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Wanting to try meat chickens on pasture  RSS feed

 
Andrew Mayflower
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I have 4 hens at the moment - Black Austrolorps FWIW.  They are so much fun to watch, and the slug population on our property is about 10% of what it was before we got them.  Really funny to watch them fight over who gets to eat the slug.  And the eggs they produce are fantastic.

Anyway, I live in the northern Puget Sound, so it's a pretty moderate climate here.  Winters aren't especially cold, summers aren't terribly hot.  It rains often (except for June-August) but never a lot at any one time.  We get some snow most winters, but rarely more than 6" at a time and it rarely sticks around for more than a day or two when it does fall.  90F is rare in the summer, and less than 20F is very uncommon in the winter.  Typical summer day is 70's or 80's and sunny with nights in the 60's.  Winter is usually in the 40's and overcast or raining in the day, often freezing overnight but not real hard.  Fall and spring are 50's and 60's with a mix of overcast/rain and sun.

I want to have a go at raising meat chickens.  I've read enough reports on successfully raising the Cornish Cross broilers on forage pasture that I'm inclined to go with that breed.  I'd like to do 50 at a time as that seems like a enough to get economy of scale without being too overwhelming.  I'll probably get at least one other family to go in on the chickens, mostly so I have help during slaughter/butcher time.  If all goes well I'd do an additional round to get enough chicken in our freezer to last us a year.

I don't want to just give them commercial chicken feed.  Some is OK if I can't grow everthing they need, but I want to minimize that, both for economic reasons and for quality of meat.  I've read plenty on here and it sounds like what I'll want to do is feed the chicks fermented purchased feed (likely a mix of crumbles and grains) until they're old enough to go outside.  Once I put them outside I wanted to have them, as much as practical, forage for their own food.  I want to plant a food plot for them that I can move them from section to section every few days.  The side of the yard I want to put them on is naturally pretty dry.  There's one small spot that sometime collects water but that's usually not a big deal.  Right now it's just whatever random grass that is growing over there.

Vague plan right now is to get some electric net fence to protect the birds from local loose dogs, coyotes, and raccoons.  Plus a movable coop for night-time protection. 

I've seen a lot of info on here about forage options for the birds, but I'm a little confused about how much of which type to plant and how to distribute it around the intended area to keep the chickens.  I will not be keeping meat chickens over the winter (just my egg layers - and I doubt we'll have more than 10 hens at any one time), so maintaining food for them over the winters is not a real big concern.  The total area I have available for the chickens is probably about 25'x120'.  Rather than just turn all 50 chickens loose in the whole area I was figuring I'd cross-fence it and keep them in a portion of the overall space and then move them every few days.  But I can be convinced to just give them free reign on the whole area too.

Anyway, I know folks on here have BTDT more than a few times so I'd really like to go to school on your experiences.  Thanks in advance for your time!
 
James Freyr
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My neighbor does just this, and he built a chicken tractor out of PVC pipe with a tarp for a roof, so it's lightweight and easy to move. The peak of the roof comes to about knee or thigh high. There's no need for roosting bars for cornish cross meat birds, it's not long before they can't jump/fly let alone get up and walk any great distance. His tractor is about 12x12 or 16x16, and the birds stay in the tractor 24/7, but he drags it over a new patch of grass every 12 hours.

Foraging is always good, but growing birds, especially the ones bred to rapidly put on muscle like the cornish cross need high protein diet, generally being fed a grower/broiler feed, whether it's purchased from the store or made yourself. If they don't get a 20-22% protein ration they really won't grow large or put on the pounds.
 
Wes Hunter
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As James suggests, the CRX (Cornish-Rock Cross) is made to produce copious quantities of meat, quickly.  It's just what they've been designed to do.  My own opinion is that creating a system where the birds are expected to forage for the bulk of their dietary needs and grow properly would need to be so complex as to be untenable.

But if you were to attempt it, I'd think it would entail a variety of grain and high-protein crops.  The trick would be lining up the birds' growth with crop ripening, and figuring out which crops to plant where, which crops to grow together, how to synchronize the growing birds' increasing feed requirements with land and crop availability, and on and on.  There are a lot of moving parts.  A successful system would surely be fascinating, but it seems like a lot of work to solve what I would consider a self-created problem, namely starting with the very 'unnatural' CRX and expecting them to work in a more-or-less 'natural' system.

