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Friday, February 6, 2009

Raising meat chickens

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

For a multitude of reasons meat chickens are a popular type of livestock to raise. They are small, don't take up a lot of space, and in 2 to 3 months you have meat in your freezer or to can, that you were in charge of from day one. You control the type of feed, how the birds are handled and finally processed. Those are the trademarks of a responsible meat eater. If you process them at home and compost the offal, you can make your meat raising endeavors even more integrated into your personal foodshed in a permaculture manner.

We used to raise pastured poultry for sale ala Polyface, but decided that shipping grains in from far points did not suit our personal vision for our farm. We now just raise birds for ourselves, and a few extra for barter. We still raise the Cornish X, which is the bird that gets so much attention for being dumb, too fast of grow out, ugly, and the list could go on... . I will detail how we raise our birds and offer some different approaches for integration into a urban garden setting.

I do agree the birds are ugly from about week 4 or 5, but that isn't their fault, and it certainly may make for an easier transition to the freezer for first time growers. The rest is myth, I enjoy them and the fertilizer they provide for the pasture while they are alive and we certainly enjoy them at the dinner table.

Through trial and error on our farm, we discovered that almost all the problems encountered with this heavy meat breed (and actually our layers too) stemmed from the feed and minerals. Once we got those details worked out, we have had clear sailing since. We use Fertrell's Poultry Nutribalancer, and have our feed mixed with Fertrell's recipe, which is available on their website. The recipe is for a ton, but when we first started we purchased the raw ingredients and made our own feed in 50# batches. This is very doable for the homestead chicken flock. By using this Nutribalancer you're really adding good minerals to your chicken manure for your garden or pasture. Besides the minerals the biggest difference we noticed was that whole grains, ground for mash were better for the birds than the industrial pelleted or crumble feeds so widely available. Check out the section in Nourishing Traditions on breakfast cereal for humans. To make the pellets, the grains are cooked into a sludge and extruded at high heat. Plus, you really can't tell what ingredients are in those pellets, as long as the protein content is what is stated on the label, the feed companies are obeying the law. Even the poor maligned meat chicken should have a diet close to what his ancestors probably ate, especially if we are going to eat him.

A down side of meat birds, compared to a lighter, longer finishing breed is that they really need a high protein feed to grow. And we grew some of the dark Cornish for customers, but it took more grain, and time for less meat. I know the ideology sounds better to have a ranging bird, but if that bird eats more grain and you end up with less meat, you are responsible for more fertilizers, tilling, and petroleum use in the long run, and I think everyone agrees that is not a good thing. Even if the grains are organically raised, most organic farms are using shipped in fertilizers and soil amendments, and they are still making the same pass over that grain field with some kind of equipment. But my intention of this post is to maybe help a chicken eater become a chicken husbandman.

We receive our chickens in the mail. They are sold in lots of 25, that is for hatch run, males and females. These cuties are about 2 days old. We pick them up the next morning after they are hatched. Chicks are available at local feed stores, but they normally feed antibiotics as a prophylactic measure. We prefer our birds never recieve antibiotics. If you get them from the hatchery and provide clean conditions and don't stress them, antibiotics are unnecessary. We make sure all things are in order before chick arrival: brooder lights working, waterers filled, feed and grit available. The requirements are the same as for pullets.

We want to pasture our birds, so we time their arrival for when the grass is lush and succulent, and the weather is fairly nice, but not full blown summer. Our chicks arrive the last week in April, and depending on weather, are moved outside to a movable field pen at 3 - 4 weeks of age. However, if the weather is inclement, we wait. This puts us at a processing date at the end of June, just before we begin haymaking, and gardening in earnest. This way, our chicken chores are done for the year, before we really get busy, and we have capitalized on the young, palatable grass for that beautiful, golden schmaltz!

Always training, we have a waterer available like the one the chickens will have in their outside pen. This relieves stress, for us and the chickens at moving time. These Plasson plastic bell waterers are wonderful - gravity flow, easy cleaning, adjustable height as the chicks grow, and have lasted us for a long time.
At first the chicks are not too adventuresome, and we use the small waterers, and as they get older we begin placing the small waterers closer to the hanging waterer, and before they know it, they are BIG chicks, drinking from the BIG waterer.

