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Free Range Chickens

Raising Your Own Chickens

The basics of having backyard chickens
Tuesday, December 14, 2010, 11:02 AM

A major theme of this site is improving resiliency and preparing for a different future than we may be used to at present. One good way that is receiving growing interest is keeping your own chickens for eggs or meat. In this brief article, I will show that raising chickens is fun, easy, and provides many benefits, regardless of the need to prepare for the potential risks of Peak Oil or economic downturns.

There are many great resources on chickens already out there, with more detailed information than can be contained in this article. I’ll just highlight the basics here and share some of my personal experiences that have been successful.

Why have chickens?

Great reasons to have your own chickens include:

  • Easy and inexpensive to maintain compared to other animals
  • Fresh eggs are great-tasting and nutritious
  • Bug and weed control with no chemicals
  • Terrific fertilizer for your garden
  • Fun and friendly pets with personality
  • Knowing where your food comes from
  • Resilient, local food production
  • Eggs are great to share with your community

Starting Out with Chicks

Check out first the local laws in your town that might limit what you can do with chickens. For example, the City of Portland, Maine (north of me) has an ordinance that limits the number of chickens allowed to six, and only hens (i.e., female only; no roosters). Also consider potential impacts in your neighborhood; loose chickens that dig up your neighbor’s special flower beds may not make for good relations.

Sources for chickens include:

  • Local feed stores
  • Mail order
  • Newspaper or online ads
  • Agricultural fairs

Raising your own birds from baby chicks is a bit more work and you have to wait about 6 months until they begin to lay, but lets you get to know them. If you have kids, it’s a great experience for them, too. My chickens are very friendly to handle, since the kids have been around them so much since they were little.

Baby chicks are usually available from hatcheries only in early spring, so if you are thinking about chickens, start planning now! The easiest way to get chicks is from a local merchant; my local Agway and another building supply store both take orders. Selection may be limited to a few breeds, but you save on shipping costs and can pick out your own chicks to take home immediately. It’s a law where I live that you must buy a minimum of six at a time, which is a nice size flock for one family, anyway. Buy a couple extra to allow for deaths and culling.

Chicks can also be ordered through the mail from places like McMurray Hatchery. One advantage is that they have many more choices in breeds, which is helpful if there is a certain kind you want. A disadvantage is that the minimum order is 25 birds; the chicks need enough mass in numbers for them to keep warm during shipment.

A third option is to check local advertisements for available chickens.  Be cautious of old hens that are past their prime, though. They might be nice pets, but not worth the feed cost if they don’t lay many eggs anymore. Production goes down a lot after a year or two.

For a variety of color in my backyard, my flocks started the last couple years are a mix of different breeds. They include Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons, and Plymouth Barred Rocks, which are all heavy “dual purpose” (for egg laying and meat) breeds. These classic backyard chickens are excellent layers, hardy enough for northern New England winters, and friendly in temperament. Folks in different climates may find other breeds to be more suitable. Other strains are more specifically bred to be meat birds; that is, they grow quickly but may not lay as well. This article will just focus on layer hens.   

Newborn chickens can be kept in a box with pine shavings in your house or garage. Adjust the position and wattage of an incandescent light bulb to keep the chicks warm based on observation of their behavior. If they are just on the edge of the circle of light, they are about warm enough. Feed them chicken starter crumbles and water, and clean their brooder daily as needed. Keep spare bulbs handy, and make very sure hot lights do not set anything on fire!

To save yourself a lot of hassle; have your coop ready before you need it!  The dozen chicks in the photo above outgrew their box in less than 2 weeks, and I had to stay up late one night to shell out a new coop for them to move to.

Chicken Coops

There are a million different and equally good ways to build coops, and lots of great examples can be found at BackYardChickens.com. You can buy one, convert an existing structure (I once used an old ice shack), or build your own. Think about how you would like to manage your chickens and choose from one of the following basic types:

  • Larger stationary coops that allow humans to enter to maintain
  • Smaller coops sized for only chickens inside; may be semi-portable
  • Chicken tractors (portable coops and runs)

Along with a coop, chickens need an outside run that is fenced to keep them in and predators out. Note that wherever chickens are, they will totally decimate the vegetation, sometimes within a couple days if the space is small. If you can allow your chickens to free-range, fence in any part of your garden that you don’t want disturbed. One time my chickens got loose and joyfully took dirt baths in the garden, where I had just carefully spent the morning planting seed potatoes.

Chicken tractors are small portable coops with an attached run. They are designed to be moved around frequently so that no one spot on your lawn ever gets totally trashed. My early attempts at chicken tractors failed miserably because they were too rugged and heavy and the chickens seemed less happy in a relatively confined space.

Below are some photos of the coops I designed and built. 

Features that seem to work well include:

  • Small door for chickens
  • Large door for people access for maintenance
  • Ventilation under the front and back eaves while keeping rain out
  • Caster wheels with fat tires for portability
  • Nesting boxes located at the darkest end, where chicks prefer to lay
  • T-111 plywood walls and asphalt roof; more expensive but built to last
  • Sliding acrylic panel over wire mesh window (still to be installed)
  • Clearance underneath for shade or protection from rain.

Inside the coop is a perch for the chickens to roost at night. They may like to sleep standing up, but I’m glad I don’t have to!  Each coop also has nest boxes about 12 x 12 x 12 inches for the chickens to lay eggs in. They seem prefer to lay in what they perceive is the most secure, protected place.