Myself, I would (and do) opt for slow-growing chickens, for a variety of reasons, including vastly increased meat quality, animal welfare, and preferring not to support certain large and monopolistic corporations.  Plus, their growth rate and dietary requirements are much better suited to a foraging system.
 
Andrew Mayflower
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I get it that having them forage 100% and get the balance they need for their diet may be impossible.  That's OK, especially to start with.  But if I can, over time at least figure out how to get as close to that ideal as possible, that is what I'm after.  If I can only get them to forage for 30-40% of their needs first go around that is probably a win.  Then next time aim for another 10%, and so on until I max it out, whether that's at 70% or 100%.

I get the objections some on here have to the Cornish Cross.  However, having read of quite a few success stories of people that have raised them on forage, and by doing so slowed down their growth rate enough to avoid the heart and leg problems, I think it can be done, and see no reason not to try.  If I need to switch to a Freedom Ranger or even large heritage breed like Orpingtons, or even just getting a whole lot more Black Autrolorpes then I will.  But for now, with the time I'd have available to raise meat birds, Cornish Cross is about all I can go with as even with the slowed growth rates they'd probably be at slaughter weight by 10-14 weeks.

I was more thinking about having a coop that would be movable but a typical tractor that is used to confine the birds 24x7 is explicitly not what I'm after.  I want the birds to have to work for their food to some extent by free ranging in relativity large space.  If you assume I have 3000sq.ft. (that 25x120 area), and if I have 50 meat birds, that gives them 60sq.ft. a piece (if evenly spread out).  If I put them into a smaller area with cross-fencing where I had that space cut into 4 sections, they'd still get 15sq.ft. each in each of those spaces.  Compared to a tractor that would probably given them a max of 2sq.ft. each I like the idea of the space I'm wanting to give them a bit better.

The trick would be lining up the birds' growth with crop ripening, and figuring out which crops to plant where, which crops to grow together, how to synchronize the growing birds' increasing feed requirements with land and crop availability, and on and on.


That is what I'm looking for advice so I can get a plan going to what to plant, how much to plant, and how to distribute it in my available space. 

I'm also hoping for some amount of advice on whether that area is sufficient for 50 birds at a time, and if I can run more than 1 batch a year on that space.  Included in that calculation is the land's ability to absorb the poop in addition to the ability to grow the quantity of food required.
 
Skandi Rogers
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Now this is an interesting problem, my gut says no, but lets look at some numbers. I can tell you that 500sqr foot is not enough ground to cope with the droppings of 15 Muscovy ducklings from hatching to 4lb slaughter weight. In fact it is nowhere near enough probably not half as much as they would need. I do not know if that can be extrapolated to chickens or not.

Food I'm going to go with just pure calories here if an average broiler chicken requires 16lb of feed to get to 9 weeks and that feed has a (k)calorie count of 1452 per lb Numbersthen that's 23232 per bird or 1161600 for your projected 50 (800lb of feed) Now if we assume that most fodder you can grow will have a calorie count that averages close to that of spinach rather than that of grain. then that's 100cal per lb so your 3000ft would need to grow 11616lb of green fodder or 4lb per sqr foot, not allowing any space for their house or paths.

I would say that 4lb per foot is very high but not impossible if you can grow things in rotation 2-3 crops and rotate them over it. however since they need that amount in 9 weeks rather than an entire season I think that the area is insufficient, however you certainly could do it if you also feed some high cal/protein additions along side. getting any balance into the diet would be hard. Mathematically speaking if you were to double the area or halve the chickens it looks entirely possible. It would also help to have slower growing chickens so the fodder had more time to regrow.
 
Andrew Mayflower
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Skandi Rogers wrote:Now this is an interesting problem, my gut says no, but lets look at some numbers. I can tell you that 500sqr foot is not enough ground to cope with the droppings of 15 Muscovy ducklings from hatching to 4lb slaughter weight. In fact it is nowhere near enough probably not half as much as they would need. I do not know if that can be extrapolated to chickens or not.

