Specifically, let’s talk about the chickens we plan to eat. Meat chickens. This has been a huge topic of discussion in our household lately as we plan for spring chicks and the raising of chickens that will ultimately end up on our dinner table. We read some books from the library, we reviewed all our hatchery catalogs, we read the blogs of other homesteaders and we did lots of online research. This topic is so much more complicated than you may think and we are still working out our plan.
So, sure, we already have a flock of chickens that are happy and healthy. Clearly we already know something about raising chickens, Right? Why all the extra research? Why not just eat the chickens we have? Good questions and I will respond to both. Yes, we know how to raise up some nice backyard chickens that are now finally laying eggs and providing us some great nutrition that almost makes up for the cost of feeding them. (Not really, but someday it might). Our current flock was raised for laying. They are breeds that take a long time to mature and will lay consistently, be good mothers should they hatch out any eggs, are hardy enough for a harsh winter, and when they are no longer laying they will make fine stew meat. For good meat birds you want a young (tender) bird. If we put this flock in the freezer, they would be too tough for most anything other than soup/stew and we would have to replace them with spring chicks that would take up to six months to reach mature egg laying ability. All around not a good idea.
Well, what makes a good “meat” bird? The answer to that question is where it all gets pretty complicated. It’s where you start to see a conflict between economics and ethics. It’s a pretty intense battle to be sure. But before I go there…..let me just dispel a HUGE myth. Brace yourself. Now, what imagine comes to mind when you think of free-range, all natural, organic, pastured chickens? Is it something like this?
A beautiful flock of full grown colorful chickens leisurely pecking about in an open field? Makes sense, however, it’s simply not true. Even if you are going to a local farm and buying your specialty organic chickens for premium prices….I can all but guarantee the chickens you see roaming around are nothing like the chickens they sell you to place in your freezer. Why can I say this with such an absolute certainty? Well, here’s the facts…..
1.) A chicken raised for meat needs to be processed at a young age. Depending on the breed, this can be as young as 6 weeks.
2.) A young chicken is not safe in an open field. Too many predators.
3.) A chicken raised on a 100% free range diet will most certainly not reach a good processing weight in an efficient time frame.
4.) The most common breed to be raised for meat is a Cornish Cross. It is a terrible forager.
Back to point number four. Have you ever given any thought to the breed of chicken you eat? If your like most folks, the answer is probably not. I know I certainly never gave it a second thought. I just bought my chicken at the store and assumed chicken is chicken. The only thing I kind of knew, was that I was likely eating a rooster. But even on that point I was wrong. A rooster is a mature male chicken. They don’t sell mature birds in the store. What they actually sell are cockerels (young male chickens) and pullets(young female chickens). A technicality, but an important distinction. I also knew that most chickens were raised in factories not on farms. I accepted this as harsh but purely economic reality and since I knew I couldn’t afford alternative options, I ate the chickens I could afford. That’s a nice segue into the ethics part of our discussion,
but before we broach the subject of ethics, let’s discuss economics. Because let’s face it, buying food is an economic decision.
Here’s an equation for you. The cost of a chicken is as follows…
Cost of baby chick+cost of feed. Seems simple enough. It doesn’t account for labor and processing, or cost of housing and supplies, or any medications (if necessary), but it keeps that math simple for our purposes. The cost of feed is directly dependent on duration. How long must you feed the bird? Or more specifically, how long does it take for the bird to reach the desired weight for slaughter. Obviously, it also matters what you feed your chickens. Even 100% pasture raised chickens will require some feed. If you’re going all non-GMO and organic, that feed can be quite expensive. So duration becomes extremely important. The longer it takes for your baby chick to reach a good slaughter weight, the more costly it is to raise that bird. For that fact, (and another that I will refer to shortly), most poultry farms raise the Cornish Cross. This bird is a hybrid. It has been bred to grow meat fast. Not feathers, not bone, but meat. In as little as six weeks they reach a live weight of 5-6 pounds. They are also an inexpensive chick because they are typically ordered in such large quantities. For pure economics, this is the bird to raise for meat.
The other reason poultry producers choose Cornish Cross hybrid is because this is the chicken you are familiar with, even if you’ve never seen one alive. This chicken has a large broad breast, short legs, an ample meaty body, and lightweight bones. The feathers are white, they pluck easy, and the ones that don’t pluck are damn near invisible. This is not just your grocery store chicken, but it is the most common choice for small and organic farms as well. Sounds like the perfect bird, right? From a purely economic stand point, it really is. But what about the ethics?