 

Management and Fencing

Desperately trying to stop my newly planted apple trees last year from being decimated by deer, I surrounded them with 7 foot high deer fencing. I soon discovered the fencing would also serve as a large run for the chickens as well. Double door gates mounted to the fence posts provided convenient access.

The chicken coop stays in one place within the fenced area, avoiding the need for frequent moves. First thing in the morning before work, the coop is simply opened to let the chickens out. They seem stay outside all day no matter what the weather. At dusk they go back in the coop on their own, and the chicken door is closed to protect against predators. The fenced areas are large enough so they never get totally beaten down by the chickens.

If we’re home on weekends and working outside, the chickens are allowed to free range in the backyard. This requires caution though; a stray basset hound wiped out one of my beautiful new Buff Orpingtons recently while we were inside eating breakfast. If I’m away for a weekend, I just leave the coop open and keep my fingers crossed; so far I’ve never lost a chicken that stayed inside the fencing. 


Every couple months I rotate the coops between different fenced areas. For example, as soon as the corn was harvested earlier this fall, the chickens were moved into that area and enjoyed feasting on leftover cobs while fertilizing for the following year’s crop (potatoes are next in the rotation). One coop is in my raised bed garden area now, with the fall harvest complete. Remaining veggies like spinach, claytonia, and carrots left to overwinter are protected by cold frames from unwanted nibbling by the chickens. 

 

Feeding Your Chickens

Day to day management is incredibly easy and integrated into our daily routine. Mornings before work, we open the coop, stir their bedding, and check that their water and feed are full. Evenings we check for eggs and close the coop up. Every week or so I fill up the feeder with layer pellets and add a scoop of oyster shells for calcium and grit. The feeder is kept inside the coop to keep it dry, and hung from a string so the birds won’t like to climb on it.

The chickens also get daily treats from leftover food that doesn’t go into compost. They go bonkers over apple cores, carrot peelings, bread, pasta, and tomatoes. The excessive harvest of squash and pumpkins from this year’s garden, which I thought would be wasted, is turning out to be a good supply of treats that also stores well. The treats get recycled into chicken poop and fertilizer again for the garden next year; what a great cycle!

Seasonal Considerations

Chickens do fine in the subfreezing temperatures here in New England, even in an un-insulated coop. About the only challenge is keeping their water from freezing. You can buy water heaters, but I built my own “cookie-tin heater” from scrap parts. A 25 or 40 watt bulb is enough to keep their water thawed out. I added some conduit this year to protect the cord from rodents. 

 

In hot summer weather, keep your chickens comfortable by providing a place for shade and plenty of water. For wet seasons, chickens will much appreciate some shelter from rain and a well drained, mud-free area to stand.  

Roosters

Some folks wonder if you need a rooster (male chicken) to get eggs; the answer is no.   A rooster is necessary, though, to have fertile eggs that will hatch into new chicks. Fertile eggs take 21 days to hatch if allowed to be kept warm by a hen that is broody enough to sit on them or by keeping the eggs in an incubator. My kids are looking forward to trying this next year.

Chicks are sexed at the hatchery, so you are supposed to just get mostly hens, but this year one of ours grew up to be a rooster. Fortunately, my neighbors don’t mind his crowing first thing in the morning, and we are early risers anyway. He also keeps the hens in order and may help deter small predators. 

Eggs, Community, and Other Benefits

Fresh eggs from free ranging chickens have dark yellow yolks and taste great, totally unlike what you find in the supermarket. I never used eggs much except for baking until I started getting my own; now they are my favorite source of protein. My kids love to collect eggs daily and also play with the chickens like pets, while becoming hopefully more educated about where their food comes from.

A good layer hen produces an egg almost every day, about 5 to 6 per week, which can really add up if you have several hens. Layers may slow down in winter or stop for a period when molting, which means losing feathers and growing new ones. I haven’t tracked the costs closely, but I estimate feed costs are about $2 for every dozen premium quality eggs.   

While I have more chickens at present than I need just for my family, that has turned to be of benefit to community relations. Excess eggs from my backyard are shared or traded with neighbors, friends, and colleagues in return for other stuff or help. In addition, I’m hopeful that I’m setting an example of resiliency and improved quality of life for others to consider.

Resources

A short list of helpful resources is provided to link you to more sources of information if needed. Also look to see if local classes in poultry are available.

  • BackYardChickens.com is a website with easy to understand articles for the beginner, a long list of resources, examples of coop construction, and a friendly forum.
  • Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens is a great reference book with enough detail while still being an easy read.  There is a new 3rd edition out this year.
  • McMurrayHatchery.com is an online/mail order source for chicks and equipment and also has helpful articles at their website.
  • DeerBusters.com is where I get plastic deer fencing. Use metal fencing if predators are a serious concern in your area.

Related content

43 Comments

patrickhenry's picture
patrickhenry
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Excellent article on starting out with chooks !  We love ours, including a few Araucanas (Easter Eggers) and friends love getting green and blue eggs.  To offset decreased production in the winter, set up a coop light (60-100W bulb) timed to go on in the morning and evening.  Extend "daylight" from the short winter days to 14 hours, it really helps keep up production.  Thanks !

plato1965's picture
plato1965
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

An interesting "synergy" might be to find an "all grain" homebrewer.. nearby who will let you have his spent grain to feed the chickens, in exchange for a few eggs.

I dump my grain in the garden to compost.. but I'd love to swap for free range organic eggs ..  *yum*

Marteen's picture
Marteen
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Good story

I am doing it the Polyface Farm way of Joel Salatin with 1000 chickens/broilers which i dress and sell in our community. I can advise all to raise these little chicks especially my kids love to take care of these little furballs.

