Considering Chicken Size

If you’re raising chickens for meat purposes, you’ll eventually need to start processing them. A number of schools of thought exist about this process. For example, after eight or nine weeks, some people will gather family and friends together and process all of their chickens in one fell swoop. This is the approach used by the factory farms. The chickens are raised for a specific amount of time and processed at the same time to reduce costs and to obtain a profit on the entire group immediately. That’s why you commonly see chickens in a specific size range at the store. Gone are the days when you could ask for a chicken of a particular size to meet a specific need.

 

It’s important to note that chickens are usually processed at six or seven weeks in a factory setting. The chickens are force fed as much as they can possibly eat and restricted from moving about too much, which results in a fatty chicken with a poor density. The watery, flabby chicken you get in the store isn’t how chicken is actually supposed to look, but it’s what we’ve gotten used to seeing.

Rebecca and I take an entirely different approach—one that gives us a variety of sizes and reduces the workload on any given day. The two of us can comfortably process eight to ten chickens in a single day. (The largest number we ever processed was 23 chickens at a definitely uncomfortable pace.) We normally start processing chickens at week nine for the purpose of canning them (canned chicken is absolutely amazing stuff and it lasts up to five years without any electricity required). The following table shows the live weight, processed weight, and amount of time required to obtain various sorts of chickens. There is also a description of each kind of chicken.

Type

Time

Live Weight

Processed Weight

Description

Cornish Game Hen

3 to 5 weeks

1.2 to 3.25 pounds

0.72 to 2.0 pounds

A small chicken that’s used for individual servings. This size is usually available in stores.

Fryer

8 to 9 weeks

4.0 to 5.75 pounds

2.5 to 4.0 pounds

The store-sized chicken that’s good for canning and outstanding for low-fat soups when raised correctly.

Broiler

9 to 11 weeks

5.75 to 7.5 pounds

4.0 to 5.5 pounds

A little larger than a store-sized chicken that’s excellent for barbecuing in pieces or fried chicken. This size is also good for a robust soup. Some larger stores and most butcher shops sell this size.

Roaster

11 to 14 weeks

7.5 to 11 pounds

5.5 to 8.5 pounds

Usually unavailable in stores (you can get them at a butcher shop in some cases), but excellent for roasting in an oven or on a barbecue rotisserie.

Small Turkey

14 weeks+

11 to 18 pounds

8.5 to 12 pounds

A great replacement for a small turkey. Generally, you can’t grow any chicken larger than 12 pounds (and we’ve never achieved more than 11.5 pounds). You can sometimes get these birds in a rural butcher shop for a premium price.

Stewing

3 to 5 years

Varies

Varies

A stewing chicken is generally a laying hen that’s past her prime and is only useful for soup or broth. This option is unavailable anywhere today.

 

This table is based on our own experiences and those of people we’ve talked with. It reflects what you should expect for home grown chickens, not for chickens raised in a factory setting, which can produce chickens at a faster pace. We’ve kept records for five years worth of chicken processing. Your results may vary according to a wide range of factors, such as what you feed your chickens and how often. (We feed our chickens a combination of broiler mix chicken feed, grass, kitchen scraps, and insects.) When you raise animals outside, they’re subject to variations in the weather that will affect their weight. Even the place you buy your chicks from can make a difference. I’m also assuming that you plan to raise Cornish Rock chickens as described in the Getting Started with Chickens post.

It’s also important to remember that chickens today are typically sold without the organ meats and sometimes without the neck. The neck, heart, gizzard, and liver normally weigh in at a combined 4.0 to 6.0 ounces. We keep all of these parts because the small amount in each chicken really adds up. Some people also keep the feet, which could add another couple of ounces to the total. The feet are great for broth, but you need to ensure that they’re completely cleaned before you use them and you also remove the yellow outer skin before boiling them. We don’t keep the feet because we feel that the amount of work required to clean them properly isn’t worth the resulting broth.

Although the table seems to indicate that you can multiply the live weight by 0.67 in most cases to obtain the processed weight, we generally multiply by 0.5 to ensure we actually get chickens of the size we want. There is some weight variation between birds and you don’t want to have to weigh each one individually, so the lower multiplier adds a little insurance. Please let me know if you have any questions at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Protecting Your Investment

Many people disregard the benefit of having good working animals. We currently have two dogs and three cats. Every one of them has work to do. Over the years I’ve found that working animals actually live longer and lead happier lives. It seems that everyone benefits from having work to keep them happy.