So, back to the myth. You probably won’t ever see these short legged, young, white chickens roaming around an open field. You will most likely never see an adult version of these birds. They are simply not hardy enough for that life. If allowed to grow to adulthood, they have a very small chance of survival. If they do lay eggs and hatch them out, their offspring will not resemble the parent bird because it is a hybrid. Their legs are fragile and not sturdy enough for their stout bodies. They are prone to genetic abnormalities that cause deformities in their legs and bone structure. They have weak hearts and do not tolerate stress well. They have a thin coating of feathers and can not withstand any extremes in temperatures. They are lazy and not good foragers. In fact, they do best when raised in fairly tight quarters so that they have a shorter distance to reach their feed and their water. They are white and therefore easy targets for predators. You can raise them on a pasture, but it most be in a moveable and predator proof pen such as a chicken tractor. I recently read “Pastured Poultry for Profit” by Joel Salatin. He swears by this breed and this method, and raises thousands of birds this way every year, moving the chicken tractor everyday. He also suggests putting about 100 birds in each structure and making sure food and water are placed in multiple locations to ensure they have easy access without having to walk more than a few feet. Most folks, however, raise the Cornish Cross in a stationary pen with some good shelter from the weather. In any pen situation they will grab and eat after bugs that happen along their path, and they will eat some fresh grass and greens, but their own laziness prevents them from getting any substantial nutrition this way. They must have feed, and a lot of it. They are growing fast and they are hungry. They are also dumb. The dumbest chickens ever. In fact, at a certain stage in their grow-out cycle you must restrict their access to food or they will quite literally eat themselves to death. I also just read an article (while writing this blog) where a farmer told the story if how he went out one hot afternoon to check on his birds. Over 20% were dead and the rest were lethargic. They had plenty of shade and water available but were so lazy they refused to walk the few feet to get to shelter and instead stayed out in the hot sun and perished. They are really dumb lazy birds.
So, I ask you again, have you ever given much thought to what breed of chicken you eat? Because now that I am slightly more knowledgeable about these meat birds, I’m conflicted. Ethics or economics? I stopped buying grocery store chicken awhile back. Pretty much as soon as we had rabbit available as a sustainable and satisfactory substitute. But I love chicken and I definitely want chicken on my dinner table. I just want the chicken I eat to have a great and happy life, up until the end, just like our rabbits do. Much of the reason we homestead is because we want that deeper connection to our food. Grow it, know it, love it, and eat it….guilt free.
Of course there are alternatives to raising the Cornish Cross. Most hatcheries sell a production bird to be raised for meat, that will reach ideal slaughter weight at about 10-12 weeks. It’s still a hybrid, so you wouldn’t want to keep any around for raising offspring, but they do have fewer health concerns and their bodies look a little bit more like backyard chickens. Cleaned and dressed though, they won’t look much like a grocery store chicken. That’s ok with me, but if I’m gonna do that that I might as well just raise a nice dual purpose heritage breed chicken. A dual purpose bird is one that is large enough to be raised for meat, but will also do a great job at laying eggs. A heritage breed is a non-hybrid. These are the chickens your grandparents raised. They are colorful and hardy and there are literally hundreds of breeds to choose from. Now, go back to that myth again…..beautiful full grown chickens lazily pecking about In a field. Those are your heritage birds. Most are also dual purpose. You raise them from chicks and cull only the males for meat. The females can be raised as layers. They can also hatch out their own eggs, having offspring that is just like the parent chickens, making them a sustainable option. Each year you can allow your hens to hatch out offspring, then you start again. Cockerels to the freezer, pullets become laying hens. Many are excellent foragers and although they take much longer to reach slaughter weight (12 weeks or longer depending on the breed), they can be allowed to pasture or free range and will do a great job of supplementing their own feed costs. The additional exercise they get foraging however, does slow the growth rate some. The downside of raising a heritage breed as your meat bird is worth mentioning. They will have a much smaller breast, a less meaty body, more bone to meat ratio, and will likely look very different from any chicken you ever put on your dinner table before. I can only assume they would still be delicious, as I’ve never eaten one.
There’s more to discuss here related to the ethics of chicken raising. I could go into great detail explaining the difference between pasture raised, free range, cage-free, organic, etc. But seriously, none of those really mean a lick to me. Most of them are complete bullshit and don’t mean what you think at all. Remember the myth. They are catch phrases that have now been turned into specific USDA labeling definitions and the great majority of poultry producers meet the bare minimum requirements to get the stupid label. If you didn’t actually see your chicken and how it was raised, just assume the worst. That may sound pessimistic, but there’s economics involved and if you’re planning to sell chickens you have to make an affordable product that will also create profits. When profit is the name of the game, economics wins out over ethics….every time.
So, if I do what I want to do….raise heritage breed chickens for meat, allow them to forage during the day when I am home and they can be supervised, provide them a quality feed, process them at a healthy age, and charge enough to cover my cost, they will absolutely not be affordable. In fact, I’m pretty sure they would be really freaking expensive and I can’t guarantee they will taste any better. However, they will be guilt free chickens for my dinner table and that’s what I want. And if by chance I have friends and family that are willing to pay for guilt free chicken, all the better. I didn’t become a homesteader so I could choose easy, or economical. I choose ethics, but you make your own choice. I don’t judge. Ever.