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As small farmers, we do our best to be conscious of where all of our food comes from. We aim to get as much as we can from local neighboring farms. This is especially true with our meat, as we try to avoid antibiotics, growth hormones, and other additives that lurk in meat raised on industrial farms.
For chicken we’ve been lucky enough to have a friend of ours raise meat birds for us, and then we all participate in the processing. But meat birds are a messy business that take up a lot of space and time with all of the feeding and cleaning they require. Last year, they opted not to raise extra meat birds, and we missed out on some delicious chicken. So this year, we opted to try raising meat birds ourselves.
The Meat Birds
We split a large order of chicks from Purely Poultry with my friend Jess at The 104 Homestead since they raise meat birds every year for their family. Our order of 60 chicks arrived on June 15th. We were super impressed that all the chicks handled the shipping well, and were healthy and hardy, with 2 extra chicks included in the order. I took home 30 for our family, and Jess kept 32 for hers.
Since I had never raised meat birds before, I just treated the chicks the same way I’ve done my layer chicks in the past. They got chick warmers, pine shavings, and plenty of fresh water and chick starter crumble.
Within days I was stunned at how fast they were growing. I knew meat birds gained weight rapidly, but I was still impressed. We left them with a constant supply of food. This also equaled a constant supply of droppings. Meat birds are smelly and messy, and require frequent bedding changes to avoid flies congregating and heath problems.
When the meat birds were 4 weeks old, I went to visit Jess. When I took a look at her meat birds, I was surprised to see they were only about half the size of mine. This raised concerns for both of us: Were mine growing too quickly? Were hers growing to slow? Since we were raising our meat birds a little differently, we decided to do a comparison to see what our results were from the two different methods.
Our Method – 24/7 Buffet
The birds we raised were given 24/7 access to feed and fresh water. Up until 5 weeks, they received Blue Seal Home Fresh Starter Medicated Crumble with 28% protein with Amprolium, a coccidosis preventative, as meat birds are prone to coccidosis. After 5 weeks, we changed them over to a Blue Seal Finish Pellet at 18% protein.
At 6 weeks, we put the birds into a large shed with an outdoor run, and also changed the over to a Finish pellet which was 18% protein. The day we were moving them over, we did find one of them dead. We’re still not exactly sure what happened to it. My husband said it had a discolored comb that would indicate oxygen deprivation.
The chickens loved it outside, and spent a lot of time in the sun eating grass and bugs. Yeah extra protein! We shut them into their shed at night to keep them safe from predators. As they reached the 8 week mark, some of the heavier roosters were having a hard time getting around due to their weight. Since we didn’t want any loss, and we didn’t want the chickens to get to a point where they were uncomfortable, we decided to process them that coming weekend at almost 9 weeks.
We spent a long day processing the chickens at our friend Dwayne’s farm, as he’s generous enough to give us access to his scalder, plucker, and experienced processing set-up. All of the birds were a great weight, and none of them showed any signs of oxygen deprivation of organ damage due to their size. Once processed, we had 29 chickens, weighing between 10 – 14 pounds.
Jess’ Method – Controlled Feeding
Jess took a very different approach with her birds, starting with the feed. Her chicks received Green Mountain Organics Chick Starter Mash, with 21% protein, for the first three weeks. After three weeks, she started her birds on Green Mountain Organics Broiler Grower Crumbles, with 19% protein. She only allowed them to have this for 16 hours her day, pulling the feed overnight. When her chickens reached 10 weeks, she allowed them to have access to feed 24/7.
Jess’ chicks moved outside full time into a chicken tractor at 6 weeks. Sadly, two of her birds were taken by a fox. Luckily she was able to secure the perimeter so she wasn’t providing Mr. Fox with any more delicious, organic meals. None of her birds passed away from any other complications.
The biggest issue with Jess’ birds was that they were slow to grow. Even though she waited several weeks longer than ours to be processed, they weighed significantly less. Her roosters went to the butcher around 11 weeks old, and then hens went in at about 13 weeks. Their final average weight after processing was 5-6 pounds.
Our two methods were a good way to show really clear results in management styles as we were raising chicks from the same batch, in identical climate conditions. Our chickens grew faster, their feed was more affordable, and they were ready to process much sooner. For a smaller investment of time and money, we got a better return on the size and efficiency of our birds. However, we used commercial feed that have additives that some people may not want to use.
Jess’ chickens were definitely in better overall condition throughout the process – they were far more active and athletic. While some money was saved by not feeding her birds 24/7, that was negated by the extra weeks it took to get them to processing size. He finished birds were about half of the weight of ours, but grown 100% organically.