By Gwen Roland ó Photographed by Preston Roland
Raise your own broilers, and avoid battery cage-raised, flavorless supermarket chicken.
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 chickensí 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 donít hurt!
Portable coops, such as this A-frame model, allow birds to forage for worms, bugs and grasses.
I learned so many things when I raised and slaughtered my first flock of chickens, both about the chickens and about myself. Here are some of my thoughts on the process:
Different breeds of chickens, different rewards: Raising meat chickens differed from keeping layers most significantly in terms of how quickly I began to see a return on my investment of time and money. Fast-growing broiler breeds can be ready for slaughter in less than two months; even gourmet breeds only take 12 weeks. Layers, however, typically donít produce their first eggs until five months, and they require construction of roosts, nest boxes and winter shelter. Meat birds need to be guarded from both weather and predators.
Emotion: I was surprised at how it distressed me to kill the females in that first flock. The cockerels, on the other hand, seemed to be just automated eating machines. Of the two females in my first flock, one was a nervous wreck who seemed aware from day one that I intended to kill her. The other would peck at my foot until I sat in the grass so she could sit in my lap. If I could have imagined a viable future for her, I would have spared her. But without a mother henís protection from the layers, and with her white feathers making her an easy target for predators, it wouldnít have been right.
Most notably, discovering how quickly I could make the psychological leap from nurturing to killing helped me understand Joel Salatinís warning that one should not kill chickens every day. He says that slaughtering too frequently can blunt our natural empathy and compassion for other living creatures.
Frying the first chicken for a Sunday dinner, the fragrance wiped away the memory of all my work and worry. The flavor was honest, unforgettable and well worth the time and money I had invested.
Feeding: All my chickens have pasture available, a three-acre woodlot and a compost pile for digging worms. They are also provided with garden trimmings and kitchen scraps. In addition, the broilers were penned in a fallow garden spot twice daily so they could gorge on concentrated feed without being harassed by the layer hens, the goats or the dog that usually lived with them.
The nine birds in the spring flock went through 3 1/2 bags of feed in 81/2 weeks. That included much that was wasted due to my management inexperience Ė my mistakes included placing the feeder too low and forgetting to protect the feeder from rain. The three birds in the second flock used just over one sack in seven weeks. That includes the feed consumed by the mother hen. Both flocks were fed commercial starter/grower feed their entire lives. For future Cornish Cross birds, it seems safe to estimate about one sack of feed per three birds if they are to be slaughtered at 7 weeks.
Many do-it-yourself feed recipes are available on the Internet, but the basic starter/grower varieties available at our local feed store served us just fine.
Slaughter: I will slaughter Cornish Crosses at less than 8 weeks in the future to ensure the best quality of life. At 81/2 weeks, the spring flock experienced discomfort breathing and walking. At 7 weeks, my second flock remained healthy and active. When I experiment with slower-growing varieties, slaughter will take place at closer to 12 weeks.
Season: It works out nicely to raise meat birds later in the season in Georgia. The August heat keeps the chicks warm, and they feather out in time for it to cool down in September and October. The season also has an impact on slaughter date. Our June slaughter resulted in the processing site being fouled with odor and flies, while the October and November harvests did not.
Foster hen: This method for rearing chicks is ideal for a small homesteader with some broody hens.
To learn more about raising chickens for meat, read "Raising Chickens for Meat: Do-It-Yourself Pastured Poultry" at Mother Earth News.