I recently read that there are chicken shortages in the supply chain (specifically “chicken tenders”) and I’m not going to discuss why. I’m writing this because many people who read the blog do not have a homestead or even a large back yard and worry about supply chain shortages. I hope to give you some ideas on how you can raise your own meat birds in limited space or under restricted conditions. As I wrote this it occurred to me that I was recreating “factory farmed” chicken production. That made me sad, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
The Homeowners Association (HOA)
If you are in an HOA, read your documents carefully. If a limit on animals is not mentioned in the HOA documents, go to the city or county website and check the zoning laws for your area. Read them carefully and know your rights and restrictions. Some HOAs are very “loosey-goosey” and people do whatever they want within limits. Other HOAs are so strict that the board members walk around or drive around, patrolling the neighborhood with a notepad seeking whom they may write up for an infraction of the rules. Some have restrictions on the color, size, and placement of just about everything exterior (and interior) to the home. Your direct neighbors are your biggest threat since they have eyes and ears on your property – make an assessment of that threat. An angry neighbor can make your life miserable. You may or may not know that modern HOAs have the legal authority to foreclose on your property if you remain out of compliance. Tread forth carefully if you are in an HOA, as you will have no legal standing in court if you signed on to live in that HOA.
You may be able to raise chickens, even if you live in an HOA, but there may be a limit on the number of birds and definitely on roosters. For instance, I know a family whose HOA documents specified a limit of 3 chickens and no roosters. They had a small backyard. They ordered a coop kit and got a docile breed of chickens – Black Jersey Giants. They were faithful layers and fairly quiet. There are many docile breeds that don’t make a lot of noise, but do your own research.
As always, do your best to get out of HOA living. It is anathema to self-sufficient living. However, this is still America and if you feel that the risk is worth it, you can be creative and even raise many animals in the garage or in a portion of your home without raising suspicions or being a nuisance to others. Such animals may include rabbits, meat birds, and quail. All of which, provide protein on a plate for your family.
Meat Bird Choices
I like to purchase from McMurray Hatchery because I’m guaranteed to get healthy chicks, and can pick up at my local Post Office. Initially, I purchased baby chicks as layers from a regional breeder, but was way overcharged and wasn’t confident in their living conditions at the time of purchase. You may have a better experience than I did. The McMurray website is chock full of information about the breeds they sell, along with customer questions. If you are curious about the differences in breeds, the information on their website is excellent. Here I will give a short synopsis of the various types of meat birds.
There are lots of choices when it comes to meat birds. The hybrids, such as the Cornish X Rocks, grow to about 5 lbs in approximately 8 weeks or ~2 months. They are not recommended for growing at elevations above 5,000 ft and are not suitable for breeding. They can grow so large as to not be able to walk. They are strictly bred for meat and are very popular in homesteading circles due to their rate of growth and short grow-out period. They eat non-stop and poop out the waste in large quantities – something to keep in mind if your plan is to keep them in a confined area for 8 weeks. And whooey! They stink if confined in an area that doesn’t have a fresh breeze.
The heritage breeds grow at a much slower pace and are “dual-purpose”, meaning they are good for eggs and meat. For instance, the Barred Rock (Plymouth Rock) males will be ready to butcher around 20 weeks or ~4-5 months. The females will be smaller at 20 weeks. Choosing heritage breeds is a good choice if you are worried about not having the guts to butcher them because they will give you eggs and can live many years. I’m currently raising about 40 heritage breed meat birds. Basically, they are smaller and take longer to grow out than the Cornish X.
Where I live, 50-pound bags of chick/grower feed costs about $17. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep track of how many bags of feed I’ve gone through – a lot!! The bag will have recommended feeding directions on it.
I can just imagine the cringes of those of us who love to free-range our birds, grow them out in chicken tractors on grass, or have a large chicken run. Raising animals in the garage has many challenges, for yourself, and the birds. However, if you do not have a homestead, cannot raise chickens in your backyard on grass, and are otherwise limited, it is possible to raise meat birds in your own enclosed garage, away from prying eyes. Remember what they say about desperate times.
You won’t be able to park cars in the garage for the duration (~2 months) because the vehicle exhaust will kill the birds or be harmful to them. Temperature control is important, but you don’t necessarily need an insulated garage unless you live in snow country because you will be providing warmth via heat lamps for the first few weeks.