Marteen

Full Moon's picture
Full Moon
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

These are the cutest little chicken coops !  Look at the happy hens .  Good way to make neighborhood friends ... selling the eggs.

Full Moon's picture
Full Moon
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Marteen ,

I have been asked by several people to raise chicken for them . How much do you charge and  how do you speed up the butchering process ?

FM

JAG's picture
JAG
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Great piece Woodman, thanks for your effort.

Is there a coop design that allows for efficient removal of the chicken excrement for composting?

Best....Jeff

MarkM's picture
MarkM
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

FM,

Check out Joel Salatin's butchering videos on youtube. Here is one.

Dutch John's picture
Dutch John
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

patrickhenry wrote:

To offset decreased production in the winter, set up a coop light (60-100W bulb) timed to go on in the morning and evening. 

Best to light only in the morning. When lighting in the evening, the chickens are surprized when the light suddenly goes out and they will have to sleep where they are at that moment. They have no cat eyes.

Regards, DJ

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rmurfster
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Wonderful article!

We purchased 12 chicks this spring from Myer Hatchery, which is near where I live, so I picked up my chicks instead of having them sent in the mail.

We lost 1 chick who died at about 2 days old and just recently, lost 1 rooster and 1 hen to a pesky hawk Cry

Other than our losses, it has been a wonderful experience for the whole family.  We went into this adventure with 2 other families and built our coops together!  It was a great community experience.

Richard

Full Moon's picture
Full Moon
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Another question .    We are going to have to trade the eggs and chickens  so that the Govt.  is not in on the deal , right ?  May be best to raise them but let the people  butcher their own  or have them come on out to  do it . But in rural areas there is no way you are going to keep it quiet on the grapevine . .

   I in no way want them to know how many chickens I have.   If they want to run around in the woods to count my chickens they can knock themselves out . The little letter from them wanting to know about my Hog operation ( two little pigs )  really  torqued me off .

FM

bluestone's picture
bluestone
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Raising chickens illegal in my town

I inquired about raising chickens in my town in upstate NY.  I own about 3/4 of an acre, plenty big to have some chickens.  I was told by the town hall that you have to have at least five acres to own any livestock.  Frown

Brian

Full Moon's picture
Full Moon
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

So sorry, Brian,  even our little town tried to pull that on a few people .  First they claimed that you had to be grandfathered in to have chickens, Then they went after the fellow who had homing pigeons ..  Wrong guy to mess with  they went to court and he won.  

SO they went after a 4-h Child raising birds to show and sell .   Said birds are a health hazzard . So the kiddo stood up to them . Showed them his record books , a list of the cities that allow chickens in town , and ask them to come to his place to show where his birds were a hazzard .    He told them that he did  not raise any roosters and that his birds were less of a pain than the neighbors barking dog .   He too won .  He also had the guts to tell them that the world was going to hell and that he would sell them some eggs .

  You might want to consider if this is a battle you want to fight ... to some it is .

so now the town will have eggs and a way to send messages LOL

FM

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pinecarr
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Thank-you, Woodman! I want to start raising chickens to improve my family's food-resiliency, so its great to get all this information and accompanying photos you've pulled together for us.  Thanks!

doorwarrior's picture
doorwarrior
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Thanks Woodman!!  Very good info.

land2341's picture
land2341
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Backyard chickens is an awesome site and is connected to another site that should interest people here - SufficientSelf.com

kevinoman0221's picture
kevinoman0221
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Thanks for a great, concise article on raising chickens.

I just completed a poultry class at my local junior college and have a few points to share. Of course, I differ to your hands-on experience and knowledge, (I think that trumps all at the end of the day), but you, and others, may find my book-learnin' of some interest.

1. I believe my teacher would say that the brooder set-up in your picture has the warming light a bit too hot, or more likely, too close. From what I've been told, (by my teacher and guest speakers in the industry), some of the chicks should want to be more directly underneath the light. A brooder where the chicks line up around the edge of the light but don't go under it is not optimal. Also, it's a good idea to have the waterers under the light, at least during the first few days, so that it is warmed up for them, and to have the feed in that area too, so everything is easy to find and in a central location. Also, visible light on the feed can encourage them to eat more (which is a good thing).

2. I was very interested in layers from a self-reliance standpoint (that's why I took the class), but was disappointed to learn just how far chickens of today are removed from their natural (self-reliant) ancestors; even chickens raised in beautiful, open pastures will still require more than 60% of their caloric intake to be from commercial feed, and still require supplemental vitamins and minerals on top of that (if it's not already mixed in the feed). The wild jungle fowl they are descended from would have had plenty of insects to eat in their native locations, and would not have been wasting resources laying unfertilized eggs every day! So people thinking about raising chickens for self-sufficiency, realize that you will likely continue to be pretty dependent on outside resources for your birds, especially if you want them to lay at a decent rate.

3. Feed is the biggest ongoing expense, and organic feed can cost double the price of regular. If tracking your expenses is at all important to you, then you will want to keep an eye on your feed conversion ratio. In birds raised for meat, this is the ratio of how much total feed the bird eats per unit of body weight. Meat birds have the most efficient feed conversion of any livestock animal at 2:1. Note that the feed conversion to eggs is closer to 4:1, so it is actually more efficient to raise chickens for meat than for eggs from this standpoint.

