Recap of My First Year Raising Broilers

I’m writing to share stories and lessons from my first year raising chickens for meat for my family and for sale.   I followed the model popularized by Joel Salatin where the chickens are put into mobile pens that move along the ground to a new, fresh piece of pasture each day.  Receiving day old chicks in the mail from the hatchery and watching them grow is a real treat.  This will not be a comprehensive guide, however, because there are plenty of other resources out there that accomplish that better than I can.  Several topics of interest have been selected to the share stories and details on how it worked.

Breeds

I tried two different breeds in this system: the Cornish Cross and the Freedom Ranger.  The Cornish Cross is the bird that is raised by the billions in confinement by the very biggest producers in the US.  It has been bred for its fast gains, reaching harvest weight at only eight weeks of age.  Those birds are quite content to just hang out by the feed trough and eat non-stop.  Dressed out at 5.5 pounds, the bird looks much like a whole bagged fryer you might find at the supermarket.  The only difference was that the fat was a darker color and therefore the taste was much better.  The Freedom Ranger is an older style breed (think heritage or heirloom).  The Freedom Ranger was much more active, scratching and foraging for bugs and eating grass.  The benefits of the Freedom Ranger were evident very early as they began jumping and trying to fly at three weeks of age.  The Freedom Rangers take a little longer to reach maturity, at ten weeks.  These birds were smaller in the end and it showed after processing.  Mortality is explained in detail below, but in reference to breeds, we lost 6 Cornish Crosses to every Freedom Ranger lost which is a testament to the Freedom Ranger’s heartiness and survivability.  The 4.5 pound average bird’s fat was darker yellow and more abundant than the Cornish.  It was hard to taste the difference, but decided that we only want to raise Freedom Rangers in the future.

Sickness and Mortality

You are going to have losses.  It has been said that 5-8% is an acceptable mortality rate.  Mine was much higher, more like (embarrassingly) 14%.  There are two primary reasons and all have to do with feed and water: cleanliness and availability.  You have to be a stickler about keeping the waterers clean as feed and dirt can build up.  When this happens, especially in the brooder phase, the chicks will begin to get diarrhea.  I read that diarrhea in chicks can be treated with raw milk from your local dairy.  I was amazed at how well that worked.  In fact, when I needed to treat a batch with raw milk, I just treated all batches whether or not they had diarrhea.  The health benefits of having raw milk fed to the chickens (and all animals and humans as well) are well documented.  I won’t go any further, because the Weston Price Foundation has done so well at explaining at their website, Real Milk.  Thanks to this treatment, I never lost a chick in the brooder.

There was an occasion where we had a really hot spell while I was traveling.  My substitute caretaker let the water run out accidentally and several birds died in one day.  Chickens have very small bodies and therefore small reserves.  They cannot go for any length of time without food or water.  I should add that most of the death loss I experienced were Cornish Cross.  I only lost two or three Freedom Rangers.

And then there was the hawk.  I lost one chicken to a hawk and it scared me half to death because I walked right up on him in the act.  He was on the other side of the pen as I approached, so we didn’t see or hear each other and both of us were startled.  He got one chicken and pulled it part way under the pen.  The ten foot long bottom piece had bridged right over a small gulley which must have been right where the chicken was sitting.  It was along the roofed and sided section as well, so the chicken couldn’t see as the hawk stood next to the cage.  Lesson learned: use small pieces of wood and wedge them under the sides of the pen so that there are no ways in or out of that pen.  A few days later the hawk returned.  I was in the house but was alerted because the smaller birds (swallows, bluebirds, red wing black birds, etc.) were making quite a ruckus.  I pair of shotgun blasts into the air sent the message to the hawk clearly (I was intentionally not aiming at him, just wanted to scare him off).  I didn’t see him back for another month.  Another shot over the bow served as his reminder to scram.