Food I'm going to go with just pure calories here if an average broiler chicken requires 16lb of feed to get to 9 weeks and that feed has a (k)calorie count of 1452 per lb Numbersthen that's 23232 per bird or 1161600 for your projected 50 (800lb of feed) Now if we assume that most fodder you can grow will have a calorie count that averages close to that of spinach rather than that of grain. then that's 100cal per lb so your 3000ft would need to grow 11616lb of green fodder or 4lb per sqr foot, not allowing any space for their house or paths.

I would say that 4lb per foot is very high but not impossible if you can grow things in rotation 2-3 crops and rotate them over it. however since they need that amount in 9 weeks rather than an entire season I think that the area is insufficient, however you certainly could do it if you also feed some high cal/protein additions along side. getting any balance into the diet would be hard. Mathematically speaking if you were to double the area or halve the chickens it looks entirely possible. It would also help to have slower growing chickens so the fodder had more time to regrow.


What's the caloric density for grains?  I know that depends on which one, but say an average excluding soy as I highly doubt I'd be growing any soy.  If can grow food that averages 300cal/lb that cuts my required growth to 1.29lb/sqft.  That works of wheat, rye, millet, and other grains are that the chickens can self-harvest is, say 1000cal/lb.  Not so much if those grains are more like 250cal/lb.  If I can get the caloric density up high enough, then it becomes a question of nutritional balance, as well as having only food the chickens actually eat.  So looking at protein %, vitamins and mineral content, etc. 

My guess is that best case I'd be trough feeding some significant percentage the first round as I figure out what they'll actually eat, what gets left alone, and what grows enough to be sustainable.  So, if anyone can clue me in on what would grow well in my area that their chickens (not necessarily CX, though best if those are what you have) actually eat, and so on that would be most appreciated.
 
Andrew Mayflower
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Skandi Rogers wrote:Now this is an interesting problem, my gut says no, but lets look at some numbers. I can tell you that 500sqr foot is not enough ground to cope with the droppings of 15 Muscovy ducklings from hatching to 4lb slaughter weight. In fact it is nowhere near enough probably not half as much as they would need. I do not know if that can be extrapolated to chickens or not.


Re-read your post and thought I'd respond to this point.  If, as you say, you'd need double the space for the land to cope with the poop, that would be 1000sqft for 15 ducklings.  If my area is 3x that, that would imply the ability to handle 3x the ducklings, or 45 ducklings.  If you assume raising ducks from hatchling to 4lb slaughter weight is equivalent to raising CX from hatchling to 4-5lb, that would seem to imply 3000sqft is pretty close.  Might be that I'd need to go in and remove some to a compost heap, but might be able to leave the majority right there for fertilizer.  Most likely the greatest accumulation would be in or around the shelter/coop/tractor/thing so that would make it easier to remove that excess since it would be pretty concentrated.
 
Wes Hunter
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Andrew Mayflower wrote:I get the objections some on here have to the Cornish Cross.  However, having read of quite a few success stories of people that have raised them on forage, and by doing so slowed down their growth rate enough to avoid the heart and leg problems, I think it can be done, and see no reason not to try.


One reason not to try might be ethical.  The CRX was created to grow very quickly, and thus has a large appetite and fast metabolism.  By slowing down their growth you are indeed reducing the risk of health issues, but at what cost?  Basically starving them for their entire lives? I cannot, of course, claim to know how they feel, but it doesn't seem a stretch to think that an animal getting only a fraction of the food it 'needs' might be chronically hungry.  That bit gets left out of most discussions on making the CRX 'work.'

That is what I'm looking for advice so I can get a plan going to what to plant, how much to plant, and how to distribute it in my available space.


Right, my point was that there are so many moving parts that such a plan might be a nonstarter.  Goodness, you could do all sorts of complicated mathematics, perfect the amounts and timing of everything, and have a hailstorm wipe it all out. But maybe I'm being unduly pessimistic.  I suppose the simplest solution might be to plant a section of your total area into a grain crop of some kind and turn the birds in to 'hog it down' when it's ripe.  (You'd probably have to knock it down for them.)  They won't forage for 100% of their diet, but they will get something.  Then make observations and adjustments from there.

