By Gwen Roland — Photographed by Preston Roland
Call in the troops: Anyone, young or old, can participate in a community chicken harvest.
Pluckers, such as this one from Featherman, make processing speedier.
Chickens are swiftly and humanely beheaded in cones nailed to trees.
The birds are scalded to make feather removal easier.
After feathers are plucked, the chickens’ innards are removed, and the birds are put on ice.
Do-it-yourself processing table.
The enhanced fragrance and flavor are rewarding enough, but the extra savings don’t hurt!
Portable coops, such as this A-frame model, allow birds to forage for worms, bugs and grasses.
There are so many different breeds of chickens, and no two are exactly alike. Sometimes it’s hard to keep all the features straight. Here are a few facts on meat for just a handful of breeds:
Cornish Cross hybrids: Most people who raise table birds select Cornish Cross chicks for their initial first flock due to their rapid rate of growth — a 5-pound live bird (3 1/2-pound carcass) can typically be raised in six or seven weeks. Because of their rapid weight gain, Cornish Cross birds are prone to heart problems and broken legs. Some people eschew these birds on the principle that maintaining this genetic stock is inhumane.
Producers of pastured poultry would prefer to see the best traits of the Cornish Cross combined with greater foraging ability and increased hardiness.
Some pastured poultry connoisseurs claim that Cornish Cross birds lack the full flavor of slower-growing breeds, but as a typical American I am accustomed to lighter meat. I find the flavor of my flocks to be just right – a more pronounced, yet not overpowering, chicken flavor compared to store-bought birds; firm, but not stringy or tough.
European-type hybrids: Also known as Label Rouge types (after a popular French production system), these birds attain 5 pounds live weight after about 12 weeks, and they are harvested closer to sexual maturity. Deemed more flavorful than faster-growing hybrids, they also possess a firmer texture. They have smaller breasts and darker meat than Cornish Crosses. Their reputation is for being hardier and more active foragers – and therefore more suitable for pasturing. There is some debate on the point, however. To learn more, visit the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Web site, www.SARE.org, and search for project number GS03-029 under the “Project Reports” tab.
Heritage chickens: Old breeds such as Buckeye, Delaware, New Hampshire and Barred Plymouth Rocks have not been bred for meat-producing characteristics since the 1950s, and as a result are slower growing than varieties that have been bred explicitly for increased feed conversion efficiency. However, many backyard chicken fanciers still choose to raise the old standards because of their hardiness for outdoor living, disease resistance, and pronounced chicken flavor.
Jeannette Beranger, research and technical program manager for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, notes that it is important to select a breed compatible with for your climate and choice of management system. Once you’ve settled on the breeds you think most appropriate, the Conservancy can suggest a breeder.
Beranger also cautions that, while these breeds love to forage, they will require high-protein feed to produce the desired result. High-protein diet supplements such as meat scraps or whey could help, but may be too great a challenge for a beginner.
To learn more about raising chickens for meat, read "Raising Chickens for Meat: Do-It-Yourself Pastured Poultry" at Mother Earth News.