Our family has raised about two dozen laying hens each year for several years, and we felt pretty confident in our poultry capabilities. Learning more about meat breeds of poultry, we felt it was a good time to try our hand raising some of these birds to evaluate their value and quality. Cornish cross chicks are well known for their rapid, almost freakish growth rates, so we found a large, reputable source online and ordered 50 of their male chicks. We had to wait almost a month for the male chicks, because of availability – everyone seems to want the males which grow faster than the females. Finally, the birds arrived. Inside the box, only 3 of the 50 chicks had died in transit. In the next 24 hours, 30 more of the birds died, despite our best efforts with proper watering and heat. The directions shipped with the birds and found online were followed religiously. When we called the supplier, they indicated that losing this many birds is actually normal, and they agreed to ship us 35 more birds as soon as more males were available. Not wanting to wait to late into the summer, we agreed to take 40 more female chicks as replacement. The company was very easy to work with and shipped all the new birds to us free of charge. For whatever reason, only two of the females died during the two days after we received them – a much better mortality rate. We could tell the males from the females right off in their behavior and size after one week. The males were much more excitable, agitated, and larger. They also got themselves stuck in places and needed help at times. The females were very docile.
Our setup consisted of two large vinyl kiddies’ pools with waterers and small feeders. Heat lamps were suspended over the pools and were very important to the chicks. We kept them in the pools for about 3.5 weeks inside our shop until they were feathered out and large enough we thought they would survive outside in the coop. During these 3.5 weeks, another 10 chicks died – mostly females and most of them were “smothered” – literally smashed as the chicks milled together in tight groups. It was clear these birds were very dumb, much more so than our laying hens. By the third week the chicks were growing rapidly and becoming voracious eaters. We began controlling the amount of food they received and the amount of time they had the food. These birds will try to eat themselves to death, and care must be taken to keep a regulated food intake. Another issue we had with these young birds is keeping their water clean. All birds are messy, but these seemed to be clueless and dull.
Raising these chicks required daily maintenance and frequent checking. We hadn’t expected the need these birds required of constant access to food. We have a single, large three gallon feeder for our two dozen laying hens which was more than adequate. One of these three gallon feeders was required for each dozen meat birds, because of their focus and aggressive eating. We built two large, trough feeders about three feet long each to provide more food during the feeding hours. We had to staple chicken wire across the food trough to keep the birds from lying in the trough while they ate, and soiling the feed. The big male birds (noticeably larger and more pushy for the food) would plop themselves in the feeder, lie down, and just eat. The trough could only accommodate 2-to-3 birds like this, so we put wire mesh across the trough which discouraged this behavior. The next problem with the feeders was that birds would literally push their heads, then bodies up under the wire mess at the ends and get themselves stuck under the mesh while eating. So, reinforcement of the mesh was required. Now, all the birds could literally lie down at the trough and eat to their heart’s content. Most of the birds literally rubbed all their belly feathers off to bare skin by laying down so much as they ate. Giant, dumb, eating machines. Letting the meat birds out to scratch in the yard wasn’t a good option for these birds – they weren’t very interested and couldn’t find their way back in at night like the laying hens always did.
During August and September we catch a lot of salmon and sturgeon during the fall Chinook runs of the Columbia River, and would occasionally throw the carcasses in to the chickens. Many of the birds would pick at the fish, though the biggest birds didn’t move far from their place at the trough. We didn’t throw fish in often mainly because of smell and because it is a risk to dogs to get salmon fluke poisoning. One idea we tried was to suspend a carcass about two feet over the birds on chicken wire to encourage “maggot production”. The wire mess allowed the maggots to fall down into the birds, providing a very high protein diet supplement after about a week. This is definitely a strategy for a single guy, because the wife wouldn’t let this move beyond the experimental phase once she found out about it (smelled it). We occasionally have predators around the chickens, and keep a large live-trap at the coop. During these 10 weeks we caught 2 raccoons, 2 skunks, and several field rats. None of the chickens were lost to these animals.
One morning I found a dead, half eaten chicken in the middle of the coop. It was not clear how it had died, or how the predator had gotten in or out. The next morning, another dead chicken in the middle of the pen. I was worried about a big rat or something, and then found a lot of bird droppings under one of the trees near the coop. I figured it was an eagle, which frequent the area but had never bothered the chickens before. A third chicken was dead on the third day. That evening, just at sunset, I heard a large commotion out at the coop – the birds were freaking out and huddled under their covering. I raced out with the dog and a huge, great-horned owl jumped just over my head and lighted in the tree above – an impressive and spooky silhouette in the sky above. The chickens were terrified and all worked up. It was an exciting experience, but obviously required something be done. We had a large piece of “deer netting” – light plastic one inch mesh that we cut and draped over the chicken coop, wire tying it to the top of the coop’s 6-foot tall fencing. The owl did seem to have one incident trying to push through the mesh, but we never lost another chicken and after a few days the owl seemed to move on. Interestingly, the owl never bothered with the laying hens that were adjacent to the meat chickens and uncovered in their coop. Only occasionally would a bird die for unknown reasons.
