Raising Pastured Chickens: Part 1

This post is to be the first installment of a 3 or 4 part series. This year marks our third season raising our own chicken and the first raising a few extra to sell, so i figured it would be a great opportunity to document the project.

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Introduction:

When my husband and i purchased this property, we did so with the goal of raising 90% or so of our own food. This began with eggs, moved to duck and rabbit meat and then the garden and lots of food preservation….. but i was still buying chicken in the store. And if you know anything about the chicken raising industry in this country, you know why i wanted to change that habit toot suite. The obvious first option would be to buy my chicken at the farmer’s market raised by folks i know and trust. But we don’t make a lot of money, and i have a lot of gumption: so i decided to raise our own.

The first year I decided to stick with the industry standard: Cornish Cross. This fast growing hybrid is ready to slaughter as early as 7 weeks old. Sounds easy! But they also over eat if you don’t monitor their feed just right…… which i didn’t quite ‘get’… needless to say we lost quite a few to heart failure and other obescity related ailments. The texture of the meat was ‘meh’ and the flavor was ‘nonexistent.’ They made great chicken strips.

Mark year two: let’s try something different! A friend of mine raises many Freedom Rangers a year to sell at the Corvallis Farmer’s market. This hybrid was developed to grow more quickly than the ‘heritage’ breeds or popular cornish x alternative, “Red Rangers” yet they grow slower than the cornish x and have more chickeny personalities and body structure. Sounded great and went great: we lost two chicks out of the batch of 55, harvested at 12 weeks (the norm with this breed is 10, but i like BIG chickens) and were extremely pleased with the yield and the flavor. Last year we kept the birds in a tractor (moveable pen) through their entire lives post brooding: there were many ravens raiding our muscovy pasture and i didn’t want to risk my chickens!   But this year we plan to tweak the tractor with a door so that the birds can truly free range once they’re large enough to be less attractive to overhead predators.

But is raising my own chicken really more affordable than purchasing at the farmer’s market? Last year we stocked our chest freezer with a year’s supply of chicken meat. The cost of feed + power in the brooder barn + housing materials (straw, pine shavings etc) and a new roll of electric fence divided by the number of pounds we harvested (just under 300 pounds out of 53 or so birds!) worked out to $1.84 a pound. Local farmer’s market price for pasture raised chicken is around $3-5 dollars a pound, typically $4    and the nasty Foster Farm’s ‘chicken’ is around $1.20…..   I’d say i’m happy with our results and hope to improve on those numbers this year!

 

So, here we go: Adventures in Raising Your Own Chicken on Pasture part 1:

Chicks!

IMG_8562We brood our chicks under a wood hover in a room in our barn. The hover has a heat lamp at each end that plug in separately. The room is drafty and leaky so we have some plastic jerry rigged in place to keep the drips out and hope that the warmth of the hover and the bodies of their buddies keeps the chicks warm enough. I do keep the windows of my barn closed with plastic through the winter and keep them ‘boarded up’ like this until the chicks are moved out, or it actually warms up outside.  I add straw to the top of the hover when it’s cold to help further insulate it. As the chicks grow i add wood blocks under the feet of the hover to raise it up, finally turning off one light during the day, then all the time, then the second light during the days until the chicks have enough feathers to head outside.

IMG_8565Before bringing the chicks home, i get the room all ready: shavings down, hover turned on, water and feed close enough to the hover they don’t have to leave the warmth for long. I add colloidal silver to one waterer and probiotics to the other to help boost their tiny immune systems. I also add a pan of chick grit to help them digest their feed. It’s important to check for any stopping up in the first week, and to carefully wipe their vents clean if they do get ‘pasty butt.’ The most important thing is to keep them warm, fed and watered.

We keep our chicks in the brooder for 3-5 weeks depending on their feathers and the weather. Important: When you bring your chicks home, always dip each little beak into the water so that they begin getting hydrated right away and learn where their water is.

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And since my life is never without anxiety: a temp employee at the hatchery accidentally packed up 100 cornish cross for me instead of Freedom Rangers! Gah! But since they’re the best at customer service, they met me just down the road with a new box of the RIGHT chicks and i re-homed the cornish….   The brooder was full that first day! Thank you for going above and beyond for your customers, Jenk’s Hatchery!

Stay tuned for progress, and let us know if you’d like to reserve the limited few we’ll have for sale or comment with questions about tackling your own chicken project! Raising your own chicken meat is pretty easy once you get the hang of it.

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