by Gwen Roland — Photographed by Preston Roland
|Raise your own broilers, and avoid battery cage-raised, flavorless supermarket chicken.|
Though I have kept chickens for years, I never expected to eat any of the animals I raised. After they provided many delicious eggs, I would retire my layers to the barnyard. But Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle won me over to dining on my own birds. Now, I would recommend others try to raise chickens for their kitchen table. Processing poultry is both humane and economical.
|Chickens are swiftly and
humanely beheaded in cones
nailed to trees.
In 2008, I raised and processed two flocks of the Cornish and White Rock cross, also known as Cornish Crosses. They are a fast-growing variety raised in large quantities to supply restaurants and supermarkets with chicken products.
Oddly, it’s only because of my life-long affection for these birds that I can kill them at all. If I didn’t feel for them, I would simply eat store-bought chicken. I eat meat just a couple times a week – but it’s important to know that the animal lived well and died humanely. I nurtured them in exchange for their nurturing me. The first part is the hardest. I hug a hefty white rooster close to my chest to calm him on the way to the killing station. Quickly and smoothly, I turn him over and place him snugly in the cone. My left hand extends downward to gently stretch his neck. Grabbing the knife with my right hand, I neatly swipe off his head. As he bleeds out, I dry my eyes. That’s a chicken lover’s process.
In April 2008, I split an order of Cornish Cross chicks with my friend Jim. One of my 10 chicks died the first day. The other nine started out on my porch in a brooder that kept the temperature correct around the clock. I had intended for them to stay in the brooder until they feathered out – at about three weeks or so – but I wanted them to get an early taste of green grass and sunshine, so I started relocating them to the floorless A-frame coop on sunny days after they were a week old. I’d return them to the brooder at night. I read that Cornish Cross birds were not hardy enough for outdoor living, but mine didn’t seem to mind.
After just a few days, they had gained enough weight that I could carry only half the flock at once without risking the bottom of the pet carrier breaking. Another couple of days after that, the carrier could only handle three at a time.
|Do-it-yourself processing table.|
Genetically programmed for less than a sixty day life span, my birds began to look elderly as they approached the eighth week. When I approached with their feed bucket, they waddled at top speed on bowed legs, flapping their short wings for extra acceleration. The roosters’ rumps were notably dirty from resting so often in the excavations they had made in the soft garden soil.
By the end of May, the weather had become unseasonably warm – even in the shade of our tall hickory trees. The chickens seemed so uncomfortable that I provided box fans in the afternoons. The birds jockeyed for position in the breeze, combs and wattles flapping. Though none of my birds had developed the leg or heart conditions that can come from growing so quickly, they were ready to lay it down by the time we scheduled the slaughter.
Finishing off our combined flock went more quickly than we expected. My husband, Preston, and I arrived at Jim’s farm with our flock at eight in the morning. Jim already had two homemade killing cones mounted on trees, a large pot of water heated by a propane burner, and a clothesline between two oak trees, which served as a plucking station. Having worked in a commercial processing plant in his youth, he taught us how to process birds in accordance with standard industry guidelines.
After all of us had an opportunity attempting each of the tasks, the routine we settled into began. Jim beheaded and scalded the birds, and then hung them on the clothesline. His wife, Jayne, and I would pluck – by far the most time-consuming stage of the process. A tarp kept under the plucking station facilitated easy removal of the feathers. Plucked carcasses were then placed in a plastic barrel containing cold water. Then came the evisceration table, where each bird was placed in an ice-packed cooler.
By 11:15 a.m., we had all the birds on ice with minimal waste. A recycled feed bag easily held the combined entrails, feet, heads and feathers. Only three hours had elapsed, and the actual processing time was closer to two hours after accounting for the training.
|After feathers are plucked,
the chickens’ innards are removed,
and the birds are put on ice.
I hadn’t been planning on raising another flock so soon, but by mid-August one of my Rhode Island Red layers was acting broody. Curious as to whether this hen might save me some of the worry and work of raising meat chicks through the brooder stage, I ordered more Cornish Cross chicks. The hen accepted all of the peeping fluffballs, stretching her wings ever wider trying to encompass them all. She taught them to forage in the garden and guarded them from harassment by the other layers. When the chicks reached 7 weeks old, I hosted a second harvest. It went even more smoothly, with each of us knowing what to expect.
Even though I had entered into this for humane reasons, I also kept records detailing the cost of the meat. Using a bathroom scale, I found that one of the rooster carcasses added about 8 pounds to my weight, while a pair of hens added 5 to 6 pounds. Though these aren’t certified scales, it seems reasonable to estimate that the nine birds totalled approximately 60 pounds of chicken in my freezer. Purchasing and feeding the chicks had cost $62, resulting in a total cost of about $1 per pound.
One might guess that allowing birds to forage in pasture would reduce the feed bill and increase weight gain. However, research shows that calories used in foraging are not necessarily offset by the extra nutrition. Some enthusiasts report reductions in feed consumption ranging from 10 to 30 percent when on pasture, but researchers Andrew Walker and Sue Gordon, in findings presented at the University of Leeds in 2002, reported expected reduction in feed closer to 5 percent or less. Possessing short guts, poultry would simply fill up before they could obtain sufficient nutrition to survive on grass. In fact, Walker and Gordon’s research revealed that the majority of the protein available to pastured chickens consists of worms, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers and other critters.
|The birds are scalded to make feather removal easier.|
Processing Equipment Readies Your Birds for the Freezer
|Pluckers, such as this
one from Featherman, make
Poultry processing really can be easier. If you’re dreading investing the time it will take to ready your birds for the freezer, consider buying or renting special poultry processing equipment that will speed up the time it takes. Elaine Fawcett of Aurora, Oregon, owns Featherman processing equipment and offers it for rent.
“After you’ve plucked a few by hand, you really appreciate how the equipment makes the process more efficient,” she says.
Tiffany Johnson of Vancouver, Washington, encourages renting chicken processing equipment. “Four of us processed our batch of 50 ‘colored range’ chickens in just under five hours,” she says. “After you fumble your way through a couple of birds and learn what works best for you, processing a bird really doesn’t take that long. Especially with the scalder and plucker!”
If there aren’t enough of your chickens or other poultry to justify the purchase of a chicken plucker, scalder or other poultry processing equipment, renting may be your best option. The Featherman website, lists people owning equipment who are willing to rent. (We found a Featherman plucker, scalders, kill cones and other poultry processing equipment in our area when we visited the site.) For those raising their own meat, processing it with friends and neighbors has the potential to be a great community-building event.
|Call in the troops: Anyone, young or old, can participate in a community chicken harvest.|
What I Learned Raising and Slaughtering Chickens
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 don’t 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 hen’s protection from the layers, and with her white feathers making her an easy target for predators, it wouldn’t have been right. Most notably, discovering how quickly I could make the psychological leap from nurturing to killing helped me understand warnings 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 – 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.
Which Breeds to Raise for Meat:
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:
|The enhanced fragrance
and flavor are rewarding enough,
but the extra savings don’t hurt!
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.
|Portable coops, such as this A-frame model, allow birds to forage for worms,
bugs and grasses.