Broiler chicken, photo by Sheryl Campbell
Improve your health by eating naturally raised chickens. Their meat has more heart-healthy yellow omega 3 fat and less saturated fat than poultry from the store, and you can ensure that they are eating a natural diet of insects, greens, and seeds.
It’s as simple as raising and butchering broiler chickens in your own backyard. Once you master a few basics, you’ll spend 11 easy weeks a year raising them and one day having a butchering party with friends. You can successfully raise broilers outside in the Mid-Atlantic from May-October.
Choose Your Breed
Freedom Ranger Chickens make the best home broiler flock since they are active birds that reach their peak weight of 5-6 pounds in 10-11 weeks. They grow well in free range and fenced pasture environments, foraging for food during daytime hours. Other broiler breeds that grow more quickly tend to be unable to walk around after a few weeks as they get too heavy, too fast.
Baby chicks, photo by Sheryl Campbell
Choose Your Numbers
Determine how many dressed broilers you can stuff into your freezer and how much space you can devote to raising them. We have typically limited ourselves to 30 birds who forage on 2500 square feet of pasture. We could easily raise twice that number in this space without harming the pasture. Or we could raise two batches of 30 with a short break in between.
Choose Your Environment
You want to balance safety and health for the chickens. We use a 50x50 foot fenced pasture with a three sided shed which is the night coop for the chickens. Wood-framed door panels covered in chicken wire keep chicks in at night while keeping predators out. They are encased with wooden lathes and cross bars so that raccoons can’t break in. A heat lamp hanging from the rafters over an enclosed section of the shed serves as an early brooder for the baby chicks. The chicks stay in the brooder area for about three weeks and then begin foraging on pasture.
Three-sided shed, photo by Sheryl Campbell
Choose Your Feeding Program
The chickens are let out on pasture to forage for bugs and vegetation during the day, then put away safely at night. We provide free access to organic, non-GMO feed at night to ensure a balanced diet. Water is available at all times in the shed and also out on pasture.
Choose Your Butchering Day
We always share the costs with friends and then hold a group butchering party where everyone takes home a portion of meat. Over the years each person has begun to specialize in handling a couple of the jobs for the day.
Sharing hard work with friends, photo by Sheryl Campbell
Choose Your Butchering Set-Up
No matter how you set up your work area, the steps are similar. Here’s how we set up our work stations and the steps we take at each one:
- A board with a hole in the center set on stacked cement blocks at both ends
- A killing cone made of chimney flashing runs through the hole creating a funnel
- Live chickens are placed upside down in the cone with their heads sticking out the bottom
- A trash can lined with plastic sits below
- Using one hand to stretch out the neck, you cut the carotid artery with a scalpel letting the blood drain out fully
Bringing chickens to the killing cone, photo by Sheryl Campbell
- A large kettle of water heated to 150 degrees over an outdoor camp stove
- Scald the dead birds in the kettle for 30 seconds, plunging them up and down by the feet to quickly heat and loosen feathers
- A clothesline slung between two trees
- Two small loops are attached to the line with slip knots
- A large barrel sits below
- Slip each of the chicken’s legs into a slip knot and quickly pull off all the feathers into the barrel
Plucking station, photo by Sheryl Campbell
- A 6 foot folding table, a hose with sprayer attached, poultry sheers, a scalpel, and small propane torch
- The head and feet are cut off here, as well as the small oil gland at the base of the tail
- The vent is tied with string or a rubber band to keep excrement from contacting the meat
- The torch is used to singe off the pin feathers
Prepping the chickens, photo by Sheryl Campbell
- is indoors at the eviscerating table
- Large coolers hold ice-water baths, and we have stacks of two-gallon freezer bags
- Using our hands we reach in and remove all the organs from the rear of the chicken
- The chicken is washed in cold water and dried
- We then put them into freezer bags by holding the full bag under water up to the zip line so as to squeeze all the air out of it before zipping it up with the chicken inside
- The bagged birds cool off in the ice-water bath for several hours
Eviscerating before cooling, photo by Sheryl Campbell
- First they go into the large refrigerator where the cooled birds are placed in their bags for 24-48 hours to make the meat tender
- Then they go into the chest freezer where they will keep well for at least 6 months
At the end of the butchering day, photo by Sheryl Campbell
That’s all there is to it. Eleven weeks of just checking on the chicks twice a day to make sure they are healthy and to replenish their food and water. Followed by one very full day of processing made fun by sharing it with friends. Go out and find a few friends, set up your growing area, and raise a few broilers of your own. We hope you have fun on butchering day and thoroughly enjoy the healthful meat you’ll raise.
Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth Gardener and Grit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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