Chickens have been on the agenda for some time and with the pandemic posing risk to our food supply, it seemed the perfect opportunity to venture into animal husbandry. With factory farms producing most of our meat supply, we’ve long been interested in raising our own chicken while investigating what it would take to become a small, local meat producer and/or develop farm-to-table relationships with a sustainable number of restaurants. To that end, our foray into chicken raising had an eye toward commercial production. This approach factored into our cost and admittedly there are corner-cutting and budget saving options we did not explore and economies of scale that would help but our finding was this: it turns out you don’t save money raising your own chickens! In fact, our costs calculated out to be a shock: almost $5/pound. With an average bird at 5 pounds and our per pound cost at $4.89, that put our birds at around $25/each. An important note is that that figure doesn’t include our labor. It does underscore the value of what you pay for chicken at the grocery store!
Research indicated that the Cornish Cross chicken is THE meat bird, hands down. They are bred to grow at an astonishing rate and to yield large breasts. Since the 1950s, these birds have been singled out as our national meat source in commercial production. We were interested in investigating heritage breeds as well and opted for the Silver Laced Wyandotte which is touted as a dual-purpose egg layer and meat bird. They also had the added characteristics of being strikingly handsome and good natured.
Living in Missouri, we opted to patronize Cackle Hatchery and hoped to be able to pick up our chicks in person, but Covid-19 had other ideas. Instead, we received the most amazing package in the mail: a cardboard crate of 51 day-old chicks. It was unseasonably cold that mid-April day so we’d set up our brooder inside the (somewhat) climate-controlled shop. In hindsight, this wasn’t necessary as heat lamps and huddling suffice to maintain their body heat. What we found was that these spring chickens are reasonably hearty other than their risk of contracting Coccidiosis. The Wyandottes had been inoculated but we opted to feed the Cornish Cross with medicated feed. This method proved faulty when we lost 7 birds in 10 days and had to augment their water with Amprolium to fend off the disease. Luckily it didn’t wipe out the entire flock.
Things proceeded fairly steadily once the death toll stabilized. A routine of feeding high protein chick starter/grower crumble a couple of times a day while replenishing and freshening water set in. We augmented their water with powdered vitamin supplements and raw cider vinegar to boost overall health. In addition to the crumble, we fed cracked corn, ground flax (for its high omega content) and the requisite kitchen scraps as well as hand-gathered pink and white clover. My boyfriend teased me about how I brought the chickens flowers every day. Feeding and watering were punctuated with changing the bedding in the brooder, then in the coop and finally in both the coop and the run. This was our first experience with the rhythm and rigor of raising animals. It’s not the most difficult work but it is also not lenient. Truth be told, I’m more of a gardener than a farmer and I learned quickly that chickens aren’t vegetables; sleeping in is a thing of the past knowing that you have hungry mouths to feed. Monitoring their body temperature until they begin to get their feathers and then providing constant and appropriate amounts of food and water become a driving force in the day. Making sure they are safe in the coop at night is critical so that predators don’t make off with birds or damage the infrastructure trying.
It’s amazing how fast the Cornish Cross grew in comparison to the Wyandottes: at least 2-3 times the rate. This may have had to do with their gluttony. Whereas the Wyandottes were entirely feathered out and had proportionate overall body growth, the Cornish Cross were still getting their feathers when we butchered them at 8 weeks and underwent multiple growth spurts during which they seemingly doubled in a week’s time. To go from a couple of ounces when hatched to 3-5 pounds at 8 weeks and 5-7 pounds at 10 weeks (dressed), the birds seemed more to inflate than gain weight.
As the time approached to harvest the first batch of birds, we sketched out our processing methods, rounded up materials, purchased equipment and determined a division of labor. It would be my first experience butchering animals. Being a carnivore and wanting to raise our own food, it seemed important to participate in the full circle of life of these animals. The process is not for the faint of heart or those with a weak stomach but it is necessary if you want to eat chicken. Having the birds processed commercially is an option but it adds cost and removes the self-sufficiency aspect. Instead of skinning the birds, we bought a scalder and plucker, both which we found well worth the investment. We were most concerned about sanitization and decided to take two additional steps in an attempt to minimize the introduction of pathogens. First was dipping the birds in a bleach bucket after they bled out and before placing them in the plucker and second was adding salt to the ice water bath which chilled them prior to vacuum sealing. Multiple fans to keep flies off of the butchering block station were also employed.
Our 33 birds (harvested in two batches two weeks apart) yielded 167.75 pounds of meat. Some of the project cost was capitalized and included the purchase of the chicks, feed, Amprolium, pine chips and straw bales, vitamin supplements, vinegar, disinfectant, ice, salt and propane while other project costs were amortized. Other costs were amortized and included heat lamp and bulb, feeders and waterers in several sizes, disinfectant sprayer to clean between bedding changes, scalder, plucker, restraining cone, deep freeze, vacuum sealer and, of course, the materials and labor to build the coop and the run.
Even if we didn’t save a dime for our efforts and faced sticker shock in the process, we believe that our chickens taste a whole lot better than the store-bought birds. We’re on the fence about going into the chicken business but the experience was a valuable, hands-on education in the matter. We’ll see how things go with the layers and where the journey leads us.