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Reduce or eliminate health issues with versatility and efficiency when setting up a Cornish Cross broiler for raising Cornish Cross chickens for meat.
By Anna Gordon
Each spring and fall, I raise a batch of 25 Cornish Cross pullets. My feed conversions are typically at or below breeder benchmarks with 8.5 pound live-weight pullet broilers at 8 weeks which dress out at 5.5-6 pounds each. For the most part, my success comes from close adherence to commercial broiler growth techniques and years of developing a smart set-up strategy.
I prefer to raise pullets only, even though cockerels outweigh pullets at finish by several pounds. I find pullets produce more tender meat than cockerels, most noticeable if finished to full 8 weeks. Cockerels can sometimes be aggressive at 6 to 8 weeks and bully at the feed trough and drinker, which can result in shy pullets being pushed away and suffering from poor weight gain. In my experience, same-gender flocks typically finish at more uniform weights, making processing a lot easier.
The Cornish Cross broiler is different from traditional layer or dual-purpose chickens. Decades of hybridization have produced a meat bird that is incredibly efficient at converting feed to body mass. Cornish Cross hens can grow to eight pounds in as little as eight weeks. Look at it this way, Bresse, Buff Orpingtons, Buckeyes, and Chantecler chickens all mature around 7 to 9 pounds, but it takes them 16 to 21 weeks to get there, twice the time of the Cross and twice the feed.
Because breeding efforts have emphasized breast meat development, the Cornish Cross broiler’s center of gravity is farther forward from the more upright layer or dual purpose chicken. This makes it difficult for them to evade predators quickly and run across uneven ground. These broilers are not bred to be athletic or particularly active. Driven by their increased metabolism, they focus most of their attention on eating. Which means that their feed schedules, care, and general management needs to be different from raising layers and slow-growth, dual-purpose birds. They also need a specific physical environment to protect them from predators. Below, I’ll walk you through how I use wire pet pen panels for a versatile set-up that I can then pack away after each batch of 25 have been processed. If you’d prefer to use a permanent set up, you might consider building a movable chicken tractor and still using my suggestions for setting up a run.
Cornish Cross broilers do not require the physical space of layer or dual-purpose chickens. Like layers and dual-purpose chicks, the broiler chick up to 3 weeks of age does not need much more than a square foot of brooder space. This is where the similarities end. Growing broiler pullets and cockerels need only 1 to 3 square feet of space but require larger feeders and waterers (and space for them) because of their fast growth rate. Their voracious appetite can sometimes cause bullying at the feeder and an empty waterer can cause digestive disruptions and even crop impaction. In my experience, I don’t find Cornish Cross broilers to be very resilient creatures. They require steady, consistent care.
Efficient and Versatile Space
My poultry setup includes a walk-in coop attached to a 10-by-30-foot covered, metal-roof run, separated into two sections — a 10-by-20-foot run with access to free range pasture for the layers and another 10-by-10-foot pen used for breeding, quarantine/hospital or broiler chick grow out.
There is a 3-foot apron of 1/2-inch hardware cloth surrounding the entire structure as predator-proofing. As designed, this set-up is easy to clean (eliminating odors), easy to access chickens, looks nice, and offers flexible functionality.
Using a couple wire exercise pens, I can set up a temporary covered brooder with small run in my carport so I can keep a close eye on the chicks. As they grow, I can add a second, shorter pen as a daytime run. The main wire pen is wrapped in 1/2-inch hardware cloth to keep out rodents and snakes. I can set up the brooder and run in 20 minutes or less.
- This brooder set up provides roughly 28-square-feet or 1/2 square-foot of space per chick.
- The brooder space is supplemented by a small attached daytime run, bringing total square footage up to about one-square-foot per chick.
- A 5-quart waterer along with a 7-pound feeder is kept full and available in the brooder.
- A vitamin, mineral and electrolyte/probiotic supplement is added to the water from hatch through the end of the 3rd week.
- At the far end of the run, I place a hanging waterer and 3-foot trough with spinning reel that discourages perching (and the inevitable manure in the feed) are placed in the attached pen at 3rd week.
