I raised 4 chickens in my backyard this year. They were chickens for 6 weeks. Now they are chicken.
They started as little puff balls, just a couple days old when I first held them in late May. The birds were somewhat difficult to procure, with covid causing increased demand from small-scale farmers and from backyard chicken people. Internet distributors and the big catalogs were sold out through August or later, so I asked a local farmer (Schmidt Century Farm) if I could buy a few chicks from his upcoming shipment. He was kind enough to oblige me with 4 chickies.
To start, the chicks were raised in a cardboard box in the garage. A heat lamp (light bulb), a waterer, a cupful of food and plenty of fresh bedding (wood shavings) kept them more than satisfied. I learned that peeps mean not satisfied, and that quiet means all good. Too cold, lots of peeps. No food, lots of peeps. Pick the box up and the birds feel like their whole world is shifting, like an unfathomably massive earthquake – lots of peeps.
They were great looking babies for about one week. After that, franken-monsters. It’s because these chickens were Cornish Crosses. Probably every bird you’ve eaten has been a Cornish Cross. It’s the industry standard “meat bird”. These birds are the ubiquitous “meat bird” for several reasons:
Feed Efficiency: Mega-scale growers, in an indoor, climate-controlled environment, making use of medication and highly-specific feed, claim a feed efficiency approaching 2:1 for the Cornish Cross. That means 2 pound of feed leads to 1 pound of bird, or that a 4 pound bird will have consumed a lifetime 8 pounds of feed. Other chicken breeds will grow much less for the same amount of feed, with feed efficiency ratios more like 4:1 or 5:1.
Growth Rate: The 2:1 feed efficiency helps keep variable costs low, and a quick cycle-time (fast growth rate) helps keep fixed costs low. The 12 to 16-week grow out of a heritage breed or egg-laying chicken won’t do for maximum profitability at a bottom-line price. Cornish Crosses tip the scales at 4+ pounds in just 6 weeks for a “broiler” or 6+ pounds in 8 weeks for parting out into breasts, legs, thighs and wings.
Consumer Taste: Consumers like the Cornish Cross. Or, since they’ve never eaten anything else, they think they like it. It has pearl-white, semi-translucent skin for a pleasant look in the butcher case, the young birds are tender with very little connective tissue, and the taste is overall exceptionally mild.
Proportion: The boneless, skinless chicken breast is the go-to protein for intrepid dieters heading out on their first dietary forays, the top choice for Men’s Health Meatheads, and the easy choice to satisfy a sensitive palate. The whole world, and America in particular, has a massive demand for chicken breast meat. The Cornish Cross rises to the occasion to meet the white-meat fervor, with breasts so heavy that the birds appear on the verge of toppling forward and are known to occasionally snap legs under the heavy load. That massive chest tips the scales at 54g protein per breast (not including the tender), a total of 108g of white-meat breast protein per bird.
Okay, a diversion on the chicken breed. Back to the tale.
For the first three weeks, the birds lived in the garage. The most important things are: keep the birds on clean bedding, keep them dry, and keep them warm. The garage makes all of these easy. Every day or two I would scoop out the most heavily pooped on bedding and replace it with more wood shavings. The garage doesn’t leak, so the birds stay dry. And the garage doesn’t let in a cold breeze, so the 100 Watt light bulb (adjusted to be further and further away, as the birds grew older and more robust) was plenty of heat for Day 1 to Day 21.
Next important would be water. The chicken-raising world used to use upside down jugs that, through hydraulic principles, maintained a shallow rim of water around the jug’s base. This is great and simple, but the chickens have an irritating habit of defecating in this shallow rim. For healthy, happy, medicine-free chickens, it’s preferable to keep the chicken shit not in the water. Fortunately, someone invented a small bowl that can be screwed into the side of a bucket. The bowl auto-fills by gravity, then a spring-loaded valve automatically stops the filling at the correct level. The bowls are held off the ground a few inches and tight against the bucket wall, preventing chickens from perching on them. This system, in my totally unqualified opinion, elegantly solves the issue of keeping the feces and the water fully separate.
The goal is to make the 1-ounce chicks into 4+ pound chickens in 6-8 weeks, therefore the next most important thing is feed. I bought a 50-pound bag of unmedicated pelletized food from Fleet Farm for $14. For the first 3 weeks, this was their exclusive nutrition.
