Spoiler alert: Growing pastured poultry for your family is hard work. I know I am supposed to make it sound like its a breeze and anyone can do it but I will do us all a favor and not lie. I am not saying its not worth it, because baby, it is sooooo worth it. But it is hard work, in different forms, from baby chick to bird in the roast pan.
But we have to choose our hard, as the homestead and farming world likes to quip. It’s hard to rely on supply chains for food for your family. It’s hard not to know what is in the food you are eating or where it came from. It’s hard for our health to suffer when we eat food that may have been raised with dubious practices.
To start, carve out the amount of time you have to raise them. Some breeds of meat hens (wait…aren’t all chickens meat?? We will get to that) take eight weeks and some heritage breeds take 12 weeks, and dual purpose breeds (meat and eggs) take 5 months.
Into the Brooder
Good food takes time, eh? That it does, grasshopper. Every day you have meat birds, will mean early morning watering, feeding, and checking for problems, then doing that all again at night. They will be in the brooder (a box like structure covered with wire to protect the chicks ) for three weeks, with a heat lamp and this will need cleaning every two to three days . Remember to check your chicks often for signs of them being too hot or too cold. I am not a fan of thermometers as I believe they shouldn’t be relied upon to take solely and take your good old fashioned common sense away. I prefer to take into account warmth of barn, the air and the chicks themselves. Huddled under the light? The chicks are too cold so you must lower the lights and/or add another light. Spread out to the corners? This can create piling which is deadly in a brooder. The brooder is too hot, and the lamps must be heightened. Some people use heat stands now however most still use heat lamps for cost effectiveness.
Do you frequently go out of town? Not with chicks in a brooder you don’t. Things can go south in a brooder very quickly.
Feed & Water
We use medicated chick starter and chick waterers to start them in the brooder after we get our chick order. Ocean Breeze Farm & Feed Supplies, Yarmouth looks after our chick and feed orders. Cornish Cross chicks usually run around 1.85 each.(updated 2022)
Medicated feed protects the young chicks from getting coccidiosis which they are usually protected from if they are hatched by a mother hen. A splash of apple cider vinegar in the water provides a good start for digestive health for the birds. As does clumps of grass placed in the floor of the brooder and replaced often. We raise 50 chicks at time and use two lamps, three waterers, and three feeders in our brooder. They need medicated starter with a high protein of 24% for 3 weeks minimum. Then they can be switched to a meat grower or builder feed for the remaining five weeks. This usually cost around $24 for a 50 lb bag. And that is only expected to rise. We bought meat grower in bulk at the start of the season in order to hopefully stave off rising costs.
Now this may be the most important part of this whole blog: If you are not going to process or butcher the birds yourself, you must book a butcher in eight weeks from when you get your birds. Butchers fill up fast and if you neglect this step, you may have to hold your birds for another week or two or God forbid, three. This will be a death sentence for some birds and will result in diminishing returns for you. The feed you will need to sustain them will not result in an equal amount of yield of meat.
Cornish Crosses are the most common form of broiler chicken (called so because they are raised in a short amount of time and can have tender meat without long cooking times). Cornish Crosses are bred specifically for a large amount of breast meat, and a quick growing time of eight weeks with maximum output and minimal inputs. With a large breast, the Cornish crosses cannot breed naturally. So from a self sufficiency aspect, these are not your bird. This puts me off a bit on them but so far have not really been able to find an alternative available to us here with similar yields.
The problem with Cornish crosses is that quick growth can come at a cost: they are not good foragers, and the quick growth sometimes results in their legs giving out, not able to support the weight of their body. I find this happens rarely when I raise them on pasture, as they have lots to do, peck and forage for and are less likely to just sit and eat. They are a lot like us that way.
On to Pasture
The chickens grow very quickly in a brooder, and will need another place to go as soon as they feather out. Once feathered, which takes about three weeks, I open the door of the brooder to start introducing them to the great outdoors for a week, before moving them to pasture for the remaining four weeks. I have found it is less of a shock for their systems to have a transition week.
Once they have gotten a taste for the fresh air, the bugs and the ground, it’s pasture time. We have a chicken tractor- a wire covered shelter with an open bottom- we move almost every day to fresh ground. There are many many designs available on the internet for chicken tractors, it depends on what you want to spend, and what you have for materials. We use a smaller one but also have a larger one for turkeys that’s dual purpose.
