Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Meat Birds (Vegetarians - take 5...)

The raising of meat birds has been well-tried around here, and it's time to share some of the results.

Let's start by saying - we don't raise many. Our consumption of chicken is well below the national average, and so thankfully, meat birds are not a large part of the equation around here. But they are a reality of many small homesteads.

We first tried the classic Cornish cross. A bird bred for nothing other than meat - large breasts, quick to market (just over 6 weeks) and light in color and feathering. (A factor in processing). Besides being freakishly large from the start, they are disturbing for other reasons as well. They don't "act" like chickens. Little to no foraging, almost constant eating if given the opportunity, and quite sedentary. We have raised them in tractors, so they get time outdoors and can at least contribute to the cycle of fertilizer and renewal. The first time we fed them straight grain, the second we tried to force them to forage by scaling back on the quantity of grain fed, and they simply were smaller. Our experience is that these birds basically trample the grass they are on, not eat it. Advantage: ready in 6 or 7 weeks, so your time investment is minimal. With grain available in good quantity, it was pretty easy to get a 5+ lb. bird. The batch we tried to force to forage came in considerably less. Know your market - if you are raising for re-sale, be sure you can recoup the costs of organic grain. Not everyone is ready to pay $18 for the Sunday chicken dinner...

We have tried raising the Cornish X chicks with layer chicks for the first 2-3 weeks, and the result was that the layer chicks were often bullied and didn't get all the food and water they needed for the optimum start. So we recommend separate brooder space and equipment.

We have also tried the Freedom Ranger, or French Red. They advertise as a free-range meat bird that will be ready for market in 12-14 weeks. Attaining a good market size (4-5 lbs.) in that time frame still requires a pretty large grain investment. (Again - think costs!) Yes, these birds will forage. They are more alert, and "act" like chickens. Their tractor needs to be moved daily to new ground, and be careful not to put too many in the tractor you are using, or the forage and grass consumption goes way down. Overall, they are quiet and not flighty. So we give them good grades as far as being less "factory food", and more "slow food." Their breasts are not as large, and their meat is more dark. But the flavor is exceptional...

We had no problem raising these chicks with layer chicks until about the 5th week, but by then, they were feathered out and could weather the out of doors - so into the tractor they went. They seemed to prefer sleeping on the ground to roosting, so make sure the tractor is heavy enough to discourage digging predators and the mesh is small enough to thwart raccoons. We raised 4 lb. birds with a moderate investment of grain and emphasis on foraging in about 16-17 weeks.

Finally, we have tried butchering the occasional "Oops rooster" (You order all pullets, and "oops" get a boy...) as well as those times when we hatch our own eggs and can only use the hens. These chickens are raised along with their peers in the same brooder arrangement and out on farm free-range at 7-8 weeks. In this scenario, they are free to range the property, eat the daily kitchen scraps, and only get grain at night or when we need to put everyone away. This is how we raise our egg-laying flock (read about another good perspective here) and it has worked out quite well. Typically, these males don't get butchered until around 17-20 weeks of age (when they discover they are roosters and either mount everything in sight or try attacking my shins - both decidedly risky behaviors on a farm that loves their laying flock AND doesn't like barnyard bullies) Breeds vary - but we don't raise bantams, so these are all full-size roosters. They don't have an overly large breast, are lankier than the usual roasting chicken, but still fantastic for the soup pot or roasted and the meat used in a casserole or other dish. Typically, they butcher at around 3-4 lbs. carcass weight, and that is plenty for our family. This is the most cost-effective method - minimal time and grain investment beyond what we are already doing for our layers, and we haven't (usually) paid for the chicks.

One more tip - if you order laying chicks in a small quantity (say a dozen or so) many hatcheries will include either extra males or meat birds as "heat insurance" to keep the chicks from chilling during transport. We used to refuse them, but now we welcome the free birds as a cost effective way of raising the few meat chickens we require each year. (Free is good. We have learned to love free.)

I'm still looking for good crock pot recipes for cooking chicken - ones with minimal chopping. Having been a vegetarian most of my life, I utterly suck at cutting up a whole chicken. I apparently missed that day in high school Home Ec...


LindaG said...

I never learned how to cut a chicken in Home Economics. Now I don't think they even teach the class in any form.

Thanks so much for such an informative piece!

I have to ask though. Is the picture of the cooked chicken yours, and if it is, how did you do it? It looks amazingly delicious!

Michelle said...

I may be a vegetarian (and have NEVER laid knife blade to muscle!), but I am still interested to read others' experiences. I say if you're going to EAT it, be fully educated ABOUT it -- and appreciate those willing to educate.

Susan said...

I just throw my chicken in with a can of beer. Didn't learn that in my Home Economics class, I can tell you. How was your pulled pork, speaking of crockpots? Your dilly scape was delish!