It’s 12.5 weeks after we brought our tiny balls of fluff home from the hatchery, our freezer is now stocked with a year’s supply of chicken dinners and several happy local customers have Birdsong Farm chickens in their freezers. The question i agreed to answer when i begin this series is ‘how much does it cost to grow your own meat and is it worth the effort?’
A. Definitely worth the effort: i saw the birds daily, know what they ate, know how they lived, know how they died. I know they received no antibiotics, no fillers, no sodium or other injected additives. I know they did receive fresh vegetables, daily sunlight, room to roam if they chose and plentiful fresh water.
B. How much did it cost? This is the spreadsheet i use to track my chickens’ numbers. This includes cost of the chicks, cost of the feed (exactly one ton!), cost to power the brooder lamp, incidental costs. This does not include my labor but it does include payment to a local youth who helped us on the butchering crew. It also includes income made by selling meat to local consumers and a final tally of total weights.
|Broiler (chicken) Feed||Housing/ utilities||Fryer chicks||Butc-hering costs||Total Expenses||$in||Lbs meat||# Birds||# Birds Sold||Income – expenses: cost or profit||Income/Loss per pound|
|Cost per LB||$1.44|
The numbers deconstructed: Out of 75 chicks, 70 made it to the freezer, weighing in at 461 pounds. Average weight of these 12.5 week old birds was 6.58 pounds. Total expenses divided by total pounds puts our total cost at $1.44 per pound or $9.49 per bird (by average). But, when you factor in the income made by selling 20 of these birds our actual cost to eat the remaining 50 homegrown chickens (enough for one year) is $1.70 per bird! Additionally, had i grown these all to sell I would be making $2.56 profit per pound selling at $4/pound: that’s $1,180. I don’t know about you, but i like them numbers. And yes, sure: we’re not factoring in the labor. Time every day feeding, watering, moving fences and housing and of course one long as heck day turning them into meat…. but you could say they’re a free fitness program and excuse to hang out with friends for a day!
Not included in the numbers above are some of our long term investments, including a plucking machine, tables (that i also use at the farmers market) knives, etc. The plucker was factored into last year’s total duck/chicken numbers and it’s still going strong.
My take away on numbers: I am personally extremely satisfied with this year’s numbers. I could have spent much less by processing the birds 1-3 weeks earlier. Their growth rate is a bit slower in the last few weeks and they eat a LOT at that age. But, i admit to liking ‘big cocks’ when it comes to the size of my broiler chickens. Most customers don’t love paying for 8+ pound chickens but i love having them in the freezer. If i’m going to go through the effort of killing/gutting/packaging/defrosting/cooking a chicken, i’d like one to feed me for a week. So, i buy the extra feed and shlep water the extra 2 weeks so that i can have big cockerels to butcher and huge roasts to cook. For me, this is more reason why i like to grow them myself: i get to choose when i butcher and how large i let them grow vs being at the mercy of ‘the going trend’ in marketable birds. That being said: We did encounter a LOT of body cavity fat while processing this year’s big birds. This is most likely due to the birds spending those last few weeks just getting FAT vs growing much more. So, next year i plan to harvest most of the largest cockerels at 10 weeks and the pullets at 11 weeks. Hopefully this will result in less fat and less wasted feed.
Some attention to processing day:
It isn’t easy. Since day one i had been trying not to think about processing day too much. It’s a long, hard day on my feet and I rely on the kindness and generosity of some really awesome folks who donate their time in exchange for chicken. It’s hard, but it can be done. (cue the infomercial voice) “You, too can raise and process your own chickens!” Here’s how we do it:
Step one: Catch the chickens and withhold feed. I am the fox in the henhouse. Late the evening before we catch as many chickens as reasonably fit in our homemade crates. (Comment if you’d like our plans). I catch each one individually. This year we are still using our Salatin style tractor. We don’t have a way to block them in the end that opens, so i have to crawl around inside to catch them. I wear protective glasses and a dust mask. This is nasty business and i was pretty stoked to have my young hired hand do the work of catching the second group the next day (I am so lucky to know a youth with great work ethic!) We do this as close to sundown as we can so that the birds aren’t overly stressed inside the little crates longer than necessary. In the past when we’ve done fewer numbers we catch them at dawn. They spend less time in the crates that way but there is greater risk of lactic acid building up in the muscles just prior to slaughter when caught/chased around so soon before slaughter.
