A Market for Meat Birds

Get the most bang for your cluck: Turn raising and processing poultry into a moneymaking, community-supported agriculture venture.

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by U.S. Department of Agriculture

“If we ever get land, I’m going to start raising our own meat.” This was a promise I made to myself years ago when I learned of the potential side effects of growth hormones in the meat and milk my six children consumed.

I made good on my promise when we moved to Georgia in the winter of 2002 and purchased a beautiful home on nearly 7 acres. We call our property Lazy B Farm. Being a book-taught farmer, I stumbled my way along and eventually began raising chicken, pork, and beef for our family. My meat-production journey finds me today with a cow and calf operation that provides high-quality pastured beef for our “cowpooling” program. Our customers buy beef by the quarter, half, or whole at wholesale prices. And with our private meat label, we’re able to sell our beef in stores, at farmers markets, and even across state lines.

We do the same with our pasture-raised, heritage-breed hog operation: “pigpooling” for those who want to buy quality in quantity, and our private label for those who prefer to buy a few chops or a ham at a time. But the chickens have been a different kind of journey, fraught with extra challenges.

roasted chicken on cast iron plate with rosemary and lemon slices on a wooden picnic table with watermelon slices in the background

Beginning the Poultry Process

I live in Georgia, which has been declared the Poultry Capital of the World. On an average day, Georgia produces an estimated 26 million pounds of chicken. The poultry industry alone contributes over $18.4 billion to the state’s economy each year. And the annual production from an average Georgia poultry farm could feed over 22,000 people.

This monumental commercial industry loomed in front of me when I decided eight years ago that I wanted to raise chickens for my customers. The first step was to find out what my business limitations would be. By today’s regulations, I can raise 1,000 broilers on my farm each year, and can sell directly to customers. However, I’m not able to sell directly to stores. Any more than 1,000 broilers, and I must use an approved U.S. Department of Agriculture public processing plant to process my poultry. As there’s no such processing plant in Georgia, I’d have to take my live broilers out of state and then haul them back across state lines, vacuum-sealed and frozen, thus reducing my profit per bird.

two white chickens and one black rooster with heads sticking out of a machine

After considering these facts, I settled on raising and butchering less than 1,000 birds per year on my farm. Lest you think I’ve been an expert chicken processor from the get-go, my initial processing experience was anything but smooth. We ended up with too many roosters after our very first shipment of straight-run chicks, and we had to butcher them ourselves. At the time, there was no easy way to reach out to a homesteading community. I had a heck of a time trying to find someone who could show me how to butcher a chicken. Finally, one woman said she remembered the process and offered to show me how to do the deed. When we’d finished dispatching all the roosters, I asked what we needed to do to get them ready for the stew pot. She looked at me and said, “Oh, I have no idea how to do that!”

Luckily, I had a copy of The Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery, which is filled with valuable information about the how-tos of homesteading. It includes step-by-step instructions about preparing fowl for consumption. My daughter and her best friend took the birds and the book to the back porch and began the process. And that’s how we learned the fine art of butchering, eviscerating, and preparing our chickens for a meal. Over the years, as the web and social media have taken off and information and videos have become readily available, we’ve adapted our techniques.

chicken carcas in a plucker with no feathers

Farm-to-Fork Fowl

After a couple of years of raising and butchering broilers to sell, I realized I needed a system for keeping enough frozen whole chickens on hand to meet the demands of Lazy B Farm’s customers. That’s when I decided to start a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, so I’d know ahead of time how many chickens we’d need to raise yearly.

Initially, I asked our regular customers if they’d commit to a specific number of birds per month. Once I had that total, I multiplied it by 12. That gave me the total number of birds we’d need for the year. Then, I added in a few extra birds to accommodate potential new customers.

Summers are pretty miserable here in Georgia, especially for young chickens trying to grow, so we raise two batches of chickens a year. The first batch of chicks arrives in February and takes 9 to 11 weeks to grow out. We butcher these in May, before the heat gets unbearable. The second batch arrives in late August; we try to butcher them in late October, before they have to use food resources to keep warm.

I’ve been asked frequently about the types of chickens I offer through our CSA. I raise heritage breeds of turkeys, cows, and hogs, but when it comes to chickens, I prefer the Cornish Cross meat bird. One summer, I raised Cornish Cross and Freedom Ranger chicks side by side in my pastures. They were treated the same, fed the same, and butchered at the same time. By weight, the Cornish Cross was heavier, and, according to my calculations, gained 1 ounce more per day than the Freedom Ranger. Those ounces add up quickly. We order only male birds, because they grow out bigger than the females with the same type of care, which means more money for the same amount of work.

man spraying down a whole raw chicken with a hose

The chicks live in a typical brooder box when they first arrive. Once they’re fully feathered, I transfer them to chicken tractors, 20 to 25 birds per tractor, where they’re given fresh water and non-GMO, nonmedicated feed. My motto is that my animals have the most fabulous lives we can give them, and only one bad moment. It’s no different with the meat chickens. After several days in tractors at the beginning, I then let them out to forage. Every morning, I open the door to the tractor and put some feed outside to encourage the birds onto the grass. They forage all day close to the house, where my Great Pyrenees guardian dog can protect them from hawks and other predators, until I throw a bit of feed inside the tractor to encourage them to head in for the night. The chickens are also able to run back into the tractor anytime they need to for protection.