4. A buddy in my chicken class turned me on to the idea of raising rabbits. Their feed conversion is very good, something like 3:1, so it is very efficient. More importantly, (from a self-reliant perspective) they can easily be fed 100% from weeds and a few plants (like beans) grown on a small amount of your property. No, they don't lay eggs (aside from the Easter bunny!) but they breed like crazy and are not too labor intensive (less so than meat birds). If self-raised, healthy, fresh meat (produced from your own land) is your goal, you ought to look into rabbits. I got an introduction to the subject here: http://backyardfoodproduction.com/

5. Killing - Anyone who thinks they might be too squeamish to kill their own birds, you might be surprised at how non-traumatic it is when done correctly. In the beginning of my class, I didn't even consider raising meat birds, only layers, because I didn't think I could go through with the nitty gritty. But we had a class demonstration of slaughtering and processing a couple of turkeys, and it changed my views. You restrain the birds in a cone, upside down, with their necks sticking out the bottom. You cut the jugular veins in the neck with a super sharp knife and let the bird bleed out. The birds we observed didn't even react to the knife cut; I don't think it was painful. And after enough blood was lost, they went unconscious. After another moment, when the brain dies, the body loses its signal with the brain and so goes into convulsions. This is the most traumatic part of the experience, but if you understand that the bird is already unconscious/dead before that point, you know it is not convulsing out of pain, but just due to an autonomic response. So I don't have any qualms about raising birds for meat now, except for the fact that I think it would be easier, more efficient, and more self-reliant to raise rabbits for that purpose instead.

dbworld's picture
dbworld
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Ordinances won't permit chickens for me either. Not enough land. Very frustrating.  NW PA.

Nice work Woodman.

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kevinoman0221
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Jeff,

Some coop design features that reduce the labor of removing excrement would be a wire floor, or sheet metal floor installed with a slope.

With the wire floor, poop just goes right through it for the most part, and fertilizes the ground below. If predators are a problem (they can grab a bird and bite its head off from the other side of the wire) you can do a double floor of wire. Note that wire is not good for meat birds because their extra weight combined with the wire substrate is very rough on their feet, and can lead to injury, open sores, etc. But for laying birds it is fine.

With the sheet metal, slanted floor, you are still going to need to put bedding on it and replace it from time to time, or at least power wash it out, but the slant makes it easer to just push everything out of the coop, and the metal material is durable and easier to clean than wood.

One note about wood in general, and I should have mentioned this in my previous comment, is that it is almost impossible to completely clean, and provides a place for mites to live. One common species of mite, in fact, lives in the wood crevices of the coop instead of on the chicken. At night, these mites come out and feed on the birds, and then retreat back to their crevices during the day. Wood is nice because it is cheap, not too heavy, easy to work with, etc, but people interested in setting up a system for the very long term may want to investigate coop designs that use other materials (concrete, metal, pvc, wire).

bluestone's picture
bluestone
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

FM

it is a battle I may consider fighting at some point in time.  Im glad to hear that some people are fighting these stupid ordinances.  

It's one of those things that irks me about home ownership.  I am the one that takes on the risk of the mortgage, pays the taxes, maintains the house and the property.  All the while, there are more and more rules telling me what I can and can't do with my own property.  Kind of seems like its not really my property.

Brian

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earthwise
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

kevinoman0221 wrote:

4. A buddy in my chicken class turned me on to the idea of raising rabbits. Their feed conversion is very good, something like 3:1, so it is very efficient. More importantly, (from a self-reliant perspective) they can easily be fed 100% from weeds and a few plants (like beans) grown on a small amount of your property. No, they don't lay eggs (aside from the Easter bunny!) but they breed like crazy and are not too labor intensive (less so than meat birds). If self-raised, healthy, fresh meat (produced from your own land) is your goal, you ought to look into rabbits. I got an introduction to the subject here: http://backyardfoodproduction.com/

......................... I think it would be easier, more efficient, and more self-reliant to raise rabbits for that purpose instead.

kevin,

I currently raise both chickens and rabbits and what you say here is absolutely correct: rabbits are a more efficient and easier source of protein than chickens. Also, your point about food sourcing from surrounding locales is accurate. An anecdote in that regard: A  young 3-month old rabbit escaped here (4-acre ranch) a while back and I couldn't catch him. He was seen numerous times daily for months, escaping dogs, coyotes, hawks etc. obviously thriving off of the local vegetation.

All that being said however, I would still keep chickens for several reasons. First for redundancy, and second for variety. I currently feed my critters store-bought food, for which I have stockpiled a years supply, but I also am growing feed crops as well as observing where and what types of indiginous foods are available. These alternative food sources would stretch my stockpile considerably.

Also, chickens can derive a significant portion of their food from natural sources, just like rabbits, if allowed the chance. It's penning them (for their own protection obviously) that limits their foraging abilities. That's why I think that the chicken tractor idea is so advantageous: they get the protection of the cage but yet fresh ground every day to forage.

Those are some of my observations on chickens and rabbits. Don't even get me started on the sheep, hogs and goats!

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MarkM
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

bluestone wrote:

 Kind of seems like its not really my property.

Brian

Brian,

It ain't. Particularly in a metro area. You are merely part of the "tax base", to be mined by your municipality. For me, that was another one of life's unpleasant realizations.

If my schedule permits, I would like to raise a few broilers next year to get my feet wet with the slaughtering aspect. It has been a LONG time since I killed/cleaned anything. I don't  think rabbits are in the cards for me, a little too "cute". I met a woman at a pasture management seminar this year that felt the same way about goats and had to shift her focus to sheep and cattle only.

Thanks woodman. Having this info in one spot will get me closer to my goals.

