“But my favorite remained the basic roast chicken. What a deceptively simple dish. I had come to believe that one can judge the quality of a cook by his or her roast chicken. Above all, it should taste like chicken: it should be so good that even a perfectly simple, buttery roast should be a delight.” -Julia Child, My Life in France
When we first started our farm in 2012, we began with Chickens. Laying Hens, Buff Orpingtons to be exact. After deciding that we no longer wanted to participate in the mass production of chicken for meat, we dove in, head first, and started raising chickens ourselves.
Chickens are considered the “gateway animal” to farming and it is true. Easy to raise, feed, and shelter – anyone is capable of raising their own food.
Are you interested in raising your own meat? You can raise chickens nearly anywhere. Most cities allow a flock of laying hens or a few meat birds.
Here are five tips when purchasing your first meat chickens.
Find a reputable hatchery or small farm to purchase your chickens from. We always buy our meat chickens and laying hens from Murray McMurray Hatchery. We have had a good success rate, and have never had any chickens arrive hurt, sick, or dead. Another place we have purchased chickens is our local farm store. They have a “chick days” here once a year. The kiddos really enjoying gawking over the baby chicks, ducklings, and bunnies. Look on Craigslist or Facebook for nearby farms looking to thin their flock. This is the perfect way to find older chickens ready for butchering.
There are many different opinions regarding meat chicken breeds. I have never had any issue with Cornish Cross, but I know some farmers choose not to use them due to the possibility of massive weight gain. This can be controlled by giving the chickens plenty of opportunity to exercise, and by rationing their feed. Cornish Cross are not heritage, but are a hybrid breed. They are able to grow quickly and are ready to process within 8-10 weeks. We have also raised Freedom Rangers and Barred Rock, which are dual purpose. I always go back to the Cornish Cross. They are easy to maintain, economic, and efficient.
We allow our meat chickens free access to grass and bugs, by placing them in a small portable chicken tractor, my husband made. This greatly enhances the quality of the meat and lowers our feed bill. We do supplement the chickens foraging with table scraps and a small amount of feed purchased from the local mill. This works great in the Spring, Summer, and early Autumn when the chickens have access to a lot of insects.
When purchasing chicks for the first time, a brooder is not necessary. We have been known to use a simple tote filled with wood shavings in the past. Now we use a wooden brooder for inside the house when we have new baby chicks. We keep them in the house for the first month of life to insure their safety. It is awful to walk out in the morning to the brooder, and see that some of chicks have died, when it could have been prevented. Now, we always keep new chicks inside, on our back porch, where we can watch over them. Once they are four weeks old, we move them outside to the chicken tractor. I then move the chicken tractor once a day, in the morning, to a fresh patch of grass and bugs. The tractor is light enough, I can pull it by hand.
Cornish Cross Chickens are ready for butcher after 8-10 weeks. They generally weight 5-7 pounds. The process for butchering chickens will have to be saved for another post, but for now we can think of a few ways to use your meat.
•Roasted Chicken: Easy and to the point. Stuff your chicken with two sliced lemons and cover the bird in a honey butter glaze.
•Soup: Place the Chicken in a large stock pot. Throw in your desired veggies and simmer away. When cooked all the way through, add homemade pasta, beans, dumplings, or wild rice for a hearty soup.
•Chicken Stock: Place what is left from a chicken dinner – feet, neck, and all – in a crock pot. Throw in some onions, garlic, celery, carrots, and spices. Slow cook for 24-48 hours. Strain into jars and process in a pressure canner, or freeze in ice cube trays.
•Chicken, cut up: Simply cut your chicken into breasts, thighs, drumsticks, and wings. Use as you wish.
Growing your own food for meat is well worth the work. There are few things more satisfying than seeing a freezer stocked with meat that you raised and processed yourself.