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.
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.
Total Variable Costs were as follows:
$323.25 Chicks Delivered
$32.98 Bedding (wood shavings)
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.
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.
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.