Who doesn't love baby chickies? They are cute and cuddly and love to be held and kept warm. We just got 30 baby broilers. They start out cute and cuddly just like any other baby chick, but quickly become big eating machines. That is simply what they are bred for.
We are involved in our local 4-H club where we participate in the Broiler Project. This project is sponsored by the county fair and a local chicken plant provides any child wanting to raise chickens for this contest with 10 chicks. It is a great way to have a fun fair project and provide us with fresh farm raised chicken. These are white Cornish cross chickens, straight run and probably a Cobb breed. This is a common breed for meat raising. They are a docile, simple minded chicken that grows quickly and thinks mostly of eating.
For the contest they have 6 weeks to raise the chicks. They must have a “pen” of three chickens that weigh at least 4 lbs each. The three that are chosen to be in your pen should be evenly sized and symmetrical and really, the heaviest that you have. This pen is then judged mostly according to weight, but also by breast meat size, uniformity, and health of the chickens. The largest percentage of the judging is based on weight, so your overall goal besides health is to grow those chickens!
The first year that we tried this project, we didn't have any chickens to come near the 4 lb minimum size required to show. This was frustrating. We let them range. They ran around everywhere chasing bugs. They ate so many junebugs that I knew they must be getting fat. I'll never forget when Caleb was heartbroken that one of the chickens ate a junebug “pet” that he had worked so hard to catch and tie a string around it's legs. That chicken just flew up and ate that junebug in midair. Well, needless to say, all that aerobic activity didn't turn into tasty chicken. When we butchered them they were quite tough and not so meaty.
Part of the problem was that I wasn't committed to the investment of fattening them up. Feed for growers gets expensive. But, 30 butchered chickens can be a lot of good meat. So, since learning from our first year, we spend what we need to on feed and keep them penned up. I think if we were only growing them for meat I would feed and raise them a little differently. This is a contest, though, and we have to strategize.
We feed them game bird starter throughout the 6 weeks because it has a higher protein content. Getting them to eat as much as possible all the time is a good idea. Some of the participants start out from the beginning setting timers hooked to lights and fans to wake the chicks up at night so they will eat more. After the first three weeks we weigh out the birds and separate the biggest ones, usually 12 – 15 chicks. The lighter half, which will always be mostly pullets, will go in a different pen and will get fed mostly corn or other grains. They will grow out slower, but we will let them get to a heavier weight before butching them in a couple of months. With the heavier half (which only have three more weeks to make the weight) we continue to feed them a high protein, high fat diet. We start getting more intense with their feed and will wake them up at night to eat, too. By now the summer weather is taking a tole on them and they need a fan on them full time. There are a lot of tips and tricks online about special feeds that can be mixed for them, and we have tried a few of them. By the end of the 6 weeks we have a flock of huge chickens! We have never raised the heaviest at our show, and I cannot believe how big some kids can grow those birds! Since my kids have participated, they have placed high enough to sell their ribbon in the premium sale that the fair holds for the meat (livestock) classes. This is a way that the community can bid on the kids winning ribbon and help them recoup some of the cost of raising their animals.
I have been very pleased with the quality of meat from these birds. I especially like to let them grow a bit larger to make a good baking or stewing sized chicken. I love to cook a chicken in a pot and make lots of delicious and nutritious stock. Some of our favorites made with a stewed chicken include chicken and dumplings, chicken and noodles and chicken enchilada soup.
Chicken Enchilada Soup
1 whole chicken cooked, deboned and one quart of broth reserved for soup
1 pkg hidden valley ranch mix
1 pkg taco mix
1-2 cans hominy (I like to mix yellow and white together)
1 can kidney beans
1 can rotel (or jar of salsa, picante sauce, etc)
1 can chopped tomatoes
Mix all together in large pot, simmer for 30 mins. Serve with crackers
or fresh baked corn bread.
Photo Credit: Nate and Caleb Tucker with their new little broiler chicks.