I’d suggest raising hybrids to limit the time required, but space and cleanliness will be your biggest concerns. If you choose to raise heritage breeds, you won’t need as much space, but cleanliness will still be the challenge. There are several ways to do this.
Wire dog crates – these are great because you can get an extra-large wire crate for about $100 or less. They are much less if you search for a used one. The bottom half of the crate must be wrapped in chicken wire or hardware cloth to keep the tiny chicks from escaping. I’ve even seen the sides lined with cardboard – whatever works! They’re fairly easy to keep clean because the crate comes with a slide out floor or you can remove the birds entirely (just use a box) and hose the crate off outside periodically. There is plenty of ventilation. I used this method, initially, for my layers and Guineas until I could move them to the large chicken run and house outside. For hybrids, the tiny chicks can go in one crate, but quickly they will outgrow it and you’ll be only able to fit 3 – 4 birds per extra large dog crate as long as you clean it frequently (2x per day). You’ll have to think about how many birds you can grow out at one time.
Plastic tubs – The size of the tubs will depend upon how many birds you plan to raise and what breed. Initially, all the chicks can be put in the same bin, but they will quickly outgrow the space. For 40 heritage meat birds, I used 4 extra large plastic bins – about 60-gallon capacity bins from Walmart. (You won’t use the lids). But, this was only for the first 8 weeks because heritage breeds, as we discussed earlier, require 4-5 months to grow out. At 8 weeks, they’ve outgrown the bins and were moved to a coop outside. Keeping them in bins any longer would not be good for their health. For hybrids that will grow faster, you could probably only fit 2 birds in a bin as they grow. So think about just how many birds you can feasibly raise at a time. You need a way to keep them from flying out of the bins and there are many options. I found the easiest to be a roll of deer fencing rather than hardware cloth or chicken wire. The deer fencing is plastic, pliable, and won’t scratch or cut your hands. It allows for plenty of ventilation and easy to move when cleaning the bins or refreshing food and water.
Your chicks will need a heat lamp, bedding, a waterer, and a feeder for each bin or crate. I used pine chips for bedding that you can easily get at Tractor Supply or your local feed store. Large bags cost about $5 a bag, sometimes less. They are the size of a small bale of hay. You will go through a lot of pine chips as you regularly clean the bins. It’s critical in a confined space to keep conditions healthy for your birds. That means cleaning those bins every morning and every evening, adding a few tablespoonfuls of diatomaceous earth to the pine chips. There is no natural soil to absorb their waste. The birds must be moved, the bin cleaned, fresh pine chips laid down, fresh water and food provided. The birds will knock over their waterer, their food, and generally make a huge mess. The faster they grow, the more they will eat so it’s better to start out with larger feeders and waterers than small ones or you will be constantly refilling. Since the chickens will be in an artificial environment, you might want to add some fresh-picked grass or other greens. Personally, I would never raise slow-growing heritage birds in an artificial environment for more than 8 weeks.
Keeping things clean was something I had not figured into my efforts. You will need a shovel, large garbage bags, soapy water, and paper towels. Don’t forget to wear gloves. Cleaning things out twice a day is a huge chore, but you have to do it for the health of the birds.
Harvesting your birds
There are copious YouTube videos on harvesting your birds, although many have been removed from YouTube because of complaints from sensitive groups of people. There are books and other web sources that describe harvesting in detail with pictures. You can set up your garage to do the harvesting there without a huge mess if you get the right equipment. You will need very sharp knives, “killing cones”, buckets for bleeding them out, access to water (drag in a hose if you don’t have a sink), a butchering table, buckets for waste, either a chicken plucker, a way to heat water in a large pot for scalding them prior to plucking them yourself, coolers full of ice water, freezer bags to store them in, and of course, freezer space. This is not an exhaustive list and there are better resources out there than my quick description. All this to say, that it is possible to do the harvesting in the garage if you pay attention to the details.
I would never choose this method unless I was desperate. In hard times, I know from experience that you can take one harvested chicken and make numerous family meals out of it using pasta or rice or beans, and vegetables. Hard times require more nutrient-dense foods, but less of them. Think about how you eat chicken now and how you would have to adjust your cooking and eating habits should there be “not enough” in the future. I don’t know if the “chicken tender” shortage is temporary. I do know that if we experience shortages, we are going to have to get creative, which is why it’s so important to stock up on the basics in large quantities. We don’t have to be cowed into compliance with unholy mandates, and I hope these ideas get the creative juices flowing.