I'm also hoping for some amount of advice on whether that area is sufficient for 50 birds at a time, and if I can run more than 1 batch a year on that space.


Joel Salatin figures that his chickens ought to cover an area roughly equal to how much land it requires to grow the food for those birds.  So, if you figure 200 bushels of corn per acre, at 56 lbs. shelled corn per bushel, you have 11,200 lb.  If you figure 20 lb. feed per chicken (this would be accurate for heritage birds--I'm not sure about CRX), that's 560 chickens per acre per year.  The question is, what number do you use for yield?  Historically, open pollinated corn might yield 60 bushels/acre.  With modern hybrids and synthetic fertilizers, you might get 300 bushels/acre.  That'll make a significant difference in how many birds you 'should' keep on a given area.  Again, observe and make adjustments.
 
James Freyr
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I think Wes just made a very valid point regarding the Cornish cross and growth rate. That breed has a ferocious appetite, and I believe, to restrict it's caloric intake so a bird that normally dresses out at 7-8lbs after six or seven weeks of growth to the same weight at 10-14 weeks of age may qualify as a starvation diet. The sensation of hunger isn't pleasant. Those birds can become somewhat aggressive at feeding time if too much time passes without food and they can attack their flock mates and more likely trample and injure other birds (or themselves) to get to the food.

If you need a bird that gets to a good dressed weight, but at 10-14 weeks of age, I believe a different breed is the right way to go about it. Perhaps consider the Freedom Ranger, or, the Red Ranger. And, those two breeds can actually get up and walk around, and are very active foragers, much more so than Cornish cross. But you are also very unlikely to have an 8lb dressed weight carcass of either of those breeds. And the flavor of the meat from these two breeds taste way better than Cornish cross.

Hope this helps you make a decision :)
 
Skandi Rogers
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Andrew Mayflower wrote:
Skandi Rogers wrote:Now this is an interesting problem, my gut says no, but lets look at some numbers. I can tell you that 500sqr foot is not enough ground to cope with the droppings of 15 Muscovy ducklings from hatching to 4lb slaughter weight. In fact it is nowhere near enough probably not half as much as they would need. I do not know if that can be extrapolated to chickens or not.

Food I'm going to go with just pure calories here if an average broiler chicken requires 16lb of feed to get to 9 weeks and that feed has a (k)calorie count of 1452 per lb Numbersthen that's 23232 per bird or 1161600 for your projected 50 (800lb of feed) Now if we assume that most fodder you can grow will have a calorie count that averages close to that of spinach rather than that of grain. then that's 100cal per lb so your 3000ft would need to grow 11616lb of green fodder or 4lb per sqr foot, not allowing any space for their house or paths.

I would say that 4lb per foot is very high but not impossible if you can grow things in rotation 2-3 crops and rotate them over it. however since they need that amount in 9 weeks rather than an entire season I think that the area is insufficient, however you certainly could do it if you also feed some high cal/protein additions along side. getting any balance into the diet would be hard. Mathematically speaking if you were to double the area or halve the chickens it looks entirely possible. It would also help to have slower growing chickens so the fodder had more time to regrow.


What's the caloric density for grains?  I know that depends on which one, but say an average excluding soy as I highly doubt I'd be growing any soy.  If can grow food that averages 300cal/lb that cuts my required growth to 1.29lb/sqft.  That works of wheat, rye, millet, and other grains are that the chickens can self-harvest is, say 1000cal/lb.  Not so much if those grains are more like 250cal/lb.  If I can get the caloric density up high enough, then it becomes a question of nutritional balance, as well as having only food the chickens actually eat.  So looking at protein %, vitamins and mineral content, etc. 

My guess is that best case I'd be trough feeding some significant percentage the first round as I figure out what they'll actually eat, what gets left alone, and what grows enough to be sustainable.  So, if anyone can clue me in on what would grow well in my area that their chickens (not necessarily CX, though best if those are what you have) actually eat, and so on that would be most appreciated.


