Friday, 6 February 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.