Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Our First Meat Chickens

Today was freezer day for our meat chickens.

This was our first attempt at raising meat chickens. I actually hesitate to write about it. Two years ago when we bought our first chicks, I wrote about choosing chicken breeds. For months afterward, that post received frequent google hits. I cringed to think that someone may take my advice and hoped that readers were aware that we were total greenhorns and really didn't know what we were talking about!

But since some of you asked, I'll write about our experience with meat birds, just remember that we've never done this before!

We chose the ordinary Cornish Cross chickens. I've read of many who are switching to Freedom Rangers or a heritage breed chicken. But Cornish Cross was easily available locally without mail order. We decided we would gain some experience with the breed designed for fast meat growth. I wouldn't mind trying some other options in the future but at least we will have some experience with the Cornish Cross to base our opinion on.


We brought 21 chicks home in May. They were such adorable little fur balls. For the first week, they stayed in our basement where we could watch them closely.


It soon became obvious that these birds do like to eat. At the same time, we had bought some brown chicks of an egg laying breed. Within a week, the meat birds were obviously bigger. They quickly out grew their box in the basement and were moved to a brooder pen in the chicken house.


At four weeks, Ed made a little moveable pen, or chicken tractor, and all the meat birds were moved out to the yard. By this time, they were three times the size of the egg laying breed. I've often heard how much they eat but actually seeing it was astounding. These birds actually lay on their bellies with their head hanging in the feed trough - eating.

We really liked the moveable pen. Last year we had a huge pen that was hard to maneuver. This one was light and easy to push or pull. We moved it to fresh grass three times a day. As soon as we moved to new grass, the chickens would peck at the grass. I doubt much of their daily intake was grass but even a little may have helped. We could have put them in the pasture, but since our yard is in shambles anyway from the building project, we stopped  mowing part of our back yard and used it for the chickens. The children don't play in that area much and the grass could use some fertilizer.

The chickens were very healthy. We didn't lose even one. At about four weeks, one of the birds was not thriving. He did not eat much and limped around looking miserable. He was much smaller than the others and  I was about to put him out of his misery. But soon he perked up and eventually I couldn't distinguish him from the rest.

I have often heard of leg problems in the Cornish Cross. But we didn't seem to have much problem. To be honest, these weren't very active birds. The pen which looked adequate size was rather crowded by the time they were 8 weeks. But there was still room for them to walk from the feeder to the water. When we moved the pen, we had to do it slowly so that the flock could stagger their way to the fresh grass. They would flop on their belly as soon as possible.

But this morning, when Ed and I were putting the chickens in the crate, one bird got away from us. It gave Ed a run until he finally cornered him in a bush! I always think chickens have a funny waddling run. There obviously wasn't anything wrong with this bird. You have to  have a little speed to keep ahead of a six foot man! And I couldn't help because I was struggling with two birds of my own. And maybe laughing?


Today the birds were eight weeks old exactly. While they may have been able to grow more, they were good size and panting on the hot afternoons.

When it came to butchering, we chickened out! Maybe someday we will try butchering them ourselves, but this year, with so much going on, we decided it wasn't wise. We have a local Mennonite family that is all set up to dress chickens. We dropped them off this morning and picked up beautifully dressed chickens three hours later. Of course, that did hurt our cost savings in raising our own chicken, but Ed's "to-do" list is too long this summer. I feel good supporting a home business.


Was it a cost savings? I figured we spent $191.34 on these chickens. This includes buying the chicks, feeding them, and paying to have them dressed. The feed cost also includes the feed eaten by the chicks we purchased for laying, (which you will hear more about.)

The twenty-one chickens we dressed today (or had dressed) weighed between 4-6 lb. after being dressed. The average was 5.5 lb with 114.7 lb total in the 21 birds. That brings our cost to $1.67 a lb. if I figured it right. If we would have done the butchering ourselves it would be down to $1.26 a lb.

Whether that is a good deal or not, depends on your perspective. Should I compare this price to the cheap sale price chicken breasts I've been buying? Or should I compare it to the antibiotic free, pastured chicken price?

I'm choosing to consider it a good deal. My parents raised chickens and it was only since I married that I had ever bought commercial raised chicken. There is definitely a difference. I haven't eaten any of ours yet, but I'm looking forward to seeing if we taste a difference in this meat. Some of the chickens I cut into pieces to freeze and I have a big pot of the bony back and neck pieces boiling on the stove right now. The fragrance is wonderful. It is exactly my memory of my mom's chicken.

Now you are under the impression that we know all about raising chickens. I'll burst your bubble and share our sad news.

