Raising Chickens for Meat: Do-It-Yourself Pastured Poultry

Want to ensure that the bird on your plate was treated humanely and processed safely? Trying raising chickens for meat yourself.

| June/July 2009

raising chickens for meat - foraging

Raising chickens for meat on pastureland provides entertainment and a superior dining experience to flavorless supermarket fowl.


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.

Spring Flock

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.

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3/28/2014 4:10:35 PM

Great article this is my first time with the Cross birds. How soon do you allow them in the pasture and what types of scraps can I give them in addition to the chicken feed? I heard they dont taste good on the chicken feed alone! Does anyone know?

2/10/2014 12:33:10 AM

I really appreciate reading your article. I raise meat rabbits currently and would like to raise meat chickens this spring through fall for my family. I am considering raising Freedom Rangers. I live in the country by a woods and we have all sorts of predators, coons, opossums, foxes, coyotes, stray cats and dogs. I am think of making a pvc chicken tractor for 50 birds. I plan to share with my family. How big should my chicken tractor be? or should I make two separate chicken tractors? I have 2 acres to use, so space isn't a problem. I've heard using 1/4 hardware fencing around the sides and top is the best because coons can tear up regular chicken wire fencing. Since most of these predators will and can dig underneath, I was think of using 2in x 3in wire fencing on the bottom. I know this will prevent them from being able to scratch freely but I figure it's better than finding them dead come morning. Any ideas or suggestions are appreciated. Thank you!

eric kiefer
12/12/2013 12:39:59 PM

I've been on the fence about raising a dozen meat birds for a while. Thanks for this great article. I was still on the fence but then I read Carol's comment and have decided that I will raise 24, not 12 meat birds. I'll kill an extra 12 in her honor. I can't wait for spring!

4/24/2013 9:30:05 AM

Interesting explanation for sqeamish folk, Gwen.  I always felt that how an animal lived was just as important as how it died.  I moved to an apartment recently so experimentation with livestock is out of the question for now, but I have been wondering about capons.  Recent articles about how cockerels are "reprocessed" by poultry suppliers made me think about trying to find a simple method for small farmers to produce their own capons but I have not found anything online about up-to-date techniques.  I have friends in Cuba that I would like to support with organic and sustainable gardening information.  The government run hatcheries are essentially modeled after corporate agriculture systems and also turn their cockerels into protein feed supplement.  My question is would it be worthwhile to purchase cockerels from the hatchery, preferably at a lower cost, to produce pastured capons?  I also would like to see if the farmers could grow some of their own high protein feed because imported soy is expensive.  I have seen Quinoa and Amaranth seed in catalogs, for instance. Millet, sorghum and sunflower all grow there quite nicely.  Could some seed be stretched by sprouting it in trays of compost?  Much of Cuban agriculture has had to move to organic out of necessity, but I fear that the island will be drenched in pesticides as soon as foreign investment becomes readily available.  It would be nice if the farmers there have a reason to keep away from excess chemicals in the future.

3/22/2013 5:47:58 AM

My God! You are all very SICK people. Do you not know that it is ot necessary or healthy to eat animals? You are all murderers. SHAME ON YOU!

kym roberts-hardesty
4/18/2012 9:48:42 PM

Can I buy all roosters since they are larger than the hens and they will only be with us for 7-8 weeks?

bob burns
1/20/2012 1:29:18 PM

Gwen - Thanks for a great read. I'm in the process of trying to understand how to rear chickens and am planning on giving it a try - kind of a cross between a city boy yearning to be a country boy and the desire to eat clean, healthy food.

jim adams
9/20/2011 12:53:01 AM

Hey Gwen ... thanks for your article of your trials and tribulations of how you started raising chickens and learned to love it. Us too. My wife and i copied Joel Salatin ( he was our mentor) and ended up doing it as a small business for 8 to 10 years. Since then, we raise for ourselves. Like you, we've gone to S & G Poultry in Alabama, to we decided on the Red Rangers for meat chickens, and the Dixie Rainbows (a heavy dual purpose breed) for egg layers ... and then stewing chickens when they aged enough. We note that the much manipulated genome of the Cornish Cross produces what we call "the industrial drone model" chicken, starting at about 3 weeks. In addition to the ongoing leg problems, Cornish X have what one friend calls a "feed efficiency gene" but i call eternally hungry. Red Rangers take 11 weeks to grow to an average 5# bird, ready to go into the oven. In addition, i find that they are both livelier, and much better foragers, and the amount of grass they eat goes way up if i give them gravel (1//8" or so as chicks, and 1/4-3/8 inch from 4 or 5 weeks to slaughter). Anyhow ... thanks, from jim

2/14/2011 5:47:03 PM

Creative ways of feeding large amounts of chickens with less cost would be ideal... after all, the idea of raising boutique chickens may be fine for the richer folks, but what about poor folk? A plan that allows us to be competitive to the large farmers will aid in making this humane method more economically viable.

kathleen pelley
6/22/2010 10:45:17 AM

I subscribe to this magazine because I appreciate articles like the one on hanging clothes out on a clothesline, but in the same issue was dead chickens. I was just as horrified by them now as I was when I was five and watched my grandparents butchering the chickens that I had just fed grubs to. Please leave these kinds of graphic pictures out for someone like me who has been a lacto-ovo vegetarian since 1976.

jeanine gurley
8/3/2009 8:08:49 PM

Gwen, Thank you so much for putting into words what I have always felt but could never explain. I can’t count the times when I have been told I was ‘cold-hearted’ to ever consider killing an animal I raised. Now I have your article and I have already given it out to two people as an answer to that comment. It is precisely BECAUSE I care that I can raise my own animals for slaughter. I was taught by my grandmother that raising an animal for meat is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. She was very particular about every aspect of the animal’s life – and death. I live very near a chicken plant and it just hurts my heart to see the tractor trailers loaded with live birds all smashed together in cages going down the road. My girls will eat watermelon rind and take dust baths in the sunshine until their very last day.

gwen roland
7/23/2009 8:38:59 AM

Hi Greg, After my first season of raising the commercial cornish cross birds, I agree with you about not wanting to promote those genetics, even though mine did not suffer any leg problems and seemed just as happy and healthy as the Rhode Island Reds they mingled with in my yard. However now that I know more about meat breeds, I plan to use only slower growing birds from now on. While researching for the article I found out about family-owned hatcheries that specialize in slower growing breeds suitable for pasturing. This year I'm going with Dixie Rainbows from S&G Poultry in Alabama. The breeder tells me they trace the line back 200 years in Northern Italy, and if I keep a breeding pair I can raise my own. I'll let you know how they work out. Gwen

greg t.
6/11/2009 12:28:27 PM

What an excellent glimpse into the start of raising a meat flock! This is our first year raising a "dedicated" meat flock instead of the cockerel culls from a straight run hatch of our laying flock, and boy are the differences apparent. At 4 weeks out, our cornish crosses are bigger than the turkey poults. The taste results will be interesting to compare, but I admit to feeling a bit dirty keeping these poor protein producing machines. :-/ They've been inside these past few weeks since central NY gets darn chilly at times, but this weekend is their big move out of doors into my erstwhile sheep fence paddock with a moving tractor to sleep in. If anyone wants a detailed tutorial on one method of processing chickens, start to finish, there are some here in M-E-N, and you can pick one up on my journal at http://a-triath.livejournal.com/129276.html#cutid1 Again, not the ONLY way, maybe not the best way. . . but if you've never done it before, it's a good place to start.

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