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Chicken comes from the store, all neatly wrapped in plastic, just waiting for you to come by and put it in your cart…right? That is what a lot of people think, or at least want to think. Part of our goal in moving to our homestead was to raise our own healthy meats. Learning about nutrition has made us desire more and more to get away from the grocery stores. Buying from farms, while we love and try to always support local farmers, was getting expensive for our large family. We decided that we needed to set out into raising our own chickens for meat as well as eggs. We’re going to try to put out an annual meat bird post that will show the costs for that year and anything we did differently from previous years.
How we raise our birds
This is our second year of raising Cornish Cross as our meat birds. In 2016, we purchased 15 Cornish Cross that lived in a chicken tractor that we moved daily. Of those 15 birds, we ended up with 11 to process. From those 11 meat birds, we put away 44.5lbs of meat! While most people say to process this breed at around 8 weeks, we processed ours around 12 weeks to get an average 4-5lbs bird. They were frozen as whole birds which we actually still have a few in the freezer at the time of this post.
Choosing our breed
Last year we chose Cornish Cross meat birds as that is what was available locally. We were a little turned off at how gross they were, though later we learned it is all in how you raise them. This year, we started researching back in November so as to put our order in quickly for the spring. We decided to also try our hand at raising Red Rangers that we purchased with the Cornish Cross. We liked the idea of heritage breeds, but the amount of time needed; upwards of 12-14 weeks, to get to butcher weight as well as feed costs have turned us away from that. We believe, from our experience, and the right management, that the stigma Cornish Cross carry is not always true. They are a means to have a quick and cost-effective bird. Ours have acted just the same as our Red Rangers as far as foraging abilities and being active.
There is no shortage of hatcheries to choose from. We try to order ours from the nearest hatchery, which is Ideal Poultry. Since they are local to us, our chicks have a much shorter travel time; usually less than two days, and thus, are much less susceptible to transport stress. We highly recommend order from Ideal if you’re in Texas and looking for a great customer experience.
This year, we wanted to improve their housing as we had 80 birds to raise! For starters, we needed a bigger tractor. We mulled over a few designs for a bigger one but didn’t want to invest in the costs at the time. We like to use what we have when we can and definitely like to DIY to save costs. Second, we wanted them to free range a bit more vs sitting in the tractor all day. We also didn’t want to move the tractor daily (and twice daily towards the end of their time) as we were looking to simplify our processes and time investment. So we set out our Premier PoultryNet Electric Fence around both of our tractors and set the birds free. They were about 4 weeks, feathered, a decent size, and had been housed in a chick brooder until then. They loved it and immediately went to scratching and foraging. We placed their food and water out away from the tractors to encourage them to move around. We honestly have never had to encourage them as they actively forage the entire area of their pen. They only go into the house to rest during the hot parts of the days and when we lock them up a night. Despite people saying Cornish Cross are lazy and filthy, ours were not.
Cornish typically go through about 15lbs of feed per bird during their lifespan according to most who raise them. Last year, and the beginning of this season, we fed our birds a meat bird ration that we bought locally. Halfway through, we started feeding them what we feed our layers. Our hand-mixed ferment feed. They have done great on it and have had less smell as well as their feed stretching more. For next season, we will be researching to find a cost-effective, non-soy, and GMO-free feed that is high in protein and trusted as well as a source we can get it in bulk and we’ll mix that with our fermented feed. We also save all our kitchen scraps from the day and garden scraps as well and throw those out to them, which they eat it up quickly and love it! Since we eat as naturally as possible, there isn’t anything in our scraps that would not be good for them. Our chicks have food available 24/7 for the first 4 weeks in which they are the moved to 3-4 feedings a day. Whatever they can eat within 20-30 minutes as well as withholding food overnight. We feel that this gives them an even growing time and lessens any issues related to rapid growth; i.e. heart attacks and broken legs from their weight. It might put us a couple weeks longer than when people typically process Cornish but we are okay with that. It seems to produce a more resilient bird for us.
Processing and Butchering
Our first year we butchered at around 12 weeks and it was around the same time this past year. We raised 80 birds consisting of 3 different age groups, all together. We planned to stagger our processing to avoid doing so many at once. Next year, we plan on ordering 115 with the hopes of 100 finished birds (we add in a few to allow for losses) and will do them all at once or at most, 2 batches to allow any smaller ones to gain a bit more weight. With over 100 meat birds, that will feed our family of 8 for an entire year.
We set up an assembly line and all of our children help. We get the job done fairly quickly and let our birds rest for 24-48 hours in a cooler with water and ice. Resting your birds after processing them helps to relax the muscles as they tend to stiffen up with rigor. This round we decided instead of whole birds, we would quarter them into breasts, legs, thighs, tenderloins, and wings. It’s how we purchase meats in general and is easier than cooking whole birds all the time. It worked out perfectly and used space in our freezer more efficiently. We also canned up some of the chicken in our pressure canner as well! We did this a couple years back and it was amazing for chicken salad or quick lunches! We always love to have food preserved in different ways as you never know when a freezer could go out!
A lot of people worry about the actually killing part. Unfortunately, there isn’t any way to ever feel ok about taking a life no matter what kind of life it is. We thank our birds for their life and for giving us life. It’s always a little bittersweet when we are done. Sad for the life gone but grateful for the life it’s giving us.
And the final costs
This season we processed 56 chickens and had a total of 208.5 lbs! Below is the cost breakdown an how much we spent per pound of meat. This doesn’t take into account the fact that we used the chicken feet for broth, the broth we got from all our bones, the dog food from the leftover broth pieces (thanks to our friend Heather at Fuller House Farm for the tip!), and even the chicken skulls my son is learning to clean and sell for craft projects and reptile cage decor! (use everything, you can even sell the wishbone and feathers for crafts, or the feathers in the garden)
We do not count the cost of our processing equipment, tractors, fence, etc as these are items that will be used many times over. Thankfully we found a GREAT deal and got a wizbang plucker, scalder, processing table, 4 killing cones, 2 tractors, brooder hutch, and milking bucket (for the goats) all for $500! There are lots of DIY and simple inexpensive ways of making processing equipment.
- Cost of chicks – $149.30
- Cost of feed – $358.69
- Any additional costs – $0
- Total cost divided by pounds – $2.44/lb
- Local store-bought free range chicken cost: $4.79lb
We are so grateful that the Father led us out here and is enabling us to learn these skills. It doesn’t have to be difficult, it doesn’t have to be fancy and expensive; anyone can do this! Justin Rhodes, the “Permaculture Chicken Ninja”, has also built a super simple cover vs a tractor for his meat birds which would be a wonderful cost-effective way to house your birds depending on your predator load. Start out small and get your feet wet. Once you taste a fresh homegrown chicken, you won’t ever want to go back to that store non-sense!
Have you raised meat birds before? If not, what are your fears?
Can chicks be fed soaked whole grains from the beginning or do they need to start with a mash or crumble?