Our first year of raising meat birds: what we’ve learned

Today I picked up our last batch of chickens from the processor: twenty-four yummy whole chickens have been added to our freezer stash. In looking back on this, our first summer of raising meat birds (or any kind of bird, for that matter), we’ve learned a few things about what we like and don’t like, and gained ideas about what to try next year.

We raised Cornish Rock Giants, which are basically the same type of bird used in mass-production factory farms. Ours actually got to see the outdoors, however. In fact they lived outdoors and enjoyed fresh air, sunshine, tasty grass and bugs. But the truth is they are, as many backyard chicken types will tell you, freaks of nature. They have been intensively bred for maximum meat production in minimum time. We got them as tiny, day-old chicks and by 8 weeks they were ready for harvest. This is good in terms of cost: a shorter duration to harvest means spending less money on feed. But I don’t think it’s very good for the chickens.

As many other people have reported, we noticed that our chickens didn’t seem to want to move around much. I’d often see them take a few clumsy steps as they attempted to balance their rapidly-growing bodies on legs whose bones couldn’t possibly keep up with those demands, only to drop to the ground as if they had just run a marathon. This most recent batch of birds went 9 weeks (because I didn’t make an appointment early enough) and by that time I noticed that some of them appeared to be having difficulty walking and one hen had what looked like a broken wing and perhaps a broken leg, too (she could not walk at all). She was perky and had less then 24 hrs to live so I just brought some feed to her and some water and told her it would all be over soon. I don’t like having injured birds: it may not affect the meat quality but that’s not the kind of farming I want to do. I couldn’t  help but think of the scene in the movie Food Inc. when the chickens were collected for processing and many of them could not walk. I want no part of that kind of “farming”.

I’d also heard that the mortality rate for these birds is high. We did lose 7 of our first batch of 20 chicks, all within the first week of life. I suspect it was a management and inexperience issue because we didn’t lose a single chick in our second batch. However, one of that second batch did die at around 7 weeks, apparently from a heart attack which is common for this breed. This sort of thing kind of makes you ponder the meaning of the word “healthy” – yes our birds were disease-free, but how healthy is an animal that can barely walk?

Another thing we noticed is that raising these birds the usual way (with a chicken tractor) is still really messy, despite the fact that they are outdoors. They eat huge amounts of food and thus generate great quantities of excrement. Despite having their tractor moved every 24 hours, within that time they would manage to coat the ground with waste, which then got all over their feathers on the underside. And my tractor was big compared to the recommended size for that many birds. They didn’t seem crowded in terms of space, but the tractor should probably have been moved twice a day towards the end to keep up with the poop – by that time all of them had wet, dirty undersides. But moving the tractor is a bit of a chore – I could tweak the design a bit to make it easier, but I keep thinking there has got to be a better way. Finally, because of the copious amounts of waste, the area around the tractor smelled pretty bad, and you could smell it wafting on the air all around the farm depending on which way the wind was blowing. Not pleasant.

Overall, we were left feeling like the chicken tractor was really just a step up from confinement operations. When I first looked into raising meat birds I asked people (on BackyardChickens.com, which is THE place to learn about such things) why meat birds weren’t raised like layers – able to strut around a farmyard at their leisure during the day. Some people said there was no point because the things are so poorly designed for mobility that they don’t really bother ranging, even if given the space to do so. We would like to at least give it a try ourselves, as others had a better experience.

The bigger issue is predation. When the birds are small they are perfect prey for raptors, and we have several species of such hunting birds in our neighbourhood. How to keep them safe from overhead ambush is one issue we still have to think about. Normally chicks would be raised with adult hens and roosters, the latter serving as guards for the flock, warning others of approaching marauders and herding the women and children into the brush. Not only do the meat birds not have any experienced chickens around to protect them, but it’s doubtful to me how well they would respond to an alarm scenario anyway. They have had most of the “chicken” bred out of them, perhaps to make them more amenable to a life of confinement. I wouldn’t be surprised if they all just stood around staring stupidly at any rooster trying to warn them of impending predatory doom.

