This year, we decided to let the ball drop and raise our own meat birds. It’s one of those undertakings that seems near impossible when you’ve never done it before. I grew up hunting, but to me, taking a life in my hands where I could feel and see and sense everything so much more vividly seemed overwhelming. Ultimately, the feeling was overpowered by the want to eat meat that was raised lovingly by providing them access to range on our property and to eat a diet that didn’t solely consist of grains. We also want our children to understand that death is a part of life; that we respect animals and don’t waste any part of their bodies energy-instead it is transferred to us in the form of meat and broth and to the earth as compost. Raising meat birds helps bring us one step closer to being more self-sufficient; our main goal as a homestead.
For our first attempt, we chose to order 50 straight run birds, which means the birds are not sexed. We did this because we wanted to increase our laying flock at the same time and we decided we could choose a rooster to protect the flock and cull the rest. We decided on a few heirloom varieties instead of the Cornish Cross, which is the standard breed of meat bird. We read that heirloom birds had exceptional flavor, albeit different texture then the standard store bought chicken so we decided to give it a try. The only downside with raising heirloom chickens for meat is that they take about 14 weeks to be ready for butcher which is twice the time for Cornish Cross. If we were looking at this from solely an economic standpoint, we lost money on the operation when we counted in the extra time and feed needed to raise the heirloom chickens to size.
I want to share with you a few of my mistakes because I was devastated and would like to share this knowledge in case I may save someone else from the same mistakes. I had never ordered day old chicks from the mail, only older birds from the tack and feed stores and never had any issues. I thought I knew what I was doing and clearly didn’t. I didn’t have my brooder completely set up when the chicks arrived, and that was my first mistake. I had to go searching for my chicken feeders and waterers, so I gave them a bowl of water in the meantime. Two drowned in the water, a few others got wet and started to get pecked. I set them up in the brooder thinking I wouldn’t loose anymore, but a few started to get pasty butt and twice a day I would go in and another bird would be dead. I cleaned off their butts and dried them as best I could, but I didn’t understand why they were getting pasty butt in the first place. I decided to ask our neighbors, who own a chicken ranch, for help. They advised me to add probiotics and electrolytes to their water, and keep the water warm. It worked! I felt so ashamed that I only needed to do a few easy things and I could have kept the birds alive. I knew I would never make the mistake again.
We ended up with 15 roosters for culling. My husband built a processing station outside our small barn in accordance with Joel Salatin’s recommendations. We purchased a kill cone, a tool for defeathering that attached to a power drill, kitchen gloves, and a plastic apron. Our set up had a trash bin below the kill cone for bleeding out, the defeathering station, a gutting table, a sink, and a large cooler filled with ice water. We followed Joel Salatin’s method and it was relatively seamless. I highly recommend reading his book on pastured poultry processing and enlisting at least two helpers for this amount of birds for the first time. It took us about 5 hours to complete 15 birds including clean up and creating our compost pile.
To be honest, it took us about a week before we were ready to eat one of the chickens, so we ended up freezing them all. When we worked up the courage, they were delicious! We did two in the crockpot, and one in the oven so far. They are roosters, so didn’t have much fat on them, but the taste is off the charts. We also butchered two turkeys and the same goes for them too. We are sold!
I decided to give it another try with the mail order day old chicks. This time we are trying out the Cornish Cross breed and I have all 25 of my order happily eating and chirping in their brooder, two weeks later. No losses and I am extremely happy with being able to learn from my mistakes. I hope you consider raising your own meat birds. I think you will find an intense sense of accomplishment and appreciation for the nourishment they give to your body and mind.