It’s the big question when it comes to raising meat chickens on the homestead and it’s something everyone has to figure out for themselves.
This year we decide to raise 2 batches of chickens to make butchering day a little easier and since we had heard so much about Freedom Rangers (also known as Ranger Broilers) we thought we would raise one batch of them and one batch of the traditional, Cornish Cross meat bird. I’m sharing with you my observations on both breeds so you can decide which one would be the best fit for your homestead.
By far the most interesting comparison I’ve seen to date has been the side-by-side images of a heritage breed liver & gall bladder with the same Cornish organs at Antiquity Oaks and her speculations in regard to the nutritional value of each bird. I’m interested to see how the organs of these guys will look. If they do poorly, I will be highly tempted to head in the heritage route.
Riding the wave of buzz-word frenzy, our first batch were the Freedom Rangers. They were purchased from the local farm and garden center on chick day at a great price and then raised in a brooder for 3 weeks before setting them to pasture utilizing a system similar to the popular chicken tractor one… just without the confining wire. We moved their shelter every day or two and fed them once a day in front of the shelter. They ranged out a bit, but not too terribly much, choosing to forage on and among the grass near the shelter. The furthest they ever wandered from their “home” was on their way out to meet us with the feed bucket. There were some pros and cons to the breed and our predator losses were more than we ever expected while they were in the confines of an electrically fenced pasture complete with predator wire and deer netting. When it came time to sample the meat, it more than exceeded our expectations of what we thought a pasture- ranged (re: exercised) chicken would be.
With our second batch of chickens we were trying to determine how much more quickly we could raise a group of Cornish meat birds- the ones you’ll most commonly find in modern agriculture and your local grocery store.
We found a company instate with cheap chicks available the same week that boasted of their meaty breasts full of texture and flavor. Their variety are called White Mountain broilers and were supposed to be ready at 7 weeks. We wanted to raise them in nearly identical circumstances as the Freedom Rangers with the only difference being the availability of foraging materials from early to late summer and also that they would be in the front part of our pasture instead of the back so that the poor quality pasture could benefit from some of the chicken manure they would leave behind.
While my personal opinion is that raising the Cornish breed this way makes for a far less disgusting bird than in a state of semi-confinement, we ran into multiple problems this time around that tarnished my experience with the breed once again.
Freedom Rangers vs. Cornish Cross
They Don’t Pasture Well
These birds quickly learned what it meant to see people and rather than learning to forage near home, they ended up camping near the barn door… if not in the barn, or under the near-by line of pine trees. Ultimately, because they were not using their shelter out in the pasture, and we didn’t want them taking up residence all night in the barn with the accompanying mess and smell, we caved and brought the shelter up near the barn and gated the barn doorway but then they just slept outside the gate. All this high traffic near the barn combined with the wet year we’ve been having served to completely trash a significant portion of our measly pasture as evidenced in this video.
This was taken days prior to butchering and you can see for the most part that the birds have strong legs despite their laziness and are much more mobile and functioning than those raised in a chicken tractor would be. That’s not to say that we weren’t without leg problems. Because of their proximity to the barn and extreme stupidity (when it came to anything other than food), more than one bird fell victim to being trampled by the cows at the cost of their legs and eventually their lives. We noticed at butchering time several infected feet or legs & feet swollen to a mutant-like size.
Speaking of lives, we started this batch with 75 chicks and on butchering day 46 were remaining to participate!! Staggering losses… more so than with the Freedom Rangers. Between being stepped on by cows and carried off by predators this pasture ranging system leaves a lot to be desired. Regardless of what type of chicken we raise next year, this system is going to either need some major tweaking or we’ll have to return to the warm & cozy comfort of a confinement system such as a chicken tractor.
Other observations while raising the Cornish was that they cannibalized easily taking out two of the three turkey chicks hatched here this summer as well as their wounded comrades.
At butchering time, the internal organs dislodged from the cavity more easily. For those of you hand-plucking your birds, these birds had overall few feathers to pull than the Freedom Rangers.
While they didn’t reach full-size as quickly as stated, they were ready before the Freedom Rangers. We butchered at 12 weeks, postponed due to illness and weather, but they would probably have been ready and at a more manageable size at 10-11 weeks of age.
The Freedom Rangers began showing signs of s-xual maturity somewhere around 9-10 weeks of age complete with crowing and aggression (towards each other). I watched carefully, but detected nothing of the sort from the Cornish. This may or may not be an issue for you one way or the other, but personally, we kind of liked the farm-yard sounds of the roosters crowing 🙂
Less Expensive to Raise
How about some statistics? Of course you want to know how much they cost to raise, how much feed they consumed, and how many pounds of meat we harvested! See the bottom of the post for a breakdown of costs for both batches of chickens.
On the flip side of the coin, if Cornish are less expensive, that means that Freedom Rangers are more expensive. You would think that the ability to forage for feed might cut down on their cost, but the decreased yields and increased time to harvest, offset that advantage.
Mature Early (and Aggression)
By 7 weeks, the roosters begin to show signs of gender distinction and are stand up to each other. Not that they’re aggressive. Far from it. Considering the distance between them and people save for twice daily, they’re surprisingly approachable and friendly. A real bonus when it comes to catching them for butchering! There has been no cannibalism as well.
