I often joke that you can grow a chicken to table-ready faster than you can grow a cabbage.
The modern variety of meat bird, Cornish Cross, is bred to grow very fast, from hatched to 4-5 lb roaster in just 8 weeks. Some homesteaders think this is terrible and unnatural, and opt instead for slower growing breeds, like the Freedom Ranger, which take around 12 weeks to reach finished weight.
(Side note: Cornish Cross is not an unnatural breed, and not a freak of nature. They’re a cross of the White Cornish and White Plymouth Rock. They are hatched in hatcheries, and not in petri dishes. I don’t have any qualms about them.)
Despite some skeptics, most commercial growers, and even the majority of small-scale farms and homesteaders, still use the Cornish Cross. The meat is delicious, it’s recognizable to consumers as the same chicken they buy in the grocery store, the chickens convert feed lbs to muscle lbs very efficiently, and you can’t beat how fast it all happens.
The slower growing varieties like Freedom Rangers eat at the same rate, but for 1/3 again as long, so if you’re buying organic feed, it’s very very difficult to raise them at a cost that customers are willing to pay. That chicken might be organic, soy-free, pastured, and have a first and middle name, but $7/b? It’s still just a chicken.
We raised two batches of Cornish Cross this spring. 83 out of 95 made it to butcher day, which means that we lost 13%. This is a very normal mortality rate for these chickens, which are prone to leg splay, heart attack, and impacted crops from eating too fast. But it was the first time we’d lost so many.
It was also the first year that we struggled to grow a decent sized chicken. Since we failed to even break even on our chicken venture last fall, we made some changes this year to make the whole thing more cost effective without compromising on quality. We got the chicks from a different hatchery that was closer and cheaper. We got the feed in much larger quantity from a different organic mill, which saved us over 30% in feed cost. We fermented the feed, which drastically reduced the amount wasted by being scratched or pecked out of the feed trough.
In past years, we’ve averaged a 4.5 lb chicken (dressed) at 7.5 weeks. This year, we averaged a 3.2 lb chicken at 8.5 weeks! It was very disappointing, and I was embarrassed to hand over these little birds to our customers. Fortunately, most of our customers are friends, and they were gracious about it.
Because so many elements were changed over last year–different feed brand, different method of feeding, different hatchery, larger number of chickens in the tractor together, different time of year, etc–it’s impossible to pinpoint the cause of our underweight problem. Next year, we’ll probably try yet another hatchery and hope for better yields from different genetics, because unfortunately we don’t have another organic feed option to try.
Now what’s really going to bake your noodle is that this spring we raised two batches four weeks apart: 47 chicks started the first week of April, 48 chicks started the first week of May. We raised each group to exactly 8.5 weeks, and fed them exactly the same quantity of food, and raised them in the same conditions. The first batch averaged 3.5 lbs (which was already small and disappointing), and the second batch averaged a measly 2.9 lbs! So even if you do everything exactly the same, you can’t count on consistent results. It’s one of the many conundrums of farming.
Although the weights were low, we managed to do a little better than break even this year, in spite of making a costly mistake when heating the brooder. We’re still learning. There’s so much to learn. And these are just chickens! The bigger the farm animal, the more that can go wrong, and the more expensive the consequences.
Here’s a week-by-week photo journal of the chicks, from day-old to just a few days before we processed (no processing photos included, so you can safely scroll to the end). We keep them in a closed brooder until they have tail feathers, which is about 3.5 weeks, and then they are moved out to the grass in a “chicken tractor” (see the photo at the top), which we move to a new patch of grass 1-2 times a day. They till up and fertilize the ground underneath, leaving behind an area that becomes vibrantly green a few weeks later. Josh then cuts this thick rich grass with a scythe and feeds it to the pigs. Full circle.