So one of my projects this winter will be to come up with a new management scheme for next year’s meat birds. I’d also like to try a few heritage meat breeds to see if we can find something a little less freakish. Growing them longer will mean increased feed costs, but perhaps that can be mitigated somewhat by allowing them greater access to forage. The chicks themselves are about twice the price of the commercial breeds, too. I don’t mind paying more for good chicken, however, so we’ll just have to do the experiment and see. Most people will tell you that the taste of the commercial breeds makes all the freakishness worth it, and perhaps we’ll find that to be the case (though we still believe there is much room for improvement). This is one of the things I’m really enjoying about our “back to the land” experience: you can read all you want but really you need to go out there and just do it yourself. That’s the only way to determine what works best for you, and as a bonus you learn a lot in the meantime.

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Categories: critters, know your food, learning, outdoor projects, Uncategorized | 12 Comments

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12 thoughts on “Our first year of raising meat birds: what we’ve learned

  1. Thanks for the honest, thoughtful reflections – lots of food for thought. We raised a couple of batches of Buff Orpington and Black Australorp chicks this year, wanting the pullets for eggs and sending the cockerels to the freezer. And you’re right – it takes a LOT longer for heritage breeds to put on meat. We slaughtered the cockerels at 23 and 24 weeks, and even then we would have liked to have gone longer, but their hormones were kicking in and making management difficult. We have been talking about a quick batch of meat birds next year, but your post makes me think we need to examine that more closely before we go ahead. I can tell you we really liked the taste and quality of the heritage birds we raised and ate (we thought it was the tastiest chicken we’d ever eaten!) but the proportions are certainly different: huge legs and thighs, and relatively small breasts. But we noticed the difference between 24 weeks and 32 weeks, in terms of the quality – we slaughtered one cockerel last year at 32 weeks and it was like eating beef…

  2. Thanks for your comment, Miriam. I just cut up one of our chickens for a curry recipe (I’ve always roasted them whole before) and I was really struck by how much meat is on the breasts – I got a huge bowl of cubed chicken from them. The meat was really flawless, and I guess that’s what keeps people coming back to the “freaky breeds”. I’m determined to find a way to raise these birds right – I’ve recently heard someone saying they feed a lower protein mix than recommended to slow the weight gain a bit, and then the birds just need a couple more weeks but aren’t plagued by the rapid-weight gain issues as much. Others take away their food for part of the day to encourage more foraging…lots of ideas to try so I’ll let you know how it goes!

  3. Your experience is much like what I’ve been thinking as I’ve watched others try “meat birds.” When we buy the occasional “ethically raised” pastured chicken, it is absolutely delicious, but we no longer have any illusions about what we’re eating. The process really reinforced for me that the whole concept of “meat birds” is an industrial process that was really not ever part of the natural cycle. And also why pork, beef, goat, lamb were the common storage meats historically, and chicken was the special treat, rather than the daily meat in today’s Western culture. People from other parts of the world often marvel at how much chicken we eat!

    We’ve been *really* happy with the cockerals we’ve eaten, but our experience was the same as Miriams; our Buff roo was a BIG boy, but when we processed him at 6+ months, he dressed out at 5 pounds. Awesome, but not at all commercially viable!

    I’ve read about the Freedom Rangers in the states, and I know there’s someone here importing Label Rouge lines for chicks each year. These are probably the solution. But I think we’ll likely stick to the lower-meat-consumption diet, plan for more straight-run chicks and a few more roosters next time, purchase the occasional pastured chicken, and look more seriously at pork or lamb from local suppliers…It’s a tough one, but it’s amazing how the meat bird dilemma has taught me so much about culture and our food history!

  4. I wouldn’t give up on the cornish crosses yet. In many ways coming to your experience was heavily steeped in negative stereotypes. You said you saw Food Inc (which I have too) but the whole system was an abomination, not necessarily what the breed of chicken can do in your backyard.