This weekend, some varmint discovered our eight young laying hens in the chicken house. We had gotten lazy in shutting the door but nothing had ever happened. But this time it did. I was so upset to think of my future laying flock devoured by some predator. We beefed up the chicken house security but somehow last night they made their way in again and this time killed one of our big laying hens.

You can thank me for not sharing pics. It makes me sick just to think of it. I kept an emotional distance from our meat birds, but the laying hens are my pets. I visit them often with little tid-bits from the kitchen as a treat. They adore carrot and apple peelings.

My only relief is that they did not discover our meat birds the day before we butchered them. But I'm hoping they don't take out our whole laying flock!

Any ideas on homeland security against (we're guessing) coons?

17 comments :

  1. I'm happy to hear your chickens made it to butcher day :) I raised some last year and took the advice of others to let the chickens 'rest' in a cold cooler for a day or two to allow the meat to tenderize, per se. Some complain about tough meat if you don't do this. Mine were perfect. I waited two days before freezing them and everyone loved them.
    As far as the coons are concerned, hardware cloth, closed latched doors and hardware cloth over windows/vent areas. Those critters are cunning and not much will keep them out if you aren't prepared for them. Are you sure it wasn't a weasel? They are even worse because they are smaller and ruthless.

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  2. Doesn't it feel good to know where your family's food came from???

    And your prices worked out very similar (within pennies) to mine - I consider it a VERY good deal because of the peace of mind factor; and the convenience of having it all right at home - no trips to the store.

    I haven't cooked my backs and bones yet - they're in the freezer waiting for a slow day.

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  3. Gina,

    I'm so sorry to hear about your laying hens. That would be horrible. I hope the children aren't traumatized. I know my son would be, as he is such an animal lover.

    It's very interesting to hear about your experience with the birds, though. We soooo desire to be able to raise some chicks along with our garden, but our town doesn't allow it. It's our dream to have some land to be able to raise as many fruits, vegetables, and animals for food as our hearts desire. Until then, we're learning all we can and blogs like yours help. I was curious about your chicken tractor - did you make that yourselves? And, if you did do you think you could share how it's made sometime?

    Hope things are going well for you and yours. :0)

    XO,
    Pam

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  4. Oh, I forgot to mention about the prices. I can get conventional chickens at $.87 to $.98 per pound. I'm not that comfortable with the conventional chickens anymore and have been looking for an affordable option. Trader Joe's sells whole organic pastured chickens for $14 a bird. Yikes! The farm where we ordered our pastured hog and grass-fed beef from will have some pastured chickens available for $10 a bird next month. I'd say you got a good deal even having them processed.

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  5. They really are little piggies, aren't they! :) Ours are getting huge (our first time raising them), and we're planning for processing at about 10 weeks. We're gonna have friends over and process at home... We'll see how that goes. Lol.

    As for raccoons, you can trap, or shoot. I've been told that they can rip through chicken wire, and that the safe bet is to use hardware cloth. I don't know what your run/coop looks like though, or where they're getting in. There's a lot of good info on the community forum at www.backyardchickens.com. There's a section just for predators/pests.

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  6. Hi Gina,
    My only suggestions are ones that you probably know.

    Have the main door for the chickens to get in and out 2 feet off the ground. The chickens can jump that height. What I did was I had my main doors for me to clean the coop, but I had a small side door up about 5 feet. (I had a ramp to the door, the ramp was off the ground by 2 feet).
    At dusk I would go out and shut the small side door with a hook and eye, and open it first thing in the morning. The coop its self was 3 feet off the ground to prevent critters from digging. We also dug the fencing into the ground by a foot, and lined the yard with rail road ties to prevent the fence from being dugged under, or rammed through...

    I'm really sorry to hear about your loss! Thanks for sharing about meat birds. I am going to try them for next year, and was wondering about the price savings. To buy the meat with the same conditions you gave your birds would be about $4.50 to $5.00 per pound. Crazy, I know... so yes, I think it was worth it. :)

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  7. If you have secured the larger entry points to the chickens it could be a weasel. When my parent's raised chickens a weasel got in the coop and in one night killed half our chicks. We thought we had stopped it but it came back when they were bigger and killed a couple of the bigger birds. They will drain the blood from the bird and if they have to fight for it the bird will look like it has been through the wringer. My dad ended up putting hardware cloth (wire fencing with 1/2 inch squares) over the floor and up about 2 feet on the walls of the chicken coop. good luck and I am so wishing I lived in the country and could raise my own chickens. Enjoy.

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  8. Thanks so much to all of you for your hints. Yesterday we worked at securing even the smallest holes and last night was fine. Hopefully, we will keep them out from now on.

