Updated: Aug 9, 2019
This spring, we decided to expand our homestead beyond our barn cats and laying hens by raising meat chickens. Raising farm-fresh meat is something we've always wanted to do, since buying meat from the store is often expensive and usually raised on artificial hormones. So in late February we purchased 40 Cornish Crosses chicks from Tractor Supply Co. Below we share we learned raising these little chicks for meat. And don't worry, there are no pictures of the butchering process!
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Baby chicks are shipped via mail!
Yes, you read that right! Chicks are actually hatched with enough nutrients and fluids to sustain them for several days, enabling the mother hen to focus on hatching her remaining eggs instead of caring for the chicks that hatched first. This miracle of nature allows chicks to be put in the mail and arrive at their destination three to five days later as healthy as can be! Five days after ordering the chicks online, I received a notification that they had arrived at the local Post Office. So I drove to the Post Office to pick up chicks (This is the only time it is acceptable to use the phrase “pick up chicks”).
You may get a couple extra chicks.
Although we paid for 40 chicks, 42 actually arrived. This is to account for the chicks that may not make it through the delivery process. However, all 42 of ours arrived healthy!
The chicks will need to be under a heat lamp for several weeks.
Using a cardboard box, we created a little chick habitat in the corner of our garage using newspaper covered in pine shavings as bedding and lining the box with pieces of scrap lumber to give the chicks a place to roost. We also set up a feeder and watering station and changed the bedding weekly. Even so, we quickly learned that chicks stink! Unfortunately our barn does not have electricity for the heat lamp, but we are seriously considering running an electric line there prior to our next round of chicks so that we can keep our garage smelling fresh.
The chicken tractor worked great!
The chicks were delighted when they were moved from the cardboard box to the chicken tractor. The couldn’t stop running around and eating all the clover they could reach. Make sure to provide scrap lumber for roosts, because chickens do not like sleeping on the ground.
Be prepared to lose a couple along the way
We lost seven chicks over the eight weeks of raising them. We were done with the chickens stinking up our garage, so we moved them to the chicken tractor. In hindsight, we probably moved them too early. The week after moving them, a cold spell dropped temperatures below freezing for a couple days, leading to the unfortunate deaths of four chicks. We also forgot to add roosts to the chicken tractor using scrap lumber. Since chickens like sleeping off the ground, without these roosts they were constantly trying to climb on top of each other to sleep. We believe the other three losses came from suffocation or being trampled. We were losing one bird a day until we added the roosts, and then we never lost another one after that. We ended up having 35 chickens when it came time for butchering.
Don’t expect young chickens to till your garden
We had read that chickens can help prep your garden for planting. While they did a great job clearing vegetation and adding nutrients to the soil, they did nothing to loosen the dirt. We had to purchase a tiller to till up the soil after they were done with it (I bought the Powermate 18 in. rear tine tiller on to do the job, and it worked great!)
We wish we had used a restraining cone
I STRONGLY suggest that you use a restraining cone and sharp knife when butchering the chickens. I thought using a wooden log and a sharp hatchet would do trick. It does (it was pretty easy to chop off the head in one stroke, just like using the restraining cone), but chickens move a lot after their heads are chopped off. The outside of the barn and my clothes looked like a scene from a horror film. It was a challenge to keep them still and transport them to the bucket for draining without making a utter mess. With the cone, the chicken is restrained and already over the bucket, so things will be much cleaner. So next time, we are definitely using one.
Hot water, brought to you by a turkey fryer
A turkey fryer worked great for providing hot water for defeathering. I used the RiverGrille 30-quart Turkey Fryer, which cost me only $70 from Home Depot. I was able to easily maintain a constant 150 degrees with minimal effort. I had read that 140 degrees was the optimal temperature, but I found that the feathers came off easier at 150 degrees. I wouldn’t go hotter than this since you don’t want to start cooking the meat, so a good range to shoot for is 140-150 degrees.
An expensive plucking machine is not necessary
I didn’t use a mechanical plucking device, and I was fine defeathering 35 chickens by hand without it. After letting the drained chicken stew in the turkey fryer pot in 150 degree water for 2 minutes, the feathers easily pulled off. I could defeather a chicken by hand in 1-2 minutes once I got the hang of it. I pulled the feathers off over a trash bin to make cleanup easier. My back was incredibly sore the next day from standing over the bin plucking, so next time I’m either going to elevate the bin to allow me to fully stand or bring a chair I can sit in. I’m leaning towards the chair, because I sure was tired after spending 8 hours on my feet!
Package the meat for freshness
After all of the work raising and butchering the chickens, the last thing I wanted to do is skimp on the packaging step. So after gutting, I packed the birds in these poultry shrink wrap bags. I could fit two birds per bag, and they were incredibly easy to seal for freshness. Once bagged, I dipped them in 200 degree water (per the easy to follow directions) to shrink the plastic and expel remaining air. I used the turkey fryer again for this, and it worked great. The result looked incredibly professional.
All the work was definitely worth it!
After spending 9 hours butchering, cleaning, and packaging 35 chickens, I was exhausted. Mater didn't help with the butchering, but she bravely cooked two of the birds for dinner that night. They were tender and delicious! The dark meat was exceptional as well - more flavorful than any I had tasted before. The cooked chickens were a little smaller than what you would buy at the store, but the meat was hormone and antibiotic free and incredibly fresh. In my opinion, that makes this effort well worth it!
One final note
Over the eight weeks we had the chickens, I spent about $100 on feed (six 50 lb bags of Dumor starter-grower feed). The last five days of their life, I went through one entire bag! However, considering we got 70 pounds of fresh meat, that comes out to $1.50/lb - Not bad! Of course, this doesn’t include the cost of the chicken tractor ($120), waterer and feeders ($45), pine shavings ($5), turkey fryer ($70), and shrink-wrap bags ($30). However, these are one-time costs, so the cost will diminish over time. I plan to break even after just 70 chickens, so only 35 more to go!
Hopefully this article encourages you to take the next step in building your homestead by raising meat chickens. If you learn any helpful tips or tricks along the way, please let us know in the comments!