The two dogs work during the evening hours. We’re out and about enough during the daylight hours that we’ve never had a problem with the wildlife during the day. It’s at night that the wildlife comes out and causes us woe. So the dogs work all night and sleep all day. One of us takes them to work each evening and brings them into the house early each morning.

Shelby earns her keep by guarding the chickens. Everyone likes a chicken dinner. The way we have the chicken tractors constructed keeps hawks at bay. However, weasels and racoons will dig under the chicken tractors to get inside if they can’t get in any other way. The hardware cloth will delay them, but not permanently bar them. Weasels are the worst of the lot. They’ll make a small incision in the chicken’s neck, drain it of blood, and then move onto the next chicken without touching the meat of the one it has just killed. What a waste! We’ve had problems with other wildlife getting into the chicken tractors as wellI’m pretty sure a fox got into the chicken tractors at least once.

Shelby

Shelby also helps catch any chickens that get out of the chicken tractors. She’ll carefully move them toward me. I can usually catch the chicken without any problem and put it back inside. We chose a border collie because of the herding instinct.

Reese guards the apple orchard. We have two orchardsone for apples and another for everything else (pears, plums, and cherries). For some reason, none of the wildlife bothers the other orchard, but they absolutely love our apples. One season I had a wonderful harvest when I went to bedthe next morning I got up to find stems, which was all that the deer left behind after eating every apple. Rebecca says that there is still a dark cloud hanging over the orchard from the unfortunate language I used to express my discomfort with the deer’s choice of delicacy. Since we’ve had a dog out there, no one has touched the apples (or at least, not enough to matter). We chose a beagle/rat terrier mix for the no nonsense attitude toward guarding territory. Besides, she doesn’t dig (at least, not often) and she cuddles nicely in the winter.

Reese

During the late fall and most of the winter months, we store goods in the basement. It acts as our root cellar. There are usually some apples, potatoes, and squash down there. Given that the basement keeps at a nice 40 degrees, things last quite a while. We eat the last squash sometime in March in most years, along with the last of the potatoes (the apples never last past the holidays). Mice just love root cellars. Given a chance, they’ll bore through squash just enough to ruin it. Apples and potatoes make wonderful treats as well.

Two of our cats, Bubba and Smucker, patrol the root cellar. We don’t stick them down there at any given time. They ask to go down for a while, then they ask to come back up. It’s a nice arrangement for everyone. Since we’ve had Bubba and Smucker patrolling the root cellar, there hasn’t been any damage to our goods from mice. Sure, we could have used traps, but cats work significantly better.

SmuckerandBubba

Sugar Plum is Rebecca’s cuddle cat. Her main job is to keep Rebecca happy. During the daytime, that means staying with Rebecca in the kitchen or wherever else Rebecca might be at the time. It’s an important job.

All of our “kids” know how to do some simple tricks. The dogs each have their own way of asking for their breakfast and they play a mean game of fetch. They’re also trained to perform the usual commandssit, lay down, kennel, and quiet. The cats can also perform tricks. In this case, Sugar Plum is sitting up to ask for a treat.

SugarPlum

Having animals is an important part of self-sufficiency. Without these work animals, we’d never be able to hold onto the investment we’ve made. How do you work with your animals? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Working with Chicken Tractors

In the previous post, Working with Young Chickens, the chickens were just starting to get big enough to put outside. We were hardening them off so that they’d survive the elements. The chickens are most definitely large enough now to go outside (and have been for about two weeks). Each chicken has about 2 square feet of space in a chicken tractor. However, the chicken only lives in that space for a few days. During the time the chickens are living in the chicken tractors, they’ll actually use a 24-foot × 80-foot area (or about 25.6-feet per chicken).

Of course, the question is, “What is a chicken tractor?” Our version of the chicken tractor is a square bottomless cage with a roof that allows the chickens to access bugs, grass, dirt, and other items that a chicken would normally want to access, but in a safe environment. Here’s one of our older chicken tractors.