- As recommended by major breeder grower guides, I also provide a white light along with heat lamp in the brooder. The small 5-1/2-inch clamp lamp with a 4-watt LED nightlight bulb provides just enough white light for the broiler chicks to see both feeder and waterer throughout the night to encourage feeding.
Establishing Chicks after Shipping
The day before the Cornish Cross chicks arrive, I get the brooder set up and working.Years ago, I learned a farm tip for struggling chicks stressed from shipping. I make sure to have a couple hard-boiled eggs on hand so I can crumble the yolks with starter feed. They gobble it up, which stimulates drinking, where the electrolytes can make a difference. Chicks coming out of a shipping box are hungry. When I see a chick not eagerly going at the feeder, I mix up the yolk/starter crumble and feed to the chick. In no time, the chick is right in there with the others at the feeder.
Cornish Cross chicks look like ordinary day-old chicks, but that’s where the similarities end. You can actually see their growth doubling and tripling over the first two weeks. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of larger-capacity feeders and drinkers to accommodate this rapid growth. I start with a 5-quart drinker and a 7-pound feeder for the first couple of weeks. Within their first week, the 25 chicks are drinking a gallon per day, and soon consume 2 gallons per day! By the third week, I add an additional 5-quart drinker rather than filling one drinker several times per day.
By the third week, the chicks’ appetites are voracious. The 7-pound feeder is swapped for a 36-inch trough feeder with reel. The trough legs lift the feeder, which keeps litter out, and the reel discourages chicks getting on top and fouling the feed. The 3-foot trough feeder provides 6 linear feet of space, allowing chicks to all feed at once side by side — no jockeying for position. And it eliminates filling the feeder multiple times per day.
When the chicks are transferred to the grow-out pen on the fourth week, I add a bell auto drinker to provide constant access to clean water. It can be easily adjusted higher as the pullets grow. The 3-foot trough feeder is swapped for a 4-foot trough feeder, providing 8 linear feet of feeding space and reinforcing positive feeding behaviors, since they all can feed side by side. Feed is stored in galvanized steel cans within the grow-out pen, enabling quick feeding.
Remember that raising Cornish Cross is quite different from raising layers. You need a strategy to meet their needs and reduce the work necessary to maintain them.
Feeding and Maintenance Schedule
My Cornish Cross chicks are started on 28 percent game bird crumble for the first few weeks. I never use medicated feeds because I order coccidiosis inoculant spray on all chicks. From the fourth week to finish, chicks are transitioned to 22 percent broiler crumble formulated for their nutritional needs, and are fed on a 12/12 hour feed restriction. I never feed cracked corn or scratch of any kind, nor do I add fiber such as grass clippings or garden waste to their diet; this can promote diarrhea, which can harbor and spread coccidiosis. With this approach, I don’t experience sudden death “flips” or broken legs in any of my Cornish Cross chicks. Any mortalities experienced are shipping-related.
Here’s my maintenance and feed strategy for Cornish Cross broilers:
- Day 1 through end of Week 4 — Electrolytes, vitamins, and minerals are added to all drinking water.
- Day 1 through end of Week 2 — Twenty-eight percent feed is provided. Heat lamp and white light are on 24/7.
- Beginning Week 3 — Feed is switched to 22 percent broiler ration, restricted 12/12 hours, with water available at all times. Feeder is swapped with a 3-foot trough. White light is eliminated. Chicks have access to 4-by-3-foot run during the day, and heat lamp is left in the brooder for chicks to warm themselves should they get cold. Chicks are secured in brooder overnight.
- Beginning Week 4 — Pullets are relocated to outdoor grow-out pen. Feed restriction continues, and a 4-foot feed trough is added. Increased feeder space eliminates any challenge to feed. Chicks have access to half the grow-out pen during day with auto drinker and are gathered up into sleep house overnight with access to drinker.
- Week 5 — Pullets are weighed for progress and given full access to 10-square-foot grow-out pen.
- Week 6 to Week 8 — Pullets are weighed for progress to determine process schedule based on selected finish weight. The pullets are free to choose the sleep house or open pen to overnight.
- The larger pullets are processed as scheduled, while any lagging pullets are held back to Week 8 and placed on full feed 24/7.
