We’ve had many reactions from people about raising our own meat. For the most part, the reaction is one of pure terror. “You are going to do what?” family, friends and coworkers (not all, but many) would ask when I told them of my plan to raise my own small livestock. “How can you raise an animal and kill it?” they would ask. The truth is, I wasn’t sure I could do it. It’s a test I have dreaded taking since we brought the fluffy little chicks home last June. And while I feared and dreaded processing day, I secretly looked forward to it. I looked forward to learning if I was capable of processing our own meat. Could I raise an animal from a fluffy ball of fur into an adult with the intention of putting it on my dinner table? This is a question I have asked myself over and over again during the past six months. As I watched these majestic looking birds run around my property I wondered, “how can we end their lives?”
The truth is, the most difficult part about the entire process was finding the nerve to be a part of it. I could have left the process to my husband and waited until he brought me a dressed chicken to begin my involvement, but I wanted to be involved. I wanted to be there as the chickens breathed their last breaths, to say thank you for the meat they would be providing us and for the hours of entertainment they have provided for the past six months.
It has been interesting watching those fluffy little chicks grow into the black and white feathered creatures they are today. They have provided countless hours of entertainment for ourselves and our friends — and apparently the employees of the business across the street who get a kick out of watching them roam around our property doing chicken things.
And while it has been interesting it has also been eye-opening and educational. I spent hours online reading about raising chicks and chickens and asked dozens of questions before we brought the chicks home. I invested just as much time into reading about processing chickens in preparation for that moment. I thought I was ready but before I knew it, the chicks had grown into small birds and were ready for the great outdoors. Did I make mistakes? You bet. But the best part about those mistakes are the lessons learned for this spring when — sorry hubby — we venture into meat birds once again. I could share with you a graphic and detailed break down of the processing procedure but out of respect for my vegetarian followers I instead will outline the lessons I have learned from raising meat chickens. Those who are interested into learning more about processing chickens should check out my Homesteading board on Pinterest, you will find all of the blog posts that helped me prepare for that fateful day along with a wealth of information on self sufficiency.
Lessons learned from my first experience with meat chickens
1) Choose the right breed: Plymouth Barred Rocks are beautiful birds and are great producers of eggs (or so I have read… mine are still not regularly producing but I think this is again to my own error, expect a post on that soon) but as a meat bird they are not very efficient. We raised ours for a little more than six months before slaughtering, feeding mostly organic (pricey) feed. The most economic option is the White Rock or Cornish Cross. I touched a little bit on my thoughts about this variety in my last post but to summarize: the White Rock is a victim of the commercial meat industry. White rocks are efficient at converting feed into meat — too efficient. By eight weeks these freaks are ready for the dinner table at an estimated eight pounds. The real scary part about these guys is that if they age much beyond that, they will die of “natural” causes. White rocks are efficient convertors but their legs and respiratory system aren’t as quick to develop and they are susceptible to sudden death and broken limbs, which can lead to death. I understand why many raise this breed, it is the most economic choice for broilers, but I just can’t bring myself to raise these zombie chickens. I have been reading up on the Freedom Ranger. These hybrids are much more efficient than heritage breeds like the Barred Rock and grow at a moderate rate, reaching a finishing weight of five to six pounds in about 12 weeks. They are also more active than the White Rocks and are known to thrive on pasture.
2) Controlled free range: Luckily, we never had any fighting in our flock and we kept the roosters and hens together. They pastured together during the day and were locked up at night together in the coop. But what this meant is that our layers and broilers were eating the same feed — an organic layer mix that was too high in protein for meat birds — on top of the bugs, worms, grass, plants and other matter they would peck at on pasture. This time I plan to keep the broilers separate from the girls and the last roo standing by building a chicken tractor. A chicken tractor is a moveable pen that allows the chickens to free range in a controlled space. The tractor is mobile and can be moved to different areas of the property. This will provide the benefits of being raised on pasture but within a controlled environment. Expect future posts on this subject.
3) Proper feed: The biggest problem with raising the hens with the roosters was not providing them with proper feed. We feed an organic layer mash from Homestead Organics which is a 16.5 per cent protein — too much for birds you are preparing for butcher. By separating the flocks we can ensure the roos feed on a finisher formula in the final weeks before slaughter to increase both weight and flavour.
4) Timing: We could have slaughtered the roos a month ago and the meat may have been less tough but we let life get in the way. Work never stops on a farm, something I am still struggling to learn especially on these cold winter mornings. As much as I want to stay snuggled up on the couch with Isis snoring by my side I have to go outside each morning and let out the girls and the one remaining roo, feed them, check their water and do the same for the bunnies (with the exception of letting them out). It’s all part of raising your own food. It’s definitely not easy.
Now that we have one butchering under our belts and experience as well as knowledge, I am hopeful that we can have a more efficient operation this spring. I also plan to be a little more organized and keep a record of expenses and time put into raising them so that I can share the economics of raising backyard broilers. Creativity is my passion, not record keeping and being organized — who has time for that? But I need to get more organized so that I know what we are spending versus what we are saving for every component of the homestead…. chicken, rabbits, vegetables.
PS I am so excited! I got my first seed catalogue in the mail this week and have started planning this year’s gardens. I plan to make use of all possible garden spaces to grow edibles which means tearing out some of the flower beds and creating edible landscapes using herbs and edible flowers. I am even planning a tea garden which doubles as a pollinator attractor — expect a blog dedicated to this in the near future.