After a year of success raising backyard egg chickens, we decided the next logical step would be to raise our own meat chickens. What could be better than our own free range meat? We would know exactly what the chickens ate and how they were treated. And what would give us more urban homesteader street cred than raising and processing our own meat?
When you go to buy a “meat” chicken, you are generally buying a breed called the Cornish cross. They are bred (and inbred and inbred…) to reach full weight in around 2 months and are, not surprisingly, freaks of nature.
We decided to get half Cornish cross and half “pan fry” (the cockerel, or rooster, of egg laying breeds) to compare the growth, expense and final product. And then, to make it extra educational we decided to weigh them each week and chart the differences in growth. Ok, that wasn’t totally my idea. I borrowed and expanded on an idea of a friend who is running our 4H poultry project class.
The first week our chicks looked more or less the same—fluffy and adorable. But by the second week the Cornish cross weighed considerably more and were ambling about in a stilted, lost eyed sort of way. Their feathers were sparse and greasy and they didn’t bother keeping themselves clean the way the other birds did. Still, I was determined that these pathetic creatures would be as free range as I could make them. When I let them range about in the yard the “pan fry” chickens would strut about posturing and chasing bugs and nibbling grass. In contrast, the Cornish cross would waddle a few steps then tilt sideways and plop ponderously onto their side looking for all the world like feathered, wheezing Jaba the Huts. I started to think that when the time came it would seem much more like putting them out of their misery than butchering.
And so it was, for the most part. I won’t give the gory details (and they are gory!) but in less than 8 weeks our meat chickens were between 5-8 pounds and were clearly struggling. They grow so fast and get so heavy that they succumb to health problems and it is not uncommon for 20-40% of them to die from heart failure or suffocation. We had one fatality. I couldn’t even muster up sympathy—only annoyance that it had eaten all that food and then gone and died before I could kill it.
That left us four chickens to butcher and we set to it with grim determination. The first three didn’t even struggle as I got them out of the pen and took them to their executioner but the last one took off at a desperate waddle and as I shuffled after her I swear I heard the theme song to Chariots of Fire. I was so proud of this bird, trying to take charge of its destiny—but alas after about ten seconds she forgot what she had been doing and plopped down and nibbled at a piece of grass next to her.
Four chickens processed, packaged and in my freezer.
So, how does the cost compare to buying a farm raised free range chicken? It is not uncommon for a free range whole chicken to cost around $6/pound, which would be around $20 for a whole chicken. Let’s be generous and say $15 a chicken. So I had $60 of meat in my freezer, but what were my expenses?
My Cornish cross chicks cost $1.99 each, so $9.95. During their brief life I fed them in the neighborhood of $30 in feed (they shared this with their “pan fry” buddies so it is hard to determine their exact feed cost) and I spent $5.50 in pine bedding for their pen (again divide this with the other chickens). I estimate about $35–less than $8.50 a bird. Not a big savings considering the effort involved, but a savings—and can we put a price on the fact that I knew exactly how they’d lived? But let’s look deeper at the expenses.
In order to house the meat chickens we built a second coop, and got fancy with this one ($400.00). My husband decided he needed a hunting knife to be a proper executioner. He says this cost $50, but I didn’t see a receipt so he may have just been unable to admit to a price higher than $50. Then, in the middle of processing we figured out my largest pot was not big enough to scald the birds properly (necessary to make plucking easier) so an emergency run to Target yielded a giant stainless steel stock pot for another $50. And then after the processing, when I had four chickens in my refrigerator I decided I needed a Foodsaver to vacuum seal and package the meat—another $100. And do you think for a minute that I cooked after all that? Add $20 for a pizza. A vegetarian pizza. I think we are well over $100 a bird now, even with fuzzy math.
My little pan fry roosters are still strutting around the yard. They are beautiful but will not be full grown for at least another couple of months. I’m sure even then they will not make the weight of my Cornish cross even after eating my chicken feed for twice as long. At the moment, though, I think in order to truly feel that the chickens we raise are “free range”, I’ll have to look to these little guys running around loving life while they have it.