Posts Tagged ‘Pioneer chickens’

Chickens for meat


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.

Ultimately, the proof is in the eating:

Urban Livestock I: Hens


Many people love the idea of urban farm animals and wonder what’s practical on a city lot. So I’ll spend a few posts ( not necessarily consecutively) talking about laying hens, meat chickens, and goats. There are other urban/ suburban possibilities, including bees, rabbits, small pig breeds, and even mini-cows. I may explore these in the future, but for now I’ll stick to what I know.


Laying hens are easy and delightful but need to be thought out. If you start with chicks, it will be 5-7 months until your first egg. Started pullets are available in many areas but of course are more expensive. Check Craigslist if you want to find pullets. I suggest two hens per egg-eating household member. That should provide enough eggs for eating, baking, and giving away occasionally. Many people who get hens fail to realize that they don’t necessarily lay every day except during the spring glut and don’t lay at all when they are broody or molting, or in midwinter unless you supply supplemental light.

Housing doesn’t need to be elaborate but does need to be safe. Raccoons are a concern in most urban areas. In my area we also have urban coyotes who can get over 6 foot fences, and they wiped me out of laying hens before I had the chicken run roofed over with sturdy welded wire. A safe coop at night is not enough, since I regularly see coyotes during the daytime. So no free-ranging for my ladies. I cut grass and leaves to bring to them instead.


Feed the hens to produce the best eggs possible. I like a laying pellet with flaxseed that produces high omega-3s in the egg, and I also provide daily heaps of greens for three seasons of the year, usually including fresh alfalfa. Extra calcium is a must, and in addition to oyster shell I save the shells of all eggs used in the kitchen. They can be briefly dried in the microwave and kept in a paper bag to be ground when they accumulate and mixed into leftovers of various kinds to be fed back to the ladies. If you have some spare time in the winter you can sprout seeds and grains for the hens, but I seldom bother. I did invest in a big bag of organic food-grade kelp meal a few years ago, and I dry some kale every year to make “kale meal,” both good winter supplements for hens.

Hens lay well for one or two years, moderately for another two, and very little after that. This means that after the first two or three years you have to have a plan to bring in some new ones each year and move out the oldest ones. Old hens are not good for most cooking methods but make the best broth or stew imaginable, full of flavor and collagen. To manage your flock well, you need to be able to tell fairly reliably how old your hens are. I start a few new hens of a different breed and color each year, so for instance the Rhode Island Reds in my flock are all four years old, the gold Pioneer hens are three years old, etc.  This way I know that at the end of the upcoming season the Reds need to go in the broth pot and some new color of hens needs to be started. You will need to learn to butcher or be prepared to sell the old hens very cheaply to someone else who wants real chicken soup



Consider whether you want a rooster. They are beautiful, protective of the hens, and also very loud indeed. In some areas they are actually illegal. In my area it’s legal to have one, but legality doesn’t mean much if your neighbors are unhappy. I keep enough hens to supply my immediate neighbors with eggs, and that helps a lot. A few neighbors now have hens of their own, so be aware that you may start a mini-epidemic. Roosters can be aggressive, but most of mine have been fairly easy to handle. If they do get aggressive with you, a broom is a good humane instrument for shooing them away with no damage done.

If you do have a rooster your eggs will be fertile, and if a hen goes broody, she can be allowed to hatch out the eggs. A separate small coop should be provided for the hen to sit the eggs and rear her brood. Have a plan for what to do with them, and bear in mind that the young roosters should be butchered or otherwise disposed of the minute they start to crow. But it is a real delight to watch a mother hen care for her little family.


Sometimes I get questions about the “best” breed of hen. I have had Rhode Island Reds, Australorps, leghorns, Pioneers, buff Orphingtons, and several of the layer hybrids like black sexlinks and red sexlinks, and they have all layed well.  For purely aesthetic reasons I prefer brown eggs and usually choose layers that produce them. Heritage breeds like Welsomers and Barnvelders go broody too easily to be great laying hens, but they excel at hatching eggs and caring for chicks, and I keep two elderly heritage hens just for the purpose of raising several chicks each year. I usually have an Americauna or two around to add soft sea-green and blue eggs to the egg basket. If I were more organized than I am, I would keep a rotation of Australorps, Rhode Island Reds, black sexlinks, and red sexlinks, since these are the best layers that I have found among the brown-egg breeds. My roosters are either Pioneers or Red Rangers, both large meat birds whose chicks, even when crossed with the laying hens, will be large and meaty. Personally I look at the Murray McMurray hatchery catalog each year to see which breeds are designated “best” for laying, and I never bother with chickens bred for appearance rather than production or with flighty little bantams.  But if a flock of strangely alien-looking Frizzles pleases you and you don’t like eggs that much anyway, well, this is your flock and should gladden your heart in addition to its other benefits.