Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Raising Meat Birds

It's that time of year again - chicken season.

Every year for almost a decade, now, here at Chez Brown we have raised meat chickens.  Our breed of choice is Cornish cross, because they grow quickly and provide a lot of meat.  From brooder to butcher takes eight to twelve weeks.  Ten weeks is the optimum for getting a tender bird at a good weight so that hiring someone else to butcher them for us makes good financial sense.

Marjorie Wildcraft has made a movie on raising chickens.  I linked there to the trailer.  Marjorie has a lot more land than I have, and the way she and her group raised the chickens is more in keeping with the way most people do it - sort of as a meat share.  That is, they order a large number of chicks (and note that they are also raising the Cornish cross breed) as a group.   One person with a lot of land does the daily work of keeping the chicks alive until they're ready to harvest, and then, the entire group pitches in on the designated day to send the grown chickens to freezer camp.  The group will, then, split up the harvested birds.

Here at Chez Brown, we have always raised our birds exclusively for our personal consumption.  We also don't raise a huge flock all at one time.  While everything else is probably the same as what Marjorie does, we do things on a much smaller scale.

The Brooder

Back in 2007, my daughters and I stopped by the feed store for some rabbit feed.  They had baby chicks.  My young daughters were completely smitten.  Having more money than sense, and having discussed it with Deus Ex Machina on several occasions (with no decision made whether we would or wouldn't), I decided to take the plunge and buy three chicks, one for each of my daughters. 

The young man at the store helped me get outfitted.  He suggested a standard small animal cage with a wire bottom and a pull out tray.  Then, he added a heat lamp, a feeder, a waterer, and some chick starter feed.  For less than $100, we were set-up.

When we decided to start raising meat chickens, we used the same set-up.  It comfortably fits twelve chicks until they feather out enough to go outside. 

The Tractor

Once the chicks have feathered out, we move them outside into a tractor.  They live in the tractor for a couple of weeks until they get big enough that a hawk can't carry them off, and then, we just put them in the tractor at night to protect them from nocturnal predators.  During the day, they have free-run of our backyard, where they enjoy eating bugs, nibbling grass, and sleeping among the raspberry brambles. 

There are a lot of ways to make a chicken tractor.  Ours is made from PVC pipe that we wrapped in 1/2" gauge hardwire cloth - the sides and top.  The bottom is open to the ground.  It's 25 square feet inside the tractor, which is plenty of room for the smaller chickens and enough room for the big ones when they're sleeping. 

The only issue we've had is that with a wire top, we need to cover the tractor with a tarp when it rains, which can get cumbersome.  So our plan is to use the same clear plastic corrugated roofing material we used on the hen coops and woodshed to cover the tractor.  We'll be making that adjustment this year.

The Flock

We raise Cornish cross chickens.  They are the same hybrid (not "genetically modified") used by the meat industry.  The key difference is quantity of birds and how they are raised.  In the meat industry, they pack thousands of birds into a marginallypoorly ventilated building where the birds have no access to grass or sunlight. 

We raise our birds in tiny flocks of not more than a dozen at a time, and they spend their entire lives (after they're out of the brooder) outside, in the sunshine, being chickens - eating grass and bugs, chasing humans who have food, and pecking the nose of our massive chow-chow. 

Over the course of the summer, we will raise a years' worth of chicken (a total of 48 birds which allows us to eat just under one whole chicken per week for the entire year).  Each chicken gives us about three meals and allows Deus Ex Machina to take home-raised, home-cooked chicken to lunch a couple of times a week.  We can also get a few quarts of broth with the left over bones and parts we don't eat.  The broth from our home-raised chickens is rich and hearty - not the insipid watery stuff one buys from the grocery store.

The thing is that anyone who has a little land could raise a few birds.  They are often for sale at a minimum of six at Tractor Supply or other suburban feed stores.  Six meat birds, for someone just starting out, would be plenty. 

I guess the point is that it doesn't take any particular skill or knowledge to raise one's own meat.  It really only takes the willingness to step outside of one's comfort zone. 

It's also not expensive, and for the most part, we all know that DIY is much cheaper than having someone do it for us.

A baby chick costs $2.50 (six of them would be $18).  A 50 lb bag of feed is $12.  Our butcher charges $4.50 per bird to process.  We calculated it, once.  It costs us $1.89 per pound to raise our own meat birds.  Sure, you can get chicken for less than that at the grocery store, but you can not get free-range, organically raised chicken for $1.89/lb. 

In the end the best reward is realizing that one can.

And each one of those small steps we take toward realizing that we can is one step closer to self-sufficiency.  That's not a bad thing.


  1. With the way things are going in this world. And now that my children are married and we have one grandchild. I might have to go back into this. I'll raise them. And get the boys to come and send them to freezer heaven. That way we all get fresh home grown meat
    We butchered a cow and everyone loved the fact that I filled their freezers with beef