We brood our chicks in a small greenhouse/brooder with a dirt floor, but the greenhouse is not necessary it is just how our operation evolved. We deep bed, and clean out after the season. Allowing rest for the next year. As you can see, grass grows in the off season giving the chicks a look at real forage from day one. At the brooding stage, we gradually wean them off lights, and this is where the greenhouse structure really helps. Most days, in the spring, it is warm enough to turn the lights off. And by week 2-3 they don't need the lights at night either, unless it is unusually cold. By having the lights off at night they get some rest from the feed too, to prepare them for their life on pasture.

Ready to move to the field pen, at four weeks they are quite large and fully feathered.

I move these birds at least once if not twice a day, once they are on pasture. This gives them fresh grass that hasn't seen a chicken for a year, (very important for parasite control) and it spreads their nutrient rich manure on the pasture in usable amounts.

My routine is pull out trough feeders, place wheeled dolly under the pen at the back, and move the pen forward one length. This takes about a minute. I close the lid and go do some other chore. If they see me hanging around, they won't graze, they will wait for me to feed them. In about 30 minutes I return and fill their feeders, and water bucket, and I'm done. It is same in the evening, if I move the pen, except I don't withhold the feed, because usually I have other more pressing chores to do.

For the broilers, I like the pen. These chickens are very young, and need aerial and ground predator protection. Crows, ravens, raptors, cats, dogs, raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, and cougars are all things we have had to deal with. This works best for us. Providing shelter from the elements, and fresh grass.

Electrified poultry netting also works in conjunction with a shelter, but while making less chores, it gives the birds less option for fresh grass. By less chores I mean you only have to monitor the feed and water, and can allow the chickens to move about. But moving the fence requires quite a bit of time, and more than one fence section, which can get expensive. And it requires some way to electrify the fence to keep (some) ground predators at bay. Electric fence will not stop aerial predation. And most people don't move the fence often enough. By day 3, the grass and forbs will be picked over, and you will have 3 days of manure in one spot instead on 1 day of manure. This sets the soil equilibrium out of balance, but it hard to detect until after you have done it, and then it takes several years to correct.

An acquaintance raises a batch of meat birds in her greenhouse in the winter, to replenish her growing beds for the next growing season.

Another option we have used is a smaller pen, say 4' x 8', made to fit over a garden bed. This is a great way to build new ground. Lay down your mulch material, lasagna style, place the pen bedded with straw or leaves, and put in the chickens, bed each day to tie down the nutrient rich manure, and move after 3 or 4 days. At that time, lay down more newspapers or ??? and move the chicken pen ahead. It may take several people to move the pen, because it has to be lifted up and carried ahead, while the chickens walk to their fresh new spot. The next year you will have garden beds you won't believe! I actually think this would work great in a community garden set-up, plenty of hands to help, and once you have the chickens, taking care of 50 is not much different than 25. Enriched compost additives and some tasty "home" grown birds. Not unlike the city market gardens of Peter Henderson's day.

One thing I think should be changed is allowing birds like this in the city. They make no noise, and if you are tying down your nutrients (manure) with enough carbon, there should not be any odor at all. If there is, add carbon - straw, leaves, what ever you have available.

And as an aside to that, if you have a tall fence, do it anyway. These chickens will be gone before your neighbors are any wiser... and maybe a fresh chicken will insure their silence.

As a final note, raising your own meat birds won't be cheaper than the supermarket chicken that is readily available. But if you factor in your feed and bedding purchases as "fertilizer" for your garden needs, and the satisfaction of being less dependent on the industrial food system, it is a win - win.
The following link is of our grazing broilers right after a move to fresh grass.
I posted about how far we stretch one of these chickens here. And I detailed our expenses here.
My prices are for Western Oregon, where feed prices are high.


Pat aka Posh said...

I've been told that our township lets us raise a limited amount of chickens in our backyard and I've been planning on calling to make sure this is true because I'm actually considering ordering a batch of them and raising them in movable pens like you are doing. I don't think it would be as expensive for feed here in MO but I would think they would find a lot of food in our yard to help off set the cost.. besides there's nothing as good as free range raised meat.
Thanks for the post.. I enjoyed it very much.

ChristyACB said...

I've tried and tried, even bringing pictures of ridiculously cute rare chickens that are raised as dice. No chickens.

Alas...must wait for the country life!

Compostwoman said...

A very informative and interesting post.

I am still working on the family so I can raise meat birds....they are soft hearted I guess!

