Chicken Harvest: Conscientious Consumption

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Ever since they arrived on a cold, sunny day in April, I worked hard to keep nine broiler chicks alive. The first week of June, I killed them.

People who know my over-the-top affection for all things furred and feathered had bet I couldn’t do it, but I didn’t even wonder about it. If I’m going to continue eating meat, I have to know that the animal lived well and died humanely. I can vouch for those nine birds.

I kept them warm in a borrowed brooder house until they feathered out enough to move into my garden. Preston built a floorless, A-frame coop so they could glide along the fallow rows, eating insects and a ryegrass cover crop. We watched them chase their first bugs and sample their first blades of tender grass inside their wire condo. Before I knew what was happening my Celtic distaste for penned animals took over, scrapping our plans for their orderly life. I threw open their door to the entire garden, shouting: “Live it up, time’s a wasting, life is short!”

Or is it? Maybe lifespan is relative. Perhaps each week is like a decade for a bird that’s genetically programmed to mature at two months and self destruct at three. Legs start breaking under the weight. Hearts and lungs can’t keep up with the mammoth bodies.

As they approached their eighth week, mine did look elderly. When they spied me coming with their feed bucket they would waddle at full speed on bowed legs, short wings flapping for an extra boost. The roosters still held mock battles, bumping into each other’s broad chests like so many Pillsbury dough birds before plopping back down on their rumps. By then the rumps were conspicuously dirty from resting so often in the holes they dug in the soft garden soil. They still sprinted to the compost pile to compete for earthworms lounging near the surface, but the effort made them wheeze.

Watching them grow helped me see my place in the big picture. I can’t absorb energy from the sun, but ryegrass can. I can’t digest grass, but chickens relish it and then convert it into tasty protein for me. The other links in the food chain have become real.

On a hot June morning, I harvested the life I nurtured in those birds. Working alongside friends from our locavore group made it a celebration instead of the grim chore it would be if I had to do it alone. We recalled Wendell Berry’s words in The Gift of Good Land, “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do it knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, destructively, it is a desecration.”

Dispatching our combined flock of 20 birds took less time than we expected. It was 8 a.m. when Preston and I arrived at J and J Farm. Jim Formby already had two home-made killing cones nailed to trees, a clothesline for strung between two oaks for plucking and a cauldron of water heating over a propane burner. By 11:15, all the birds were on ice; the fresh-air abattoir looked and smelled as if nothing had happened there. Three hours from start to finish, but actual processing time was closer to two hours. Jim and Jayne had spent part of that time teaching the rest of us how to do each step safely and thoroughly.

Even though I raised the broilers for humane reasons, I kept records to find out whether they were economically practical. The nine birds translated into about 60 pounds of chicken in my freezer. The chicks and their feed cost $62, so they cost me about $1 per pound.

When I fried the first chicken for a Sunday dinner, just the fragrance obliterated the memory of all my work and worry. Some pastured poultry connoisseurs say that Cornish cross birds lack the flavor of slower growing breeds, but I’m a typical American who is accustomed to lighter meat. I rate the flavor of these birds perfect for my taste—a more pronounced chicken flavor than commercial birds but not overpowering. The texture is firm enough to chew but not stringy or tough.  So far I’ve had these birds fried, smothered in onions, cooked in gravy and gumbo. Every cooking method has turned out juicy, flavorful meat.

Probably the biggest surprise is how good they are just simmered. I add celery, an onion and, sometimes, a bit of bell pepper to the water, which I save for stock.  A half breast will keep me in lunch sandwiches for a week. We also enjoy summer suppers of cold sliced chicken breast, microwaved corn on the cob and sliced tomatoes. Melon for dessert rounds out a delicious meal that didn’t heat up the kitchen or the cook.

I will certainly raise another small flock of Cornish cross broilers next spring. Table birds fit well into a diversified small farm. They eat pests and contribute manure to the fallow garden, the pasture or the orchard understory. The Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program has funded more than 100 pastured poultry projects. You can see the entire list at the SARE national project database. Just type "pastured poultry" in the search box.

One recent Southern SARE project led by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy compared heritage turkey breeds and industrial varieties for use in pasture production systems. Researchers found the heritage breeds had lower mortality and better immune response even though the industrial breeds grew bigger in less time.  

Ann Fanatico has been conducting research in Arkansas comparing consumer tastes preferences and production characteristics of the Cornish cross and slower growing European types. Among other things, she found out that the European breeds have a higher percentage of dark meat and a stronger chicken flavor, two important considerations when choosing birds for a particular market.  For details see the bulletin Poultry Genetics for Pastured Production or Label Rouge: Pasture-based Poultry Production in France. The free SARE bulletin Profitable Poultry: Raising Birds on Pasture is a good resource to help determine whether you’d like to raise pastured birds for your own kitchen or to sell.

broilers

Gwen’s broilers spent their lives in a rye grass cover crop on the unused half of her garden. This photo was taken a week before the chicken harvest.

Photo by Gwen Roland