- End of Week 8 — All pullets are processed.
I find 25 Cornish Cross pullets will consume approximately 325 pounds of feed from Day 1 through Week 8 while on a 12/12 feed restriction schedule. Cockerels only or a mixed pullet-cockerel flock will consume more.
Grow Out Pen
At the 4th week, chicks are moved to the grow-out pen and their sleep house. You can make a round or rectangular pen by attaching the two to three end panels with snap clips. I put this pen on a raised plywood floor (which can be cleaned and reused) and add a plywood top to transform the wire pen into a secure sleeping house. Because of rapid weight gain and changes to their center of gravity due to breast meat development, Cornish Cross broilers do not roost. Instead, they sleep huddled together on the ground. The broilers will retreat into the sleep house at dusk on their own.
Limiting Rapid Growth
The 4th week also marks the beginning of a 12-hour full feed and 12-hour feed restriction rotation. The purpose of this is to limit too rapid growth. At the same time, the smaller white light is removed. Cornish Cross birds have been bred to eat and they will keep eating if there is food available. If they grow too rapidly, they can suffer heart attacks, develop ascites and bone problems resulting in lameness or broken bones. So I use a physical feed restriction program of supplying enough food for a 12-hour period, and then removing their food for 12 hours.
After 12 hours of feed restriction, you could be mowed over by those little chicks barreling out of the brooder in search of the feeder. To avoid congestion around the feeder, the 3-foot trough gives the chicks just enough space for everyone. If all the chicks are packed pretty snugly around the trough, they tend to drop less food outside of it (lower food waste) and the less they jockey for a seemingly “prime” position. They all just focus on eating. I replace the 3-foot trough with a 4-foot trough when the growing chicks are crowded enough to start pushing each other away. The revolving reel across the top of the feeder keeps the young broilers from standing on the feeder and pooping in the trough. Less soiled feed means less wasted feed.
Before relocating the chicks to the grow-out pen, I prepare the ground by spreading a 50/50 mixture of baking soda and flour in the run. Over that mixture, I lay down a 3- to 4-inch deep layer of pine flake litter, both inside the sleep house and in the pen. The pine flake litter absorbs moisture and provides odor control. Keeping the litter fresh is as easy as fluffing and adding a little more over the last five weeks the broilers are confined. Like the deep litter method, this approach also encourages microbes to grow in the litter to destroy the coccidian parasites found in manure.
Cleaning out the sleep house is as easy as unclipping the wire panel ends where they join and spreading them open. A couple of passes with a wide snow shovel quickly scoops up the litter and the sleep house is clean.
Keeping Pens Dry
You’ll need to increase the frequency of your cleaning during the 6th to 8th week as their metabolisms will be in full swing and they will be eating a lot and producing lots of wet manure. Continue to mix some flour and baking soda with your pine flakes to limit odors. If the pen gets too wet from watery poop or rain, you can also use pine pellets (like the ones used in horse stalls) to absorb extra moisture.
A broiler that sleeps or lies on moist ground or grass with fresh manure with high ammonia develops breast blisters. This condition starts as feather loss and red, irritated skin similar to diaper rash that eventually leads to painful blisters that lead to bacterial infection.
Anticipate Feed Needs
We’ve talked a lot about how fast broilers grow, which means that they do need to consume quite a bit of food each day. At 21 days, each bird will eat about 1/4 pound of food a day. By the time they are 49 days old, they are eating 1/2 pound a day. Applying this math to the birds I have means that 25 Cornish Cross boilers will eat about 325 pounds of feed over 8 weeks. I like to buy all of the 22 percent broiler feed I’ll need before I move them into the grow-out pen and keep it in galvanized ,steel-covered cans inside the pen. This makes it easy to pop off the lid and measure out food into their trough.
Deep litter, auto waterer, pre-calculated food needs, snap-together fencing, planning ahead — all make for just a few, quick chores each day to raise enough broilers in 16 weeks to feed your family for the year.
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. Anne’s a long-time 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. Anne’s had to think out of the box in some situations yet held to tried and true traditions for others. Anne lives on Cumberland Mountain in TN with her two English Springers Jack and Lucy.