Laura said...

Nita, thanks for this. How big is your pen? How many birds? We're re-evaluating our set-up to do 100 next round instead of 50 and considering a movable tractor as we've got both coyotes and hawks/eagles to worry about. Right now we're contemplating a permanent pen (with it's accompanying issues) due to lack of level ground and predation issues. But perhaps there's another solution?

Toria said...

Very informative, thanks. I want to raise meat chickens, starting to plan how we will do it, so this was great.

Would it be possible for you to do a follow up post, with details of how you actually process your birds, from flock to main course?

Adrienne said...

Name names please! We're ordering chickens and ducks for the first time this year, and I'm still somewhat undecided where I'll order from. Probably Sandhill, because they'll let me mix the two (but chicks have to outnumber the ducklings in the box), and they have several variety packs which as considerably less expensive.

Do you order from Murray MacMurray, or do you order from someone else?

Darren (Green Change) said...

I'm very interested in doing something similar, as soon as we get our yard fence built and an area set up for chickens.

Do any readers know anyone in Australia that can supply day-old meat chicks? I'm just south of Sydney. I don't know of any.

Another option is to buy fertilised eggs and have a clucky hen (e.g. a silky) sit on them. Have you done this? Is it more hassle than it's worth? Maybe it's just better to get the day-olds - after all, you can't count your chickens until they hatch!

Thanks for another great article.

Kristin said...

So when you mix your own feed, how did you grind the grains for the mash? And what did you use as your main protein source?

We try and give our meat birds some chopped liver mixed with brewer's yeast the first few weeks. Seems to help with the leg splaying problems.

Also, clabber (fermented skim milk from the cow). This gives them probiotics. While I like Fertrell products, I hate to have to ship even that in if possible.

Of course, following that logic, we shouldn't be mail ordering the meat birds at all, I suppose. It is nice to have that young, tender chicken. Perhaps we should learn to (ugh) caponize instead.

Thanks for the great post!

Julie said...

A really interesting post Nita, thanks :-)

Darren: Try Barter & Sons Hatchery at Luddenham (85 Eaton Rd, Luddenham, NSW 2745, ph: (02) 4773 3222), they provide chicks for most of NSW, both layers and meat chickens.

Cheers, Julie

mrsdirtyboots said...

Great post. Our own birds were definitely the best tasting chicken I've ever eaten. I'd encourage anyone with the space to have a go. We've had a few batches, spring time chicks grew the quickest. No cheaper but much tastier than anything you can buy.

Only problem for us is the death - I bottled it I'm afraid. The mucky stuff after is all fine but that moment of demise... I need to find a friendly chicken killer to do that bit for me!

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Pat, thanks and good luck with the township rules. Unfortunately, livestock zoning sometimes can be a good thing, but the rules are one-size-fits-all. Chickens in the city can be a problem, with rodents following the easy grain source. That problem is real because a laying flock is there 365 days a year. But, with meat chickens, a batch could be raised before the rodents moved in, and if they did, once the food source was gone, they would leave. But that would require an actual thinking bureaucrat to sort out the differences... ;)

ChristyACB, that is too bad, I hope a move to country comes soon for you!

Compostwoman, that is a challenge, but maybe they will come around. If they eat chicken already, it has to come from somewhere so it would be better from your own homestead.

Laura, the pen in the post is 10' x 12'x 2', which is perfect for 75 birds. Our best size was 8'x 8'x 2' for 50 birds. It was easier to work with 8' dimensional lumber and the pen was lighter too. The wheeled dolly is a necessity, but easily made. Pastured Poultry Profits shows the dolly design quite well. 2" PVC works well, using furniture fittings, and so does electrical conduit. But the wood and wire turned out to be easier for us to build, due to the difficulty of attaching the wire securely enough to keep out predators. Each method has pro's and con's. Could you use a strip of your field and forgo the few hay bales it would yield? Your neighbor would be astounded at the yield the following year if you placed your field pens there. I just stay close to the edge of our fields with mine, and really in 4 weeks on pasture they don't cover a lot of ground.

Our ground isn't all that level, if I encounter a low spot, I place a board or something to plug the hole. The key to pastured poultry and predators is the movement. Predators are unsettled by the food supply in a different place each day. But all that aside, a permanent pen wouldn't be the worst thing either. I would just make sure they don't have access to ground or pens that your adult hens have used. Adult birds can have more parasites than young birds, so keeping separate areas for the two types would probably insure your success.

