How did the Cornish Cross become THE supermarket chicken? Learn about the history of this bird that folks love to hate from Cornish Cross owner Anne Gordon.
The Cornish Cross broiler has taken a bum rap in recent years. There are lots of online articles, forums, and blog posts maligning these poor creatures as “filthy chickens” with a “disgusting” appearance, or as GMO “Frankenchickens” with deformities and health issues, who live in horrible commercial conditions. We certainly know that commercial conditions can be horrendous for these birds and other poultry; however, the broiler industry has come a long way in addressing these issues through producer education and contract requirements.
My experience as a small flock owner is that these are clean birds who have been selectively bred specifically as high-yield meat birds — it’s all in their management. To understand the Cornish Cross broiler, let’s look at how the broiler has evolved as a part of America’s rich agricultural history and how biodiversity has played a major role in sustaining the Cornish Cross broiler strains.
Celia Has an Idea
It all started nearly a hundred years ago with Celia Steele of Sussex County, Delaware, cited as the pioneer of the commercial broiler industry. While her husband Wilber was serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, Celia took on a project to raise meat birds she could sell at local markets to raise a little extra money. Her project grew by 1923 to a modest flock of 500 “meat birds.”
Go Big or Go Home
By 1926, her huge success necessitated building the 10,000-bird First Broiler House that today is on the U.S. Parks Historic Sites Registry. Her pioneering efforts led to the “Chicken of Tomorrow” contests sponsored by A&P grocery stores and officially supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. What was intended to be a marketing campaign quickly revolutionized America’s poultry industry.
State and regional contests culminated with the National Competition, held at the University of Delaware’s Agricultural Experiment Station in 1948. Breeders were encouraged to produce and submit 60 dozen of their “meat bird” eggs to central hatcheries where they were hatched, raised, and judged on 18 criteria, including growth rate, feed conversion efficiency, and the amount of meat on breasts and drumsticks when processed. Forty breeders from 25 states entered crossbred strains from heritage breeds, vying for a $5,000 prize — that’s $53,141 today. Developing a “meat bird” was serious business.
Contest Winners and the Birth of the Cornish Cross
Henry Saglio, owner of Arbor Acres Farm in Glastonbury, CT (later known as the “father” of the poultry industry) bred the 1948 winner from a pure line of White Plymouth Rocks — a muscular, meaty bird. Saglio beat out a Red Cornish cross bird from the Vantress Hatchery in both 1948 and again in the 1951 competition. The two operations eventually emerged as the dominant sources of the genetic stock of Cornish Cross broilers throughout the U.S.
Over the years, broiler chickens have become big business. Although breeders have come and gone and their breeding programs have been bought, sold, and consolidated, their strains live on. Today’s broiler “grows twice as fast, twice as large, on half the feed“ as a broiler did about 70 years ago.
Before the Cornish Cross became the commercial broiler, a long history of research and development went into the bird we see in supermarkets today, as well as the birds raised by small flock owners. Most of the research focused on breeding birds with enhanced breast meat development and emphasis on high feed-to-body-weight conversions, so they could be brought to market within 6 to 8 weeks.
The Strain Truth
The truth is that modern commercial broiler strains aren’t all the same — they’re very similar, but have distinct growth characteristics. Some produce larger breasts (white meat), some larger legs and thighs (dark meat), while some produce balanced breast and leg/thigh meat. Several strains focus on fast growth and flesh gain from hatch, while others focus on slower growth with an emphasis on structural development (leg bones and heart muscle). These growth traits are important for commercial growers who want to produce meat for their specific market objectives. There are significant differences that are worth understanding.
The Ross 308 and Cobb 500
Cobb 500 and Ross 308 (often referred to as Jumbo Cornish Cross) have yellow legs and skin with white feathers. Sometimes, the Cobb 500 feathers have flecks of black in them. Both the Cobb 500 and Ross 308 demonstrate fast steady growth from beginning to finish with an emphasis on large massive breasts. A “round,” compact, butterball body easily distinguishes the Cobb 500 from the Ross 308’s less round body.
Ross 308 (often referred to as Cornish Rock) also has yellow legs and skin with white feathers, though no black flecks. Their early growth tends to be slower than the Cobb 500 and Ross 308, which means later weight gain, giving their frame more time to develop and then catch up on weight gain in weeks 4 through 8. The Ross 708 body is a little longer than the Cobb 500 and Ross 308, with a more balanced distribution of meat among breasts, legs, and thighs. If you’d like to learn even more about the differences between the strains, there’s plenty of research available.
Choosing Your Strain
Small Flocks of Cornish Crosses
Hatcheries that sell to small flock owners buy their strains from the subsidiaries of these large companies. For example, Meyer Hatchery offers the Ross 308 and the Cobb 500 strains, while Cackle Hatchery offers the Ross 308 strain and Welp Hatchery offers the Ross 708 strain. If you’re a small flock owner looking to acquire Cornish Cross hens, you’ll want to figure out which hatcheries carry the strains that are best suited for you.
With all things being equal, your choice may also involve your consumption patterns. All Cornish Cross strains are great for roasting, rotisserie, and smoking as well as those succulent grilled breasts. But if you find you also like a little left over for carved sandwiches or dishes like chicken broccoli alfredo, the Cobb 500 or Ross 308 with their massive breasts may be your first choice. But if you’re like me and prepare meals with cut pieces, enjoy air-fried drumsticks, or use the rich thigh meat for soups, casseroles, and the occasional roast or rotisserie, the Ross 708 may be high on your list.
You also may want to raise both strains and have the best of both worlds — depending on the weather.
So it seems we’ve come full circle from the 1948 Chicken of Tomorrow contest winners — Henry Saglio’s Arbor Acres breeding and the Vantress brothers’ breeding. After all those years of breeding trials and selection, we’re eating the results of the improved genetics from those winners of the 1948 Chicken of Tomorrow contest. Through retail hatcheries, we are fortunate to have access to the most reliable and best producing strains these breeders produce for commercial growers. You can easily access Cornish Cross chicks that carry some of the original breeders’ strains.
Through the diligent breeding of the Cornish Cross broiler and the improvements of chicken production efficiencies over the last 100 years, Celia Steele’s efforts have resulted in quality, low-fat animal protein within reach of all but the very poorest of individuals worldwide. That’s quite a heritage.
Anne Gordon is a backyard chicken owner with a modest chicken operation that includes layer chickens and Cornish Cross broilers. And, like many of you, she doesn’t sell eggs or meat — all production is for her personal consumption. She’s a longtime poultry keeper and writes from personal experience as a city girl who moved to the suburbs to raise a few chickens and now resides on a rural acreage. She’s experienced a lot with chickens over the years and learned lots along the way — some of it the hard way. She’s had to think out of the box in some situations, yet held to tried-and-true traditions in others. Anne lives on Cumberland Mountain in TN with her two English Springers, Jack and Lucy. Look for Ann’s upcoming blog: Life Around the Coop.