Cost Analysis: Raising Heritage Chickens

brooder

My how time flies! As of Wednesday, our meat chooks have all been butchered and the last 22 finished chilling and were packaged for the freezer today. Whew!

I thought it was important in our first year of raising meat chickens that I assess how much we were spending, per chicken, on the process, from start to finish…and share this on the blog for those who’ve been considering it, or might be looking for ways to possibly cut costs.

Keep in mind these are slower growing, heirloom, semi-free ranging (I say “semi” because they grew up in the tractor in the garden, so they couldn’t just go anywhere they wanted) 100% organic chickens raised for 13-16 weeks (July through October).

Here’s how the numbers came out:

  • 50 Heirloom Chicks (Australorp, Delaware, Wyandotte, Houdan): $207
    • Our local feed store only sold Delawares so we ordered them in the mail from the same place we got our ducks 3 years ago. These four breeds were all on the Livestock Conservancy watch lists which was important to us as well…not to mention we like dark meat, which they’re known for, soooo much more than white meat.
    • 2 died early on via ‘chick suicide’ (one got squished by others, one drowned)
    • 4 were granted clemency and have joined our ducks as layers (2 Delawares + 2 Australorps, as they have the highest predicted egg volume at 200-250/year, plus they are brown eggs so they won’t get mixed up with the ducks if they don’t use their nesting box) . They are still deciding if they love or hate each other at the moment. Will report back in a week or so.
    • Antibiotics & vaccinations? Heck no! They spent 3 weeks in the barn brooder then were transferred outside to the mobile tractor for the rest of their lives. Lots of room, lots of sunshine ‘n’ bugs, lots of love,  no need for chemicals – don’t believe the hype, y’all.
  • Scratch ‘n’ Peck Organic, Soy/Corn-Free Layer Feed (22 layer, 1 starter): $741
    • Why layer feed? When we realized that special broiler feed is only ONE percentage point more protein, something that can be easily supplemented. Plus, to get the larger 40 lb bags, one has to special order those through our feed store, AND they cost more.  Bonus? Any leftovers were shared with the ducks who already eat it. Expensive? Hey, you get what you pay for.
    • While they were in the brooder, I fermented the feed, but have mixed feelings about it as while I appreciate the benefits and savings, those chicks are crazy slobs (no better than ducklings, I’m afraid!) and too much of it quickly compacted and became undigested compost. So by tractor time they were just getting their feed in it’s from-the-bag format.
    • We also quickly learned that the recommended servings per chook of feed on most websites was totally out of control more than these pasture-raised birds needed! I learned within a couple weeks that some of the feed was just helping the grass grow faster, haha.
    • We kept a ‘chicken compost bowl’ on the kitchen counter for all the stuff that they’d eat (separate from our normal compost container) which was awesome. Along with that, my husband works at the natural foods co-op and brought home HUGE bags of produce scraps which they loved (and the stuff they didn’t eat? our dog was thrilled as she proved time and again to us that scraps of broccoli, fennel, carrots and celery are way better than any milkbone). Even more, they loved the meat and fish scraps we brought home – the expiration-date meat that we didn’t eat ourselves got minced up and even more exciting to them were my husband’s trips to the fishing docks where the fishermen were more than happy to give him all their scraps from gutting them. The chooks picked those bones clean! A nice way to save stuff from the landfill and give them all the protein they could ever dream of.
  • Supplies: $30
    • Brooder: built out of existing materials (2×6’s and hardware cloth), put in a stall in the barn with a lid on a hinge to protect from critters and allow for easy access to feed/water.
    • Waterer: had an extra waterer on hand, set it on a couple 2×4’s when they got tall enough.
    • Bedding: had a couple bags of pine shavings on hand for the brooder, initially covered with an old sheet the first 2 days til they got used to eating feed, and nothing of course for the mobile tractor since that was on grass!
    • Warming Light: had one left over from when the ducks were ducklings and our neighbor loaned us hers as well (2 were definitely better than one for this many chicks as our summers are pretty mild here)
    • Kill Cone: DIY out of an old bucket – thanks, YouTube!
    • Pot for Dipping pre-pluck: My existing electric canner – perfection!
    • Plucker: borrowed from our neighbor – seriously the greatest thing ever…and definitely on our shopping list for the future.
    • The only thing we paid for: Bags for chilling them and a $7 special kill knife. Used existing FoodSaver bags for freezing. Lesson learned? Save up random plastic bags or get from a less eco-minded neighbor to use for the chilling part – special bags are total BS for just a 2 day affair. This was the only UN-eco thing we did and I wish wish wish there were non-plastic options for storing these chooks (the butcher paper that doesn’t leak? it is plastic-coated, ugh).
  • TOTAL: $22/chicken. The same as (or less than) we’d spend for a small organic chicken at the grocery store. NOTE: We do NOT consider “SmartChicken” to be organic – any brand owned by wildly unethical factory farm corporations like Foster Farms are nothing we will ever support or consider in the same league as locally grown birds.

Lessons Learned

Would I do it again? Absolutely!

What would I raise next time? Only Houdans. The taste, OMG, the taste is beyond anything I’ve ever had in my life, it’s so rich and earthy and gorgeous. The others are incredible but the Houdans are otherworldly…and it makes perfect sense that the French adore these ones. They squeal like pigs when they get picked up and the roosters are especially rambunctious, but it’s worth it for the time they’re on this planet. Yeah they’re not those 10 lb GMO beasts and that’s just fine with us. I’d rather focus on quality than quantity, and align my eating habits with Michael Pollan’s advice for eating whole foods, mostly plants…and leave the meat for the side dish instead of the other way around.

Why didn’t I just keep some Houdans and breed them? Well, we almost did. But…we’re probably going to take 2020 off from raising any animals for meat, to be honest, as we want to take a summer vacation (didn’t get one this last year as our only holiday last January lasted 4 days when I got violently ill in Mexico on my birthday) and not worry about leaving them in the hands of a stranger. Why? I like to remain super involved in their welfare throughout their short lives (our neighbor will look after our layers when we go on holiday, as we do with hers, but 50 chickens is a lot!), it’s important to me to be there every step of the way. And since these ones take 4-6 months to reach full size? That’s spring and summer, if we start earlier next time! So we’ll be back in 2021 for our next round of meat chook raisin’.

What was it like to butcher them? My husband did all but one. I wanted to make sure and do one kill because I firmly believe that if you’re going to eat meat, you should be willing to participate in the taking of it’s life. So I did it. And I cried. But no regrets. We held them and cuddled them beforehand, made them nice and calm (they mellow out in the cone which is great as they leave this world in a state of peace) and thanked them for being our future dinners. There was no terrifying them with an axe or swinging them around like they were a playtoy. It was respectful and quick, and even afterwards we handled them in this manner.

PS – We did not ‘thank them for giving their life so that we may eat’ as many suggest one do. Why? Because that’s not how it works. They did not volunteer for this gig, so there is no such thing as chicken sacrifice. We killed them, it was very intense, we were glad to give them a happy life on the farm during their 3-4 months on the planet, learn more about their behaviors, and breathe deeply as we made the decision to end their lives to feed ourselves.

Houdan

Thank you, Houdan!

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