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20090607chickens

ChicksDennis wrote to give us a rundown on his most recent broiler chicken operation.  I'm reproducing his entire email below because I think it's worth reading, but I've inserted a cut for those with limited patience.

Raising chickens for meat is emotionally different from raising them for egg production.  The chicks are just as cute when delivered but, at least in my case, I don't identify the birds individually or make any attempt to observe their habits or individual characteristics.  Chicken TV is great to watch with your layers and breeding stock but the birds that we raise for meat are kept in a chicken tractor with little opportunity to get out and perform.  It is just as well, though, because they are short lived with our normal processing day following about 8 weeks after delivery.

My most recent batch of broilers started in late March with 26 birds. On Saturday [May 24] we processed the 17 that survived to the processing stage. It wasn't the fault of the supplier or even problems on pasture.  We managed to lose the first 8 while still in the brooder when they piled in a corner because of our failure to properly monitor the heat levels. The other fatality occurred on pasture for no apparent reason, which happens from time to time.

We have most recently been purchasing birds specifically bred for growing on pasture.  We were very happy with mortality rates and with the feed to meat ratio.  Unfortunately,  our supplier went out of business which forced us to make a change.  This time we bought birds that appeared to have some of the same characteristics as those we had been purchasing.  In the past we had tried Cornish Rock Cross and were unhappy with the fat levels and with both the leg problems and mortality issues.  The birds we bought this time did fairly well as far as fat levels and general health, but did not grow as quickly as any of the breeds we had tried earlier.

I was looking forward to processing day this batch a little more than usual.  My chicken raising partner told me that he had access to an automated chicken plucker and I was really looking forward to comparing the speed, efficiency and level of mess to our normal method of skinning the chickens.  As luck would have it, though, a few days before processing I learned that the plucker was not available to us and we were to conduct our normal process.

The slaughter and processing of the birds is the phase of the entire cycle which gives me the greatest connection between us and the life that provides us with our meat.  Our method of dispatching the birds is to place each one in a killing cone and to slice the carotid artery with a knife in one hand while holding the birds head in
our free hand.  It is an intensely personal relationship with an animal to place it in a holding cone and then to perform the act which will cause its death and then to hold its head while the blood,and with it, the life, leaves its body.

We use a method to skin the birds which begins with the bird hanging in the air by its neck.  A small incision is made in the skin beneath the feathers and the skin, along with the feathers is removed from the bird.  A quick slice of the top rib on each side allows us to pull the breast free from the bird and gain access to the body cavity for easy removal of the internal organs.  Thereafter, only a couple of quick cuts are necessary to remove wing tips, the feet and the head.  The chicken can be further cut up or left as is.  I like to cut the thighs off the carcass and the wings off the breast but that's a matter of choice.

The drawback to skinning the chickens and our method of processing is that there are no birds available for roasting or baking whole.  But, as a practical matter, in my entire adult life I don't think my family has prepared more than one or two chickens in that manner.  So, we don't really lose any options that matter.  Your mileage may vary.

I think I will probably look for a different breed next time.  When we weighed the final product, the acquisition cost and feed cost to meat conversion of these turned out to be even worse than we anticipated.   Although, we probably could have allowed the birds to grow another week or so and made up some of the difference and the loss of 1/3 of the birds did not help the cost factor at all.  But nonetheless I believe we need a feed to meat conversion that is both more efficient and faster.


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