Grains run around 1300kal a lb dried so yes 1000kal is prob a fair guess on the plant. But chickens can or will only eat the grains not the straw, so the weight per sqr foot will be low. I personaly would certainly give it a go, but be prepared to have to pull it and feed rations to slaughter weight if they eat or destroy more than expected, as they may just trample half their food and not eat it.
As to what they will eat, mine love everything green and leafy, but normaly leave the stems, they are not interested in turnips or harder veg unless it is cooked, they won't even eat peelings. They also love elderberries, but ignore hawthorn, they like any seeds they can find, especialy cleavers and fat hen seeds, it's funny watching them jump to catch them. Spinach and the likes, andwild herbs like fat hen are high in protien. the wild ones are also very easy to grow and in my experience will come back from their stems after the chickens have eaten all the leaves. If you are thinking of autumn for the grains you could also go for pumpkins, they do like them, although you will have to split them open for them.
 
Dan Grubbs
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50 birds to dress ... just a thought to add for those who are thinking of doing this for the first time.

I didn't read every word of the postings above so I may have missed it. However, I wouldn't want to process 50 birds on a weekend. I feel what helps determine how many birds you raise for meat is how many you can process at one go. Some people have had all they can do at about 12-15 in a day. I am aware of some idealistic people who bit off more than they could chew because they were focusing on the data you are discussing above ... pasture area, size of pen, feed supplement, etc. They were not prepared for the largely underestimated level of effort to process the birds all the way from catching to freezer. Even with automated plucker, they quickly became overwhelmed with processing and realized they hadn't thought it through honestly with a very hard look at the reality of how many birds they themselves could process in one day. You may know this first hand already and that's awesome. But, many who begin to think about raising meat birds seem to inevitably overestimate their ability to process birds. Just a thought to share.
 
James Freyr
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Well said Dan.

Just for some sort of reference, I've helped my neighbor process chickens. It takes 9 or 10 of us, in a production line, every bit of 6 hours to process about 100 birds. We started at 6am and seemed to be wrapping things up about noon. This was with folks who have gutted hundreds of chickens in the past, and are skillful with the knife and also getting the bits like lungs and kidneys out with their fingers which tend to "stick" to the inside of the cavity. I've done it, and getting the lungs & kidneys out took me multiple tries to get it all. It took me more than twice as long to process a bird than the folks next to me who had experience.
 
Wes Hunter
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I'll throw in another point of view regarding the processing.  It's certainly true that it'll take a first-timer longer, but I don't think the learning curve is necessarily all that steep.

We process our birds differently now than in the past, but in the past my wife and I could steadily crank out 12 per hour without breaking a sweat.  This wasn't an exercise in efficiency, but just going about our work.  It took us a little time to get the flow worked out, but basically it worked like this:

I would put two birds in the kill cones and bleed them out.  When they were done, I put two more in the kill cones and bled them.  While they were bleeding, I took the first two and scalded them (about 15-20 seconds at 160F), then dropped them in the plucker for perhaps 30 seconds.  Then put them on the table, cut off heads and feet, and leave them for my wife to eviscerate.  Then back to put two more chickens in the kill cones and begin again.  Occasionally I might have to start the eviscerstion on a bird or two, but otherwise the timing worked out so that my wife could eviscerate and move finished chickens to the fridge at the same rate I could do all the above.

So two people could process 50 birds in a little over four hours, when all goes smoothly.

On a more specifically practical note, I've found that a great way to remove lungs is to blast the cavity with water, which loosens them and makes them incredibly easy to pull out.
 
Dan Grubbs
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Very impressive to me, Wes.  I want you to come up to the KC area and teach me how to do that. I bet we could get a few people to attend who would benefit from that teaching. If I could do 25 in four hours by my self, I'd be really happy.  I'd love to watch you and your wife do this the next time.  Could you set up a phone or video camera to capture it?  Love to watch your system step by step with 4-6 birds.  Many of of us would benefit from that, I'm sure.
 
Skandi Rogers
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Another thing to think of is do you have enough good refrigeration space for 50 birds? That's a lot of bird to cool down in one go. I personaly take around 20minutes to process by hand one chicken, not fast at all but I am hand plucking them and have only done 5 or 10 max.
 
Wes Hunter
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Dan Grubbs wrote:Very impressive to me, Wes.  I want you to come up to the KC area and teach me how to do that. I bet we could get a few people to attend who would benefit from that teaching. If I could do 25 in four hours by my self, I'd be really happy.  I'd love to watch you and your wife do this the next time.  Could you set up a phone or video camera to capture it?  Love to watch your system step by step with 4-6 birds.  Many of of us would benefit from that, I'm sure.


