by Suzanne Roark
Photos by author
When we first began raising chickens it was strictly eggs we were interested in. Somehow after a few years of raising the egg-laying kind, we started to think about raising the meat kind.
I searched the internet for answers on how to raise them. I knew vaguely that the “meat” kind was an all-white feathered breed but not much else. I did find information on meat conversions, weeks to slaughter, and how incredibly weak and ill they could become with their fast growth rate.
I had questions like how the meat would taste and whether cooking the meat would be different from the store bought kind. However, I couldn’t find much information on that aspect of raising meat birds. I did find a lot of documents about giant commercial chicken raising operations and even quite a bit about free ranging the birds. I could do neither of those options and couldn’t seem to get any concrete answers about the flavor and cooking of home raised meat chickens.
But we took the plunge anyway. Day old chicks of Cornish X meat birds didn’t seem to be very much different than day old layer chicks. We didn’t hold and cuddle them like we do our laying hens and absolutely NO naming them!
It didn’t take very long to discover some major differences between egg layers and meat chickens—mainly that these commercially bred birds are eating; water drinking; pooping machines. They have no normal chicken behavior, no scratching and clucking around. No normal chicken personality. I was disgusted, and still am disgusted after raising several batches of the little beasts, that we as humans have somehow managed to breed this monster of a bird. We’ve mangled and twisted the genetic makeup so that these creatures no longer have any discernable “chicken” traits, so sad.
Since they do grow so quickly and don’t do any scratching around, poop tends to build up rather quickly. I am still trying to come to grips with a best way to deal with this whole poop thing. I use shavings, but man, even a small batch of 10 birds can completely soak through a full bale of shavings in just a day or too. That’s a bit of money and a whole lot of work shoveling and replacing. Why so much replacing of bedding? Because the Cornish X don’t scratch through the litter. They just sit atop the pile and poop. They drink so much water that the shavings become a wet matted mess almost instantly.
You see it quickly becomes apparent that the coop must be kept dry to keep the overwhelming smell of ammonia at bay. I had read about, but never really experienced the ammonia smell with my laying coop. Meat birds have an incredible ammonia problem which I think comes from the fact that they respire so quickly from all that fast growth and the tons and tons of wet poo. I find myself churning the poo with a rake and hoe since the chickens can’t do it themselves.
Other than dealing with the ammonia-pooh issue, raising meat birds is fairly easy. You just feed them. Constantly. The amount of water they consume is about double the amount of feed so don’t be surprised to find yourself filling up the waterers more than once per day. It is true that the easily found breed of Cornish X is ready for the butcher at 8-10 weeks. I suppose we could push them a little more, but trust me, by the 8th week you want to be rid of them. At 8 weeks, their bodies are so fat and low to the ground they barely move. At feeding time they crowd around and push and shove, their big awkward feet tripping you while your pouring in the grain…once the feed hits the trough, they do indeed sound like pigs slopping it up. Processing them is almost a relief.
We did search around for alternatives to the Cornish X. We don’t have the room to free-range so the Freedom Ranger breed is not really an option. Plus, they poop and eat nearly exactly the same as the Cornish X, without as much breast meat. When you’ve spent a full back breaking day processing these guys, you really appreciate getting the most meat as possible. We’ve processed a few roosters and old laying hens, but there is so many feathers and there isn’t hardly any meat—it’s just not worth it. So Cornish X it is—for now.
I was concerned that the meat would be “different” than store bought and that we wouldn’t really like it—you know, too strong of a taste or perhaps the meat would be tough. No worries though. The meat has incredible texture. Just like a store bought egg is watery, so is store bought chicken meat. Home grown is denser and consequently it seems to take much less of a portion size to fill us up. The flavor is more “chicken-y” than any store bought meat. In fact, after a year or so of eating only home grown chicken, a taste of the store bought kind revealed an odd chemical-like after taste.
Cooking of chicken you raise yourself does not really change that much either. I used to rely on pop up timers that come already neatly inserted into the meat. I now use a good meat thermometer. But smell, look and feel are a much better indicator of correct doneness than the government required 185° pop up timer. Is it that the manufactured chicken is pumped so full of water and “natural juices” that it seems to take so long to cook, or the incredibly high temp of the required 185°, or perhaps the big guys have manufactured them that way so that no matter how much you overcook their product, it always tastes the same?
In any case, after raising a few batches of birds I now notice that the compact shrink-wrapped chicken at the store is so much smaller per pound than my own birds. For instance, I recently noticed one of those membership clubs offering two whole chickens packaged together, I could fit the pack in my two hands. The weight on the package read 9lbs—meaning each chicken weighed 4.5lbs, how could that be? When just one 4lb chicken of my own is so big it takes two hands to carry it alone. The bones seem more rigid on my home grown kind. The legs do stick up and you can actually feel the body has bones. But the packaged version was very mushy, with nary a sign that there were even any bones at all. The legs were soft and bent over neatly along the breast meat. Makes me wonder just how they got those two tiny carcasses to weigh 4.5lbs each.
I also take note of the fact that there is no slime in my home raised meat chickens, whether fresh, or frozen and thawed. So what exactly is that slime on store bought chicken? Where does that come from? Forget it, I don’t think I really want to know.
After investing all that time and effort feeding and caring for them, and then the hard work of processing them, I feel an awareness that the effort must not go to waste. I never ever made my own chicken stock before I started raising my own birds. Now, I can’t throw away the carcass (I freeze the carcasses for when I have the time to make the stock). It’s just too wasteful. That chicken gave its life for me I must use every bit out of respect for its sacrifice.
We’ll continue to raise meat birds, I’ll continue to search for better ways to deal with the poo and I’ll be searching for a less intensive meat breed to raise. If you’ve got a great way to deal with the upkeep of fast growing Cornish X, or have a better breed that yields a decent amount of meat, I’d love to know the details!