The day we brought home our first set of meat chickens I had no idea what we were doing, and honestly it was more my husband’s desire instead of mine. I loved the idea of knowing exactly where the food came from, but I had so many questions and worries about the whole thing. Would the meat be safe to eat? How am I going to manage butchering an animal? Would it really be that different than store bought? We still lived in the suburbs, and although we had a privacy fence I was worried about what the neighbors would think. The first time, as it goes with homesteading, was a learning experience with a few bumps in the road. There were learning opportunities at every turn both with the raising and the processing of those birds. Now that we have done it a few more seasons we have our system all but figured out, but nothing is ever perfect. God always has a way of showing you the kinks that need ironed out and there are always situations that prove to be learning experiences. I can honestly say that raising meat birds is one of my favorite things to do on the homestead. It is cost effective, feeds my family for the year, and is so easy to get the hang of. Processing our birds at home has given me a chance to learn a skill that is so lost today, and something I can teach my children, so they always know how to feed their families if it comes down to it. Research how your meat from the grocery store is raised and processed, or the fact that they use bleach/chlorine to wash your chicken with before packaging it, and don’t even get me started on the lab grown chicken debacle. There are so many eye-opening things they do to our meat that it makes my head spin. That is where this blog comes in, I wanted to write this blog to give some confidence to the person starting out, or the person who has the pull in their heart to start taking control of their food. I wanted to give you some power back, to let you know that it is possible, and give you the confidence to jump in feet first (like we did).
Selecting your birds:
I do recommend researching the place you get your chickens from. My family gets ours from meyerhatchery.com, but some other popular ones in our section of the country are mcmurrayhatchery.com, cacklehatchery.com and hoovershatchery.com. Another thing to consider when selecting your chicks is the breed. There are two main types of meat chicken. The Cornish cross is the fastest growing of the two, these birds are ready for butcher in as little as 8 weeks and will provide about 5-8 lbs. meat when processed. Cornish Cross chicks should be fed on an alternating schedule instead of constant access to food because they will eat themselves sick. When my husband and I did our first round of this type of bird we gave them free access to food, and we ended up having birds so large they couldn’t support their own body weight. The other popular breed that we have worked with is the rainbow ranger, these birds take a bit more time, about 9-11 weeks. These birds have an average size of 3-5 lbs. when processed. This type of meat bird is more likely to free range and forage for food and is not as known to overindulge as the Cornish cross chick is. There are other breeds that are dual purpose (meaning they can be used as egg layers or meat) but these are the two breeds we have personally worked with in the past. I like each breed for varied reasons but overall if I had to pick just one I think my go to would be the Cornish cross based on the size of the bird at process and the shorter amount of time needed to grow.
Getting and growing your birds:
Before your birds arrive at the post office you will want to make sure you have the proper water and feeding systems set up. We use the traditional systems you can buy at any farm store. Depending on where in the country you are you will also want to have a heat lamp on standby, even the birds we get in august will more than likely have heat at night for the first couple weeks until they put on fat and have their adult feathers. One of the many things we have learned from the great Joel Salatin is to have hard boiled eggs on standby for your new chicks. We have always done this for our birds instead of getting the nutrient packets they offer to send with the chicks. Hard boiled eggs are a fantastic way to help your chicks bounce back from their long journey to you and jump start their nutrition in an all-natural way as opposed to that gross gel they send out.
Throughout your chicken’s life they will eat a ton of food. The way we see it in our home the more we can rely on nature the better. That being said our chickens do get feed from the feed store however we give them the grazing option first and feed them later in day to supplement.
Some things to keep in mind when it comes to meat birds.
1. If they have 24/7 access to food they will eat it…ALL of it. Since they have no off button it is important to practice the twelve on twelve off method with their food. If not they will get too big to support themselves and then there’s a whole mess of problems to deal with.
2. You will have to move them every day, sometimes twice a day the bigger they get because the amount of poop will be impressive. (Hello happy grass!!)
3. Let your birds be birds. If space, and security allow, let them out to free range for a bit. This helps them get in tune with their instincts, gives you happy birds, and will help develop the meat that is going to end up in your freezer. It’s a win-win. We do this at the end of the day to balance the amount of exercise they get so they don’t end up losing weight before butcher.
Processing your birds:
While we won’t go into the actual process of butchering your birds (I’ll save that for another day) I did want to give you everything we use for our process. We like to set up our stations the night before so the morning of we can focus on just getting started. You may see other homesteaders who process their birds on site, and they have a lot of fancy setups and expensive machines, you will not find that on our homestead. We’re all about pinching pennies and repurposing wherever we can so our systems might be able to be done in an easier, faster way but for our homestead it works. So, what exactly do we use?
Plucker: We don’t have the space, or the money for one of those expensive automatic pluckers. They are nice but we just do not have extra space in our small barn to store it. My husband found an amazing alternative and he loves it. This attaches right to the end of your power drill and does the same work one of the expensive ones does. I couldn't find the exact drill attachment we bought so it isn't linked here but there are many options online.
Kill cones: We just bought ours on amazon. They have varied sizes based on the bird you are processing so make sure you order the correct size. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01F7KBHVI?ref_=cm_sw_r_apin_dp_VXCYFYHWKFFM8EV9F3V7
Table: Our table was bought at our local farm store. It has a hose hook up that allows water to run through a sink for easy washing. The top is also a cutting board so there’s no need for extra pieces, just cut right on top of the table.
Propane and heating plate: You will need this to scold your chicken so that the feathers are easily removed. We have a picture of our set up here.
Stock pot: Ours was handed down to us but make sure your pot is deep enough to cover the whole bird in water.
Sharp knives: Sharpen your knives before every butcher, and it may be a good idea to have a blade sharpener on hand just in case.
Bags: Again, we bought ours on amazon (linked here). The ones we have self-seal when they are placed in the boiling water. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07XV96V18?ref_=cm_sw_r_apin_dp_N1C2BNJWERJP62Z3TAVP&th=1
Labels: If you plan to sell your chicken it is essential you have labels. We do not sell ours but use labels anyway so I can easily add a butcher date to them before filling out freezer. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08F1YRTZF?ref_=cm_sw_r_apin_dp_HPZ1Z0QVQBPF5E6F2RM7
Coolers: We have 2-3 coolers set up. one with ice cold water that we put the birds in after they have been processed to help firm them up before sealing. Then we have another one full of ice to put them in as we bag them so they stay at temp before we put them inside in our freezers. This works for us because we don't do very many at one time. It is important to keep temperature in mind when processing your birds so that you don't lose the meat.
Buckets: We also keep 4-5 buckets on hand to discard of any unwanted parts of the chickens. On our homestead we use every part of the animal possible before throwing the rest in the woods for scavengers, or using it as bait around our hen house. We keep all the organs possible and use them for dog food, we also keep and use the feet. All this usable by product goes into these food grade buckets we have on hand.
I hope this blog has helped you find some answers and some confidence to start raising your own meat. I know it can seem daunting and intimidating at first, but I tell you what, the first time you taste some chicken that you raised and processed in your own backyard….there’s just nothing like it. You will never want to go back. If you’re like me as soon as you dove into the rabbit hole of our food system your mind was made up for you. As always if there are any unanswered questions please visit our website and check out The Connection Place. It is a fantastic way to ask questions and get answers from people who have been through it.
Until next time,