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May 26, 2010

Hybrid Chickens

I'm a firm believer in preserving heritage breeds, whether they are chickens, horses, sheep, or any other form of livestock. I also believe that hybrid vigor is a good thing, and that too much inbreeding (or "linebreeding") can lead to weak animals.

I also believe that hybrid chickens have their place. Hatcheries sell at least three types of hybrids, and while each hatchery has named their own product, they are basically the same. The Cornish-Rock cross is a meat bird, and Production Red and Production Black birds are egg-layers.

I've done some research into these specialty hybrid chickens; here is what I've found:

"Cornish-Rock Cross" are obtained by breeding a white Cornish roo to a barred rock hen. (There are white rock chickens, which would probably be the best choice, but barred rock are much easier to locate.) These chicks are meat birds that grow very fast and are ready to butcher at 8 weeks. Yes, 8 weeks. Really.

"Production Red" hens are barred rock hens bred to a Rhode Island Red rooster (or New Hampshire Red). The chicks can be sexed when hatched: the red chicks are pullets and the yellow chicks are cockerels. (This is called a "sex-linked" trait, like calico cats are female.) You'll pay more for these chicks from a hatchery, but you'll receive red chicks which are guaranteed to be female. You don't waste feed, money and time raising chicks that turn out to be roosters. Production hens are also supposed to be "egg-laying machines" according to the hatchery ads: super layers.

TRIVIA: The second generation of production reds are the reverse: the yellow chicks will be hens and the red chicks are cockerels. That situation rarely comes up, since people only buy the female chicks and don't have a hybrid rooster to breed them to.

"Production Black" hens are similar to the reds, but are black, produced by using a different combination of hen:rooster.

So, according to my research, a homesteader should be able to produce her own cornish-rock cross chicks and production layers, right? Last year I decided to experiment with the production red layers. We bought ten Rhode Island Red chicks and a half dozen barred rock chicks. The survival rate was really poor for whatever reason, and a year later I now have two barred rock roosters and one Rhode Island Red hen, which is exactly opposite of the barred rock HENS and a Rhode Island Red ROOSTER that I wanted. So much for that.

I had planned to experiment on the meat birds this year but life has demanded too much of me and I am putting it off. I also was having trouble finding white Cornish chickens.

As I was feeding my chickens the other day, I was looking at my granddaughter's hen "Nemo", and remembering that three years ago when we incubated and hatched a lot of eggs, we had a lot of chicks this color from this particular breeding combination of a buff orpington rooster and 2 brown americauna hens. I gave a dozen assorted chicks to a friend as a starter flock, and if I remember correctly the red-gold ones were all pullets.

I sold most of the chicks that we hatched that year, but I wonder now if I had stumbled onto a sex-linked combination: were these red-gold-colored chicks all female, and were the brown ones males? I will never know, since the two brown americauna hens are long gone now.

I'm still curious about raising my own hybrids, and hopefully someday I'll try again. I think I'll buy started hens though, instead of buying chicks.

You, of course, are welcome to try too. Since I've given you the Secret Formula, you are required to tell me your results. Please.


  1. hi, I was just trying to find out more about hybrids. Seems that its just a fancy name for a cross-bred chicken! We have Rhode Is Reds and White Leghorns, and while we do try to keep them separate, some of the white hens must have sneaked in with the red rooster, as we hatched a few crossed chicks, one hen and three roosters. It will be interesting to see if this hen does well. I think we will keep breeding the pure-bred lines (I think its important to keep them going) and add a few hybrids by swapping the roosters for one batch of eggs (we incubate them). Did you get any further with your research?

  2. Hi Liz,
    Because these chicks all turned out to be roosters, I wasn't able to do any more research. I need to ask the friends who gave us the hatching eggs if they've had any more white chicks, and if they too were all males.
    Thank you for your visit and for your comments!

  3. Farmer John5:17 PM

    I've been trying to produce something similar to a cornish hybrid for 4 years with limited success. I'm just trying to breed a bird naturally that is meatier than your standard dual purpose heritage breed. I don't want genetically engineered Frankenbirds but just a good cross. Are these hybrids that the chicken producers are raising just pumped full of steroids or are they actually crosses?

