Trials and Tribulations of Meat Chickens

I’ve heard for a few years now, chickens are gateway livestock.  Once you get a few layers you’ll keep expanding into others.  I can honestly say, we did not buy a different type of animal.  We did, however, move into the realm of meat chickens.

My husband spear headed this project, and I helped and supported him where needed.  After a customer of his found out we had chickens for eggs last year, he asked Matt when we were going to get chickens for meat.  Matt explained we talked about it, but he wasn’t sure if it was worth it.  His customer told him, once you start eating meat you’ve raised, you’ll never go back to store bought.  It’s just that good of a difference.

So we made the plunge into another self sufficiency project.  While there were some basics we knew from having chickens already, there were so many trials we had to learn and figure out as we went.

Plan Ahead
That seems to be my biggest montra.  Plan ahead.  In this case, I can’t stress that enough.  Why?  Because odds are, if you are raising chickens for meat, you are going to do a decent number of them to stock your freezer and only have to do it annually.  Also, meat chickens, or Broilers, typically do not have long lifespans.  So you’ll be moving through stages faster with them, than pretty much any other livestock.

One area we did not plan ahead for was ordering.  Crazy right?  It’s the first step.  But knowing most hatcheries had broilers, we assumed you could get them anytime.  We found that the major hatcheries we were most familiar with, couldn’t meet the quantities within the time frames we were looking for.  Most people start in late winter or spring.  That way the chickens are outside in spring.  Thankfully there is Chick Days at Tractor Supply in the fall, as well as spring, now.  Even that though, finding a store that had the quantity we wanted and to obtain them prior to someone walking in the store was not easy.  It was  a game of cat and mouse for us for a bit.

Plan for how you are going to feed, house and process the chickens.  While we were pretty confident on feed (as we already used a brand for our layers), housing (my husband is beyond handy and built a hoop house), and we had a processor planned, we neglected…how do we transport them to the processor?  Thankfully we have friends.  Friends that we’re willing to lend us theirs.  Although, now we have an entire year before needing to do this again.  Hopefully we’ll be able to work something out for next year for Round Two.

Holy Chicken!  These Peeps Grow Fast!
We’ve had chickens for a couple years now.  While I’m always saddened by the fact that the peeps grow so quickly, this time it was more of a state of shock.  If you’ve never had broilers, you will be amazed at how big they get, and quickly!  We have two different bins we use for brooders (housing for chicks), normally we’re into the second one by about week three.  We had them in a pack n’ play and bypassed the second one altogether by week two.  Then split them into two pack n’ plays by week three.  There they remained until they went outside into the hoop house.  They went outside to hoop house between four and five weeks.  They were not fully feathered before putting outside, but almost.

We had Cornish Crosses as our breed of meat chickens, they are notorious for growing quickly.  Some Ranger Broilers aren’t quite as fast.  But we did see the Cornish Crosses level out a bit once we had them on pasture in the hoop house.  Eating bugs and grass helped to change up their diet enough that they weren’t eating straight feed.  Also, as recommended, we removed the food at night to give them a break.  Being on pasture they had so much more room to move and be active.  They needed that space for how quickly they grew.

They ate all the containers of food each day.  We went through a bag of food a week with 27 chickens after they went out on grass.  Their hoop house required it being moved initially every 4 days.  By the end Matt was moving it every other day.

Rooster Problems
As mentioned we have had chickens, layers specifically, for two years.  We do not have have roosters in our flock.  Our ladies have squabbles, but they are minimum.  We dealt with roosters the first time and that was definitely a new trial.  We had issues with one a couple days after we moved them outside.  I went out to see how they were doing, since we had just moved them outside.  I watched one smaller rooster attack others, not one other but several.  He’d walk up and just start pecking, ripping feathers and jumping on others.

So those attacked, fought back.

DSC_0128

Roosters and their male competitiveness was significantly stronger than layer females we’ve dealt with before.

Apparently being a scrappy, little rooster didn’t work to his favor.  He lost all the feathers on the back of his head, his skin was exposed and had to be removed.

We placed the scrappy rooster into an old dog crate.  During the day, the crate was outside the hoop house, and at night we brought him inside, while keep him within the crate.  After a few days of him healing, we kept him in the hoop house, within the crate still all the time.  Once he came back, his aggression was gone.  Not 100% sure what it was all about, but removing him was the best choice.  Harmony was in place afterwards.

Processing
Being our first year having meat chickens, I was not ready to do the processing ourselves.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not squeamish when it comes to this.  But attempting to plan for all the necessaries while learning was not an undertaking we were prepared for.  It’s not overly hard to find someone to process.  I can name several.  What I can tell you, if you’re not processing your own, is to ask some of the following questions:
Do you require a minimum amount of birds to process?
How far in advance should we call you to schedule?
Do you process and bag?  Or only process?
Do you butcher even further, breaking our breasts, wings and thighs?
Prior to processing, how far in advance should the chickens be off feed?

You’ll want to have someone in mind prior to obtaining the chickens.  We only had 7-8 weeks before ours were processed.  That’s not that much time.  You’re working on someone else’s schedule, so make sure you talk to them about time frames and general particulars.

Table
Having chicken you’ve raised is not the same as having chicken from your local store.  One of the biggest things people notice is the skin can be a different color.  Skin from a grocery store will typically be white.  Skin with home raised chickens, that have had the pleasure of eating bugs and grass, will most likely vary to a yellowish.  They’ve had varying nutrients that change the skin.  These are the same factors that also affect flavor.  Giving chickens raised this way better flavoring.

If your processor is like mine, my chickens are given back whole.  We then cook and break it down from there.  Personally I like this, mainly because I’ve had to find other ways to vary my cooking.  We also use more and waste less.  Like the evening of Thanksgiving, we’re pulling the roasted chicken apart and prepping additional meals from what remains.

You appreciate the meal more.  We raised this chicken.  We know what it ate, how it was handled and processed.  This is knowing where our food comes from.  While many people may not understand the need to know that, we appreciate that simple fact.  Our chickens had nothing put into their system without us knowing about it.  No chemicals or artificial items.  We can enjoy meat in one of the purest forms.

While we will not be raising all meat we consume this way, we have begun to change where we buy our meat.  We source meat from local farmers that we can see and know how the food was raised.  Typically this may mean buying an animal by quarter, half or whole, and some people aren’t set up that way.  If you can be it’s a great way to keep your freezer stocked.  Plus, personally I’m happy to support local farmers, markets and providers.

Consider where your meat comes from.  Maybe it’s worth considering a change for the better.

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