Raising chickens for meat on pastureland provides entertainment and a superior dining experience to flavorless supermarket fowl.
PHOTO: PRESTON ROLAND
Let’s get the hard part over with first. I hug the hefty white rooster close to my chest to keep him calm on the way to the killing station. With one smooth move, I turn him upside down and place him snuggly in the cone. My left hand continues downward to gently extend his neck. I grab the knife with my right hand and swipe off his head. While he bleeds out, I dry my eyes. That’s how a chicken lover has to do it.
Strangely, it’s only because I have life-long affection for chickens that I can kill them at all. If I didn’t care about them, I would just eat store-bought chicken. I only eat meat once or twice a week — but it’s important to me that the animal lived well and died humanely, with barely a blink between life and death. I nurture them in exchange for their nurturing me.
Even though I have raised them for years, I never expected to raise chickens for meat. After they provide delicious eggs, I retire my layers to the barnyard, where they help manage manure, turn compost, and fill my woodlot with industrious melody. But Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle convinced me that I could raise my own meat birds. So in 2008 I raised and processed two small flocks of the Cornish and white rock cross, usually referred to as Cornish crosses. They are the fast-growing birds raised in confinement operations to supply restaurants and supermarkets with everything from nuggets to whole birds.
In April 2008, I shared an order of Cornish cross chicks with my friend Jim. Of my 10 chicks, one died the first day. The other nine spent their first couple of weeks on my porch in a borrowed brooder that kept them thermostatically correct day and night. The brooder was supposed to be their home until they feathered out — about three weeks or so — but I wanted them to enjoy green grass and sunshine as long as possible, so I started transferring them outside to the floorless A-frame coop on sunny days when they were a week old. I’d bring them back to the brooder at night. I had read that Cornish cross birds were not robust enough to handle outdoor living, but mine didn’t seem to know that.
In just a few days, they were so heavy I could carry only half the flock at a time or risk breaking the bottom out of the pet carrier. After another couple of days, I could only carry three at a time.
Genetically programmed for less than a two-month lifespan, my flock began to look elderly as they approached their eighth week. When they spied me coming with their feed bucket, they would waddle at full speed on bowed legs, their short wings flapping for an extra boost. The roosters’ rumps were conspicuously dirty from resting so often in the holes they had dug in the soft garden soil. They still sprinted to the compost pile to compete for earthworms, but the effort made them wheeze.
By the end of May, our Georgia weather was unseasonably hot. Even in the shade of the big hickory trees, the chickens looked so uncomfortable that I set out box fans in the afternoons. The birds jostled for position in front of the fan blades, little combs and wattles flapping in the breeze. Even though none of mine developed the leg or heart problems that can come from growing so fast, they were ready to lay it down by the time we picked a slaughter date.
Dispatching our combined flock of 20 birds took less time than we expected. It was 8 a.m. when my husband, Preston, and I arrived at Jim’s farm with our little flock. Jim already had two homemade killing cones nailed to trees, a large pot of water heating over a propane burner, and a clothesline strung between two oaks as a plucking station. He had worked in a commercial chicken processing plant as a youngster, so he taught the rest of us how to process birds according to standard food and safety guidelines.
After everyone had an opportunity to try all the tasks, the most efficient process became for Jim to behead, scald and hang them on the clothesline. His wife, Jayne, and I plucked — by far the most time-consuming part of the process. A tarp under the plucking station collected the feathers for easy removal. Plucked birds were placed in a large plastic barrel filled with cold water. Next stop was the evisceration table. Then each bird was placed in a cooler packed with ice.
By 11:15 a.m., all the birds were on ice. A recycled feed bag held the entrails, feet, heads, and feathers with room to spare. It was three hours from start to finish, but the actual processing time was closer to two hours — Jim and Jayne had spent part of that time teaching the rest of us how to complete each step safely and thoroughly.
