The picture above is courtesy of the wonderful blog site the Self Sufficient Home Acre, about which I will say more later in this post.
There are a number of reasons to grow and process some meat chickens at home, but one reason stands out for me: the conditions under which commercial broilers are raised and butchered are appalling. My home-grown meat birds are healthy eating because of the way that I feed them, but even if they weren’t, I can provide a better life and a better death than happens on a commercial basis.
The question of what type of chicken to raise is an important one. The chickens that are seen everywhere from chain grocery stores to fancy butcher shops are all Cornish crosses. They are extremely fast growing, being ready for harvest in about eight weeks, and have the extremely broad breast that appeals to American consumers. The meat is soft and doesn’t take much chewing. I don’t like them, personally, because they are so fast-growing that all they do is lie on their heavy breasts and eat. They don’t act like real chickens. Also, the meat doesn’t have time to develop deep flavor, and these birds do very poorly at high altitudes like my home area. On the other hand, the males of most laying breeds make a scrawny-looking eating chicken and they start crowing long before they are big enough to eat, a serious problem in my urban area. My personal preference is for Pioneer hybrids, which are relatively large and fast growing but look and act like real chickens. They are pretty to see, and reach edible size in 3-4 months. I butcher the males as soon as I hear crowing, and let the females grow on a bit. I have kept some for laying hens and they are pretty good layers.
The picture above illustrates something very important to understand about body morphology. This particular picture is of commercial versus heritage turkeys, but the chickens are quite similar to this. The rounded bird on the right resembles the Cornish Cross which is used commercially, and the long bodied light-breasted bird on the left resembles the Pioneers and heritage breeds. American consumers are used to looking at a fairly spherical bird, and can find the natural configuration of a chicken startling. Some also find the meat a little tougher. I find it utterly delicious in flavor, the way chicken is supposed to taste, and don’t mind using my teeth a little bit. I often choose moist cooking methods such as braising to increase tenderness, but also grill these birds and am very happy with the results. And I really like it that these chickens can run around, forage, and flap up to the perch in normal fashion.
I came across a self-sufficiency blog that has wonderful material about home meat production, The Self Sufficient Home Acre. The author has a great post about the process of butchering chickens, and another about mindset and preparation for butchering. The photos are graphic, so don’t go there out of casual interest. But if you can imagine that a meat animal could be regarded respectfully and even reverently, then you may want to consider raising some of your own and taking responsibility for how it is treated and harvested, and this blog can help.
I also strongly recommend the book Mini Farming by Brett Markham. He has an excellent discussion of meat chickens and a great set of instructions for butchering. My set-up is based on his. His book is also a wonderful source of information about serious vegetable gardening and home-business laying flocks.
I feed the chicks a starter mix that’s 20% protein until they’re about 10 weeks old. They get grit right from the beginning, and at age three weeks when they have had time to eat some grit, I start giving them greens from the garden finely chopped, starting with small amounts and increasing over time. After the ten-week point I change their ration to the flaxseed-spiked layer pellet that my hens get, continue greens, and add additional protein with goat milk, table scraps, eggs that weren’t used up in a timely way, or whatever is handy. My goal is to produce maximum omega-3s without using too much flaxseed, which can give an off taste.
I have only one more thing to add, and that is that I incorporate every by-product of butchering back into the growth cycle. To me, that is part of taking the animal’s life seriously. Each year I choose a spot where I want to grow trees or berries later, choosing a fenced-off area that my dogs can’t get to, and dig a series of deep holes in a large circle six feet or more across. After each butchering, the feathers, entrails, etc. are buried and covered with a couple of feet of soil. Then I set a straw bale or something similar on top to keep the fence-leaping coyotes out. Early the following spring I plant my chosen fruit tree or berry bush in the middle of the circle. They thrive. Five years after growing my first batch of meat chickens, the plum tree planted in that circle yields bushels of plums.