During the uncertainty of the past year, interest in raising backyard chickens has grown. Whether you’re raising these compelling creatures for entertainment, bug control, or meat and eggs, there are a few tools, pieces of equipment, and crucial factor you’ll want to keep in mind or have on hand for your poultry project. People have been raising domesticated fowl for thousands of years – long before there was access to the high-tech equipment that’s available today. But raising healthy chickens isn’t rocket science. A calm demeanor, coupled with a thoughtful, common-sense approach, will get you where you want to go. Add the right tools, and the experience will likely be positive – even if your life is consumed with online meetings! Let’s assume you’re starting with day-old chicks.
Typically, day-old chicks would be kept warm and fed by their mothers, but that’s not always practical or even possible if you’re just starting out. Before you take possession of your chicks, you need to have some infrastructure in place. First, you need a means to keep the babies warm, dry, and fed. Generally, these facilities are called “brooders.” Brooders can be as simple as a cardboard box with bedding and a heat lamp, or an infrared heat source to keep the birds warm. Ideally, the chicks can make the choice to be in proximity of the heat or not. Since cold or frightened chicks can pile up on one another in corners, the ideal brooder has no sharp corners. Small knockdown brooder enclosures constructed of corrugated interlocking plastic panels have the advantage of storing flat when not in use, and they’re easy to sanitize and keep clean between groups. The brooder also needs to be equipped with an appropriately sized feeder and waterer, which should be placed in a protected, draft-free space.
Once fully fledged, the chicks can be moved to more permanent quarters, depending on their intended use. Typically, this location is a “chicken tractor” or coop – even if you plan to let them range freely as adults. The coop or tractor needs to be clean, secure, and predator-proof. Your birds also need ad-lib access to a grower ration and clean water. I recommend choosing a larger waterer that’s spill-proof, leak-proof, and easy to clean, fill, and place. The trick is to keep the coop’s bedding out of the water and prevent the water from leaking onto the bedding; wet bedding will create an unhealthy environment for the adolescent birds. Equip feeders with anti-perching rollers, which will keep the chicks from fouling their own feed or scratching it out of the trough and all over the coop. If you want the birds to stir their litter, scatter some cracked scratch grains, and offer poultry grit to help the chicks process the scratch. You can also offer a large, shallow pan of a crushed limestone and diatomaceous earth mixture for dust bathing. Once the young chickens are mature enough, you can feed and water them in the outdoor portion of the coop or tractor. In time, you can also let them range freely during portions of the day, if that’s part of your plan.
If your flock’s purpose is for eggs, you’ll have already installed nest boxes inside the coop. Harvesting eggs is as easy as collecting them once a day. Don’t be surprised if you get pecked when you have to shoo a broody hen to get the goods – or if you grab a blacksnake that’s discovered a taste for chicken eggs! It’s all part of managing the egg-laying flock. If your flock’s purpose is to supply meat, grow them on a high-protein ration until they’re large enough to suit your needs. Harvesting meat chickens isn’t terribly complicated, but it does involve humanely killing, bleeding, plucking, and eviscerating them. If you’re only harvesting a few, you can get by with a sharp knife, a steady hand, and a pot of hot water. However, an extra set of hands is always helpful, as I don’t recommend the off-with-your-head hatchet method of killing, particularly if you plan to freeze the birds for later use. You can pith the birds to render them brain-dead and then quickly cut the blood vessels that feed the brain so the still-beating heart will pump the carcass free of blood. Going this route will enhance the final quality of the meat substantially, as will an overnight chill packed away in an ice slurry to allow any rigor to relax before freezing. If you’ve had tough broiler meat, there’s a good chance they went to the freezer with a full-on case of rigor mortis.
If you plan to supply your family with chicken year-round, you can make the processing calmer, safer, and faster for you and the bird by adding a few extra tools to your kit. For example, killing cones will humanely restrain the birds so you can concentrate on carefully dispatching the broilers and facilitating a complete bleed. A dedicated, temperature-regulated scalding tank will take the guesswork out of preparing the carcasses for feather removal. And a plucking machine will make short work of arguably the toughest job in poultry processing. Pluckers are available in a few iterations, but most use rubber fingers mounted to a rotating, exposed drum, or to the inside of a stationary tub that’s also equipped with a finger-clad, rotating plate at the bottom of the tub. Both types work well, but the tub version can pluck multiple birds simultaneously, and be equipped with sprayers to neatly and efficiently rinse away the feathers. On processing day, it’ll be helpful to have people standing by to eviscerate the featherless carcasses, while others rinse and pack them with the ice slurry. Because of the expense attached to scalders and pluckers, consider a cooperative purchase with several other families.
For everything you need to know about raising, managing, and processing all manner of poultry, check out the back issues and websites affiliated with Grit.
Hank has almost 40 years of chicken-raising experience, and has supplied meat and eggs for his own family and scores of others. With his wife, Joanna, he currently keeps a mixed flock of chickens, Guinea fowl, and waterfowl at their Prairie Turnip Farm in east-central Kansas.
The Hassle-Free Defeathering System
It’s time to take the hassle out of defeathering! This versatile chicken plucker will help you quickly defeather your poultry and fowl. With its powerful 1.2-horsepower motor, you can defeather chickens, ducks, geese, hens, and waterfowl in a mere 30 seconds. The large, durable stainless steel tub features 92 rubber fingers, which means you can efficiently process 2 to 4 birds at a time. To top it off, cleanup is simple and completely hands-free thanks to the integrated irrigation ring. Available for shipment to continental U.S. addresses only.
This product is available at the Grit store or by calling 866-803-7096. Item #9926.
Home Poultry Processing Kit
This is the perfect kit for those who are looking to process birds in their own backyard. Included is a medium killing cone, poultry sticker knife, and plastic shackle. That means all you have to provide is a stockpot for scalding! Setting this kit above the rest is the quality of the products provided. The killing cone is constructed of galvanized steel and features rolled edges for safety. The sticker knife is made of carbon steel, allowing it to quickly take an edge. And the shackle properly holds the bird during scalding and above the worktable, so hygiene is never an issue. Available for shipment to continental U.S. addresses only.
This product is available at the Grit store or by calling 866-803-7096. Item #8855.