Every year now, we raise ‘meatie’ chickens. These are CornishX like you see in the grocery store, only they are NOTHING like the
ones you buy. They are the same hybrid birds, but must be purchased as chicks, as they have been over 50 years in development and the big companies, such as Tyson’s, have a patent on them. But we can order day old chicks from hatcheries so that is what we
do. These birds grow AMAZINGLY fast, from day old to table in 8 weeks.
They eat an inordinate amount of food and are known to have many problems due to their rapid growth and weight gain. Often they
will, quite literally, eat themselves to death. They often suffer from heart problems and leg problems. They rarely survive over 12 weeks of age, many dying younger. A lot of people don’t like raising them because of their health problems and because...well,
anything that eats constantly also poops constantly and they are a bit stinky, when cooped up.
Knowing they will not normally survive beyond 8-12 weeks makes processing them a whole lot easier for me, of course, as I am not
actually hastening their demise. Our technique in raising them is a bit different than most, because of the Maremma Guardian Dogs we have. The first 3 weeks, the chicks stay in a brooder outside, under heat lamps. We started with 34 this spring.
They have their
food taken away at night and are checked daily for ‘pasty butt’ or other problems. They get ACV (apple cider vinegar) in their water and occasionally some hard boiled egg or other stuff which seems to help them out. Their brooder is cleaned daily with fresh
shavings added back. Once they are 3 weeks old, they have feathered out enough and gotten big enough to move to their next quarters.
Assuming all the lambs have arrived and goats have finished kidding, we catch the meaties a few at a time and put them in a big
wheelbarrow for transport to the lambing shed. They get to spend a few days in there until they accept it as their ‘safe place’. After that, the gate is left open and they have access to the back yard. They do all their eating and drinking outside and the
Maremma’s protect them from raptors and other predators. We used to have Great Horned Owls landing on top of the chicken coop at night, terrorizing and stalking the poultry, but since Bruno and Cletus came, they don’t anymore, even though we can see the owls
staring at us from in the barn. The dogs have been amazingly effective.
This allows the meaties to free range at will, coming and going as they please, a much better option for us, than putting them in
a ‘chicken tractor’. They are cleaner and get more exercise. With fresh grass and bugs to eat, the meaties are rationed only enough food to get them out of our way when we go to feed calves in the morning, and again at night. They learn pretty quickly that
seeing me go outside usually means treats. They pretty much mob anyone daring to enter the back yard, waddling at high speeds to weave and bob between our legs as we walk. The free ranging made it a lot more economical to raise them, as well as healthier for
them. The food they do get, is a high protein grower ration, to make sure their needs are met, but the bulk of their diet they forage for.
This year, we started
with 34 meaties and ended up with 32. Not a bad record.
The favorite meatie hangout this year was under the raspberry bushes by the rock wall. There was ample shade and moisture there
to help them keep cool in the hottest part of the day.
They ventured into the flower and veggie gardens when it cooled off and did a great job of keeping bugs away from the plants. This
year there were 0 tomato hornworms and until the meaties were gone, there were no squash bugs. They were either not interested, or unable to keep up with the massive infestationof
box elder bugs we get every year, but those didn’t attack my plants.
They spent their spare time begging for handouts from whomever dared venture into their territory.
Abby found it all highly amusing!
They had a great life, with all the room to roam they could want, protection, food and comfort. In the end, they were dispatched
with respect and compassion in our efforts to make it as humane and easy as possible.
Sometimes folks ask me how we have the heart to raise our own meat. The chickens purchased in commercial stores have been raised
in crowded conditions, usually in filth and without fresh air or sunshine.
It wouldn’t take long to do a study on that to find how horrible the conditions are that most of these animals are
raised in. Their end is no better. Our animals live a healthy, happy life, in as natural an environment as possible. Their needs are all taken care of and they are treated well and appreciated. The end of their life is well considered. Instead of dying a painful
death of illness or old age, or the more common death being torn apart by a predator, they are given a quick and nearly painless end, with purpose. I would much rather be one of my own chickens or sheep than a wild animal, or much, much worse, one raised
in captivity by commercial farms. We know how they were raised, treated, fed and processed, all with the highest quality of care. We appreciate our meals more also, knowing where it came from and the cost to the animal. You just can't take that for granted
like you can when you buy it at the store.
This year we invested in a WhizBang Chicken plucker. The hardest part of processing chickens is the plucking. It would take forever
for me to get all the feathers out and with some of the older birds, I would get so discouraged, I would give up and donate it to the dogs, who would take it out to the pasture and guard it for a few days, as if holding a little wake, before they finally,
with clean consciences, consumed it. Being
able to process our own chickens gives us the flexibility to decide WHEN is the best time, plus it saves us over $3 per bird plus the fuel it takes to drive over 200 miles to have it done.
As we had 30 birds to do, we broke it down into 2 days. I put the first 15 in the shed for the night and locked them in, so we didn’t
have to chase them around the next day and also so their crops would be empty. It’s a lot more sanitary and easier to do if they haven’t eaten for 8-12 hours. They do get all the water they want though. The first day took us a few hours as we were still getting
the hang of things. The second day went much smoother and faster.
We used a traffic cone to put the birds in to dispatch them and bleed them out. They then went into a scalder, which was a turkey
fryer full of water kept at about 145-150 degrees. Once the feathers came off the wing easily, two at a time were put in the plucker and about 45 seconds later they were completely clean. They then went to the table where we cleaned out the insides and finished
them and put them into a large cooler full of ice water, to quickly chill.
Keeping the water cold, we let them sit overnight, the next morning we bag them and put them in the fridge for a day or so until
the rigor mortis is gone and the joints move freely. If you don’t, the meat will be inedible.
At that point we will freeze them. All the feet go in the freezer until I have time to ‘take their socks off’ and use them to make
stock along with left over vegetables and carcasses from meals.
All our birds this year weighed over 5 lbs and a few over 6. The meat is incredible.
I cut up one chicken into parts. The legs, thighs and wings went in the frying pan for one meal as fried chicken . One breast I
cut up for chicken strips for another meal a couple nights later. The other breast I cooked up to use in a chicken divan casserole and the back was put back into the freezer to use in stock. That’s a lot of mileage out of one chicken! The flavor and texture
of these birds is also superior to anything you can buy, and there are no additives or preservatives put in them. They were healthier than commercial birds and we will have healthier benefits from eating them!
Now THAT is something to crow about.