Friday, June 2, 2017

What We've Learned From Raising 2 Batches of Meat Chickens

the chickens enjoyed the larger run we built

Saturday we processed our second batch of chickens.

In thinking over what we've done this year and last, we've learned a lot.

1. Starting them in the spring (this year) was much easier than in the middle of the summer (last year). Last summer's heat and humidity was hard on the chickens. This spring has been much cooler and the chickens didn't suffer from the heat.

2. Last year we lost 5 out of 30 chickens. This year we only lost 2 out of 30 chickens. We ordered from Hoover's Hatchery both times and I would totally order from them again. Though ordering in June was cheaper than ordering in March. I'm sure that has to do with more demand in the spring than in the summer, but something to be aware of.

3. Cornish Cross chickens really are food obsessed. Last year I struggled with knowing how much to feed them and I feel like I might have underfed them a little. This year I found a "how much to feed them" formula from our feed company and I felt much more comfortable about how much we fed them. We might even have over-fed them here and there, though you wouldn't know it since they always acted like they were starving.

4. Cornish Cross may be food obsessed, and you do have to be careful about over-feeding and helping them act like chickens (they can be pretty sedentary if given the chance), but getting them to full weight in 8 weeks is worth the trade-off in my opinion. We can raise a year's worth of chicken in 2 months.

5. I put the chicks in the outdoor brooder at about 2.5 weeks old, with a heat lamp, and they did fine. I was worried about how they'd do with the cooler temps, but I couldn't handle the mess and smell in the house anymore, so out they went. I've heard many cautionary tales about fires started by heat lamps, and we don't actually have electricity in the chicken coop or the garden shed next door, so I had to run our heavy duty extension cord from the house to the chicken coop. Double whammy of things I didn't really want to do, but everyone survived and the chicken coop didn't burn down.

6. Even though I'm not happy about the chickens not being as free-ranging as I'd like, they were able to scratch around in the dirt and underbrush for bugs and leaves. And we fed them a good quality, non-gmo, organic feed rather than the cheapest feed we could find. It's tempting to cheap out, but I do believe that what goes in does affect what comes out.

7. We bought a second kill cone and it sped up the process, though I think we could even add a third cone next time. 

Speaking of next time, what will be different next time?

1. We won't be doing meat chickens again until we live on a property with actual pastures. We want to do rotational grazing and we just don't have the grassy space for that here. We have a decent size yard, but it's mostly moss, not grass, and wouldn't survive 30 chickens, even if we moved them frequently. I thought we could work around that by fencing in a large outdoor run in the woods, but even with the significantly larger run that we built this year I don't think it would last 6 weeks of 30 chickens going to town. They were in the large run three weeks and they stripped it down quite a bit. When we have a pasture to rotate our chickens through, we'll do a chicken tractor and electric poultry netting rather than a stationary coop.

2. I still don't think electric poultry netting would work well on our current property. That was another idea we'd considered, but there's too much deadfall from all our trees and the fencing would have been shorting out at inconvenient times. And there's a Great Dane next door that likes chickens and I don't think electric poultry netting would keep him out if he decided he really wanted them. Best not to provide too much temptation.

3. This summer we'll get a few laying hens and a guard goose if I can find a breed that will start laying before winter. Otherwise we'll get them early next spring. I think our current setup will work fine for a smaller flock, and I'll put an internal divider in the large run so we can rotate their dining area. What wouldn't work for 30 meat chickens who only think of food should work just fine for 5 or 6 layers who aren't food obsessed.

4. I was going to get fodder started to supplement their feed, but never quite had time. Part of this was also the lack of a greenhouse to get it started in and my reluctance to start plants in the house with little boys who insist on climbing on everything. I hope to start growing fodder for the layers this summer or early fall, but it will probably be in conjunction with the greenhouse that we still have plans to build.

5. Last year's average weight per chicken was about 2.75 pounds. This year the average weight was a smidge over 3.5 pounds. That weight is still lower than I'd hoped for (between 4 and 5 pounds), but a definite improvement over last year's average. This year's chickens were doing great and I think they could have kept growing for another week or two, except this past Saturday was the only day we had time to do the processing. Our schedule will be pretty busy from here on out and won't be calming down until the second week of August.

6. I don't think 12 hours was long enough to restrict food before processing. All but one or two of the chickens had very full crops still, even though they hadn't eaten since the evening before. So feeding them less, and earlier in the evening would be advisable.

7. I'd be interested in doing a couple of ducks sometime in the future. Our neighbor came and helped us process our chickens and we did two of her ducks at the same time. She's got more ducks and geese than she has space for, so she had to cull a couple. The fat on the ducks was much more than is present in chickens. I like cooking with duck fat, and rendering some duck fat would be an interesting experience.

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