    Pam - We did make the chicken tractor. We just used scraps that were lying around here. When you are building, there is lots of resources! I'll try to take some photos.
    Gina

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  9. I'd say even if you spend a tiny bit more it is still a good deal in the long run. You know what went into that meat and that is more than you can say about anything store bought! Of course you had the time involved, but who counts that? :)

    I hope that critter doesn't get any more of your laying hens! How frustrating!

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  10. I'm planning on doing meat birds soon so your experience is very helpful.

    We just lost a chick to a racoon last week. Tore it right through the chicken wire. Finances are tight, so we couldn't just go out and buy hardware cloth or rabbit wire like we would have liked to. Instead we put a weather radio out by the coop and turn it on at night. Haven't had any problems since. Hopefully they won't get wise to our scheme.

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  11. Gina, I would have cried! I had pet bantams when I was young. I'd hold them for hours (if I wasn't reading), instead of doing schoolwork. I drove my mom crazy a LOT! Now my Kbug has taken after me. She'll go out to Grammy's chicken house and sit for an hour or more, just petting the chickens sitting in the nesting boxes, and waiting for them to lay their eggs. That's my girl! =)

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  12. I was one of those google searches for children friendly chickens! I am so grateful that the Lord led me to your blog. I never even proceeded with getting chickens. My husband did not want to do it at this house. We live in a city on a very small plot and are only allowed two chickens that must be ten feet from your fence. That would be too limiting!
    Anyhow, I am glad to have found your blog. I have appreciated everything you write about. And, I feel that is an excellent price for safe chicken! What a blessing!
    Annie

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  13. Gina,
    I'm so sorry to hear of your chicky loss. We dealt with two "varmints" this year. During the winter a mink took out 2 duck hens and a Rhode Island Red hen. We caught him in a "have-a-heart" trap and took him far, far away to release him.
    Then this spring we had a fox get in during the day (an old sick-looking fox), and he killed 3 of our laying hens. Mr. D happened to walk in on him and he tried to escape, but fell back into a large metal trash barrel where we trapped him and drowned him. I don't know if he had rabies, but he definately was unhealthy. Those are the only two episodes we've had on this place. Before we moved we had a coon that took out 2 meat birds.

    I suggest a trap baited with one of the dead birds. Most preditors will come back to their kill and that is a good way to trap them. Keep the trap and the kill outside of the coop in an easily accessible area. We also have a dog who chases away most wild animals, but she sleeps indoors at night and has become a little lazy since her accident. It may be time to get a younger pup to help guard the place. On our land we are surrounded by woods, so it's quite easy for preditors to hide.

    We get the Cornish Rock Cross (roosters), meat birds every year. This year we got 25 which will be butchered in September. We have always done our own butchering, but we are considering having someone else do the ducks this year. Ducks are miserable to butcher and these will be ready in the middle of winter (haven't hatched yet). We have 4 setting Muscovey. Each hen will probably hatch a good number except one who has ADHD :). She has not successfully hatched a clutch of eggs yet because she is just too impatient and a little nervous. She'll probably make it to the stew pot next year if we decide not to keep her for eggs.

    Hope you have a great day!

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  14. Living in a wooded area in Austin, TX means that I have raccoons and armadillos ravaging my back yard and potted plants every night. They have dug holes, broken pots, and destroyed all but one of the Zinnias I planted from seed. However, I read that these pests shy away when you surround your plants with a sprinkling of Cayenne pepper. I have had GREAT success and love this cheap, poison free way of protecting my belongings. Maybe this could work for you if you surrounded the coop with Cayenne? Good luck! I understand your frustration!

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  15. Gina,

    Thank you for such a detailed and informative post. We have been thinking of doing some meat chickens too. This will help our process.

    Sorry about your layers...I hope you can figure out how to stop it from happening.

    Deanna

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  16. I'm really appreciating this post Gina. Lots of info & that's really helpful. We're shocked by the price per pound you did! We're estimated $3/# and that's if all 50 birds lived. We're down to 35 so these will be really spendy. What were you feeding your birds? How much was it a 50? Nevermind... I just saw you said you'd address it in another post. It would be really nice to figure out how to raise our own chickens economically and so far, we have failed at doing that!

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  17. Hi Gina,

    I'm Kendall Fox and I own Freedom Ranger Hatchery. My wife follows your blog and told me you had raised the Cornish Cross last year, but had mentioned the Freedom Rangers. We are a Mennonite family in Lancaster County, PA, not sure how far you are from here. I would gladly send you a batch to try for free, just to compare. You can find my phone number and email address on my website, www.freedomrangerhatchery.com.

    Thanks,

    Kendall

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I'm still learning how to be a joyful homemaker and I'd love to hear from you!

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