It is nearly time for us to order the chicks for fryers and broilers, and I couldn’t be more excited. The meat supply in the chest freezer is dwindling and I will rest easy knowing it is on its way to being replenished. That’s right, we raise our own chickens (and if you’re local to Madison, NH, you can buy some from us, click here). I know a lot of people out there think we’re nuts, but we’re here to set you straight.
If you’ve lived your life on chicken from the grocery store, I have some bad news: you have never tasted a true chicken. The depth of flavor achieved by a local, organically raised bird will astound you, as will the tender meat that is so much harder to overcook than a factory sealed bird. The smell of a true chicken slowly roasting in the oven will drive you mad with delight and anticipation.
If you’re lucky, there are farmers near you raising these good chickens. Or hey, maybe you can be the farmer. No really. You CAN be the farmer. Why aren’t you the farmer?
If you had told me 5 years ago that I’d be raising my own chickens I’d have been amazed. I was a businessman, I worked at a computer. I didn’t know the first thing about farming and didn’t think I wanted to know the second thing.
But it’s a lot easier than you might think, and honestly it’s a lot of fun. With some easy preparation in advance and consistent care for the birds, I’m confident anyone can raise their own meat with ease and be proud of the delicious, healthy results.
There are a lot of theories and ideas on how to raise chickens out there, and a lot of what you’ll find is based on fear and misconceptions. Before you get too freaked out, here are some of the major myths floating around out there that you should take with a grain of salt.
1. Meat chickens are especially stinky.
Believe it or not, all animals have to poop. Rarely does it smell good! The intense stink associated with chickens, especially those raised in larger quantities, is always a result of poor management. If you move your chickens regularly (as with movable fencing and chicken tractors) or follow a routine to clean their living space, the smell will never become an issue. Stay tuned for my custom chicken tractor plans.
2. Raising chickens for meat is not cost effective.
This is only true if you are interested in buying the cheapest chicken available in the grocery store. But then again, are those even really chickens? You’re not interested in raising a dry, flavorless bird, anyway, you want to eat true chicken. Even though feed costs have increased recently, the net cost is still a bargain considering the end results. Without doing too much math, the cost per pound of organic meat can be as low as half the cost at a grocery store. You’ll get to have full control over humane treatment and get to say thank you.
3. Meat chickens INEVITABLY HAVE HEALTH ISSUES.
Virtually all meat and produce we consume has been bred in ways to emphasize traits that are favorable, and there is no denying that poultry breeders have selected birds for their ability to efficiently convert feed to meat. Cornish cross breeds are especially good at packing on meat and as a result they really go to town on their food and can develop some strange issues. But from my research and personal experience, even the crazy Cornish Cross can thrive if given the opportunity. While it’s true this breed can be more prone to some issues, it is almost always going to be the result of something that can be improved by altering management of the flock. Overfeeding is the chief concern, and is easily avoided with some attention. We have done chicken tractors and movable fences and these chickens aren’t much different from our lively hens. Treat them like happy birds and they’ll follow suit!
4. Meat Chickens require too much work.
We like to use chicken tractors, so there is virtually no cleaning work required. We just let them fertilize the land beneath the tractor for a day, then move the tractor to a fresh spot. It worked wonders on our lawn. Other than the daily moving of the tractors, the only other daily work is feeding (two controlled feedings a day) and making sure they always have water. This works out to less than 10 minutes twice a day. If you can’t spend 20 minutes on some of the best meat around, you will just have to miss out. As for the final processing, you will find that if you plan it out conservatively, have some helpers, and don’t attempt to process too many at once, it will be smooth sailing. We’ll talk more about processing in a later post.
5. Meat Chickens are too violent.
We have observed some aggression with our egg laying hens, mostly in the form of normal pecking to establish dominance. But we find that the meat birds seem to get along great, more apt to spend time cuddling in the shade than to hurt each other. Our daughter loved to try to pick them up, squeezing them awkwardly in various spots, and they never laid a beak on her. Since most meat breeds reach market weight between 6 and 14 weeks and we keep them separate from our older birds, they never get a chance to learn aggressive habits.
The most common thing I hear about these locally raised chickens, far more common than any of the above, is how darn good they taste. Or I have I mentioned that already? You can totally do this!
If any experienced farmers out there have any feedback on raising meat chickens, we encourage you to share your expertise in the comments.