For starters, we switched over to dry plucking (with a machine) this year, so our setup and system is dramatically different now.  Now it takes longer per bird (with the exception of ducks, usually), but produces a superior end product.

But, really, I don't know that what we do is all that remarkable, and surely doesn't entail anything that one couldn't find on YouTube.  I think the big thing is having all the components (chicken crates, kill cones, scalder, plucker, evisceration table) set up so that everything flows well.  Then just work out the timing so it actually does flow.  This really isn't difficult, but maybe requires a bit of tweaking for each individual site.  Beyond that, I don't know.  Good, sharp knives make a difference.

And surely muscle memory plays a role.  We raise birds for sale, and will tend to process a couple dozen every few weeks.  I imagine this results in a greater 'feel' for the task than if we just had one or two processing days per year.  Evisceration--removing head and feet, cutting off the neck, cutting off the oil gland, opening up the cavity and removing viscera, separating out the heart and liver (and sometimes gizzard), rinsing inside and out, returning the giblets to the cavity, and tucking the wings and feet--takes right about 5 minutes per bird on average, at a comfortable pace.  We've also been doing this for 8 years, so that's probably a contributing factor to what is apparently our blistering speed.

I find it funny that anybody would think what we do is noteworthy, because I look at it and think that people like Joel Salatin--who is big on efficiency--would look at it and just shake their heads.  It's all relative, I suppose.
 
Andrew Mayflower
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Wes Hunter wrote:
For starters, we switched over to dry plucking (with a machine) this year, so our setup and system is dramatically different now.  Now it takes longer per bird (with the exception of ducks, usually), but produces a superior end product.



Just curious why you think dry plucking produces a superior product?  Do you not like the effect scalding has on the skin, or is it something else?  When you were scalding what temperature for the water did you use?  I've heard everything from 140-165F.  But I know of one person at least that says most dissatisfaction with scalding comes from those that scald too hot, or too long (or both I guess).  He mainly works with pigs when it comes to scalding, but has said that about chickens too.

What kind of machine do you use for dry plucking?
 
Andrew Mayflower
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Skandi Rogers wrote:Another thing to think of is do you have enough good refrigeration space for 50 birds? That's a lot of bird to cool down in one go. I personaly take around 20minutes to process by hand one chicken, not fast at all but I am hand plucking them and have only done 5 or 10 max.


Good point.  I was figuring on dropping the meat into a kiddie pool (or something similar) filled with ice water after getting the birds either vacuum packed or shrink wrapped (though the shrink wrap isn't 100% waterproof so if I did that this would require extra care to not get water in the bags).  That would allow them to get pretty cold and in a hurry so that the fridge wouldn't be overwhelmed by needing to pull so much heat out.

Plus, as mentioned, I'd go in with at least 1 other family, maybe 2, on this endeavor.  They would be taking their share home after we were finished, so it would be up to them to keep their birds chilled until they were ready to be frozen.
 
Wes Hunter
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Andrew Mayflower wrote:Just curious why you think dry plucking produces a superior product?  Do you not like the effect scalding has on the skin, or is it something else?  When you were scalding what temperature for the water did you use?  I've heard everything from 140-165F.  But I know of one person at least that says most dissatisfaction with scalding comes from those that scald too hot, or too long (or both I guess).  He mainly works with pigs when it comes to scalding, but has said that about chickens too.

What kind of machine do you use for dry plucking?


The machine we use is called the Turbo 7/140, manufactured by Muscat Ltd. in the UK.  There are other models, with a rather wide price range, but this was the only one I found that is imported by an American company.  (I didn't want to mess with trying to import something directly.)  At any rate, it was one of the only ones that fit our budget.  We purchased it from Cornerstone Farm Ventures in New York.  (They have all kinds of poultry keeping and processing equipment, for the backyarder or large plant.)

I say "dry plucked," but I mean that as short hand for dry plucked and air chilled.  It's kind of a system, and if we were dry plucking and then dunking the eviscerated birds in ice water, I imagine we'd lose much (if not all) of the advantage of dry plucking.