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kevinoman0221
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

earthwise wrote:

...I would still keep chickens for several reasons. First for redundancy, and second for variety...

...Don't even get me started on the sheep, hogs and goats!

Thanks for the perspective. I couldn't agree more. In addition, I think chicken eggs complement rabbit meat very well; whereas rabbit meat is extremely lean (see "rabbit starvation") chicken eggs are a good source of quality fats and fat-soluble vitamins, especially when pasture fed.

I'd like to learn more about goats. I heard that it is not uncommon for a milk goat to produce a gallon of milk per day, and that they eat practically anything and their demeanor is very dog-like. When I am finally in a position to buy a home with a little bit of land, among my first priorities will be to procure some hens for eggs, rabbits for meat, and goats for milk. Sounds like a good, redundant trifecta to me.

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Full Moon
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Rabbits would be easier to hide in  a place that does not allow you to raise chickens .  Although they put up a squeal when you butcher them so you  might want to butcher when things are noisy .  You could tan the hides .  plant  a little patch of Alfalfa  without notice , feed them dandelions .       But  no eggs ...Bummer .

FM

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earthwise
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

kevinoman0221 wrote:

earthwise wrote:

...I would still keep chickens for several reasons. First for redundancy, and second for variety...

...Don't even get me started on the sheep, hogs and goats!

Thanks for the perspective. I couldn't agree more. In addition, I think chicken eggs complement rabbit meat very well; whereas rabbit meat is extremely lean (see "rabbit starvation") chicken eggs are a good source of quality fats and fat-soluble vitamins, especially when pasture fed.

I'd like to learn more about goats. I heard that it is not uncommon for a milk goat to produce a gallon of milk per day, and that they eat practically anything and their demeanor is very dog-like. When I am finally in a position to buy a home with a little bit of land, among my first priorities will be to procure some hens for eggs, rabbits for meat, and goats for milk. Sounds like a good, redundant trifecta to me.

Regarding goats, you're right on most counts: they can produce a gallon a day, (though not usually-more like 1/2 to 3/4 average) and their demeanor is very good especially compared to sheep (being called "sheeple" is definitely not a compliment!). Be careful though regarding the myth about goats being able to eat anything. They actually can be finicky and besides their milk can take on the flavor of what they eat. A buddy of mine (a real farmer--really-- supports a family of eight kids) gave his goats some broccoli and he got the worst tastin' milk ever. He then tried squash and got the sweetest milk ever. Who'da thunk that? I only feed alfalfa, bermudagrass and a little grain and our milk is great.

Don't jump in too quickly with the goats though. On a hassle-factor scale with one being easiest (rabbits!) and ten the hardest, goats are near the top. This is because once they have milk, they must be milked twice a day every day. Some folks will let the kid nurse through the day to eliminate the evening milking so that it's only necessary to milk in the morning, but still, it's every day. If you don't mind that commitment, then the milk (and cheese and kiefer etc) is way, way cool. It's worth it to me, but it's something to think about.

Oops! I just remembered this thread is about chickens. Sorry folks, didn't mean to hijack.

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featherjack
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Greetings from Maine!

An excellent resource if you want to scale up is Anyone Can Build A Tub-Style Mechanical Chicken Plucker by Herrick Kimball -- see http://whizbangbooks.blogspot.com/. No good in power-down, but until then, it makes the plucking fast and easy!

I've been raising birds for meat and eggs for 9 years now, and I applaud the author's work. (Nice trick, that water heater! I thnk I'll steal that idea for an incubator.) FWIW, I keep my birds for 2 years, then put them in the freezer for stewing. I'm still buying chicks and buy a different color each year to keep the ages straight. The reds are in the freezer, the Buff Orps (yellow) are still laying a year and half on, and so are the Silver-Laced Wyandottes (black and white) I got this year. I'll buy reds again this year.

I have good luck introducing new birds into the flock if I move the older girls to another pasture in the summer, move the kids into the winter coop/pasture for a few weeks, then bring the older birds back "home" for winter. Be sure let that pasture rest for a few weeks with no birds so it can recover a bit. I'm fortunate that I have two structures and pastures AND a "nursery" space.

Usually a few girls act broody, but they don't stick to it. I have a rooster (GREAT crow -- he trills it at the end!) so I assume at least some eggs are fertile. I may try just taking a clutch and incubating mechanically.

My best advice for chicken tractors: Don't make them too big! Heavy + awkward = Pain in the @$$...

Maybe I'll try a rabbit tractor... hmmm...

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featherjack
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Yes, indeed!

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Marteen
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

FM,

I am living in France close to Geneva (switzerland). I sell to the expat community (UN related crooks) They mainly want the breasts 26-30 Euro a kilo. The left overs (the nice tasty boney parts)  i freeze it for our own consumption or give it away to the local food bank . The breasts are covering all the costs including profit. 

I am working in nigeria on a 2 month on 2 month off basis. yep in the paradise of the Niger Delta. This is pure hobby though with some small adjustments and scale up i can live easily from it. I do not own land as land is still very expensive in the Geneva area. Prices already came down but just a few % since the economic down turn. Presently i work together with an old farmer where i help him with his dairy farm and in exchange i can use his land to raise my birds. The birds are eating 20% of the land and 80% bio-grain mixture.  

Dressing the bird (slaughter) is still my headache part. It always take me 10 minutes of meditation before i start killing a batch of birds. The Featherman system (look on youtube) works fine. I also bought 1 set as we could not find a simular set in Europe. Officially it is illegal due to sanitation regulations but inspection agencies are busy with other things and not really interested in a small scale practicer.

