Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Freedom Ranger to the Rescue

One thing I hadn't really given much consideration before starting this project was what kind of chicken to raise for meat. So I talked to my chicken raising friends and did some research. Here is what I found out.

I am pretty disgusted with the Cornish-X ("Cornish Cross") hybrid that is typically raised for meat, especially in commercial/industrial farms under deplorable conditions. It's not the chicken's fault, although they act pretty stupid. I read accounts of huge losses days before slaughter because a of a hot spell and the chickens were too fat/dumb/lazy to walk 5 feet to the watering can and died of overheating.

You see the Cornish-X has been bred specifically to grow very large breasts very quickly, in as little as 6 to 8 weeks from hatch to slaughter! This unnaturally rapid growth rate leads to lots of problems, including heart attacks from the inability of the heart to keep up, or weak and broken legs that are unable to support the large breast weight resulting in breast ulcers from dragging on the ground, starvation and overheating and death from inability to reach feed and water. Not to mention cannibalism, aggressive pecking, bruising and broken bones and disease from overcrowding and unsanitary conditions found in most "industrialized" chicken farms. Makes me never want to eat another store bought chicken or at KFC ever again.

Thankfully there are other meat breeds such as the "Freedom Ranger" or "Red Ranger" that grow a little slower (10 to 12 weeks) and thus avoid many of these problems. They are also better suited for pasturing or day-ranging because they are able to walk and forage for themselves. Of course those extra 4 weeks add up to a lot more feed and thus the conversion cost per pound of meat is considerably higher. And the price of day old chicks are 150-200% that of the Cornish-X. But I have heard that the meat is much better tasting, and my pasture will benefit from the grazing and manure, and I can sleep at night knowing that I am helping to promote Sustainable Agricultural Practices and avoid the problems that come with the Cornish-X.

Then there are also the "duel purpose" Heritage breeds such as the Rhode-Island Reds and Plymouth Bardrocks that can be raised for a season (8-12 months) as a laying hen, and then slaughtered for meat. But I already have all the eggs I need and don't really want to wait a full year to get some meat.

Now it is not even the end of February and I was hoping to get my chicks delivered on or about the 1st of March in order to be finished before the real heat comes in June. However, I have discovered that finding local breeders that produce Freedom Rangers are hard to find, and those that do are sold out till April.

LESSON LEARNED: Order your chicks early.

To reduce costs, I went in with a friend and ordered a 100 straight run chicks, 50 a piece, in order to take advantage of bulk pricing (about $1.80/ea.) I will post the supplier and details as soon as I get their contact info. The chicks are expected to arrive about Mid-March which is great considering that everyone else quoted me the end of April.

I have been so excited with plans for the hoop house shelter and finishing the fencing around my 1 acre pasture that I completely neglected to consider where the day old chicks are going to live for the first few weeks. Guess I better start looking into building a brooder box or two big enough for 50 chicks.

Where's the Chicken?!?

For the last year and a half I have been raising a handful of hens for eggs. I started with 5 pullets (2 Rhode Island Reds, 1 Golden Sex-link, and 2 Plymouth Bared-Rocks) in expectation of gathering a few eggs each day. Not enough to sell but enough to feed our family and occasionally give some to friends.

The goal was to allow them to free-range during the day on our 3 acre yard and return to a coop for laying and roosting at night. What I quickly learned is that everything loves to eat chickens, including several neighborhood dogs. I have had to replace 2-3 hens at a time on 3 different occasions now, and have spent hundreds of dollars on fencing. Currently we are down to 5 hens, none from the original 7, but we are getting an average of 4 incredibly delicious eggs every day.

Living in a rural community we have been spoiled with grass-fed beef grown and butchered locally. But we eat a lot more chicken than beef. Last year we bought several whole chickens from a friend that raised them as "All Natural" without hormones or medications and fed an all vegetable diet. This year I have decided to try raising some meat chickens ("broilers") on our own. After doing some research I decided to try the "Pastured Poultry" method as promoted by Joel Salatin.

I am planning to raise a single test batch of 50 chicks on one acre of fenced pasture with a movable 8x12' hoop house shelter. I would like to keep half of the processed chickens for our family and then sell the rest to recover some of the expenses. If all goes well I will consider expanding to second batch later this year, or maybe 2 to 3 staggered batches next year.

I think the deciding factor will be if I can break even or not and still provide some good quality meat for my family and friends. I know that with initial start-up costs (hoop house, brooder box, losses from inexperience, etc.) that will not happen with this first test batch of only 50 chicks. I am pretty sure that I will have to buy feed in bulk (1000lb totes) to get the price down enough to make this a practical venture. But I am unsure how many chicks will survive to processing, how much feed each will eat, or how many chickens one acre can support at a time or how long it will take the pasture to recover between batches. That is why I will be tracking all of this here, and sharing my experience and lessons learned with any one else that may be considering raising broilers.