We had large coverings for the birds in bad weather, and purchased them in July so we would have nicer, warm weather for them here in Oregon to grow and butcher them before colder weather set in. We ended up butchering them ourselves early in October. The butchering process was a great learning experience for us and our kids, too. There are several people available in the area with fancy plucking and scalding equipment for rent – about $100 per day; however we wanted to try it by hand, and see how inexpensively we could raise these birds from chick to freezer. Instead of a killing cone, we would wrap each bird in a towel, and use two bungee cords to hold it against a section of chain-link fence. The feet were tied together with a loop. These big birds were quite docile and easy to handle for the most part. Two of us working together easily wrapped and strapped them in no time. I did the killing with a knife to the throat. It seemed quick and humane. With the birds strapped we could leave several of them to bleed out for 5-10 minutes. Another technique we used was to put the birds into an old feed sack with a corner cut out for the head. This worked well but wasn’t any faster than using the old towel.
Scalding the birds was also easy to do with our double-burner propane stove outside. With a rolling boil, the larger birds took about 16 seconds to get a good scald. Scalding was most important to prevent tearing the skin while plucking. Plucking the birds was great fun. With 4 of our children helping we averaged about 15 minutes per bird to pluck them clean. Another thing we tried was to make a fancy plucker. I cut the bottom out of a 5 gallon bucket, and drilled ¾ holes all over the sides of the bucket. Into these holes we pushed rubber ‘fingers’ we purchased through eBay, and a whole chicken could be inserted into the bucket, and while holding the head and feet at either end of the open bucket, we’d quickly pull the bird back and forth through the rubber fingers to pluck off the feathers. This actually worked really well for 90% of the feathers, but didn’t save much time in the end because it took more time going back over the bird to get the other 10% of the remaining feathers. It was a fun try, though. After plucking the older kids helped butcher the birds. We also skinned some of the chickens instead of plucking, because many of the bigger birds had work their belly skin thin from so much “belly eating”. Skinning the birds was much faster than scalding and plucking, obviously. Butchering the birds took another 10-15 minutes each and was fairly straight forward. To clean and butcher 40-50 birds takes most of a day, and it is very labor intensive. In the future we plan to rent the equipment and do more birds to take advantage of the larger volume of birds. It was a good practice and learning experience for our family and in that sense was invaluable. We all had a great time and it was a great science project.
For the 50 birds, we originally paid about $2.15 per chick. We used a total of 18 bags of feed at $11 per bad, or about $200. We ended up with about 40 birds averaging 8 lbs each after 11 weeks. All of the big male birds were 10-12 lbs each, and about 10 of the females were smaller at 6-7 lbs. All in all we were pleased with the size of the birds. Our reading on the internet said we should see 10 lbs birds after 8-10 weeks, but our actual experience was not this good. We did not experience any of the health problems or leg issues that many people have reported with these Cornish cross birds. We calculated that each bird cost us about $9, or about $1 per lbs, not including costs for setup, feed trough construction, etc. We canned and froze our birds, and the meat quality is excellent. Very good quality, in fact we believe better than what we would buy in the store on all accounts. Canning the birds required a lot of additional work. We were very pleased with our experiences and in the end results.
Our final conclusion was that we would only raise meat birds ourselves if in more dire circumstances. Chicken is fairly inexpensive to purchase, already cleaned, although of lower quality. With a young family to feed, quantity is often precedent over quality. The main complaint we had with raising our own birds was the high maintenance and big mess. These birds eat a lot and make piles of refuse. While good for the garden it was not pleasant. These birds were of low intelligence and took daily effort to take care of – having to remove their food for their own health was a daily chore in the messy pen. The cost savings was negligible in raising our own birds. Raising 100 birds or more at a time would be a good way to make the financials work out, but would also significantly increase the daily maintenance and workload. And the butchering would be significant as well. Our best idea for getting large quantities of chicken meat for the best price was to buy the rotisserie chicken at Costco and to can it. A whole chicken for $5 already well cooked and ready to just bone and can is the cheapest, easiest, and tastiest means for putting up a large amount of meat for the year. Knowing we can do it ourselves, though, is priceless.