Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Home Chicken Production


The home gardening craze has been increasing over the last few years, and more people would like to grow their own eggs and meat as well. A lot of people have a few chickens for the eggs but have not tried growing some for meat. It is very rewarding to grow and harvest your own chicken, and it will provide high quality meat.

The basics needed to start home broiler production are: a building or pen to keep the chickens in, feeders and waterers, feed, a freezer, and motivation.

What breed should you raise? If you are ordering chicks for egg production, consider one of the dual-purpose breeds and order straight run birds. Straight-run is non-sexed birds, so you will get cockerels and hens. The cockerels will make great fryers at 11 to 12 weeks old. Of course, the cockerels from most egg-producing breeds can be harvested but will yield less meat. The hybrid Cornish Rock crosses and breeds designed for range production offer the highest yields.

The Cornish Rock hybrids are a fast-growing breed of chicken. It will be ready for harvest at 8 to 10 weeks, with the cockerels larger than the hens. It has white feathers and very few pinfeathers, so it cleans well and has fewer blemishes. This breed is similar to the commercial birds and will look similar to the chicken from the grocery. The "free-range" birds have been bred to utilize some forage in their diet but still require feed. These birds will finish at 10 to 12 weeks old.

Before ordering your birds, be sure to have a space to brood the chicks. You will need a heat source and clean, draft-free space. The birds should be brooded at 95 degrees F, reducing the temperature as the birds are able to maintain body heat. Provide clean water and plenty of space at the feeder so all chicks can eat. Clean the feeder and waterer daily to prevent disease.

Feed is the most expensive part of growing broilers. I recommend a commercial ration--one that is a complete feed. If you are concerned about GMO grains or conventionally-grown feed sources then organic feeds are available. Cornish hybrids will eat about 11 lbs. per bird. Dual- purpose breeds and free-range breeds will take more feed to finish at a desired weight. The feed should be 20 to 22 percent protein and contain a coccidiostat to prevent coccidiosis.

The birds are at the desired weight, so what is the next step? Well, this is the hardest part for most people--harvest (slaughter). There are several options for harvest; you can do it yourself or take them to a processor.  If you plan on home butchering, then you need be prepared with some equipment. I recommend a killing cone. Stainless steel works great and is available commercially, and I have seen people use traffic cones. The cone should be hung up with a bucket placed under it to catch the blood. The cones make killing more humane and efficient. It is not good to hang them up or cut their head off and let them run. The meat can bruise easily and might become contaminated.

To remove the feathers you will need 140 degree F water to dip the birds in. The biggest mistake at this stage is to have the water temperature to high and cook the meat. It takes about two minutes of dipping the birds to loosen the feathers. If you are not doing a large batch of birds, you can hand pluck or purchase a plucker. There are small models available for around $300 It is a good investment if you plan on doing this long term.

After the feathers have been removed, then you will remove the intestines from the bird and place the birds in ice water. The birds need to be cooled for two hours before further processing.  If the birds are not properly cooled, they will be tough and not as good to eat. The last step is to process the birds. They can be frozen whole or can be cut up, then vaccum packed and frozen. I like to cut my birds up and use the remaining carcass (back, neck, etc.) to make some stock.

If you don't have the will to slaughter your own birds, there is a processor in Marion. The Foothills Pilot Plant opened in January in Marion and slaughters poultry and rabbits. Please contact general manager Dr. Paljinder Manhiani by email at foothillspilotplant@gmail.com, or by calling 828-803-2717.

If you need more information on raising chickens or home harvesting, contact Eddy Labus (eddy_labus@ncus.edu) 

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