In a world full of choices we choose the Freedom Ranger. When picking meat birds one has many options. Some producers chose the industry standard Cornish Cross, others stick with heritage breeds like the Barred Rock, at The Rugged Cross Farm we have settled on the Freedom Ranger.
The Cornish Cross: Industry Standard
If you have bought chicken from a grocery store odds are you have eaten a Cornish Cross. These fast growing birds are used in most commercial poultry systems.
The reasons are simple. This heavy bodied, broad breasted white chicken is a quick grower, reaching butchering size in a short 6-8 weeks. This quick growth means fast turn around for farmers. One of the great features of this breed is ease of processing. Because they spend a lot of time just lying around their internal organs are easier to remove. Their fast growth also means that they grow faster than their feathers, which can be helpful when processing although the bare butts and chests do look a bit unnatural.
Due to their quick growth Cornish Cross chickens tend to have more health problems with heart failure and broken legs being the two most common. This tends not to be a problem if you process early which you should because keeping them alive to full maturity can be a challenge. Even though the Cornish Cross is the popular choice in confinement production models they are also widely used in pastured poultry production. However, due to their rapid growth they tend not to be great foragers. These birds will enjoy the grass close to them but prefer to park next to the feeder eat and relax. While this laziness can be a great benefit for those looking to maximize pasture space it does tend to lead to a less muscled chicken.
The Barred Rock (Heritage): Tried and True Chickens
Heritage breeds, like the Barred Rock, are much slower growers. These beautiful black and white stripped chickens can be found on farms all across America. They are a great dual purpose breed, meaning they are not only good for meat but they are great egg producers as well. You can expect to get 4-5 large brown eggs a week from these barred beauties.
The Barred Rock is a great choice for producers who are not in a hurry. Self-sufficient and great foragers the Barred Rock loves to be outside and thrives in a pasture environment. These birds can be processed around 16 weeks but at this age will produce a smaller bird than their meat breed counterparts. If you wait until closer to 24 weeks you will get more meat but lose some tenderness.
The meat quality and flavor of these birds is very different than that of the more widely available, faster growing meat birds. They have beautiful golden yellow shanks that make golden yellow broths. Because they are active foragers and grow longer, heritage breeds tend to have stronger meat fibers and a more intense flavor. Barred Rocks are best suited to slow cooking to retain tenderness and break down these tough meat fibers. Heritage birds tend to be tough if not cooked low & slow.
The Freedom Ranger: The Best of Both Worlds
The Freedom Ranger is a nice in-between chicken. While they are primarily a meat bird, if allowed to grow to maturity they will lay 3-4 brown eggs a week. The heavy bodied Freedom Ranger comes in both red and beautiful tri-colored varieties and have bright yellow shanks, skin, and beaks.
Reaching butchering age around 11-12 weeks, the Freedom Ranger takes more time to raise than the Cornish Cross but less than a heritage bird. They still have large breast like the Cornish Cross but tend to also have larger legs as well. The Ranger is a very active bird that loves to spend the day free from confinement, foraging for bugs, pecking the ground, chasing bugs, and eating large amounts of grass. Their voracious desire for grass and forage produces a rich yellow fat that is high in omega-3 fats (the good for you fat). The high activity level of these birds can be a down side for producers looking to maximize space because Freedom Rangers require more space to be content.
Their slower growth rate and higher activity level of the Freedom Ranger produces a more muscled (a.k.a meatier) bird than their lazier counterparts but will cost more to produce. These birds tend to be tender, firmer, and have a richer flavor.
The Chickeness of the Chicken: Chickens in The Wild
Chickens are fun animals to watch. From day 1 chickens love to scratch. They dig in the dirt to bathe, to eat, to nest, and seemingly to relax. If you sit and watch chickens for any amount of time you will see this natural behavior. At a young age they start jumping up to reach higher surfaces. The chicken claw is designed to not only scratch and forage but also to give a firm grip while roosting. These 4 fingered claws are perfectly designed to keep the bird upright even when asleep high in a tree. If you look closely you will notice many of these wonderful design elements. While beautiful, feathers are also important. Feathers are used for insulation and waterproofing. In cold weather chickens puff out their feathers trapping warm air close to their body. Through a beautiful design process chickens preen themselves spreading oil across their feathers keeping them both supple and waterproof. It's almost like there was a grand designer, eh?
Like humans, chickens enjoy sunbathing. A sunbathing chicken will lay on it’s side, stretch it’s wing out and spread it’s feathers, very much appearing to be dead (I’m sure this has panicked many a farmer). Chickens, however, are not working on their tan. This sunbathing increases vitamin D and helps to decrease parasites. Chickens also love to roam. Most are naturally curious. They will roam around scratching for hours. Being in constant close quarters can be stressful to chickens. While they are social birds, being cooped up (did you see what I did there?) together can cause stress, aggressiveness, and illness. Room to roam helps chickens be chickens.
Our Choice: The Freedom Ranger
We understand that raising chickens is not one size fits all. Through our processes we have decided on the Freedom Ranger. Our motto here at The Rugged Cross is "Growing Food the Way God Intended". While I don't believe God gave us the Freedom Ranger (it is a man made cross), I do believe that for our purposes this is the best choice. God made chickens to behave like, well, chickens. The Freedom Ranger gives us the ability to produce high quality meat (and eggs if desired) while being a breed that still exhibits "chickeness".
Picking this breed does come with some downsides. Such as, a slightly more difficult processing day (more feathers and more work to eviscerate) and a need for more room. While some pastured meat breeds do well in the typical chicken tractor (a fancy name for a mobile coop designed to give birds access to fresh pasture while protecting them from predators and wandering), the Freedom Ranger thrives with room to move. This means that while we start our chicks in a brooder and move them to a chicken tractor we can't leave them there long. These birds have strong instincts. They want to move. This means that we add an electrified chicken fence to give them even more room. This fence complicates our moves but we are firm believers that we have been called to care for these animals and allow them to express their natural instincts. For this reason we will never be a large poultry producer, it would take too much time and labor. What we will be is good stewards. We will take care of these animals with care and dignity, in the way that we believe God intended while providing our customers with a delicious and healthy source of meat.
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” -Genesis 1:26-28