ChickenTractor01

This particular chicken tractor is 4-feet wide and 8-feet long. It has handles at either end for moving it from place-to-place. Chicken tractors come a wide variety of forms, but the idea in all cases is to provide a movable cage that lacks a bottom. When the birds are young, we move our chicken tractors once a week. As they get older, we move them progressively more often until we’re moving them every three days before we process the last of them.

We build our chicken tractors from standard pine or fir boards and 24-inch high ¼-inch hardware cloth. Each chicken tractor requires about 40-feet of hardware cloth (24-feet for the sides and 16-feet across the top), so a single roll will build two chicken tractors that can house a total of 32 full grown birds comfortably. (Initially, you can put up to 64 birds in the two chicken tractors if you plan to cull the smaller ones for use in canned chicken, which requires three to four pound chickens, but larger birds require a minimum of 2 square feet each to be comfortable and to grow well.)

You shouldn’t use pressure treated lumber for your chicken tractor because the chickens peck at the wood. Anything the chickens eat, you also eat. That’s the same reason you don’t want to paint the lumber unless you want to invest in non-toxic paint. The only exception that you can reasonably make is to use ½-inch CDX plywood for the roofs because the chickens don’t get anywhere near them. Unfortunately, the use of non-treated wood means that we have to perform repairs on the chicken tractors each spring, but so far, the repairs have been minimal.

It looks like each chicken tractor will last six to eight years (perhaps longer as I gain experience). At that point, you need to build an entirely new wooden frame because the old one will rot enough to require replacement, but the hardware cloth, handles, and hinges are still perfectly good, so you can recycle them. In fact, it’s possible that you can even reuse some of the staples used to hold the hardware cloth in place. The cost to build a chicken tractor is about $240.00 with the hardware cloth, so you need to factor $30.00 to $40.00 into your costs each year to account for wear and tear on them.

As with any building enterprise, I made mistakes with the first few chicken tractors. For one thing, I tried using chicken wire the first time. The racoons demonstrated that they can easily overcome chicken wire and had a good chicken dinner as a result. Another thought I had was to build the chicken tractors with hinged joints so I could take them down each winter for storage. The solution proved problematic and the rotting was actually worse than if I had left the cages up all winter. I also made the door on the top of the cage too large the first time and the chickens demonstrated an unswerving ability to get out of the chicken tractor while I was trying to feed themleading to Keystone Cop episodes of chicken catching. I’m sure I’ll continue to learn new tricks as I build new chicken tractors.

The chickens require boards to roost on inside the chicken tractor. Otherwise, they’ll get diseased easily and their breast feathers will become almost useless to them. Chickens also need exercise and a place to get their feet off the ground from time-to-time. Our chicken tractors have 2×4 roost like the ones shown here:

ChickenTractor02

We supply two roosts to divide the cage into thirds. The left side contains their water dish and the right contains the food dish. The center is completely free of any encumbrance so the chickens have a free space in which to roam. The roosts are 2-inches above the ground so that they aren’t too high to reach, yet provide complete protection from the ground, even when it rains.

A lot of people use specialized feeders for their chickens. It’s actually better to use a short pan so that the chickens have good access to food and water. The water pan also serves as a bath, so we change the water at least twice a day (more often after a storm because the birds want to get any mud off). Here are the pans that we use:

ChickenTractor03

As you can see, it’s nothing fancy. A pan like this will last around five years. It holds 3 gallons of water, which is more than enough for the chickens in the chicken tractor. If you have any questions about these chicken tractors, let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Working with Young Chickens

You’ll remember from the Getting Started with Chickens post that we’re raising chickens this year. The chickens when the first five days with the heat lamp, after which we turned it off. After the first seven days, we started giving them food only during the first 12 hours of the day. In a factory setting, the chickens continually receive food, but we prefer that the chickens grow more slowly so they can develop strong bones and have a better survival rate. Of course, they get water whenever they want it.

Each morning now at 5:30, the young chickens wake up and immediately start chirping. Along with the birds outside our windows, it sounds a bit like “The Birds” or perhaps “Wild Kingdom.” There is no sleeping in our house after 5:30. All during the day the young chickens peck away at their food. Between 7:00 and 8:30 at night, the birds all nestle down and go to sleep.

