Chicken. The ultimate luxury food. Did you know that until the 1970s or so, only the ultra-rich could afford to eat a roasting chicken? That's because chickens, unlike cattle, goats, and sheep, need to eat grain. Well, they don't need to, but they do if you want what you'd recognize as chicken to eat. Similar story with pork. Grain is expensive to grow - and it's also something we can eat ourselves. Farmers would sometimes stew an old hen, or cook up a young rooster, but the average working town dweller couldn't afford it.
Cheap gas and agricultural subsidies made cheaper grain. Instead of people eating all that cheap grain ourselves, we feed it to animals, who convert a small percentage of the calories in the grain into meat. Grocery store chicken, especially that $1.99/lb chicken, comes from factory farms where chickens sit in cages, injected with pharmaceuticals, eating medicated feed and pooping for 5 weeks until slaughter. Grocery store meat is often injected with water before packaging - increasing profit margins for producers, and reducing your likelihood of getting a crispy skin.
Our meat birds live a better life.
From baby chick to freezer in nine weeks or less - fast-growing broiler chickens demand both management and resources, but they're one of the fastest ways to get meat in the freezer.
Raised on Pasture
As with our egg layers, our goal is to simulate a natural environment for them as closely as we can, while protecting them from the foxes, coyotes, weasels, skunks, raccoons, barn cats, opossums, and other predators that want to eat them before we do.
Form the time when they're feathered out - about 3-4 weeks of age - they spend the rest of their lives on pasture in a Suskovich-style chicken tractor. This is a moveable pen, about 10' x 6', with an open bottom, and fenced sides, with a tarp covering most of the pen for shade, and protection from predatory birds. This allows the birds to forage, move, and scratch just like real chickens.
We move the tractor daily to new pasture, and twice daily in their last three weeks. This keeps the birds off of their manure, and away from their pathogens. It also gives the birds fresh plants and bugs to forage, which keeps them active and entertained - and less likely to fight amongst themselves. We intend to move to a system more like our egg layers, allowing the birds to free-range within a moveable electric fence, and moving their shelter daily. This will minimize the chances of injuring a bird while moving the pen. Lessons learned...
This rotational grazing model allows the meat birds to play a few roles on the farm:
Obviously. We use the whole bird - organs for pate & dog treats, feet & bones for stock... and when we harvest our own birds on-farm, the feathers & blood will be fertilizer, and the organs will be pig feed. There's no such thing as waste in nature.
Chickenshit and feathers are great fertilizer. A little hot for the garden when fresh, but perfect for a pasture with lots of carbon-heavy duff on the ground. We put the chickens in the place, they do the rest.
3. Pasture Recovery & Sterilization
Nobody has farmed this land for the past 25 years. The pasture has lots of woody and weedy species dominating it. There's also a TON of wild grapevines everywhere. We scythe in front of the birds, to get all of the forage at mouth level for the day or half-day they're there. The birds eat grass, leaves, and seeds, their scratching breaks down previous years' duff and woody material. They also eat every bug they can get to from the patch they're on.
We feed an organic, no-GMO feed. After they're off their chick starter feed, we soak and ferment the feed for two days to reduce loss to dust, and make the nutrients more bio-available. Their feed is supplemented with a daily or twice-daily all-you-can-eat buffet of fresh pasture plants and bugs.
We buy our chicks at one day old, and brood them on 15-20 cm of deep bedding. As they poop up that layer, we add more wood shavings to keep them clean. They're started on an organic, no-GMO chick starter feed. They have 24/7 access to fresh water (which we change almost hourly as they muck it up so quickly), and they're kept warm by heat lamps.
When they're partially feathered out, they start getting "day trips" to a pen on grass, the same way you'd harden off a plant seedling before planting it out. A few hours a day, in good weather, getting longer as they get older. When they're fully feathered out, we wait for a warm evening, and move them to pasture full time.