Friendly (to people)
While they might act out their frustrations on each other, they never have exhibited aggression towards us our our children. They are curious and tend to follow people around.
Few Health Problems
No heart attacks, little to no leg problems, and the ability to live out a normal chicken lifespan, these birds are simply more active and healthier.
Superior Taste and Texture
We did a side-by-side Roast-Off taste test and the results were unanimous, for taste, texture, and tenderness, Freedom Rangers win, hands down. The meat is rich, doesn’t have the sawdust-y feel in your mouth, and is so tender it slips right off the bone.
More Dark Meat
After butchering we noticed that there is quite a bit more dark meat on Ranger broilers than Cornish. Their legs are longer and meatier, the bones are thicker. This means that they are stronger and can withstand the pressures of their larger size. As someone who is concerned with making sure that their meat is raised humanely, this is important to me, even if some folks in our home prefer more white meat.
We held back a couple hens from our batch of Freedom Rangers to see how they would fare over time. We introduced them into our flock of laying hens without any troubles… which means that they went from a heavy daily feed ration, to no feed whatsoever. When our hens are free-ranging, we allow them to forage for their feed throughout the growing season (April to October) to save on the feed bill. Our hens are very healthy, yolks are vibrant yellow-orange, and our budget relieved.
With Cornish Cross broilers barely able to survive the few weeks it takes to get them to processing age before their legs break or their hearts burst, I didn’t have too many expectations for these three hens. But they continued to grow to maturity and even began to lay eggs!
I’m glad to know that the meat chickens we raise could be capable of living to adulthood, something that no one expects could ever be a reality for a Cornish chicken.
Not only are our older Rangers just as active as they were 8 months ago, show none of the aggressive characteristics that the ranger roosters demonstrate, but they are laying extra large, long, pointed eggs several times a week with a beautiful yolk just as orange as the other gals in the flock.
They were a bit timid about venturing too far from the shelter of the run, but after a few trips out back with a bit of scratch, they’ve expanded their comfort zone.
To encourage ranging, they are being fed for 12 hours overnight and the feed is then removed during the daytime. This might account for some of the slower growth that we experience in our flock, and perhaps that also allows for slower, stronger bones and therefore fewer losses? I can’t say for sure, but it seems plausible.
Since we know that free ranging chickens produce healthier eggs, can we safely assume that free ranging chickens also produce healthier meat?
If you didn’t know how old they were, I don’t believe that you could detect an appreciable difference between these chickens and any other breed of chicken. They go into their shelter during the heat of the day, but morning and early evening they can be found throughout their self-designated corner of the pasture acting much like…. a chicken Of course, upon closer inspection you would notice some slight differences in body shape and gait. You can see the birds bellies do not have the feathers burned off from sitting on their own hot manure all day long. Even though we moved our Cornish daily, once that 24 hour period rolled around, there was a mat of manure under the tractor and laying on it made for a sad and disgusting situation.
3 Week Observations
7 Week Observations
12 Week Observations
Another observation that we’ve made was in the manure. I don’t know if it means anything, but it was something we saw so I’m sharing it with you. I’ve noticed that the droppings of the Ranger broilers are much more like that which you see come from an average chicken. The Cornish droppings looked the same as the mash that went in the front end, only coming out the back end grey. It was literally like, “in one end, out the other.” The Freedom Ranger’s droppings aren’t quite as liquified as our layers, but are somewhere in the middle. Why does all that matter? The more processed we see the food coming out the back end, the more nutrients the birds are deriving from their diets.
White Mountain Broiler (Cornish Type) Cost Analysis
Harvested at 12 weeks
Cost of 75 Chicks: $86.00
Cost of 1234 lbs. Feed: $426.35
Original Flock: 75 birds
Losses: 29 Birds (including 1 due to infection at harvest- we were unable to keep track of losses due to predator and leg issues, they were just so numerous)
Harvested Meat: 294 lbs. 15 oz.
Average Weight Per Bird: 6 lbs. 6 oz.
Average Price Per Bird: $11.13
Average Price Per Pound: $1.74/ lb.
Cost of Local, Ranged Broiler: $3.25/lb.
Freedom Ranger Cost Analysis
Harvested at 13 weeks
Cost of 50 Chicks: $106.00
Cost of 1,050 lbs. Feed: $313.81
Original Flock: 50 birds
Losses: 19 Birds (3 leg issues @ 3 weeks, 14 predator attacks, & 2 infections @ harvest)
Harvested Meat: 171 lbs. 8 oz.
Average Weight Per Bird: 5 lbs. 5 oz.
Average Price Per Bird: $13.54
Average Price Per Pound: $2.45/lb.
Cost of Local, Ranged Broiler: $3.25/lb.
The Roast-Off (Side by side Ranger vs. Cornish taste test)
Two Year Old Update & FAQ
2012 Meat Chicken Cost Analysis
2013 Meat Chicken Cost Analysis (Including more reflections on the breed)
2015 Meat Chicken Cost Analysis
Chicken Butchering Supplies
Chicken Butchering Setup
Have you ever tried raising Freedom Rangers for a meat chicken? What did you think?