Last year we brought a flock of laying hens to the farm, and our project for this year was to raise some chickens for meat. We have butchered and eaten home-raised birds before, but it was always retired laying hens, and while old, stewed hen is absolutely delicious, it does get old after awhile. We knew we had no interest in raising Cornish Rock crosses (the commercial meat bird). I know all about how great their feed conversion rate is, but I'm less interested in an abnormally large, meaty bird and more into raising smaller but tastier ones that still possess chicken instincts. I want a bird that scratches and pecks, knows how to forage, runs from predators and above all, tastes like something. For us, that meant an old fashioned, dual purpose breed. This is what people used to do, after all. Once upon a time, a family would keep a small flock of chickens (often of mixed origins). Some would be kept for egg production, the rest would be butchered for the table, generally one at a time and as needed.
Our first strategy was to order a straight run assortment of heavy breeds ("straight run", for you non-chicken folks, simply means boys and girls mixed). We bought 25, with the idea that we'd keep the pullets for our laying flock and butcher the cockerels. We also had nine Barred Rocks of the same age that were hatched here by one of our hens - we added them to the group as well, for a total of 34. We kept them in an indoor brooder for about four weeks, and then moved them to a small tractor outside. Once outside, we lost quite a few to a rat snake that was picking them off night after night, and then a few more to a marauding raccoon. We discovered that the males apparently have a stronger survival instinct. In the end, out of 34 chicks, only seven pullets survived. We now have 23 remaining - seven pullets and sixteen cockerels. They are now about fourteen weeks old and we will begin to butcher them this weekend (the pullets are being transitioned to the "big house"). Some we will process now, and some will be grown out larger as roasters. I know they'll be small, but I'm more interested in how they taste. I'm very anxious to see what we end up with. We have weighed a random sampling of these guys, and they seem to weigh anywhere from three to five pounds, so we can probably expect a carcass weight of something like two to three pounds - fine for a fryer.
Our second batch of meat birds was another assortment of heavy breeds, but this time we spared ourselves the expense and heartache and ordered all males. They have done beautifully so far. They are six weeks old now, and looking great. We followed basically the same protocol with them - about four weeks in the brooder and then into a small tractor or field shelter outside. They have a "playpen" of sorts that we constructed around their tractor with fence wire, so we can let them out during the day without them wandering too far. All of our chickens free range, so we need to keep the little ones somewhat contained.
I hope this arrangement works out. I'll have to post a follow up after we've tried a few!
The deed is done and we've eaten one! Details coming soon to a blog near you.