I really suggest to watch all the youtube movies of Joel Salatin of polyface farm. I copied his model and bought all his books. 

With chicken farming i will never get to a salary of what i am earning now in the Nigerian Oil Industry but it gives me a lot of enjoyment. Especially seeing my kids picking up the interest in farming.

Good luck. Marteen

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patrickhenry
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Dutch John wrote:

Best to light only in the morning. When lighting in the evening, the chickens are surprized when the light suddenly goes out and they will have to sleep where they are at that moment. They have no cat eyes.

Regards, DJ

Thanks Dutch John.   All chooks (that choose to)  are sleeping on the roost pole when we check on them later after lights out.  Maybe they have the timing down Laughing

There is a problem I'm wondering if some chicken peeps can help with....4 (all of the Rhode Islands) out of our 12 chickens won't roost on the roosting pole.  Instead, they crowd into the the nesting boxes and sleep there.  (they have never used the roost pole regardless of season).  The sleeping in the nesting box is ok, the problem is  they poop there, too.  Not great for appetizing or sanitary egg collection when the poop ends up all over the eggs.  Any ideas ? 

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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Thanks for the great comments by all.

Supplemental lighting in winter - Patrickhenry, I haven't really tried this yet, although there are some old christmas lights hanging on the coops now since I ran a cord out there anyway for the water heaters.  My flock in 2009 was born the first week in June and started laying in December, and laid like crazy straight thru until about November this year when they went into molt.  My 2010 flock I got earlier, in April I think, and they started to lay in fall then dropped off a bit when the days got shorter and and colder.  I figure I'll just let the chickens follow their natural cycle.

Litter management - one method described elsewhere is the deep litter method.  You keep mixing it and adding a bit mroe shavings or straw and supposedly the buildup is mitigated by decomposition which also helps keep the chickens warmer.  I've been using hay since I have a bunch, and stirring it every day keeps it from getting matted and the poop goes down inside so that the hens aren't walking in it.  If I let them out promptly in  the morning they tend to releive themselves outside anyway.  If the litter seems to get really soggy and nasty I fork it out into the wheelbarrow and throw in the compost pile.

If chickens aren't allowed by local ordinances, I bet it's something you  have a chance of overturning with a little citizen initiative and education of the authorities.  I know some other communities in my state have changed their ordinances to allow chickens in the past few years.

Brooder setup - Kevinoman, good points, I agree the photo I showed does not have an ideal setup.  Perhaps a better way to describe the right amount of heat for the chicks is they should neither be all crowded together in a pile under the light trying to keep warm (which can suffocate young chicks) nor be as far away as possible from the light trying to not be too hot.  If they're active inbetween those extremes they're probably okay.  

Commercial feed - Layer pellets like I get by Blue Seal are made in a factory and optimized in nutrition for hens to maximize egg production.  A 50 lb bag is $12 locally here.  It is a concern to me that I am still dependent on feed made in a factory 50 miles away which in turn gets grain from probably middle of the country.  So I try to supplement with all I can; e.g., I grew a ton of extra corn and saved only the best ears for myself; the rest went to the chickens.  They also get to forage on grass in the yard.  I'm not sure how much egg production is affected though by less than optimal nutrition.  That may not be a factor if you are not in the egg selling business, and you get the minimum number of eggs a day you need anyway for personal consumption.

I'll need to cull some chickens soon once I figuer out for sure which ones are past their prime and I get new chicks.  I know a couple are done pretty much for good that a neighbor gave me after his house burned and his flock was homeless.  I don't think I'll have a problem dealing withat at all though.  I've picked up and buried plenty of dead ones killed by predators or disease.

Goats - we had a couple pygmy goats here a long time ago and they are really fun and produce good milk and they are the next animal I would get, but it's just a bit too much of a committment at this time.

Rotation - good ideas featherjack.  Now that I have two coops built, I'm thinking I'll combine the nest of the two flocks I have now and move one coop back into the shop when I get the next batch of chicks next spring.  The two cloks mix together anyway when they are allowed out to graze.  It's funny though, chickens really do know their pecking order.

Nesting boxes - I have this problem with one chicken now too patrick.  She wants to sleep every night perched on the edge of the box and poops over any eggs that are in it.  What I do is keep trying different modifications to the coop to make it uncomfortable to perch there.

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Full Moon
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

  For nesting boxes we use the large buckets  with the lids cut 2/3 rds  so the eggs and nesting material will not fall out .   We have a lot of people save their old shredded paper and also straw . Anyway  we can pull the buckets off their perch and give them a good hose down when ever we need . I think this saves from mites .  Also we dump a  bucket load of old ashes out there so that the chickens bath themselves and this gets rid of mites too.

We put a bale of alfalfa  scattered on the floor  so the chickens keep their feet dry and  scratch around  for the seeds to keep everything loose enough to scoop up a couple times a year . The floor is cement so the shovels , push broom and wheel barrel is all we need to get the job done .  They are out side at the crack of dawn  go in to lay a little after noon and hen go back in for roosting at sundown .  Low maintenance !

To keep their water thawed we use a float-able tank heater .  

For the bantams that get broody  we separate into cages and just keep eggs under them .  I got rabbit cages to raise the chicks in , the litter drops into rubber trays and are then dumped onto the compost pile .   I like these cages because nothing can get into them  , like cats, dogs etc.

I order 150 bushel of a feed mix  to last over a year .  The feed and seed  they add the minerals needed . The price practically doubled this year  because with delivery the total came to  $1,100.      I get $2 donation  for a dozen  .