Financial

Total Variable Costs were as follows:

$323.25  Chicks Delivered

$928.17  Feed

$32.98 Bedding (wood shavings)

$195.00  Processing

Starting with 150 (75 Cornish and 75 Freedom Rangers) birds, but only ending up with around 130 to eat and sell, this makes the cost per (5 pound average) bird $2.28 per pound.  Consider that you can find fryers on sale in the grocery store (of poor quality, suspect cleanliness and marginal nourishment) for $.95 then it seems like it might not make financial sense.  However, we were able to sell most of the birds for $4.00 per pound and nobody balked at the price because they were educated about the quality of food they were getting.  The ones we didn’t sell were eaten, or course.  I should clarify, though.  We intentionally didn’t sell all of the birds, because we wanted to eat a bunch of them.  The birds we sold paid for the rest, as well as covering the structural costs too.  Cost of chicks can vary a lot too.  I wanted to work in small batches because it was all so new to me, receiving 25 birds a week for 6 weeks.  If you were to do one large batch, you get better rates from the hatchery as well as some shipping savings.

Total Fixed Costs were as follows:

$200.00 per field pen (this is an approximation, and is conservatively set a little high – you could do better than this)

$120.00 for drinkers and parts (Plasson Bell waterers purchased on eBay)

$40.00 plywood to make brooder

It should be noted that you could lower feed costs if you opt for lesser quality feed.  I only used the best Fertrell Poultry Nutri Balancer minerals, etc. but there are ways to cheapen this.  In fact, Harvey Ussery explains it very well on his website The Modern Homestead.  He stopped using mineral supplements and is growing most or all of the food his chickens eat now.  I plan to research this further.  He does this with his laying hens, but I wonder what you could do to increase the protein level to the point where you could finish broilers on a home grown ration.  There are lots of ideas, like feeding earthworms from your vermi-composting operation to the maggots-from-a-bucket-of-roadkill idea.

Another concept I like a lot from Harvey’s website is breeding your own poultry.  There’s no better brooder than mama.  As long as you have hearty old world breeds which are dual purpose excelling in both egg and meat production you can raise your own chickens indefinitely.  Again, this is referring to laying hens, but mother nature ensures that the male/female is close to 50/50.  The females will become layer replacements and the males will be broilers for the dinner table.  You don’t need a large flock at all to do this on your own.

Processing

Now the real fun can begin.  Yes, processing is bloody and it is gross.  I was secretly a little worried that I was going to pass out, but it’s really not all that bad.  We paid a neighbor who had all of the equipment and we all helped out to learn the process.  Several hours elapsed before 6 of us had 50 birds done and cooling in an ice water bath.  It was because we were beginners and learning.  With the proper equipment and a well trained crew, its nothing to churn through 100 birds per hour.  I’ve only read that and not seen it.

This winter I’m busy building a Whizbang Plucker in the garage.  I got the book on Amazon and then discovered that the author, Herrick Kimball, has a website called The Deliberate Agrarian with tons of helpful material.  There are several other great books on how to build your own homestead equipment that Herrick has written and I have purchased.  The chicken plucker will end up costing me less than half of what a commercially built model would be, and it’s a great project for the winter.

Resources

Pastured Poultry Profits by Joel Salatin – this is where you start.  It’s a classic and a must read for anyone wanting to raise their own chickens.  Also read this book to better understand my above comment about being wary of chicken from the grocery store.

Raising Poultry on Pasture: Ten Years of Success by Jody Padgham – this is a compilation of stories from their newsletters and is incredibly helpful in answering questions and explaining how to do things. The ideas discussed here are very practical and helped me a lot with troubleshooting.

Freedom Ranger Hatchery – this is where you can buy the Freedom Rangers I used and loved so much.

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8 responses to “Recap of My First Year Raising Broilers

  1. He didn’t mention that he entered this in an essay contest. I might be a little biased but I think he has a pretty good chance at winning.