  4. To answer Farmer John, the Cornish X are not genetically modified. They have been hybridized. The ones we buy from the grocery store may very well have steroids or hormones added to their feed, but if you buy the chicks and raise them with natural feed, they won't have steroids in them.

    Great idea Kathi! I've thought about keeping the Cornish roo and White Rock hens, but haven't tried this yet. Maybe next year. :)

  5. It's good to see you, Lisa. :-) Hopefully this year I will be able to raise some chicks; we have a local hatchery that has a good reputation and although they have a limited selection of breeds I hope they will have what I want. Then, my experiments will begin...

  6. Linda Steiger4:42 PM

    Hi Kathi,
    I too am very interested in preserving heritage breeds as many may be lost forever, so after years of having various breeds in my flock I went back to a "foundation" breed the English Dorking which comes in various colors. It is the breed used to develop the Buff Orpington (a breed I love) and the various Rocks (White, Barred). They were the meat bird of the l800's because they grew plumper and w/larger breasts than other breeds. They were the only chicken that Queen Victoria would eat. Their meat is supposed to be juicier and more tender than any other breed (we'll see). They are few in numbers here in the U.S.A. and only a few hatcheries handle them. I badgered Meyer Hatchery in Ohio for years to include them and this year they have the Silver Grey's for sale. Yipeee! I did find a source for the White Dorking (only 2 known hatcheries in the USA carry them) and was able to buy 22 hatched on July 13th. Only 16 survived to adulthood (7 pullets 9 roos). The pullets have just started laying today at 22 weeks. Have an order in for the Silver Grey chicks for May of next year as I want to carry both colors as the SG's are a little heavier in size. Found your comments on Lisa's blog about trying to breed your own Cornish Crosses. I put a note for you there - I did try it but couldn't find White Cornish but used a Black Cornish Rooster against White Rock hens - with no size difference in the chicks than any other heritage breed - very disappointing. Would love to hear if you are planning any other breeding experiments.

  7. Hi Linda, thank you so much for sharing your experience in this. I will look into the dorkings, maybe that's the way to go. Do let me know how your future research goes, please.

  8. Christina M of BeautiControl10:09 AM

    Are Cornish Roosters noisy? Do they crow?

  9. Christina, I still haven't been able to locate a Cornish rooster, and the Cornish-Rock crosses that I've raised haven't been here long enough to know when they'd start crowing. I'm sure they do though, all roosters crow eventually. :-)

  10. MissMarie10:05 AM

    I'm not sure if you've updated, but I came across this as I searched for Cornish Rock Crosses.

    You're a little off on the production birds. The Rhode Island Red or New Hampshire over a Barred Rock is actually a Black Sex Link. When they hatch, the chicks will be either all black (female) or black with a cream colored spot on their head (male). You can also use a Buff Orpington rooster as your 'red' - works well for Blacks, but not as well for Reds because the chick feathers might not be a different enough shade to tell apart easily.

    Production Reds are usually a Rhode Island Red or New Hampshire Red male over White Plymouth Rock, Rhode Island White, Silver Laced Wyandotte, or Delaware females. The chicks will hatch either buff/reddish (female) or white/silver (male).

    They also do not breed true when you breed production birds together, the color of their chicks will not actually reflect their sex.

    I don't want to sound like a know-it-all, but if you or your readers try again it would be good to know going forward :)

    1. Thank you for clearing this up, Miss Marie. I had an accidental sex-link breeding with my buff orpington rooster and one particular hen, but I wasn't sure which hen it was. By the time the chicks were old enough to realize that the copper-colored chicks were all female, most of my hens had been victims of a predator. I do plan to pursue this further, so I appreciate having this information.

  11. So has anyone raised a meat bird that gains just about as well as Cornish cross without the leg issues? They sure taste good and grow well, but they are generally a little weak in the wellness arena.