A few months back, a customer emailed us wondering about “Freedom Ranger” chickens. A friend of his was raising them and he was curious. I had never heard of them and got curious, too. So I started doing some research.
The name gets your attention, doesn’t it? Makes you think of America, and self sufficiency, and independence! All the good stuff, right?
OK – stop right there because the good ol’ Internet has an awful lot of misinformation floating around there about these guys!
First, there’s a good reason for that catchy name, kids: marketing. Yep, the Freedom Ranger is a brand name for a hybrid chicken. There’s also Red Rangers and Black Rangers. That means you can’t breed ‘em at home. They come from a cross of 4 different breeds so if you hatch out the eggs, they won’t be the same as the parents.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Most of the chickens sold specifically as meat birds are hybrid birds, created from a cross between a few different breeds, designed to grow fast and plump and be little eating machines. And the most popular of these are the Cornish and White Rock cross breeds.
AND HERE COMES THE CONFUSION, FOLKS
But you’ll find sites out there calling these a “heritage breed” and forums where people talk about how wonderful they are so they can raise their own meat birds from the eggs of these chickens who will sit on them and be broody hens. Not true. There are sites that say the Cornish Cross breeds are “genetically modified”: also not true except that they’re bred for certain characteristics, just like that early producing tomato I grow every year to guarantee some tomatoes by July.
There are sites that seem to claim they can get most of their food supply by free ranging. Not true either. Without a high protein, but balanced food source, you’re gonna end up with birds that have health problems (one may be incurable: death) and birds that will take a looong time to reach an eating weight.
We’re not going to get into any of the big thorny issues that people raise about monopolies on breeding stock and who controls what and “Big Agriculture” business; that’s a whole other story for another day so don’t ask!
Take a deep breath. Don’t get sucked into the nonsense.
When you’re raising a bunch of birds strictly for meat, it makes a lot of sense to do them all in a big batch: you get all the chicks at the same time, raise them all together for a few weeks, and then butcher and process them all at once. You’re then set with your year’s supply of chicken for the family or to sell. These are the breeds the “big guys” like Perdue use and the organic, pastured poultry guys like Joel Salatin use.
And it makes a lot of sense to raise these birds as fast as possible, as cheaply as possible, in the most healthy way as possible. You want to lose as few chickens (ideally none!), have no health issues, and make your profit margin as large as possible:
cost of feed + care + cost of chickens / by pounds of meat after butchering = cost per pound of meat
Now I don’t care if you’re raising these for a business or for your family but I know you do not want to end up paying some ridiculous price for your efforts (if you do, please call me and let’s discuss a business venture!)
Your cost difference comes down to the amount of feed you have to give the birds. That can be kept lower by reducing the number of weeks until they’ve reached a butchering weight; it can be kept low by free ranging to reduce the amount of feed you have to buy. So far I haven’t found anyone who has done a test that compares exactly the same type of feed and the same type of free ranging between the two breeds and offered any kind of definitive answer.
THE SKINNY ON THE PLUMPNESS
The advantages of the Cornish Cross hybrids is that they convert their feed well and efficiently. They’re economical. The Freedom Rangers do, too, but at a little slower of a pace which helps them mostly avoid the health problems that faster growing meat birds can be prone to like leg problems and heart attacks (due to overeating). With the reduction of leg problems you’re trading off for less breast meat (so less white meat) and either a lower weight bird or a few additional weeks to slaughter, compared to the other meat breeds. You’re still not escaping these problems entirely and have to watch. But keeping a feeder full of food of them at all times isn’t recommended for either breed. We’re talking chickens with some eating issues here…
So to give you an idea of what to expect, the Freedom Rangers are supposed to reach their butchering weight of 5-6 pounds in about 12 weeks.
Cornish Cross breeds generally – and the same variances apply here – you’re talking 5-6 pounds in about 7 weeks.
By the way, you will find this differs depending on your source because it’s gonna depend on the feed and the protein levels and the specific genetics of the breeding strain you’ve bought. Don’t take any one source’s word for the gospel truth.
Also keep in mind a few things: Males get plump faster than females; and either way, there’s definitely a learning curve involved with raising these breeds. But don’t let that scare you off. Trust me – it’s possible (and not as hard as you’d think!). But you will be relieved come butchering day because regardless of breed, compared to any laying hens you’ve raised, these puppies can eat!
WARNING: FOR CHICKEN NERDS ONLY!
Now, to get a little technical, Mother Earth News had an article in 2010 by Harvey Ussery – who’s written extensively on chickens and homesteading for many years – where he wrote about the details of raising Freedom Rangers compared to Cornish Cross. He started the birds out on relatively high protein feed (24%) but started to see extremely fast growth and leg problems so he dropped down to 20% feed and then, a few weeks later, to 15% and supplemented it with whole oats.
In another article, the producer raised them using only 17% protein feed but did lose some birds and they were slower to reach a good butcher weight. I find this very interesting since I’ve always started my Cornish Cross out on the highest protein feed I could get (actually it was a game bird feed, at 28% protein). I like the idea that using a lower protein, and less costly, feed can have the same results. However, it’s still cautioned that you should not always have feed available as they can tend to overeat, just like the Cornish.
The advantages of the rangers seems to be more of an ability to forage for their food. They’re better adapted for free ranging and have more energy than the Cornish do for it. The Cornish will forage and free range but not quite as aggressively as you’ll see with the “old timey” breeds who will knock you down to get to that flying insect. Some of mine are more eager to plop down on the grass and relax. Of course, they’ll still eat the grass around them, just from a non-moving position!
Another big difference is when it comes time to butcher. The Freedom Rangers have dark pinfeathers. If you’re raising these to sell, consumers aren’t used to seeing that on the skin; you’re family isn’t either if you’ve been used to grocery store chicken. It’s not considered as attractive and is definitely something to consider if you’re trying to make a go of a business or even if you want the kids to eat the dinner you made for tonight without dealing with the “Eww…it looks weird” thing.
Back at the start of this post, we mentioned the name was for marketing. However, the genetics for these Freedom Ranger birds come from France – specifically from a company that developed chickens for a strictly government regulated quality labeling system called Label Rouge. These are chickens that are required spend a certain amount of time outdoors with a specified amount of space for each. The label is considered top of the line there. Maybe this is more patriotic than you think considering the French gave us the Statue of Liberty and they do have Bastille Day on July 14th, kind of their own version of our “Independence Day”?
Some good reputable links for more information:
And, I’m not sure how definitive this is, since it’s just one farm, on one season but it is interesting:
Photos courtesy of: 1. Wendy Smoak Flickr 2. Jessica Reeder (P1080817) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licensesby-sa2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 3. Cowgirl Jules Flickr 4. Green Mountain Girls Farm http://eatstayfarm.com/ 5. Photo ID 556170 UN Photo: Rick Bajornas