  2. Harold Dean

    Read your story with much interest. I am 72 and from a very poor family so during WWII, if not for the chickens we probably would have starved. I started hatching them out myself in the house behind the old warm morning stove with a hooded kerosene metal lantern in an incubator made by the local sheet metal mechanic (they called them tinsmiths in those days). Later on when the spring run were being prepared at the local hatchery, with their permission I scrounged the little chicks that had not freed themselves from the shells and were just thrown in the barrels to die, taking them home and freeing them from the shells with warm water. I would have quite a menagerie before it got warm enough to turn them loose outside. I guess you would call them free range chickens since they were never cooped and would enter an old hog house at night to roost. I had never heard of the breeds you mentioned but from personal experience a White Rock is the best layer and meat chicken I had found and the Plymouth or Barred Rock the most hardiest as they seemed to have a sixth sense when a predator hawk was around and would warn the rest of the chickens for them to scatter and hide. We always kept a couple of the Plymouth Rock roosters around for this purpose long after we started raising bantams only. My only regret from those years was my mom catching my prized pets that I had hatched or freed from the shell and raised in a pampered lifestyle. She told me some years ago before she died that the reason she done this was because they were the easiest to catch for the dinner table and with all of us kids, her gardening, canning, soap making, lard rendering, etc she just did not have time to chase chickens. We were still living on wild game when my wife and I were married in 1959. Thanks for the story. Harold Dean

    • Robert @ hisandhershomesteading

      Harold,

      I appreciate your comments. I very much look forward to hatching my own some day, and I’ll be looking for those dual purpose (meat and eggs) breeds that you are referring to in your post.

      Keep watch, because Courtney and I are trying to save many of the ‘lost arts’ that you mention in the last few lines above. We’ll be blogging about each of them along the way. I’m proud to say that the Christmas gift from my mother in law was used copies of the first six volumes of the Foxfire book series. I’m amazed at how rich those books are in practical ‘how to’ information.

      Part of a book I read recently, “The Alpha Strategy” mentioned how unfortunate it is that people have become so specialized in their trades in recent years. They only know how to do a few things and rely on ‘expert opinion’ or consultants to do the rest. What’s really sad, is those comments were written in 1980. It’s gotten worse. I’m bucking that trend and am setting off on an adventure to become the jack of all trades and master of none. Wish me luck!

      Robert

  3. Hi,

    I saw your article after doing some research on Cornish Rock crosses. You see, we are attempting to raise a batch of these in the winter, for our local stock show. Two years ago, we had much less of a problem, and ended up with 46 of 50 birds after the show, that we processed and put in the freezer over the course of two weekends. This year, we started with 49, (one dead on arrival, should have known), and are now down to less than 18. The birds just keep dying, from all kinds of issues; eating too much, being too cold, wheezing, crooked legs, etc. So we are going to cancel the birds for the show, as it is just not going to work out. We might be lucky and end up with 15 in the freezer, if we can get them off the antibiotics that seem to be mandatory for keeping them alive!

    I appreciated your information, and I definitely want to look into another breed next time. We have raised the Ohio Buckeyes, which I liked, (wild dogs got in and killed most of them; they ended up with lead poisoning) and now I have Cuckoo Marans, which are really nice birds that lay dark brown eggs. I will be looking at selectively culling this flock, to see if I can increase the qualities. We have butchered a couple of cockerels from this flock, which were raised by our bantam hen.

    Thanks again for the story,

    Patrick

    • Robert @ hisandhershomesteading

      Thanks for your comment, Patrick.

      I’ve read that leg problems cannot be fixed but prevented by feeding small amounts of raw beef liver. The leg problem has something to do with a slipped tendon and once it happens, that chick won’t be the same. I read about that in both of the books that I referenced in the post. Another good reference I’ve found was Robert Plamondon’s website, http://www.plamondon.com.

      Take care and good luck. Robert.

  4. Pingback: In Defense of My Defense | His and Hers Homesteading

  5. I just got 5 layers and 6 boilers! Would you let me know where you found your research on giving your chicks raw milk? How much did you give them and can I give them some to prevent disease? For the first 3 weeks can I keep them altogether?

    • Kristin – How exciting, we just placed our order for layers and broilers and a dual purpose breed. Will be posting about that as time permits. So I believe that Raising Poultry on Pasture: Ten Years of Success (there’s a link in the post) is where Robert read about raw milk. Just pour it onto their feed, don’t want it soupy but just to moisten the mash, it promotes good health in the chicks. And yes you can brood them together, until they need different rations, they can be kept together. Way to go and good luck.

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