I wasn’t planning on raising another flock anytime soon, but in mid-August one of my Rhode Island red layers went broody. I was curious as to whether this hen could take the worry and work out of raising meat chicks through the brooder stage, so I ordered some Cornish cross chicks for her. She accepted each one of the peeping fluffballs, stretching her wings wider and wider trying to cover them all. She taught them to forage in the garden, and protected them from being pecked by the other layers.
When the chicks were 7 weeks old, I hosted a second chicken harvest. This one was easier for all of us because we knew what to expect.
Hearing about our satisfaction, more local foodies have asked to join us this year. Some families would like to raise birds, but can’t bear the thought of slaughtering them. They are planning to team up with others who can slaughter but lack the experience or facilities for raising chickens.
Chicks and Balances
Even though I raised the broilers for humane reasons, I kept records to see how much they cost. Stepping on the bathroom scales on the way to the freezer, I found that a rooster carcass added about 8 pounds to my weight, while the two hens added between 5 and 6 pounds. These aren’t scales certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but it seems fair to estimate that the nine birds translated into about 60 pounds of chicken in my freezer. The chicks and their feed cost $62. That means the total cost was about $1 per pound — a bargain in my opinion.
While you might think that allowing birds to forage in pasture would save on the feed bill while increasing their weight gain, research shows that calories used when foraging, compensating for cooler outdoor temperatures, scratching in the dirt, and simply enjoying a natural chicken life are not necessarily made up for by the extra nutrition derived from foraging. Some pastured poultry enthusiasts report that their birds consume 10 to 30 percent less feed when on pasture, but according to researchers Andrew Walker and Sue Gordon, who presented their findings at the University of Leeds in 2002, the reduction in feed is actually closer to 5 percent or less. This is because poultry have short guts, and they would simply fill up before they could obtain enough nutrition to survive on grass. In fact, Walker and Gordon’s research found that most of the protein available to pastured chickens comes from worms, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, and other critters.
What I Learned
Broilers vs. layers. The biggest difference is the quick return on the investment of time and money when raising meat chickens instead of layers. Fast-growing broiler breeds can be on the table in less than two months; even gourmet meat breeds only take 12 weeks. In contrast, layers need about five months to produce their first eggs, and they require roosts, nest boxes, and winter housing. Meat birds just need protection from weather and predators.
Emotional stress. I was surprised by how much it bothered me to kill the females in the first flock. The cockerels seemed to be just mindless eating machines lubricated with testosterone. Of the two females in my first flock, one was a nervous wreck who was convinced from day one that I planned to kill her. The other one used to peck at my foot until I sat down on the grass, then she would sit in my lap. If there had been any future for her, I would have kept her alive. But not only would my layers pick on her without a mother hen’s protection, her white feathers would have made her an easy-to-spot meal for predators. I still think about her.
In general though, finding out how quickly I could make the mental leap from nurturing to killing helped me understand Joel Salatin’s warning that a person should not kill chickens every day. He says slaughtering too often can blunt our natural feelings of compassion for other living creatures.
When I fried the first chicken for a Sunday dinner, the fragrance alone obliterated the memory of all my work and worry. The flavor was fried chicken in the purest sense — honest, unforgettable, and worth much more than I had invested.
Feeding. All my chickens have access to pasture, a three-acre wood lot, and worms in my compost piles. Garden trimmings and kitchen scraps also contribute much to their diet. In addition, the broilers were confined in a fallow garden spot twice a day so they could fill up on the concentrated feed they are genetically designed to utilize without being bothered by the layer hens, the goats, or the Great Pyrenees pooch that lived with them.
The nine birds in the spring flock used 3 1⁄2 bags of feed in their 8 1⁄2 weeks, including much that was wasted due to my placing the feeder too low, forgetting to protect the feeder from rain, and other management shortcomings. The second flock of three used a little more than one sack in seven weeks. That includes what the mother hen ate. Both flocks ate commercial starter/grower ration their entire lives. If I raise Cornish cross birds in the future, it seems safe to figure about one sack of feed for every three birds if I slaughter them at 7 weeks.
There are many mix-your-own feed recipes in the poultry discussion lists on the Internet, but my small flocks did fine on the basic starter/grower brands available at our local feed store.
