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Chicken Harvest: Conscientious Consumption

By Gwen Roland

Tags: chicken harvest, conscientious eating, meat, slaughter, humane animal treatment, pastured poultry,

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.


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 

10/8/2008 6:45:15 PM

I have a question. With large scale chicken production, at the "factory" at the end of the day, what are there more of left: chicken pieces (legs, breasts, thighs) or wings? By that I wonder if we are harvesting for the demand of wings or the other parts. I'm guessing it is wings. Is there a manager who tallies the wings vs body parts and orders the higher number (wings) divides by 2 and the rest of the parts go into hot dogs, lunch meat ect...?

sharon hoggard_1
9/30/2008 10:11:48 AM

Gwen: I just read your book and I loved it so. I was lucky to spend a lot of time on my houseboat on the Mississippi river. I live in a small river town and have a 24x24 garden in which I grow wonderful things. I compost, never a leaf goes to waste. We have chickens and I love the eggs and meat. I find you to be amazing, a true pioneer. I would so love to be able to correspond with you if at all possible. I love the story of your life.

sharon hoggard_1
9/30/2008 10:03:15 AM

Gwen: I grow a wonderful garden on the banks of the Mississippi river in Iowa. It is amazing what I harvest from my 24x24 space. It is wonderful sandy soil. I also grow and harvest chickens. We love the eggs and meat. I was lucky to spend a lot of time on a houseboat on the Mississippi river and I so enjoyed your book on your life in the bayou. It was just too short. I am sure you have heard that before. I would so love to correspond with you a little more on this. I had dreamed at one point in my life to cook on a barge so I could see the rivers. I even dreamed of being a river pilot. You are an amazing and talented person and I so admire the adventurous manner that you have lived your life.

joanne benoit
9/27/2008 3:30:51 PM

Thank you for you great story. What I need is step by step directions on culling chickens. I'm about to harvest 9 but I'm not certain where to start. I'll look forward to your or anyone elses response. Thank you Joanne Benoit

9/12/2008 9:39:56 AM

i think your article is great ! raising your own chickens for meat, is the only way to go. doing it humanely is the only way!

9/5/2008 6:55:51 AM

Dear Gwen, You CANNOT have "over-the-top" affection for anyone if you kill it. you CANNOT kill "humanly"; human is "do not kill". you say: "To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation."; i'm sorry to say that but you talk nonsense. vegetarian and vegan people can soundly live on this planet! i'm the living evidence of it!(for 25 years now and still alive!) there is so many things to eat without killing animals! you just settle for obeying this book "the gift of good land", but i think everyone of us CAN have a free will to decide what is good or not for you or others or earth! just try to think of it Gwen, please. if you are a believer, then leave animals alone because they have the right TOO to live their own fate; no one or spirit or god can tell you to do this or that instead of YOU! you are your own decision-maker! sincerely yours a friend, Djamal

9/3/2008 6:08:34 AM

Gwen, Thanks so much for your thoughtful, well-written article. While I wasn't particularly interested in the raising of chickens, your writing was so good, I couldn't stop myself from reading through to the end. I just watched the PBS documentary about your decade in the Bayou for a third time in 24 hours. I enjoy listening to your gentle, peaceful voice as you speak of your life. Perhaps I'll find myself one Saturday morning at the Market on the Square in Pike County, GA. What a blessing it would be to meet you. Warmest regards, Irene Kendig