What are you ― chicken? Well, yes, certainly they were chickens. But, what breed? This is what I found myself asking several weeks into my first-time chicken venture of raising broilers. Broilers or fryers, as the name implies, is what you call meat birds as opposed to layers (which you would raise for eggs).
In my previous post, I promised to write about my chicken-raising experience last spring. Well, it started with ordering chicks. If you want to know which came first, the chicken or the egg, I would say picking up 54 chicks in a holey, cardboard box from the post office.
I had my first qualms that something wasn’t right when I looked at the box, because it was stamped a few times with the words “Cornish Rock.” However, when I looked at the packing slip, it said, “Freedom Ranger.” Surely the hatchery wouldn’t have sent me the wrong breed of chicks, I thought to myself.
Do you know what color most chicks are? They are yellow. They are cute and fuzzy and yellow. When chicks replace their “down” with actual feathers, then those feathers can be all kinds of different colors, depending on the breed of chicken. This is important to note, because when I received 54 yellow, fuzzy chicks, I could not tell which breed they were.
After a few weeks, chicks are no longer chicks but are chickens with feathers. My chickens had white feathers. The Freedom Ranger breed of chickens I had ordered have brown feathers. Surely, the hatchery did send me the wrong breed of chicks, I now thought to myself.
After a phone call to the hatchery, I learned two things: I had about 40 Cornish Rock chickens that needed to be butchered soon, and I didn’t want to use that hatchery again.
Cornish Rock birds are bred to grow very quickly. You can butcher them as early as about 7-8 weeks. The Freedom Rangers I wanted don’t grow as fast, are better foragers, and are supposed to be healthier birds.
When I learned I had chickens that were due to be butchered sooner than I thought, we started to feed them more, and I started planning a butchering party.
Before I get to the butchering, however, I will back up and tell you how we raised the chickens. For the first two weeks, we kept our chicks in an old hay ring inside of a barn. The hay ring had chicken wire and cardboard around the bottom of it to keep the chicks inside. We used chick feeders, waterers and heat lamps.
After the first two weeks, we moved the chicks into a chicken tractor. My husband built our chicken tractor with wood for the frame, chicken wire surrounding it, and then sheet metal for the roof. Half of the top can be lifted, because it’s on hinges. You have to lift it up to be able to put in feed, water, etc. We moved the chicken tractor each morning, so our brood could be on fresh grass daily. It was heavy. It took one person on each end of it to lift it up a little bit and move it slowly to a new patch of grass. You also had to be careful not to lift it too high off the ground, or the chickens could get out. There were no wheels on our chicken tractor. It was a big square that was about ten foot by ten foot.
We started with the chicken tractor outside of our yard. We lost several chickens to predators. We don’t know what those predators were. We have stray cats, roaming dogs, raccoons, skunks, opossums, and other animals that would eat chickens, so it’s anyone’s guess what got them. There were a couple times where we went out to find the whole dead chicken still in the pen, only its head missing.
So, we moved the chicken tractor into our yard, hoping the predators wouldn’t want to come so near the house. We still lost a couple, so we put better wire all the way around the pen. That stopped the predators. So, that was a learning moment. The regular chicken wire had too big of holes. We had to use hardware cloth.
We started with 54 chickens. We ended up butchering 37. We lost them to sickness, trampling, predators, and, uh, dropping the end of the chicken tractor on their necks by accident.
I will cover the rest of our chicken experience in next week’s post. This one is getting long. But I will end on a happy note:
We’ve had lots of great meals from the flock we raised, meat was tender and juicy ― tasted like chicken!