Friday, September 11, 2015

Raising Pastured Poultry : Self Sufficiency

Every year, we try to move closer and closer to a self sufficient lifestyle. Although we have eaten a few of our chickens in the past, this year was the first year we decided to raise and process ALL of our own chicken. 
The first thing we needed to decide was which breed we would get. EVERYONE gets Cornish cross (CornishX). This is what breed most commercial facilities grow. However we wanted to get a breed which still packed the pounds on fast, but didn't have as many leg problems as the X's.  You see, X's grow so fast that their bones don't grow as quickly as their muscle. This causes pain when the birds stand, walk, or even move. So most of their time is spent sitting right next to the food and water sources. The breasts get bruised, the legs and wings break easily. (Have you noticed how every other wing or drumstick is severely bruised or broken?)  Chickens never used to be this way. 
It's simple, this breed is designed for super fast turn around, plain and simple. 

After some research, we decided on Cornish roasters, instead of X's. The nice thing is that at the time of our first batch, I was working at a larger operation where they raised pastured X's for a local restaurant. And since I was in charge of caring for the birds at both locations, this allowed me to see the exact differences between each of the varieties.
Cornish crosses are supposed to get to processing size at 8-9 weeks, while the roasters are supposed to reach the same weight at 12 weeks. 

So began the daily comparisons of the two farms.

The tractors I made for pasturing our birds cost me a little under $250.00 for both. I could have easily made them cheaper using recycled materials, but i chose to purchase treated lumber and make them to last as long as possible so that we could run many batches of birds through them to recover the costs. (Yes I know this will take a few years.)
The tractors are 3'9" by 7'9"
I designed the tractors to fit perfectly inside of my 4x8 utility trailer just in case I ever needed to transport these (or other) birds to a new location.  They make one hellavu transport cage. I even used one of them to pickup three feeder hogs that we raised throughout the spring and summer as well.

Once the chicks were feathered enough to come out of the brooder, I moved them to the tractors. With cool nights still looming, I chose to run a cord out and hang a heat lamp just in case. It didnt really take a lot of time, and reassuring that the chicks wouldn't freeze to death was well worth it.

Withing another week (week 5-6) the birds were moved to better pasture where they would have fresh grass under their feet every day.  The birds still need feed and water, but they supplement their diet by eating grass and bugs. They are allowed to scratch and claw at the dirt as they please which helps prevent them from pecking each other to death.

The tractors are moved daily to ensure fresh grass and also to provide a clean spot for the birds to lay. This also means that each time you move the tractor, the birds will be fertilizing a new spot.
If you look closely at the photo above, you can see the track marks of the cage on the left from having been moved each day. Within a week or so, the flat grass and chicken waste behind the tractors will have become overgrown, lush, and green.

This is just one of our birds which we processed at week 11.  (5.5 lbs)

So what was the difference between the two farms?
1) Our birds did take about 2-3 weeks longer to feed out that the X's, which meant a little more cost in feed. (I would say an additional 20% in feed
2) Our birds had very little bone breakage and minimal bruising
3) I noticed a huge difference in the activity of the two varieties. Our birds seemed to stand and walk around much more than the X's, which i'm sure had an impact on the lack of bruising, while the X's basically lay on their breasts all day long.  When walking, the X's seem to wattle back and forth a lot more because of the unstable nature of their structures.

To Our Little Backyard Farm, the additional cost of the feed was easily justified by our choice of breed. 
Having said that,  I do not discourage anyone from buying X's.  They grow fast and furious, and raising your OWN meat birds is a much healthier option than that store bought crap!