Mr. B. got up around 4 AM today, and 2 teenaged helpers pulled in the driveway just before 5. They headed out to the pasture to load up 118 9-week old broiler chickens. They arrived at our processor a little before 7 AM, the first birds of the day. The teenagers took a nap in the truck on the way back to our farm!
I went back to the processor at 4 PM to pick up a portion of the batch that had been pre-ordered fresh. The owner came out and told me that the processing staff thought they looked great, nice and clean. Based on the meat I picked up this afternoon, we have our meatiest batch ever, weighing an average of just over 4.5 lb each.
We have always raised our meat birds on pasture, moving them daily or more often if needed. The learning curve increased last summer, when we increased our batch size from 25 to 125. Broiler chickens are nowhere near as weather-tolerant as their less inbred, egg-laying counterparts… we must be fastidious about dumping rain off their roofs, making sure the tarps don’t blow off, and getting heat lamps out into the pens if it’s too cold or wet. We switched to certified organic feed last spring, and the additional feed cost (more than double) made us eager to get the birds to the processor as soon as they were ready.
When raising 25 birds for ourselves, we processed our own. So it was feasible to process the male birds at one time, then process the females a week or two later, when they looked ready, and the exact bird size was not all that important. Additionally, we only raised one batch, in late spring when the weather was fairly favorable. After upscaling to 3 batches, 125 birds each, we noticed the great differences in weight gain between birds raised in 70 degree weather versus birds raised in 100 degree weather! So we now plan on 9 weeks (instead of 7 or 8) to avoid ending up with a batch of 2 – 3 lb birds. It is very easy to over or under-feed broilers, so keeping close track of daily feed weights and weekly bird weights in each pen helps us estimate just what the birds need. This way we can avoid leg problems (caused by too much feed) or insufficient weight gain and stress (too little feed).
Even with our current management system, the chickens in the smaller pen (30 birds) tend to gain more than the birds in the larger pens (40 birds). We believe this is because in the smaller pen, there is more feeding trough area per bird. They also nibble on grass, devour clover, and enjoy grasshoppers. We are amused by how large and slow they are compared to egg layers, but appreciate their rapid growth and great feed conversion! Even the so-called “combination meat or egg” breeds take twice as long to raise, eat twice as much feed and don’t ever get quite as meaty as these cornish-cross “meat birds.”
The meat chickens you get at the grocery store are raised in buildings by the tens and hundreds of thousands, in 30 – 42 days. We think it’s worth taking an extra few weeks to use organic feed, get the chickens out on grass, and then end up with a healthier bird at processing time.