Our chickens are growing slowly, but steadily. You remember that they were mere puffs of yellow at one point. Here’s how they look today (about five times the size they started):

Chickens0201

Naturally, with all of this growth, the chickens need more space.  They’re now in five boxes the same size of the original one.  We can keep them in boxes for another week or two, but that’s about it. At that time, we’ll move them out to the chicken tractors, where each chicken will have two square feet of space in which to move about. That’s more space than you might imagine because they tend to clump together. You’ll hear more about the chicken tractors in my next post.

The young chickens are still eating chick starter, but they’ll move onto broiler mash soon. They’re also getting kitchen scraps and other more natural food (including bugs) now. We’re “hardening them off” at this point. What that means is that we dutifully take the boxes outside to a semi-shaded area each day. The chickens can hang out in the shade or move into the sun as desired. This stage helps the chickens adjust to the outdoors before we put them in the chicken tractors. If you suddenly move the chickens from an environment, such as your garage, to the outside, the shock could kill them.

Each evening (about 4:00 or 5:00) we take them back into the garage for safety. At this point, they’re interesting enough that weasels, racoons, and even other birds would just love to have them for dinner. In fact, this is probably the most dangerous point in their growth because we still need to have them in the garagejust in case it gets cold (unlikely, but it can happen). Plus they’re still just a bit too small for the chicken tractors.

Heat is also a problem at this point. Young chicks require quite a bit of heat, but even they have limits. We’ve had a couple of extremely hot days and lost a couple of our charges due to the heat. Fans, time outside, and extra water just weren’t enough. The young chickens don’t need the heat of chicks anymore, but they haven’t developed fully enough to tolerate the heat swings of summer. So, you have to watch them carefully to ensure they’re staying comfortable.

We also lost a few of the chicks to other causes. One day the chicks managed to peck a hole in the box. We came home from town with more boxes, opened the garage door, and all the chicks came charging out. They looked quite determined to go on an adventure. So, we had to rush about gathering them up into the new boxes. It looked like one of those scenes you see on America’s Funniest Home Video, but this was real life. Unfortunately, we didn’t find all of them and other animals ate them.

We can tell that the young chickens are starting to make the transition between chicks and chickens. Their cheeps are becoming lower and a bit more like a cackle. No, it’s not the cackle of a chicken yet, but it’s getting there. They’re also starting to develop feathers. They haven’t quite gotten a case of the raging uglies yet, but they soon will as the hairy feathers they have now are replaced by a full set of real feathers. Let me know if you have any questions at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Easter Bunnies (Part 2)

You may remember my previous post about Easter Bunnies. At that point, they were hairless and barely recognizable as rabbits. Since that time, our Easter bunnies have continued to grow. After about three weeks the little rabbits will begin jumping out of the nest box. We call them “poppers” at that point. From that point on, the babies begin eating food on their own. It takes between 1 and 1½ months for the doe to ween the babies. At that point, the babies are more or less independent, but still spend plenty of time with mom (who continues to groom them).

The babies are a little over 2 months old now. Mom will remain with the babies for another week or so, and then we’ll remove her. We’ll keep the babies together because they’re used to being together. Keeping the babies together for now will reduce stress. Here’s how the babies look now:

Rabbits01

Yes, it’s pretty amazing to see how fast they grow. There are six babies in here. We’ll separate them according to sex once they get a little bigger and put them in separate cages.

Some people wonder why we use such heavy cages. The rabbits are kept outside so they get fresh air and sunshine. (The nest box in the back of the cage is big enough to accommodate all of them in bad weather.) Because the rabbits are outside to be in a healthy environment, they’re at risk from predators. The other day we came home to find two dogs after the rabbits. So, the heavy cages aren’t there to keep the rabbits in, but to keep the predators out. You don’t want you bunnies eaten by any of the huge number of predators that feast on them, so it’s important to build sturdy cages well off the ground.

I’ve had a few people ask what we feed our rabbits. They do get rabbit pellets as one of their main dietary items. However, in addition to the rabbit pellets, we feed them garden scraps, grass hay (grass that we’ve let grow a little long and then raked up), corn (to help them keep their teeth ground down and to provide needed fat), oats (to provide needed fiber), and sticks from our apple and pear trees (a treat that also helps keep their teeth ground down). Each of the cages also has a salt block with minerals (the red blocksnot the solid white ones). We make sure that the rabbits also have clean water (they tend to dirty it by sitting in it at times).

