when purchasing from bins at the feed store, you run the risk of grabbing a cornish cross out of a mislabeled bin. 

A lot of feed store employees are familiar with different breeds of chicken, but not all are. Many feed store employees rely on the accuracy of the labeled boxes of chicks they receive in the mail. Errors happen, and the bins do get mislabeled at times. 

Luckily for you, cornish cross chicks are typically very easy to pick out from the crowd. 

They are typically much larger than other breeds of chicks and can typically be found at the food bin. They are yellow in color with short, stubby wings. They often like to lay in their own feces and pile up on one another, and are messier than other chicken breeds.

• Ordering online.  

Ordering chickens online can be a gamble for many reasons. However, we will only go into a small portion of that narrative, as it can be very long-winded. 

You will notice that there is typically an order minimum when it comes to ordering chicks online. This is because chicks do not ship well in small groups. 

Sometimes, a hatchery will not have an order minimum. they will allow you to purchase as few chicks as you would like. 

It is important to note the fine print in these purchases as hatcheries without order minimums will typically fill the remaining space in the box with “warmers” (filler chicks thrown in with a small order of chicks to keep them warm enough to stay alive during shipping.)

Many do not see the fine print and order their chicks, and end up with several mystery birds in their order. The “warmer” chicks are typically a mix of roosters and cornish cross birds. 

My advice would be to call the hatchery you are ordering from and tell them not to add these filler chicks, and to ask how many birds would need to be purchased in order for the birds to arrive safely. Then, order that number of birds or simply buy older chickens.

• Buying chickens from another breeder.

While most chicken keepers are honest, there are those out there that will take advantage of a new chicken keeper. Maybe they ended up with the cornish cross accidentally themselves, or they simply couldn’t bring themselves to butcher it. But the common con is that they will often pawn them off on a new chicken keeper as another breed or by simply not telling the person what they are getting into in order to make a sale or make to room for their other birds- essentially just passing off the burden.

Cornish cross birds grow very quickly, and their appearance changes drastically as they age. They start out as fat yellow chicks. Within the first few weeks, they grow faster than their feathers come in- making them almost bald and incredibly fat. As they get a few weeks older than that, their feather growth starts to catch up with the rest of their body and they are white chickens with very wide-set legs. They have a single comb and yellow feet. See photos.

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