Slaughter age. I will slaughter Cornish crosses at less than 8 weeks from now on to ensure they enjoy the best quality of life. At 8 1⁄2 weeks, the spring flock lived about a week too long for comfortable breathing and walking. At 7 weeks, my second flock was sound and active. When I experiment with the slower-growing birds, the slaughter age will be closer to 12 weeks.
Season. It makes sense to raise meat birds later in the season in Georgia. The August heat welcomes them as chicks and then cools down in September and October as they feather out and get heavier. The season also affects the slaughter date. Our June slaughter event resulted in odor and flies at the processing site, while the October and November harvests did not.
Foster hen. This method wins hands down for the small homesteader who doesn’t like to bother with a brooder and happens to have some broody hens.
Brooding about Breeds
Cornish cross hybrids. Most people who raise table birds buy Cornish cross chicks for their first flock because they are widely available and grow rapidly, producing a 5-pound live bird (3.5-pound carcass) in about six or seven weeks. Because they gain weight so rapidly, Cornish cross birds can suffer from heart problems and broken legs. Some people avoid them on the principle that perpetuating these genetics is inhumane. Producers of pastured poultry would like to see the best characteristics of the Cornish cross combined with more foraging ability and increased hardiness for outdoor weather.
Some pastured poultry connoisseurs say 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 my flocks as perfect — a more pronounced chicken flavor than store-bought birds, but not overpowering; firm, but not stringy or tough.
European-type hybrids. Sometimes called label-rouge types after a popular production system in France, these birds reach 5 pounds live weight in 12 weeks and are harvested close to sexual maturity. They are considered more flavorful than faster-growing hybrids and have a firmer texture. Compared to Cornish crosses, they have smaller breasts and more dark meat. They are said to be hardier and more active foragers than Cornish crosses, making them more suitable for pasturing, but there is some debate surrounding this. To learn more, search for project number GS03-029 under the “Project Reports” tab at the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education website.
Heritage chickens. Old breeds such as buckeye, Delaware, New Hampshire and barred Plymouth rocks have not been bred for meat-production characteristics since the 1950s, so they are slower-growing than birds that have been bred for greater feed conversion efficiency. However, many backyard chicken fanciers prefer to raise the old standards because they are hardy for outdoor living, disease resistant, and they have a pronounced chicken flavor.
Jeannette Beranger, research and technical program manager for the The Livestock Conservancy, says that it is important to choose a breed that works for your climate and the system in which you plan to manage them. (The best source we know of for this information is Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds by Carol Ekarius. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS) Once you’ve decided on the breeds you think would work for you, the Conservancy can suggest a breeder. Beranger also advises that, while these breeds love to forage, they will need high-protein feed to produce a good result.
“Common commercial poultry rations are typically not high enough in protein,” Beranger says. “They need at least 28 percent, particularly in the first eight weeks, or they will never reach their potential for growth.” Adding high-protein supplements such as meat scraps or whey to their diet would help, but may be more of a challenge than a beginner would want to tackle.
Poultry Processing Made Easier
Buying or renting special processing equipment will speed up the time it takes to ready your birds for the freezer. Elaine Fawcett of Aurora, Ore., owns Featherman processing equipment and rents it to others. “After you’ve plucked a few by hand, you really appreciate how the equipment makes the process more efficient,” she says.
Tiffany Johnson of Vancouver, Wash., advocates renting the equipment. “Four of us processed our batch of 50 ‘colored range’ chickens in just under five hours,” she says. “After you fumble your way through a couple of birds and learn what works best for you, processing a bird really doesn’t take that long. Especially with the scalder and plucker!”
If you don’t have enough chickens (or other poultry) to justify purchasing processing equipment, renting may be a good option for you. The Featherman website lists people with equipment for rent. For those who raise their own meat, processing it with friends and neighbors can be a great community-building event.
Resources for Raising Chickens
MOTHER EARTH NEWS Hatchery Finder
National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA)
Robert Plamondon's website
Also, check out the Chicken and Egg Page, plus Poultry Resources.