    We’ve killed many heritage breed roosters, and sometimes we’ve just put their carcass straight into the vegetable bed, because we knew it wasn’t worth the energy to process them. Here’s some wonderful heritage breeds not fit for processing, because they were slaughtered before they got any decent size to them – I certainly conceive that as a waste of a life too.

    There’s a weighing game you’ll have to engage with. You will have to experiment with the cornish cross more, before you decide if they are an abomination to nature. I don’t happen to think that raising an animal for food is an abomination. Having losses along the way, was always going to be part of the equation.

    I was happy to be shown how the industrialised version of food production was harmful, but the jury is still out on what I am capable of producing. We want to produce some meat birds soon, and we want to go with the commercial meat birds. But as I have learned from the myth of Isa Brown laying hens, they aren’t an industrialised laying factory designed to die early. I have some of my best layers this year, which are the commercial layer variety.

    They have exceeded my expectations with temperament, and their egg laying is consistent with some of the heritage breeds I have in with them. So they aren’t dying from laying too many eggs. The difference is, I got my experience learning through heritage breeds – so my novice losses couldn’t be blamed on the industralised cheaper birds, which most people start with – which gives them the reputation of an unhealthy breed.

    What you saw was the extended lifespan beyond what the breed was designed to exceed. This doesn’t make it a bad breed, but it does make you more aware of the need to slaughter at 8 weeks, no longer. From this experience you can build more, which is why you’re formulating a new plan. I just encourage you not to consider the meat birds a failure without further investigation. I’m not saying you have to, but you’ll probably find heritage breeds aren’t much chop at an early kill age either. Many of ours went to 20 weeks before a decent carcass was achieved. They were very gamey by this stage too.

  5. I forgot to congratulate you on your first year of meat production. Well done. 🙂

  6. Thank you, Chris! I am hoping that we can find a management system that feels good to us, and that will allow these birds to live as good a life as possible. I don’t think the chicken tractor accomplished that, although certainly it was a lot better than confinement, mass production systems. I haven’t given up on the Cornish, as frankly they taste fantastic and produce a good deal of meat (nice thick breasts and thighs).

  7. Tractors are very much a committment and involve more time than a stationary coop. They were invaluable for us to activate fertility around the property, but we retired them when not required. We much prefer the enclosed coop now with the secured runs. We have ours built on a hill, so the fertility comes down to feed the vegetable patch underdeath.

    It takes time to try new things out though. We certainly haven’t written the tractors off completely. They will always have a place, they’re just not used all the time. We have plans for new tractors specific for meat chickens. But again, takes time. 😉

    That’s why I love the priviledge (as I’m sure you do too) of producing our own food on our land. You develop a personal relationship with the various stages, rather than have your food arrive in a plastic bag to be opened. That’s why I had to congratulate you on your first year of meat production. It’s like celebrating a person’s birthday. You remember the person, their relationship to you and then mark a special occassion for reflecting upon it. That’s what it’s like when you produce your own food. It’s an important relationship too. 🙂

  8. Kel

    where can i buy the cornish from in qld please?

  9. FreeLearners

    Kel, I don’t know where “qld” is, but I ordered ours from the local feed store. You could possible order them direct from the hatchery too, just Google to find one in your area.

  10. We opted NOT to raise the frankenbirds, and instead bought heritage meat birds from S and G Poultry (http://www.sandgpoultry.com). We’re still working on our first batch, so I can’t report any great success yet, but we’re hopeful.

  11. Sam Bucus

    Have you ever tried Kosher Kings? Double breasted but less overbred bird. Feathers like a Dominique. All the farms around here, midcoast Maine, raise them, usually for 10-12 weeks. They are much more lively and end up being 5-6 pounds.

  12. I was please to read your honest experiences. We are considering raising some Cornish X for a farm to table event but we are new to meat birds. I’d wondered the reasoning behind the meat bird chicken tractor… now I know.

    I’m not stoked to do the Cornish X but we need a fast growing bird in the beginning. We are working on turning a conventional farmer ;P

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