Step two: Prep your butchering station. We butcher in the backyard where the shade of the house keeps the area cool until around 2 in the afternoon. We set up our plucker on a tarp so that the feathers can be dragged to the compost. We have a propane burner that heats a large pot of water (filled with hot water from the tub, not water from the outside house that takes hours to heat up!) to the perfect 145-150 degrees for scalding. I fashioned my own ‘killing cones’ out of used feed sacks nailed to some posts. We sanitize all our coolers and tables and have them propped up at ergonomic heights to help reduce SOME of the body pain that comes from standing around for hours. Each station gets a bucket for guts (which go to the compost heap) and a few ice filled bowls are set out for hearts/livers and feet. We set up the area the day before and in the morning on butchering day the chill tanks are filled with blocks of ice and water and we sanitize all the tables. Packaging station will be set up at the end once the scalder is done being used.
Step three: Do the deed. Meat starts as an animal. This animal must be killed. There are a few ways to ‘skin a cat’ but I have chosen to slice the throats of my birds. Each bird is lowered into the cone, their neck is cut so that they bleed out. I save most of this blood to dry and use as blood meal fertilizer in my garden (waste not want not!). The cones hold the birds somewhat still and prevents them from bruising their bodies as they jerk around some while dying (it’s not pretty, sorry.) Once dead their heads are removed, they’re scalded until the foot skin loosens then dropped into the plucker 3 at a time. From here they go to the evisceration stations, or a chill tank waiting for the eviscerators to catch up. (Check out this homesteader’s awesome youtube vid on how to eviscerate a chicken.) From evisceration they go to a cleaner chill tank then quality control, THEN stuff their body cavity with ice and put into the final chill tank to cool down prior to packaging. We don’t add salt or bleach or anything but ice to our chill tank. Phew, we did it!
Pocket is a great ‘helper’ on butchering day: she helps keep morale high and she cleans up any dropped ‘bits’ from the processing table. Unfortunately she’s an excellent vacuum and ALWAYS overeats herself to the point of wide, sad, sleepy, stuffed corgi whereupon she spends the rest of the day in the house feeling mopey 😉
Step four: Packaging After taking a lunch break to feed my awesome troops Andy and i dive back into it. Packaging 70 chickens may or may not take about 4 hours when doing it by yourselves. Ugh. We gave up trying to verbally communicate by the end: nonsense was all we could get out. We use shrink bags. They’re awesome and i get mine from a youth back in Texas at TexasPoultryShrinkBags.com. Highly recommend this guy. You heat your pot of water to about 190, put the chicken in the bag, insert a little straw, close with a zip tie, dip in the water a few seconds (some water and air will spit out of the straw), pull it out of the water, remove the straw and tighten the zip tie. Voila. Weigh, label and get it in the freezer to cool down asap.
Yes, it’s hard work to grow a year’s supply of chicken meat in one three month window, but i admit to feeling pretty proud. The first year i was terrified and daunted, the second year i hit my stride and this year i’d say i feel confident i’m doing a good job. There’s always room for learning as we move forward, and of course there’s room to make this more of a ‘business’ and push our production numbers. But honestly: i think 70 is the right number for us. We can grow them all at once (three months is long enough for ME to have these meaty, stinky, hungry chickens around), next year we’ll process over two days, sell around 20 to help pay for the project and eat humanely raised, pastured chicken meat for a full year.
Have you raised your own meat chickens? What did you do differently? Comment with your tips, stories or questions!