I really have no idea how many chickens are out there .. that way when people ask that is an honest answer.    I try to raise a different breed each year so I know how old they are .  This year  is  Buff Orpingtons  they are a nice bird, last year the Araucana .    Butcher most of the roosters at 20 weeks .  Some of the hens are laying for 7 years ... I can tell by the color of the eggs.

You just learn by doing

FM

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Full Moon
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

sorry  I was wrong on the grains 3920#  of corn = 70 bushel @$5.19 =363.30

                                                           3920 Milo =  70 bushel@ $5.08 = 355.60

                                                           2249 0ats = 70 bushel @$3.25 =227.50

                                                             #800  protein meal and minerals  plus delivery $200.52

                                                          so total is 10,889.00 #   for $1,146.92

     What I feed with this is 3 horses , 1 cow  ,2  calves ,2 pigs ,  and umteen chickens, ducks and geese . All the Animals are pasture feed from May -oct. then  we  hay them for the other months . 

Makes me wish that I had paid closer track of how many dozen eggs we got .  Summer time it was about   3 dozen a day and now we  only get  six eggs  a day  until  they start up again in Jan.   I know  the pork  worked out to be $.90 a pound and the beef  was $1.00  average .  not a huge savings if you are eating only hamberger  but ....  I also make the soap and soup stock . 

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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

I'm new to chicken raising, but have 6 girls 92 Marans, 2 cream legbars, and 2 RIR/Light sussex cross) who we've raised from 1-day old chicks to 20 and 18 weeks old so far, and have the first 4 delicious blue eggs this week!  Just wish I'd started earlier - they're a pleasure to have around, each with their own distinctive 'personalities', so they're much more than just egg producers to us!

A couple of top tips which I don't think I've seen on here yet - watch out for the very cold weather. We've just had the earliest, harshest winter for 100 years, with constant freezing temperatures which got down to -16 deg C, and 2 feet of snow which lasted for several weeks. Their combs and wattles are at risk of frostbite, but you can give them some protection from this by massaging some beeswax-based 'hand cream' a couple of times a week when the weather forecast looks very cold.

Chickens don't like snow, so try to provide them with a sheltered outside area as well as their hen house - we have a small run covered in fine mesh to keep out predators, 12 feet x 3  feet, and have covered it with thick polythene to provide a mini polytunnel for when the weather is truly awful.   We also have a few cold frames outside this run, with half of each frame covered, which means that when the wind is strong they can jump in there and get a lot of protection from the wind but still enjoy scraping around in the grass (when it isn't covered in snow).  We also have a 50metre electric netting fence to give them a bigger protected area, and when we're around, open the gate to let them free range around the garden and orchard.

We're using diatomaceous earth in the wood shavings in their hen house and run, and dusted around the perches, as protection against mites.  It is also, apparently, good for them to eat, to act as a natural wormer, and to provide minerals.

When we had the deep snow, we couldn't keep a path down to the grass for them, so they were eating only bought-in layers pellets. One chick developed cracks in her feet which were bleeding at the joints, and started to walk stiffly, didn't want to come out of the hen house much, and generally looked a bit miserable.  We couldn't find anything about this online or in our chicken manuals, so added a small amount of vit C powder to their drinking water (which also contains half a teaspoon of cider vinegar as a general tonic), and started feeding a couple of handfuls of sprouted mung beans daily to the whole flock.  Within days she was much better.  While we were on vacation for a week, the cracks started to come back as our stand-in carers hadn't been giving them the beansprouts, but these healed quickly again when the beansprouts were added back into the diet.  Our theory was that when the chickens can't get at really fresh, raw food, their immune system is depressed and all kinds of odd symptoms may appear.  There's little nutrition in the grass during the winter months, since all the goodness is pushed down into the roots, so beansprouts are a fantastic nutritious and easy food to grow inside, all through the winter.  We have a few ourselves too ; ) 

We're now leaning towards the idea of a house cow or milking sheep/goat!

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Woodman
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

Thanks for the tips annepan.  My flock is not liking the current cold temperatures here either, down to -7F a couple nights this week.  They survived the first night, but were a lot happier when I put a heat lamp in the coop the next night.  The snow is keep them in the coop mostly too, but I shoveled out an area and spread some hay which they'll come out on if I scatter some food on it.  I think they get some Vitamin C from treats like carrot peelings and apple cores.

I'm interested in milking goats too some day.  Had a pair here a few years ago, really fun animals, but it's a committment, probably not as much as a cow though.

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Woodman
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Re: Raising Your Own Chickens

I just heard Paul Wheaton on the Survival Podcast describe his chicken raising methods and realized I pretty much arrived at the same solution as he did!  More info here...

http://www.richsoil.com/raising-chickens.jsp

raising chickens in paddocks

Ahhhh .... now this is the ultimate solution for raising chickens. At least, it is the best (IMOO) that I'm currently aware of.

There are two basic approaches:

  • 1) Four or more fenced areas. Put the chickens in an area and after 7 to 10 days move to the next area. Each area gets at least 28 days of rest until the chickens return. The more areas you have, they can be smaller and the time spent in an area can be less. If the chickens consume more than 30% of the vegetation, you have too many chickens or too small of a paddock.
2) Get the same effect with portable fencing.
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yoshhash
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How to preserve eggs for 6-9 months without electricity - The Wa

http://homesteadgardenandpantry.com/agrarian-life/self-reliance/preservi...

apologies if this is already common knowledge or has been covered- but it is worth repeating for those (like me) who have never heard of this amazing retro-technology.  Frightening to think that in our rush to embrace convenience and gadgetry we let ideas like this become obsolete.

edit: someone has taken the time to try this and other methods and compile a comparison of results:

http://www.motherearthnews.com/Sustainable-Farming/1977-11-01/Fresh-Eggs.aspx

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Poet
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Respectful Kill And Harvest Of Chicken

Gently, humanely, and matter-of-factly taught by Alexia Allen of Hawthorn Farm, in Woodinville, Washington. She has a beautiful, reassuring voice.