The picture doesn’t show it, but bottom of the cage uses a much smaller mesh (½” × ½”). Otherwise, the rabbits would quickly become footsore and could get infections from cuts. The mesh allows fecal matter to pass through. We wash the cages regularly to keep them clean.

 

Getting Started with Chickens

Rebecca and I don’t raise chickens every year. We raise chickens for two years, then give the land a rest on the third year. This cycle ensures we meet a number of goals, including the reduction of disease risks that could occur if we raised chickens every year. We normally start with 75 Cornish Rock chicks because that provides us with about 1½ year’s worth of meat. The chicks arrive in a box like this one:

Chickens0101

The baby chicks are packed pretty closely together so they stay warm. Chicks require a considerable amount of warmth or they’ll die. If you get chicks at some point, don’t be surprised at just how tightly they’re packed:

Chickens0102

Of course, you’ll want to get them out of there as quickly as possible (the chicks will tend to want to run all over the place if you let them). However, the chicks don’t know how to drink when you first get them. The safest way to teach them to drink is to dip their beaks in a water solution as shown here.

Chickens0103

The solution shown here is actually Gatorade. It contains a number of things the chicks need to get started. We provide them with watered down Gatorade for the first few days and find that it reduces the number of chick deaths (in most cases, we lose 2 or 3 chicks during this first stage, but we’ve had years where we didn’t lose any).

At this point, you put the chick into some type of container (we use a large cardboard box) with a pan of chick starter. We don’t believe in using many chemicals with our chickens, but we do use a chick starter that has medications in it to prevent diseases such as coccidia.

The chicks are kept under heat lamps until their full feathers grow in. We use disposable tin plates and replace their paper daily to ensure the chicks remain in the healthiest possible environment as shown here:

Chickens0104

As the chicks grow, we’ll move them to non-medicated food. In fact, they’ll often eat garden scraps, plenty of grass, and have access to various other items that chickens would normally eat (such as worms) because we raise them in chicken tractors. We also move our chicks outdoors to chicken tractors so they can get plenty of fresh air and sunshine. I’ll talk about this next stage in a later post. For now, the chicks are snug under the heat lamps.

Chickens0105

It’s important to provide the chicks with enough space, but not too much space. If you provide too much space, the more aggressive chicks will trample and kill the less aggressive chicks. At this point we supply 9 square inches of space for each chick. As the chicks grow, we increase the allotted area to 1 square foot per chicken.  The full grown chickens will have 2 square feet or more of space. (Full grown chickens normally receive 1/2 square foot of space in factory conditions.)

We’ll start out by making food available to them 24 hours a day.  After the first five days, we’ll withdraw food at night to prevent health problems. The chicks will have clean water available 24 hours a day. Overfeeding chicks (as is done in factory conditions) can result in a condition known as flip (the chick dies of a heart attack). We prefer to let our chickens grow slowly.

 

Easter Bunnies

Spring heralds many things at our homestead. Of course, you’ve already seen the flowers, Early Spring – The Garden and Orchard, and budding trees. Today’s post is about our Easter bunnies. Because they require so little space, we raise rabbits. Each spring the does are bred and usually have their babies around spring. The gestation period for a rabbit is between 28 and 35 days, with 31 days being the average. We’ve found that our rabbits will often time the birth for a warmer dayjust how they know is a mystery to us, but the weatherman could probably take a few clues from them. The first clue we have that the does are about to have babies is that the does start pulling hair and fluffing it up in their nest box like this:

Rabbit01

The doe usually has her babies within 24 hours of pulling her hair, but I’ve seen it take a little longer. We normally watch the nest box carefully after the hair pulling to try to determine when the babies are born. We’re extremely careful not to disturb the babies at all for several days after the birth. After that, we gently pull away a little of the hair using a stick (human scent will keep the mother from taking care of her babies). Here are the two day old babies of Rocky Raccoon (she has raccoon markings on her face):

Rabbit02

These babies were quite active and healthy, so they were a little hard to catch with the camera, but you can see them under all that hair. We were quite careful not to touch them or anything in the nest box. Afterward, we carefully covered them back up because they can take a chill pretty easily at this point.

Whether we get a look at all depends on mother bunny. If she looks at all concerned, we leave the babies completely alone. Some mothers will thump to show their displeasure at our peeping. Normally, they’ll let us take a look a bit later, usually within a few days. Happy Easter from the farm!