We watched the Food Inc. documentary a couple of years ago and we were very impacted by what we saw. We almost stopped eating/buying all preprocessed foods but we decided that we should go with a more measured approach. One of the things that really stuck out in my mind was how poorly the meat chickens were treated. It’s no wonder they have to force feed all those chickens antibiotics, they’d be all dead from disease if they didn’t. We’ve wanted to raise our own meat since then. We’ve had chickens for quite some time but we were a little hesitant to try our hand at the meat chickens.
We had heard about this awesome breed called Cornish Cross that would be ready for the freezer at 7 weeks. We had seen a few people online mention that they can be hard to keep alive and I had a buddy that did them awhile ago and he didn’t seem to think it was a worthwhile project (part of his problem was that he kept them in his basement, eww). The problem with the Cornish Crosses is that they grow so quickly that their bodies seem to struggle to keep up with the growth. They often die of heart attacks or break their legs because they can’t support their own body weight. The forums at BackYardChickens talk about all sorts of ways to help keep them healthy. One thing that helps is having birds that have pretty proven record of doing well.
We found that the Cornish Crosses from Murray McMurray had awesome reviews about the healthiness of their chicks. In the spring of 2012 we finally decided to try our hand at the Cornish Crosses from McMurray. We ordered 25 birds from them to arrive in June. I don’t think I would start with more than 25. There’s a bunch to learn and it’s better to start with a lower amount. You should also think about when you want your little chicks to show up. These guys get pretty big, very fast. If they are their biggest in August, they’re going to be pretty miserable. I think the ideal slaughter times would be when it’s a little cooler like late spring (April/May) and early fall (September/October). The nice thing about this breed is that they don’t need to be under the heat lamps as long as their other feathered cousins because they grow so quickly.
There are three basic stages you have to worry about for Cornish Crosses: Chick, Adult, and Slaughter. The chick stage is from the time you pick up your chickens from the post office until they don’t need a heat lamp anymore (around 4 weeks). The adult stage is from the point that you remove the chickens from the lamp and from the brooder box until it’s time to put them in the fridge. The last stage is pretty short, just long enough to finish them off.
Here’s a list of the items that you’ll need by stage:
- Chicken Brooder
Just a box to hold the chicks. I just use what is available around the place. A cardboard box will do just fine. You may have to upgrade to a larger box as the babies get bigger. You’ll want to have something like pine shavings on the floor to absorb their droppings. You may have to change out their bedding after a little bit. Do not put the box on carpet because they will spill their water and it will leak through. They are also pretty smelly, noisy and generate a bunch of dust so keep them out of the house.
- Heat Lamp
Get the red colored lamps because it’s not as harsh on the babies. They need to have it around 95 degrees their first week. Here’s a good article about the temperature that they need. Keep in mind that these chicks grow faster than normal and will need less heat sooner. I find the best way to tell is to look at where the chicks are. If they’re huddled underneath the the lamp, they’re cold and you should lower the heat lamp. If they’re in the corners of the box, they’re too hot and you should raise the heat lamp.
Make sure to use one that is meant for chicks. They may be able to drown themselves in an open bowl. You can put marbles or little marble sized rocks in the water to keep them safe. You’ll need to clean it out once a day.
The feeder can be about anything but if they can stand it, they will scratch in it and poop in it.
e just bought one bag of medicated chick starter.
- Chicken Brooder
For awhile we just put the juvenile chickens in an old mobile dog run that we had. It is about 8 feet by 4 feet. It didn’t work out too well because they got out too much. We ended up putting up some cattle panel and stringing up chicken wire around it. This allowed them plenty of room to roam, and kept our laying hens out of their protein heavy feed. We actually lost 2, lost as in dead, chicks due to the dog run not giving them enough room and shelter from the hot sun.
You’ll want to have enough feeders or big enough feeders that all the birds can reach the food at once. They will step all over each other and push each other to get to food. If your birds aren’t getting food, they’ll be too small when it’s time to harvest. Make sure you get a high protein chicken feed. These guys grow so quickly that they need the high protein to support the growth.
Same as feeding, make sure that they can get to their water and keep it as clean as possible.
- Sharp Knives
I can’t underline enough the importance of having sharp knives. The first time I slaughtered chickens was just plain difficult because I didn’t have a sharp knife. You’ll need the knife to remove legs, wings and to begin cleaning the bird
- Knife Sharpener
Even if you start with a sharp knife, they go dull after a bit. This little beauty has been a great addition to our kitchen/farm. I bought mine from Lowes for pretty cheap.
- Disinfectant Wipes
Always a good idea to wipe down your surface before and after each bird. You’ll get blood, guts and poop on your surface and you don’t want that getting on your meat that you’ll feed to your family. I also wipe down the knife between each bird.
Slaugthering 25 birds can be very daunting. Invite some friends over to help out. It’s especially fun to invite newbies over. You all get to joke about how gross it is and the leavity makes the whole “bloody” process easier. I took care of a couple of my birds by myself last year and it was a little lonely and not as near as fun.
- Latex Gloves
You don’t want to use normal gloves as you’re pulling gloves out because you need the sensitivity and who wants blood and guts all over your nice gloves. You could do it barehanded but I find I’m a little braver and tougher with a pair of gloves on.
- Two 5 gallon buckets
When we kill our chickens, we either slit their throats or remove their heads and let them drain their blood out into one of the 5 gallon buckets. It only takes a couple of minutes. You’d be surprised how little blood is in a chicken. The other bucket is for tossing unnecessary body parts (head, wings, legs, guts) into. I usually don’t toss this into my garbage because I don’t want this stuff stinking my garbage can up until the garbage man comes several days later. I’ll try to run it to a gas station’s garbage dumpster. Just don’t forget to run it over, I forgot one time recently and that was a foul mess that I had to clean up.
- Traffic Cone
I know, not what you expected. The traffic cone works really well for holding the chickens after you’ve removed the head or slit the throat. You just cut off a few inches off the tip of the cone and flip the cone upside down and slip the chicken through the larger hole. The chicken’s head should pop out the narrower side. You can then place the cone in the five gallon bucket, the base of the cone will sit on the top of the bucket. It will only take a minute or two for the chicken to drain out.
You’ll need to hose off the chicken once it’s been cleaned to remove left over feathers, blood and etc.
- Cooler with ice water and apple cider vinegar
You’ll toss the chicken into cooler when you’re all done. The vinegar is a natural disinfectant and will kill whatever needs to be killed. The ice water will help preserve the meat. Once I’m done for the day, I’ll put the chicken carcass into freezer bags and put them in the fridge. We usually let them stay in there 1 to 2 days before processing them.
- Sharp Knives
I found this YouTube video to be very helpful with the slaughtering step. I forgot to make a video of our own slaughtering. I’ll make one the next time we slaughter in the spring.
I’ll have Amber put a post on how to process these guys and I’ll put the link here. By the time we were done with these guys, I was ready for them to be gone and I really wasn’t sure that I wanted to do it again. Now that is has been a few months, I’ve really enjoyed having the chicken meat in the freezer and look back at the whole process fondly and I am quite pleased that our little family was able to provide this meat for ourselves. It’s quite the feeling to look a meal and 80% of it came from our own little farm.
Feel free to post any questions or comments. If you’re close to my area, I’d be willing to show you a thing or two.
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