Filmed by Paul Wheaton of permies.com

Part 1 of 2, how she kills and and plucks, including her philosophy and approach and how she feels:

Part 2 of 2, how she cuts and processes, including anatomy lessons and what goes into a stock pot:

Viewer discretion is advised. But if you do eat chicken, I think it is important to at least watch it once. If you plan on having chickens for eggs and later, for meat, and you have never killed or butchered a chicken, I think watching this is also important.

Poet

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Wendy S. Delmater
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humane chicken harvesting

I cannot wait until they post part two!

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Full Moon
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 if you put a little

if you put a little vinegar in the bone stock you will get much more nutrition from it .    Not sure if I would ever have the time to coo and talk to the chicken  first .     I swing them around twice and cut the head off when they are trying to figure out what happened .     But each to their own to getting the job done .

Fm

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Poet
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I Thought I Posted Part 2 Already

safewrite wrote:

I cannot wait until they post part two!

I thought I posted Part 2 of 2. Both parts are showing when I look at it.

Full Moon wrote:

if you put a little vinegar in the bone stock you will get much more nutrition from it .    Not sure if I would ever have the time to coo and talk to the chicken  first .     I swing them around twice and cut the head off when they are trying to figure out what happened .     But each to their own to getting the job done .

I've heard that! Something about the acid helping to leech minerals from the bones.

I think Alexia Allen is awesome. She obviously takes the killing more personally and has added elements to her ritual to make it more meaningful for herself.

Poet

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Woodman
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Additions to the flock this

Additions to the flock this year:  buff orpingtons, which I like for their friendliness and inclination to be broody, and a couple Plymouth Barred Rocks.  Looks like the lighter colored Barred Rock is going to be a Rooster!

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Woodman
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Hatching chicks at home

Our first try at hatching chicks at home with an incubator was successful.  We saved the best looking eggs from our flock for a few days in a cool dark room, then put them in the incubator which holds them at 100F.  12 out of 15 hatched.  I got a Genesis "Model 1588 Hova-Bator " with the automatic egg turner and am very happy with it.  The large window on top let my kids get a great view of the hatching action.  You can see one starting to peck out the shell, above the damp chick that just hatched.

Advantages of hatching your own chicks instead of buying or ordering are that you avoid some expense, can choose the timing, and are not limited with seasonal availability or large minimum quantities.   You're going to get a mix of boys and girls though, and a mix of breeds depending on what's in your flock.  My rooster is a RI Red and we have RI Red, Plymouth Barred Rock, and Buff Orpington hens, and we got chicks of all combinations judging by their colors.

Hopefuly we'll have some good layers in about 24 weeks or next spring, to replace some of my older birds.

 

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SagerXX
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Harvesting chickens

I wrote a long post about my experience harvesting chickens over on the definitive agriculture/permaculture thread. To find it, just use the search box on the home page and key in "chicken harvest". Viva -- Sager

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Woodman
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Harvesting Chickens

Following up on Sager's post above, I got some experience in processing chickens for meat this past week top.  It was a bit of work but very rewarding in both the quality of the product and in the satisfaction of learning another skill for resilience.  I did several few birds alone but it went pretty smooth with some up front preparation and planning and not really unpleasant at all.

here are links to a couple great guides with photos on butchering chickens  I used to figure out what to do.

girlsguidetobutter.com/2010/08/chicken-butchering-101/

butcherachicken.blogspot.com/

Most of the chicks we hatched out 18 weeks ago turned out to be cockerals (boys), and as I primarily wanted hens for laying the others had to go.  Early on butchering day I put the chickens to be processed in a separate coop with water but no food to give their digestive tract about 12 hours to empty out.  I made a killing cone out of an old 1 gal milk jug and screwed it to a support.  I did bleeding and plucking outside since these were the messiest operations.  I started in the evening after the birds had gone to roost, so they were calm and easy to handle.    After bleeding, to loosen the feathers I scalded it in a big pot of 130F water for 30 seconds, dunking several times.  A simple plucker rig I got from Ebay mounted in a drill took off almost all of the feathers quickly then I plucked the rest by hand.   

Since it is wintertime in Maine, I did the rest of the steps outlined inthe links above in my garage workshop, which has a heater and a big tub sink.  I spread out newspaper on a temporary bench to make cleanup easy.  I'll skip the details since it's described well elsewhere, but after I did the first bird I got the hang of it quickly.  

I aged each chicken in the refrigerator about 24 hours before freezing.   I actually eat very little meat normally but one bird roasted so far came out great.  These were dual purpose breeds, not meat birds, and free ranged so the meat was different than commercially produced - firmer, more flavor.    At 18 weeks these dressed out to about 3.5 to 3.8 pounds, mostly dark meat which I prefer anyway.

More good info here about heritage birds for meat and cooking methods here...

www.albc-usa.org/documents/cookingwheritagechicken.pdf 

In summary, not only can one raise chickens specifically bred for meat, one can raise straight run dual-purpose birds as well, keeping the pullets for laying eggs and processing the excess cockerals for meat that is much better than from the supermarket.  

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