After the first 3 weeks, the chickies were no longer chickies, but were awkward half-feathered early adolescents, and it was time to boot them out into their backyard home. Their new home was a “chicken tractor” that I had built. It’s a bottomless pen, intended to be dragged along the ground with the chickens inside, giving them a fresh spot on the pasture every day. The pen provides a structure to hold the food and water, plus the roof and sides provide shelter from the sun, wind, rain and myriad predators that would love to snack on the defenseless birdies. Open sides allow for the birds to catch some sunshine rays and an open bottom allows access to the good earth. The movable nature of the pen is the ingenious innovation – a new patch of ground each day: 1. gives the birds a piece of nutrient-rich soil and vegetation to scratch and peck for vegetation, seeds and bugs, 2. spreads out the manure, thwarting the proliferation of parasites and other disease, and 3. systematically moves the birds through the pasture, aerating the soil and distributing high-nitrogen fertilizer across the field.
Every day I would walk through the garden and say hi to the birds. Three minutes of daily maintenance is all the birds asked for – drag the chicken tractor to a fresh patch of grass, check and top off the feed and water as needed. I enjoyed sitting and observing the birds. Watching the waddles and combs grow out (the red flaps on their faces and chins that you and I used to call a “gobbler”), seeing the birds hunt for bugs, understanding the “pecking order” of their small society. On cool nights the chickens would pile into a corner of the pen, then at sunrise they would be bathe in the warm early morning rays.
The birds became lazier and lazier as they grew. During the sixth week, they were rarely spotted standing. They could reach the feed pellets while laying next to the trough, so why bother standing! The birds continued their astonishing growth and feed consumption through this last week of their lives (Week 6), precisely finishing the 50-lb feed bag in alignment with the day I planned their harvest.
I wasn’t thrilled with the prospect of cutting the throats of the birds I had raised, the birds I had held as fuzzy yellow 1-ounce chicks, the birds I had checked on and talked to and cared for each day. I’ve killed, processed and eaten many wild animals. And I’ve eaten plenty of farm-raised chicken wings. These are similar things, but definitely different things, than personally slaughtering an animal that you brought into this world and raised specifically to become food. The birds had lived a happier and healthier life than any chicken I’ve bought at Costco or even the farmer’s market. Maybe I was anxious to ensure that the slaughter would match the high standards of their lives. Or maybe I was just anxious about wielding the knife on a domestic animal for the first time.
It turned out to be fine. You grab the chicken by the wing, flip the bird upside down and slide it headfirst into an inverted “kill cone”. Once in the cone, the bird becomes surprisingly docile. A second later, a swipe to neck opens up the jugular and that’s that. The birds have no reaction to the knife. In just a couple minutes, the 4 birds hang in the kill cones, last drops of blood dripping out. That’s that. No headless birds running about, no blood squirting, no screaming people, no screaming chickens. It was as humane and efficient as could be hope for, not nearly as bad as I had feared.
A dip in a hot water bath followed by a spin in the plucker, and the carcass suddenly looks nothing like the birds that had been scratching, pecking and clucking in the backyard earlier that morning. Suddenly, the chickens have become chicken. We worked on each carcass for a few more minutes with a knife, fingers and rinse water. Slide the dressed and cleaned bird into a bag, and the journey from chicks to chickens to chicken is complete.
That night we grilled one of the chickens. I had high hopes – these birds were of my brood, were raised under my tutelage and care. I also had high expectations – I (and, probably, you) have never eaten a chicken that has walked on grass or sat in the sunshine. I kept the seasoning a simple sprinkling salt, pepper and a bit of garlic, plus a few sprigs of garden parsley stuffed inside.
My high hopes were met and exceeded. Maybe knowing where the chicken came from and the life it lived gave me a bias. Maybe it was some kind of a placebo effect. But who cares? Good is good. Knowing where your food came from should make it taste better and should make a meal more satiating and satisfying.
I started with 4 chicks. Keeping them happy and healthy for 6 weeks, plus 50 pounds of feed, made them into 4 "broiler" size chickens. Harvest day added 4x4 pounds of chicken to the freezer, containing over 1,000 grams of high-quality, ecologically responsible, delicious protein, plus fats, vitamins, minerals. This was a great experience. And, besides harvest day, it would be hardly any more work to raise two, three, even ten times that many chickens. That would be enough for a whole family for a whole year. Hmm. Maybe in 2021 this story will be continued…