Part of it is the effect on the skin.  There is a very noticeable difference between the skin of a dry plucked bird and a wet plucked bird.  We tried scalding everywhere from about 130F (a "soft scald") to 160F (a "hard scald").  Supposedly the soft scald is better, and is reported to not remove the outer layer of skin, but I didn't find that to be true.  The only difference I found is that a soft scald takes longer, because of the lower temperature.  Some of the higher-end French poultry (like Label Rouge) requires a soft scald, for quality reasons, and I suppose they know what they're talking about, but I didn't see a difference.  In the end, we found that about 158F worked quite well, allowing for a relatively quick scald while all but eliminating torn skin.

Related to skin quality is the culinary effect.  It's much easier to achieve crispy skin on a dry plucked bird.  Another benefit is a prolonged keeping time.  Because there is no water introduced during processing (with the exception of rinsing after evisceration), it takes much longer for spoilage bacteria to proliferate.  We have had ducks (whose high fat content makes them more prone to spoilage, like pigs) keep in the fridge for 10 days or so.  (In fact, we had some keep for well over two weeks, but they had only been plucked--not yet waxed and eviscerated.)  We had one chicken that (as an experiment) kept for something like three weeks.

Another advantage of the dry plucking and air chilling process is 'improved' flavor.  I say 'improved' because I think it's more accurate to say that a wet plucked and water chilled bird will have a reduced flavor.  This is because those latter birds take up water into their flesh--the legal allowance for salable birds is something like 7% by weight.  On the commercial side, this means you're paying chicken prices for mere water.  It also means that the flavor is diluted.  By contrast, our birds will typically LOSE weight during the chilling time, effectively intensifying flavor.

Then there's sort of an intangible difference, that maybe is just the aggregation of all of the above.  But there is something about handling a dry plucked bird that makes me think, "This is clearly superior," that doesn't seem directly related to anything else I've mentioned.  It just FEELS better.

Another benefit of dry plucking, unrelated to quality, is the flexibility inherent in it.  If I just want to kill one bird, all I have to do is bleed it out, switch on the machine, and pluck it.  I don't have to go through all the rigmarole of heating up and maintaining the temperature of a pot of scald water.  With scalding, it always felt like our processing was dictated by the water.  We had gallons of water hot, which took time to get going, and we wanted to get our money's worth out of it, so that set a quota.  Not anymore.

I think it's important to note that this method of processing is just one part of an entire system, and that without the other components of that system the effects of the processing would be reduced.  Those other components, of course, are slow-growing genetics, free range over fields with diverse forage, and a wholesome diet.
 
Brett Hammond
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Wes, great info. What type chickens do you raise? How long to maturity? How much space per chicken in your range? Do you plant special foods for them? How much do you need to supplement their diet?
 
Wes Hunter
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Brett Hammond wrote:Wes, great info. What type chickens do you raise? How long to maturity? How much space per chicken in your range? Do you plant special foods for them? How much do you need to supplement their diet?


We have raised upwards of 20 varieties of chickens over the past few years.  Most of that diversity came early on, in the name of trying new things, but now we've settled down a bit.  White Rocks are a constant, because they get (relatively) large (relatively) quickly.  They're also consistent season to season, which isn't a given when working with hatchery stock.  New Hampshire Reds do well, as do Naked Necks (aka Turkens).  I like the Sussex for its flavor, but it's a bit less efficient.

We typically aim for 16-18 weeks to butcher date, for (ideally) 3- to 3.5-lb. "fryers."  We'll also slaughter some at 8-9 weeks as 1-lb. "poussin" (these might also be called "squab broilers" or "coquelet"), and again at 12 weeks for 2-lb. "broilers."  With the switch to dry-plucking this year, those earlier dates are harder to swing.  The feathers are not at a stage where they pluck easily, so it ends up involving a lot of hand work.  And it varies breed-to-breed as they get older, too.  The White Rocks plucked cleanly at 16 weeks, but the others didn't pluck as cleanly for a couple weeks more.  (I noticed this with guineas as well.)  It seems that the efficiency of weight gain starts to plateau at about 16 weeks, but because we're trying to get really nice table-ready carcasses we have to go a little longer.

