Chicken is the meat that is most consumed by Americans. Beef is a close second. But for those of us that are trying to live a more self sustaining lifestyle, chicken is the most available and easiest to raise when it comes to meat animals. But how do we do it humanely? How do we make sure that the quality of chicken doesn’t stop at the meat? Instead making sure that the entire existence of that meat chicken is happy, healthy and most importantly humane? It’s not hard to raise meat chickens and do it humanely.
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Potential Trigger Warning: If you are not interested in raising chickens for meat, please do not read this post.
How To Raise Meat Chickens
To start, purchase chicks that are from a reputable hatchery. I’m not trying to throw shade on any specific ones, but we use McMurray Hatchery. We tried them because other homesteaders speak highly of them. Now, we do too. We have ordered multiple batches of chickens and ducks from McMurray and couldn’t be happier with them. Other than a few losses, which is to be expected from any hatchery, all of our chickens and ducks have grown up to be very healthy and productive birds.
If you decide you want to hatch and raise your own chicks or simply cull your roos, then the process is still all the same. We use this incubator from Tractor Supply and love it. We have about a 85% hatch rate with it. If you don’t know, that’s pretty solid numbers.
Brooding is when you allow your chicks to grow until they have most of their wings (usually around 3 weeks) and then transition them out of the brooder. There’s a couple ways to do brood them. I have done it inside as well as our metal shed we converted into a coop, but the basic supplies are all the same. I use Tractor Supply Co for most of our supply needs and usually get feed from our local feed mill.
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When you brood your meat chickens inside, you need to make sure that you are brooding them in an area with good airflow, is safe from predators and self injury, and has plenty of heat. I would also make sure that you put a tarp or something down. This will really help during clean up!
But no matter where you brood your chickens, the process and supplies are still the same. We use these light fixtures and red lights from tractor supply. They have worked amazing for us. Also make sure you use some sort of bedding. I prefer this bedding from TSC and we use it for all of our animals.
Confining Your Meat Chickens
When we raise meat chickens, we like to keep them confined as they get closer to butcher time. Until then, we allow them to free range with the rest of the flock. At night they get put into A frame tractors that Jared built. As the chickens get bigger, they will start to spend more time in the tractors. We actually made these tractors so that we could have them work through the rows of the gardens to help with weeds and bugs.
If free ranging your meat chickens isn’t possible, these fences from Premier 1 are really good. We got this solar charger because Premier 1 tends to run low on inventory occasionally. I also got 2 orders of this 12v battery to run the fence. We’ve had a fair amount of luck with this set up. We also have a 6ft copper pipe to work as a ground. For the most part, we do not put our poultry in netting. That will probably change next spring, but for now we like having them free range the property. We do use the netting for our pigs.
Which Breed of Chicks To Buy
This is a widely debated subject and to be honest, I don’t have an answer for you. I wrote a post about the best dual purpose chickens here. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be trial and error. My suggestion would be to order a meat assortment from your hatchery. There are a couple of different birds that are specifically bred for quick growing meat. There are other breeds that grow a little slower but are a little bit healthier in terms of potential health problems. By getting a meat assortment from your hatchery, you can figure out which chickens you like the most.
We have ordered the Cornish X and we weren’t thrilled with it. It could be because we let them grow a little too much. Or let them free range a little too long. Either way, our next order was McMurrary’s Big Red Broiler and we really liked them. I rarely ate chicken when we had a freezer full of the CX, but we are almost out of the Red Broilers. They really are that good. We didn’t lose any to health problems that we know of.
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Butchering Your Meat Chickens
The hardest day on any homestead is butchering day. While we are excited for the opportunity to fill our freezer, it can be heartbreaking to know how it happens. Some people don’t have a problem with butchering day. Other’s struggle with it. I’m the latter. No matter how many times we have butchered, it doesn’t get any easier.
Day Before Prep Work
The biggest thing that we do on butchering day is to fast the chickens overnight. This helps make sure that their crop and other digestive organs are empty. It also helps us round up the chickens in the morning without stressing them out. We shake the bucket, and they come running. While this may seem like leading a lamb to slaughter, and it is, it also keeps everything low stress.
We also get all of our equipment ready the day before. From knives to kill cones, and the chicken pluckers. Radio/ bluetooth speakers are charged and ready to go. We’ve also got all of the hoses moved to where we are going to butcher and the tables are set up. Don’t forget to set up your scalder as well. We had a turkey frier set up and a long thermometer to make sure the temp stays around 140*.
Finally, we get all the tractors moved up to the butchering area and set in the shade.
Day Of Processing
Once the scalder is at temperature and we are ready, we start working our way through the flock. After the bird has been killed and the head, feet, feathers and organs removed, we will put them in ice water to soak and allow the chicken’s body to go through the rigor mortis phases. Yes, gross, but this is how your chicken from the grocery store is handled as well.
We try to break down the chickens the same day we butcher, but we are usually exhausted. We break them down into 4 piece bags (4 breast or 4 quarters, etc). Then everything is vacuum sealed and thrown in the freezer. Sometimes we use these bags for whole chickens or these for smaller pieces. While we really like the vacuum seal bags, they do get very expensive, very fast. We will also freeze the head, feet and organs for dog food so that as much as possible is used.
At the end of the day, you have to do what is right for your family, your farm and your checkbook. If you want to raise them, but not butcher, there are a ton of people that do it. You just have to reach out to them.
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