We keep 50 lb feed bag capacity feeders in the tractor, at least two, and an automatic waterer run by a long hose to the barn and a back up waterer in case something goes wrong or the power goes out. Water is such an important part of feed conversion, and is the key to beautiful, healthy birds. We use a meat builder grain with protein of 19% or higher.
We do not go over the same ground twice in a cycle. The chickens love moving day. They cluck their hearts out when they hit that fresh piece of pasture. It’s the best feeling to watch them and know how truly content they are eating bugs, breathing fresh air, and being able to act like chickens. There is no taste equivalent for meat raised in this way.
The predators we watch for are foxes, weasels, minks, raccoons, and dogs. We keep a live trap set near the tractor hoping whatever wanders in will be enticed by the easy meal, as opposed to digging. It has worked so far.
You will want to work quickly and calmly on processing day. The goal is to introduce as less stress as possible into the bird’s end of life. No chasing or yelling. We calmly pick up the chickens by a foot and hang upside down where they quickly settle until they are placed special crates we have to take them to the processor.
We use a commercial butcher for a few reasons. One is our food laws in Nova Scotia. For small farms who wish to sell chickens, they must be processed in a licensed abattoir or facility. We have had to switch processors this year due to Thousand Hill Farms being closed permanently for Health reasons.
If it is your goal to sell commercially, please check your regulations in your province. Here we can raise up to 200 birds without a license and quota determined by a licensing board. If you are raising for your family and a small group of friends, you can save a step by processing them yourself. It costs 4.50 approximately a bird for processing. If you want special cuts or it ground up, it will cost extra. I also get my chicken feet done (scalded) for use as dog treats and to add to broths.
The beauty of using a processor too is you get valuable feedback on any potential problems with the way you are raising your birds. They see literally thousands of birds. The good, the bad and the ugly. If you ask how yours measure up, they will tell you. Also you will get a report from the inspector if any of your birds were condemned to be be unfit for consumption. I lost one bird to arthritis one time.
You will get back approximately 75% of your live weight of the bird. If it weighs 10 lbs, the dressed carcass you receive will be approximately 7.5 lbs. Most of our meat hens after eight weeks dress out around 5-6 lbs. Sometimes you get a weaker batch of chicks or bad weather and they look a little small still. . You may want to keep them an extra week or two.
Which brings me to another reason why we use a butcher. My husband has an off farm full time job. I am the farmer, and I am not about to process all the birds by myself. You miss things. I am not comfortable with that happening. The other reason is my husband has a huge aversion to butchering. I was raised in it. He was not. To him it is stressful and I do not want stress conveyed to my birds in the butchering. And it goes without saying, I do not want him to dread growing our own food. So this is a compromise I have made easily. The end goal of having food we raised ourselves in the freezer is met, and I try to never get bogged down in problems. There are always ways.
Including the processing and the feed cost which varies, a pastured raised chicken can cost anywhere from $10.00-$13.00 to raise.It is important not to skimp on food near the end when it will seem like they inhaling it. Even on pasture, we still feed grain. You will not have a good return of meat on your investment otherwise, in my experience.
How Do They Do It?
We choose to raise our own food. We keep 60 birds in the freezer to eat from October till next June. While it is not cheap, I could never afford to purchase all our meat in the way in which we raise it. The quality of the nourishment is amazing. And of course we must address the fact we see whole chickens in the grocery store for $8.00. How are they doing this???
The answer is volume. If you raise 10, 000 birds at a time you buy feed in bulk from your contractor, or are contracted by a larger poultry grower who gets it in bulk for you. Chicks cost less. Processing costs less as it’s contracted out It would be impossible to put 10,000 chickens in tractors on pasture at once, so they keep them inside and usually have minimal and manual inputs. Everything is automated and processing contracted at a special price for large volumes with large companies who contract the farmers to grow them. I am not judging anyone in this system, except the big meat conglomerates who have ruined our food system. But be aware cheap chicken all comes at a cost to someone, somewhere in the chain. You can remain blissfully with your head in the sand, but it’s still happening.
I hope you have gotten a sense of how much I love raising our own poultry on pasture. It truly is a skill I am thankful for and the nourishment it provides my family. Most importantly, if it is your wish to raise your own meat, I hope you found value in our experiences over the last fifteen years of raising meat hens, and I wish you the best of luck as you find what will work for you. I mean this blog post to be only an example of one way to do it, you will need to put your own twist on it for your family.