It’s important to me that the broilers lead a “chicken life” during their 9 to 11 weeks. I don’t free-feed because of concerns about broken legs with heavier meat birds. My birds are fed once a day, and for the remaining hours, they run around catching bugs, eating grass, and scratching in the dirt. Sometimes, the birds hang out with the cows or sheep, cleaning up the extra grain left on the ground. My birds may grow out a little slower than those that are confined and on free feed, but it’s my choice.

When the chickens have grown to an acceptable size, we plan for butchering day. In the early days, when I was doing all the work and couldn’t afford a plucker, I removed the skin along with the feathers; this took me about 10 minutes instead of hours for plucking. But I quickly realized that a lot of customers preferred their chicken with the skin intact. A friend of mine had previously purchased a mechanical plucker. Another friend and I entered an agreement to use the plucker twice a year. It takes a little longer than 10 minutes per bird to scald the chickens and then remove feathers with the plucker, but our customers are happier with skin-on broilers.

When I first started the Lazy B Farm CSA, I’d wrap the finished birds in lots of plastic wrap. Later, I switched to vacuum-sealing. Now we use shrink bags made especially for chickens. They’re beautiful and, applied with specialized labels, look much more professional. Each bird is labeled with its weight and the processing date, and then stored in a chest freezer until the customer arrives for pickup.

six wrapped packages of raw processed chicken on cloth

CSA Adjustments

Even though we’ve made efficient strides since beginning our process, I’m always looking for ways to streamline our chicken CSA. Here are some of the ideas I’m working on:

One-day-a-month chicken pickup from Lazy B Farm. Currently, I schedule a separate pickup time with each customer.

Formal contract between CSA and customer. So far, we’ve had great luck with people picking up their broilers based on a verbal agreement. But as we grow larger, a written agreement will minimize potential problems.

Partial prepayment at the beginning. Currently, the farm covers all upfront costs of birds, feed, and processing. A prepayment would offset some of those initial expenses. It’s important for customers to have a little “skin in the game.” If they give money upfront, they’ll have a greater commitment to the pickup day.

Education is a passion of mine in whatever I’m doing at Lazy B Farm. This year, I started offering classes on different techniques to prepare whole chickens, such as how to spatchcock. It’s important to teach our customers how to prepare their own broiler, because our CSA doesn’t have an option to purchase chicken parts, such as breasts. We also offer recipes during the class. I feel strongly that if I take the time and care to raise a high-quality piece of meat, my customers should have the knowledge and tools to get the most from their purchase.

Customers seem to agree with that philosophy. One recently said, “Lazy B Farm puts care and attention into raising healthy and happy animals. Being part of their CSA gives us peace of mind and reminds me of a simpler time. My family’s health is our priority, and it’s one that I know Lazy B Farm shares.”

And that’s why we do what we do.

flock of many white chickens standing together on a green grass yard

How Safe Is Pastured Poultry Meat?

Lazy B Farm took part in a food safety study initiated by Michael Rothrock, a research microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. Rothrock had studied levels of foodborne pathogens at commercial poultry processing plants before turning his attention to farms practicing backyard butchery. Besides Lazy B Farm, Rothrock studied 37 flocks from 10 other pastured poultry farms. Below is his summary of the findings. Cyndi Ball

Most research in poultry food safety is focused on conventional farming. I saw a great need to provide research to smaller farmers that would help them assess and potentially improve their operations.

We took a farm-to-fork approach (sampling broilers on pasture, during processing and butchering, and as a final product) and looked at the microbial ecology throughout the entire process to see how pathogens survive and flow within pastured poultry systems. In collaboration with Lazy B Farm, we sampled six small pastured poultry flocks over four years and looked at the microbiology of the feces during their time on pasture; of the ceca (a sac on the lower intestinal tract) and from whole carcass rinses during processing; and also from whole carcass rinses from the final product received by customers. We quantified the general Escherichia coli and Campylobacter throughout and determined the presence or absence of Salmonella and Listeria.

We found that while general E. coli and Campylobacter levels were higher in the pasture feces and processing cecal samples, they decreased by 10,000 percent on the final product. In fact, Campylobacter was undetectable in almost all the final product rinses (95 percent), with only a few rinses having low levels. Of the flocks we followed, Salmonella was only recovered from the final product rinses from one of them, and the identity of these Salmonella was not one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s top 30 serotypes that were important to human health. Listeriawas found throughout the pasture, processing, and final product samples for some flocks, but more than 95 percent of the recovered Listeria were not the human pathogenic species (L. monocytogenes). These findings were generally consistent with those for the other pastured poultry farms we studied.

Overall, Lazy B’s on-farm butchering method produced whole pastured broiler carcasses with a low incidence of bacterial pathogens, and in many cases, each of these pathogens were undetectable on the final product. An important thing to note here is that Lazy B typically refrigerated the carcasses overnight before providing the final product to the customer. Based on previous work with Lazy B and the scientific literature, freezing the carcass and providing a frozen product to your consumer (if they’re amenable to it) would virtually eliminate these bacterial foodborne pathogens from the final product.

Cyndi Ball owns and operates Lazy B Farm and is the founder and president of the Ladies Homestead Gathering. Visit Ladies Homestead Gathering to connect with other like-minded women homesteaders through a chapter near you.