[Note: We no longer raise meat chickens.]
The first time around, I raised the modern industrial breed, Cornish Rock Cross, which is a Frankenstein of a bird that grows so fast that sometimes its heart explodes and its legs give out because they can’t support its unnatural weight. I will not raise Cornish Cross again. For the time being, I have switched to “Red Broilers.” These are still a modern production breed, but they grow slower and have less problems than the Cornish Cross. Eventually, I will move away from modern breeds altogether to a dual-purpose “standard bred” breed like the Delaware or Barred Rock. I will raise the females as layers and the males for meat.
The life span of a modern breed broiler is short, only eight weeks in a pasture setting for Cornish Cross and just about six weeks in an industrial confinement setting. The Red Broilers take ten weeks. In a pasture setting, the chicks are placed in a brooder, generally inside a barn on a bedded concrete, stone, or wood floor when they arrive as one, two, or three day old chicks, depending on whether they are picked up at the hatchery or shipped. The chicks are then raised in the brooder before being put out on pasture at two, three, or four weeks old, depending on the time of year. Chicks need high temperatures for at least the first couple of weeks until they start to feather out (95°F at first, decreasing by five degrees per week for a few weeks). When chicks are raised by hens, the hens provide this heat. For the next few weeks, the chicks live outside on pasture until they are ready to slaughter.
The meat chickens that I raise are “pasture” raised, which means that they have fresh growing green grass in front of them at all times. To ensure they have this, I confine the broilers to a 1600 square foot paddock in the pasture with a single section of electrified poultry netting, which I move around the pasture as necessary, according to grass height and manure concentration.
I feed a locally grown, ground, and mixed feed that I purchase directly from the farmer. I feed the chickens free choice out of a range feeder that holds fifty pounds of feed. The feeder needs to be filled every two days.
For water I use a five gallon metal purpose-made waterer. I empty and fill the water daily. I scrub it out as needed.
The chickens have a 8′x10′ tarp-covered, floorless, cattle panel hoop house for shelter. The shelter is framed with two by fours. Then two cattle panels are bent into a hoop between two of the sides and secured with fence staples. A tarp is stretched over the cattle panel to provide shade and protection from the rain. The back end is also covered with a tarp to keep the rain out. The cross pieces serve as low makeshift roosts.
Environment and Handling
Between the coop and being kept on pasture, the chickens are free to express all of their natural instincts, including roosting, foraging, and dust bathing, which altogether makes for a low-stress environment. When I walk among them, I do so slowly in an effort to excite or frighten them as little as possible. When I need to handle any of them, I try to catch them quickly and without too much stress, but chickens are fast, so it is sometimes necessary to snatch them by a leg or pin them down by the back in order to get a proper hold of them. Whenever I load or unload chickens into or from a crate or some other carrier, I do so slowly and carefully.
Ideally, chickens should be slaughtered on the farm because there is a USDA exemption that permits farmers to slaughter up to 1,000 chickens per year on the farm for direct sales to customers. However, I currently do not have the labor or equipment resources to allow me to do so. I hope to convince a few of my in-laws to help me, so that it is not necessary to transport the birds thirty-five minutes to the nearest slaughterhouse.