Australians eat a staggering number of chickens each year. An extreme minority are raised on pasture, with the vast majority confined in sheds. Even if you’re buying ‘free range’ or even organic chicken from a supermarket, chances are you’d be appalled at the conditions in which these chickens live and die.
So, what is an ethical solution for those who want a little bit of chicken meat in our diet? First of all, remember those wise words of Michael Pollan: ‘eat food, not too much, mostly plants’. You don’t need to eat meat every day. Think of quality, ethically- grown meat as a treat: buying ethically raised meat is going to cost you more. Either source your chicken directly from a small-scale farmer, who is raising the birds on pasture (best for the farmer), or through an ethically-driven meat provedore such as Feather and Bone, who can tell you about the farms and farmers they source their meat from. (See article page 56)
If you have an acre or more of land you may want to consider growing meat chickens for your family. It’s a rewarding, financially-viable method of growing protein. It’s something that children love to be involved in, and the rewards in flavour are almost unimaginable. Here is everything you need to know about growing your own pastured chickens.
First, consider what breed of chicken you want to grow. If you grew up eating chicken bought from a butcher or supermarket, and some juicy, tender roasted chicken is what you want from your chicken-eating experience, then Cornish Cross is a good choice. Our family eats two kinds of chicken: Cornish Cross, grown just for the delectable eating; and any roosters our Wyandotte hens hatch out in summer (we keep the hens for eggs). Even though Wyandottes are considered a ‘dual-purpose’ heritage breed (good for meat and eggs), eating them is an entirely different experience, usually requiring slow cooking in a soup or stew. Heritage bird meat is darker and tougher, and they’re more difficult to process.
Many people say negative things about Cornish Cross meat chickens, because of industrial agriculture. Birds raised in over populated sheds, with unlimited and extremely high-protein feed, and a huge amount of medication, are generally unwell with high mortality rates. Our experience of raising meat chickens on pasture tells us that, given the right conditions (fresh grass, sunlight, protection from predators and a reasonable feeding regime), these birds are just as hardy as any other breed we’ve encountered.
For the purposes of this article we’re considering growing Cornish Cross chickens. However, depending on what hatchery you use, you may find that your breed has a different name (e.g. Ross Cobb or Big Meat Broiler); they are all basically the same birds.
To raise a small number of birds for home consumption you’ll need the following.
Chicks. You can source day-old chicks from a hatchery. Most will have a minimum order (chicks usually come in a box of around thirty) so you may need to split your order with a neighbour or friend. Chicks usually cost from $3–$5 each, depending on the breed. Heritage breeds are more expensive. You can raise your own chicks, but meat chickens don’t go clucky – you’d need to incubate fertile eggs.
Brooder space for your chicks for the first three weeks. This is perhaps the most important part of growing meat chickens: you need to make sure your chicks have a healthy start, so that when they move out to pasture they’re strong. They’ll need a warm, dry, draft-free space, with a heat source (usually a heat lamp).
The brooder space can be as simple as a large box or crate – the main thing is that it’s weather- and predator-proof. In our brooder house we bed the chicks down on dry grass clippings and/or wood shavings. The bedding needs to be kept dry at all times. If you have a large number of chicks (more than thirty), after about a week you’ll probably need to turn the bedding and add fresh bedding every day. By not removing existing bedding material/manure you create a ‘deep litter’ system. If you smell ammonia in your brooder space you’ll need to add more dry bedding, until the smell is gone; ammonia build-up can create serious health problems for your chicks, which leads to slower-growing, less robust birds. Ideally the brooder space should be located adjacent to pasture, so that the chicks can forage each day (weather permitting). We’ve found that chicks which are let outside daily, from four days old, are much better foragers and much healthier birds.
A heat source. Heat lamps can be purchased online or from a pet shop that caters for reptile owners. Lamps come in various styles and sizes, so seek advice on what’s best for your setup, and make sure the lamp is big enough for the number of chicks you’ll have.
The heat needs to be reduced every couple of days so that the chicks don’t get a shock when they go onto pasture. Start o§ at around 35°C, and then gradually reduce it so that by the time they go out to pasture the brooder is a similar temperature to the average ambient temperature outside. We usually don’t turn the heat on at all for the last few days in the brooder, just to make sure they’re ready to move out; for the last week we only turn it on at night. The whole brooder doesn’t need to be at 35°C, but there needs to be enough heat so that the chicks can go under the lamp and get warm if they start to chill: if they’re all crowded under the lamp or piling on top of each other, then you know it’s too cold; if there are no chicks under the lamp, and they’re spread in the corners of the brooder, then you know it’s too hot.
A moveable pasture-house. After three weeks your chicks can move out to pasture full time. The pasture-house can be any kind of moveable pen which provides shelter from rain and sun, and which is big enough for all of your chickens to sleep in. Cornish Cross chickens don’t have a roosting instinct, so will sleep on the grass – this means your pasture-house can be low-lying. We use dogs for predator protection; if you don’t have dogs you’ll need to make your pasture-house completely fox-proof. We make an A-frame house from lightweight aluminium and old corflute signs, so it’s very lightweight, which makes moving it easy. We move the pasture-house every day onto fresh ground, so that the chickens have access to fresh, clean grass. This prevents the build-up of diseases, and spreads manure all over your paddock!
Feeders and waterers. Meat chickens eat and drink a LOT. We use non-GMO, non-medicated meat bird feed from our local stockfeeds shop: don’t use layer pellets or scratch mix for Cornish Cross birds.
For the first six weeks we allow unrestricted access to feed, and keep the feeders and waterers filled at all times. We also add kelp meal and grit to the feeders (a handful of kelp meal and a handful of grit to each three kilograms of feed), and apple cider vinegar to the water (quarter of a cup of vinegar to a five-litre waterer). After six weeks we feed them only in the morning – this encourages the birds to exercise and forage in the pasture, which in turn makes them healthier and more robust.
We usually spread the feed and grit out on some newspaper on the first day, so it’s easy for the chicks to find while they learn the lay of their brooder and become familiar with the feeders. They need a good dose of grit early on, to deal with their food. You could provide a dish of grit for them to peck from, but mixing it together means they get a good amount. Once you start letting them out of the brooder, and then move to pasture, providing grit becomes less important, because they find it for themselves.
A place to slaughter your birds and a freezer to put them all in! If you are growing a small number of birds for home consumption you won’t be able to take them to an abattoir so, at some point, you’ll be responsible for dispatching them. We usually killed our commercial birds at around eight weeks, which resulted in a dressed weight of two to three kilograms. We also keep some birds longer, for home consumption or special occasions, and have kept meat chickens for as long as six months. This results in a much larger bird (four to five kilograms dressed) with darker, firmer meat; it will still be tenderer than even a very young heritage rooster.
If you’ve not processed chickens before I strongly recommend that you do at least your first few birds with the help of a neighbour or friend who has experience. There are some helpful videos online (and instructions in Pip issue 2) but nothing is as good as having someone there to teach you. There are many different methods of dispatch. Choose whatever method suits your individual set-up, time constraints and level of expertise. The main thing is that your birds are kept calm, and killed as quickly and humanely as possible.
Once you’ve eaten truly pasture-raised home-killed chicken you’ll probably find there is no going back. Your pasture and/or garden will thank you, and your family and friends will revel in the delicious flavours and nutrient density of the meat.
Annie Werner runs Autumn Farm with her partner Genevieve Derwent where they previously farmed pasture-raised chicken for sale to their local community. www.instagram.com/autumnfarmpastured