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For the last several years we’ve been raising chickens for meat and eggs.
Over the years we’ve had an assortment of breeds of egg laying chickens but tend to favor the dual purpose birds such as Buff Orpington or White Rock. These birds are a nice sturdy bird, that often go broody and also make a wonderful meat bird. When we ordered replacement birds from the hatchery we’d get straight run and process the roosters. They take about 14 to 16 weeks to get to a decent size for meat. We also process old spent hens.
These chickens have an amazing flavor and taste like what chicken should taste like (in my opinion). But they aren’t much to look at. They look very much like a rubber chicken! When cooking, long and slow is the perfect method for preparing these birds since they can be tough and stringy. At the moment we are not raising egg layers at our new please. We hope to be set up for this next spring.
For meat we also raise Cornish Rock chickens in a chicken tractor. These birds are sometimes controversial in real food circles since they are a bird specially developed (they are a cross between a Cornish and a White Rock) to grow at a very fast rate. These produce the big breasted short legged birds people are used to seeing in grocery stores across the country. The difference with our birds compared to the grocery store bird is the bulk of those are raised in very tight conditions in large commercial chicken houses and then processed in assembly line processing plants. The movie Food, Inc. paints a very vivid picture of these large commercial chicken operations. Seeing that movie spurred us to raise out own poultry.
These birds do grow quite fast. In a commercial operation they are ready in 7 to 8 weeks. We slow that down a bit by feeding them a reasonable amount and having them on pasture butchering around 9 or 10 weeks.
We raise these birds in chicken tractors made famous by Joel Salatin in his book Pastured Poultry Profits. While our tractors are modeled after Salatin’s, we changed our dimensions slightly to make them easier to move and fill in any gaps at the bottom on our uneven rocky ground. Joel is working with wonderful lovely pasture. We’re working with land that was an old over-grazed ranch on the high desert. This changes things quite a bit!
At our elevation we can’t have the birds growing too fast, it affects their heart. We order our birds as straight runs. The males tend to grow faster than the females so they are ready at about 9 weeks. The females need another week or two. This usually works really well for us since we process by hand. We do have to think about the weather when planning our birds. The chicken tractors aren’t set up for our cold Wyoming winters so we need to be done with birds before winter hits. This year our weather is still beautiful (snow in the forecast for today) so we’ve been very fortunate to have a little extra time to finish up our processing. Joe took care of the final 5 on Saturday.
Our hope is that the tractors will also help repair the land to give us more of a pasture-like area. Our previous 2 acre parcel was considerably improved by running chicken tractors on them. What started of as sparse prairie grass and lots of cactus ended up being well filled in prairie grass with almost no cactus in the 6 years we raised chickens in tractors and free range. The photo below shows our tractors and grass there about 3 years into our project.
In previous years we raised anywhere from 50 to 300 birds. This year we raised somewhere around 100. I usually keep track of this but had some challenges with the match this year. We raise birds for ourselves and take orders from others early in the spring. We had orders for 65 this year which was pretty ambitious considering we just moved to our new place and had absolutely nothing set up and ready to go. Plus being off the grid we had to rethink our usual heat lamp brooding method.
Next year we plan to improve on what we learned this year and increase our production. The orders for 65 birds really maxed us out this year and we ended up turning away additional orders. The additional birds we raised we either put in our freezer or gave to family and friends. Wyoming statutes allow us to raise and process up to 1000 birds for sale per year. I can’t see us hitting that number without some big changes including drastically improving our pasture area but it’s an interesting concept.
Right now I have several whole birds in my freezer and packages of chicken parts. In a future post I’ll share my favorite recipes for enjoying these wonderful home-raised pastured chickens.
Do you/have you raised your own meat?
Pastured Poultry Profits by Joel Salatin super information on raising pastured poultry. The book is several years old so some of the financial information may have changed and you may need to adapt some of the ideas for your particular situation but definitely worth the read. Be inspired!
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