As far as space goes, we rotate a batch of 200-300 across a 5-acre pasture, though they don't come close to fully utilizing all of it.  Suffice it to say they have more space than they need.  Typically we just let them out in the morning to range, shutting them up at night, though if predation gets to be too heavy we'll keep them confined at times.  When confined, I don't like having more than about 75 per 8x12-foot shelter.  Really, I think, the chicken tractor model just shouldn't be applied with heritage breeds.  In my opinion the "heritage" designation ought not really apply to confined birds, nor to birds on a drylot.  Part of what makes them distinctive culinarily is their high activity level, which gives them firmer and more flavorful flesh.  And they're just not bred for confinement, pasture-raised or not.

I'll also throw out there that, in my opinion, the concept of "heritage" should be less about the actual breeds and more about how they were raised.  Was it slow growing (taking at least 14 weeks to grow to maturity)?  Was it able to range freely?  Did it have access to green growing things?  Did it thus result in a particular sort of table bird?  Then who cares what the actual breeding was?  Maybe we need a new term, to differentiate what we're doing from the noble-but-not-necessarily-pertinent "save the heritage breeds" thing.

We don't plant anything special for our birds, but our pasture is fairly diverse.  Because we're doing this as an income-maker, and because we're trying to get them to a certain weight by a certain time, we consider the forage their supplement rather than the grain.  (That said, they do forage a lot, and in the morning prefer getting out and chasing bugs to eating any food put in front of them.)  We budget somewhere under 25 lb. of feed per bird, or a feed ratio of a little under 5:1.  It varies breed to breed, but that's a good conservative average.  And the high-protein "chick grower" rations (which are developed for Cornish-Cross) are overkill.  It's not only cheaper to feed them a lower-protein ration, we've actually seen better weight gains with the lower-protein.  That's a win-win.  This year we tried a soy-free ration of corn, field peas, wheat, pats, and sunflower seeds, which comes in at around 15% protein.  We supplemented additional protein (mostly in the form of fish meal) in the brooder.  We're still working out the kinks (because we're trying to get a base ration that will work for chickens, ducks, guineas, turkeys, geese, and hogs, then adding certain things based on species and point in their life cycle), but it seems to be mostly working.  I'll note too that we try to make a point to ferment the feed, though that doesn't always happen.  In general we're trying to roughly imitate the French Bresse method.
 
Kelly Ravner
Posts: 36
Location: Wyoming Zone 3b
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Wow, so much information in this thread!  My tiny contribution is that I'm attempting to find a sustainable homestead meat chicken breed, and am now concentrating my efforts on White Laced Red Cornish. I'm wanting chickens that can get most of their feed from free ranging, but end up yielding a decent carcass by 20 weeks or so. I ordered several breeds of chicks this year, including 6 White Laced Reds. Sadly, those chicks arrived sick and weak and tiny. Two of them never amounted to anything. One pullet that was halfway healthy dressed out at 2.3lbs after 20 weeks - a bit small, but the meat to bone ratio looks right, she was easy to pluck, and is basically everything I want in a meat bird. I've tried some dark Cornish as well - they're good free rangers, but plucking leaves a lot of pigment in the skin.

I'm keeping a White Laced Red pullet and two cockerels that are healthier and larger, and have been quite proficient at free ranging. I have no idea how many eggs she'll lay or if she'll go broody. (I have some Icelandic hens for broodies, so don't necessarily need the cornish to be good moms.) I did keep a dark Cornish hen for a couple of years - she reliably laid 2 eggs/week. I'm also keeping a few dark Cornish pullets this year to cross with one of the White Laced roos, and will likely order more White Laced next year - hoping for a healthier batch.

One of the great things about these slow growing birds is that you can process them at pretty much any time - as Dan Grubbs mentioned, a big bunch of birds that need to be processed all at once can get overwhelming. I do all my birds by myself and don't have full use of my hands, so I don't plan on processing many birds in one day. This year one thing after another came up, and I still have two dark Cornish cockerels out there - but they are happily free ranging, costing me almost nothing to feed (I do toss them a few mealworms as the bugs have gone with the approach of winter) and they'll be just fine if I finally get to them this weekend at 24 weeks.
 
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