Toria, I didn't include the link to my post about the end of that batch of chickens. Meat eating is a sore subject these days, for many reasons and I thought that might be a little much. We process our birds at a friends farm as a barter agreement - we trade labor and get the use of his equipment. However, we have done these at home too. You need a way to keep a large kettle of water at around 140*F while you scald the chickens, this loosens the feathers, and then the HARDEST part (I think) is the plucking of the feathers, then the gutting and finally chilling and bagging for the freezer. Definitely many hands can make light work. Here is the link to my post from last summer:

and for turkeys also:

Hope this helps!

Adrienne, I am in Western Oregon and I will order from Dunlap Hatchery in Idaho this year. The hatchery in Washington state that we used went out of business, so I am trying to order from as close as possible to relieve shipping stress on the birds. Check your local feed store too, ours has CHICK DAYS were you can get in on a bulk order pricing, but still recieve your chicks in a separate box. It is a loss leader for the feed store and then they theoretically get to sell you the feed for 8 weeks. The downside to this is that they pick the day, so you are locked into that time frame. But at least the birds haven't been fed antibiotics yet.

Darren, thanks and I have no expertise in hatching eggs. It might work, but it might not, like you say "don't count your chickens"

Another thing we did do though is eat our roosters that came with our pullet orders. Actually that was the best chicken we ate, but they were a by product, and it took a considerable amount of feed to get a 4# carcass, we would usually go to about 20 weeks, or sooner if they started causing trouble. Standard breed male chicks are cheap to buy, but unless you have quite a pocketbook to support them to the eating stage, they certainly aren't a frugal proposition.

Kristin, we used our Farmall A, and International Harvester belt driven burr mill. Following the Fertrell recipe, we purchased whole corn, roasted soybeans, and ground as needed. With that we mixed crimped oats, low-heat fishmeal, limestone, kelp and the Nutribalancer in a cement mixer. None of those things were sustainable at all, that is why we quit. As for the liver and brewers yeast and clabber, we never had enough liver, or extra milk (only one family cow) and we never could make sure the chickens actually all ate it. Not to mention the problems of what they didn't eat attracting more predators.

I can't say enough about the Nutribalancer though for our compost program. By composting our animal manure that was fully mineralized and then applying to the fields made a huge difference and was more long lasting. Our main goal is to improve our farm land, and our livestock helps us do that. They say just limestone alone added to the composting program increases the effectiveness of the lime. So I guess that is how we justified the expense.

You might check into or the American Pastured Poultry Producers Assoc. (APPPA) for producers in your area. Many times the producer becomes a dealer just so they can get the Nutribalancer, so there may be someone close to you that may have some in their barn. That's how I get mine, but the price has gone through the roof.

I agree it is a conundrum, should we really be sending chickens through the is so hard to decide what is best to do. Most of the hatching eggs for Cornish X come from just a few lines, and the hatcheries just buy the fertilized eggs and have them shipped and then hatch them. So I don't really know what the answer is. I guess just know that the chickens you raise on your farmstead will end up having a better life than their relatives who go on to the big broiler operations!

Julie, thanks.

Mrsdirtyboots, after looking over our production records from raising these birds for sale we discovered the time frame from late April to late June gave us the best results. The days are long and the birds need that natural light. We used to do birds later into September, but they always ate as much and gained less due to shorter days, and cooler nights. So it cost us more in the long run. We are harvesting sunlight after all.

I know what you mean about the death thing, HD does the deed for me, because he dislikes the disassembly part - so we have divided up the labor that way.

Toria said...

Thanks, I'll go back & read that older post on your blog. I understand what you mean about meat eating being a sensitive topic, but it is so hard to find any information about how you can do these things yourself.

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Kate@LivingTheFrugalLife said...

Excellent summary of the meat bird process. Thank you. I have to agree the cuteness factor of those chicks plummets significantly as they age. As you say, probably makes it easier to slaughter them.

I don't know that we're at the point of considering meat birds, since they are so readily available to us from organic, sustainable, and grass-based farms nearby. I'm completely sold on keeping our own layers though. I wouldn't want to garden without them. I do use them over cleared beds as you mentioned, and it has really been a boon.



Helicopters said...

Is it possible to raise chickens for meat with house scraps and fresh vegetables if they are free range?