We are less then 24 hours away from sending our first batch of birds to the butcher and I’ve had some time to reflect.
This was our first year raising our own meat- we tend to never do anything halfheartedly so we started out big by raising 120+ meat Cornish Rock Crosses and 4 pigs. And it has been a steep learning curve. So I’m going to share some lessons we learned so that maybe it will help someone else avoid the slight trouble we had.
1.Buy a pallet of food at the beginning of the whole ordeal- we knew we’d use a few bags shy of a pallet, BUT at least three times we’ve gone to buy food, we’ve had to substitute other foods (multi flock 22% protein and Chick Starter 20% protein) because stores didn’t have any of our Nutrena Meat Bird in stock. Tis the season for raising your own meat, but apparently that doesn’t stop stores from running completely out of food for a week at a time. We went to 3 different towns, 5 different feed stores and NONE of them had meat bird food. Hence the substitutions. We did our research first, but still it was an unnecessary added stress. That’s why this is NUMBER ONE on my list- We will never make this mistake again.
2.Start a month LATER– we should have gotten our chicks delivered in mid-July to have them grow out into September. They handle the heat a lot better before they start getting in all their feathers and gaining all that weight. Poor things really just sit in the shade and pant even tho they are on grass with plenty of cool water. The first time I tried giving them frozen blueberries or water to cool their feet in, they ran in fear. They got it eventually, but I would have felt a lot better having them be their largest in the cooling down period of late August early September , not the hot summer. We also lost a bird to heat stress, which sucked.
3.Keep your chicken tractors on the small side, or build out of lighter materials– they really do poop a lot. These tractors need to be moved AT LEAST every other day, if not every day and it makes it a lot easier to do if they are easy to maneuver and move. Our small tractors fit 25 birds comfortably, and were easily moved by one person on our riding lawnmower. The large tractor fit double the birds, but was cumbersome, and took one person pushing on the back WHILE another pulled with the rider to move. And turning it? Forget about it. This was definitely due to using the boards and tin to build them, but they were sturdy and predator proof so I wont complain to much.
4. Or just give them a large pasture and cheap living quarters- We are on the fence about putting in more fencing (hehe) for a 2 month project every year, but moving the tractors (4 total) all the time was really a time suck. Especially after 6 weeks old, they didn’t want to move when the tractors moved. It then became a two person job, one on the mower, one behind the tractor urging the chickens to get up and go. We’re contemplating just giving them a large pasture and a slap dashed together housing situation for over nights next year.
5.Be realistic with your starting numbers – When I first started researching raising meat birds, most farmers put mortality rate at 30%. So we got 125 thinking we’d lose like 20 to 30 birds before the end of it. These birds are not known for being hardy types- they can die from genetic issues, heat stress, regular stress, overcrowding, ascites, sudden death syndrome, leg/spine deformities(which result in being unable to walk to food and water or being trampled by flock mates), and of course predator attacks. As of week 5 we had lost one in the mail, one at 2 weeks old due to unknown causes, and one to heat stress at 3 and half weeks. According to our research, week 6 was another time period to be wary of. I don’t know if we just got lucky, or if its because I’ve raised so many egg layers successfully, or if it was all due to good genetics, or maybe a mixture of all of it, but we did not have the trouble others have. The big thing being no predator attacks, which I attribute to having our alpacas- they really make other animals nervous, and we haven’t had predation problems since we got them. But in all reality, the meat birds were pretty far away from the alpaca pen, on the other side of the veggie garden.
Overall it’s been a very satisfying experience and we are going to do it again next year. We’ve had a lot of interest in local people asking if we’d have any for sale, which is a possibility. I’ve been having actual pangs of… not guilt, but a kind of sadness at seeing the end of this project. Probably pregnancy hormones, but I’ve been making sure to tell them how great they’ve been and what a learning experience they’ve given me. A bit on the hokey side, but part of raising your own meat is knowing it and I know these birds very well. I am very thankful for them and what they have and will provide for my family.
Until next time, have a wicked good day!