On broilers, or, Thank you, chickens

So, we really dropped the ball on keeping everyone updated on the broiler chickens via the website. We really intended to, but it turned out that 150 chickens took up kind of a lot of time. So, here’s a retrospective of their lives …

The chickens (affectionately known as nuggets) moved to pasture the last weekend of September, just before the TWL Harvest Fair. Thousands of people attend the Harvest Fair so the chickens had a busy first day, and it seemed we prompted a lot of family conversations about where meat comes from (which I think is good). From there, we moved the tractors the hill towards the top, then over towards the orchard, then back down into some extra-delicious juicy green grass, then sideways towards the cropland area — basically in a big rectangle to avoid some trees and some really hilly areas.

By the time we got back to our starting point, about 6 weeks later, and looked at the path up the hill that we had already grazed, we realized that the grass where the chickens had been (scratching, pooping, scratching, eating, pooping) was greener, thicker, and taller than the paths we had left between the tractors. Part of the reason we do chickens in tractors — aside from the extremely important fact that it’s the most humane, safest way for the chickens to spend their lives — is the soil improvement that comes with rotating poultry through a pasture. It was really gratifying to see it in practice. We were able to re-graze them on the land they had already passed through because the soil and grass had improved so much.

One of the first times we moved them, shortly after the Harvest Fair, I noticed one chicken with some sort of morsel that he had just found, and everyone else was chasing him around to try to get it. Kids at the Harvest Fair had been running around with balloons and I heard several of them pop, so I went in to chase him around to try to get it, too, to verify that it wasn’t balloon. It was a little salamander or newt. I felt sorry for the little guy but he was already beyond help, so I left the birds to finish their game of keep-away.

Never let anyone tell you chickens are naturally vegetarian. If you see “vegetarian” on the egg carton, you know those hens were never outside.

It only took a couple of days for them to realize that when we started pulling the tractors forward, instead of running away from us (towards the back), they should run forward to the nice fresh grass that we were dragging them towards. Chickens love grass.

We lost a few of them here and there, a couple for reasons we could identify (ate too much) and a couple we couldn’t. We had one bad day when the biggest tractor blew down the hill and ran over a couple of guys partway, leaving them pinned under the end — one was gimpy but still getting around OK enough to not let us catch him easily, so we left him; the other had a broken wing and a pretty mangled leg. He was big enough to keep so we processed him and were able to keep all the meat except the bad leg and wing. Poor guy.

This weekend we processed everyone who was left, minus the one little girl who was too small and cute to process, who we will keep until she gets bigger or starts laying. We had lots of helpers (though many novices — not like we’re experts!) and we processed all day Saturday and Sunday. By midday on Saturday we got into a rhythm and everyone was pretty comfortable doing all the jobs, so we were able to take breaks and work in shifts and move around between stations for some variety. It was great to see customers again — lots of people were really excited — and to hear about how folks are going to cook them. Lots of barbecue and roasting (my favorite), and some folks with Romertopfs, plus some recipes that might get me eating liver yet … breaded and fried; sauteed; pâté …

It certainly doesn’t make for a good day, and it shouldn’t be, but it’s a day of completeness. It’s thanksgiving all the time on the farm.

Thank you, chickens.

  2 comments for “On broilers, or, Thank you, chickens

  1. January 24, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    Hi, How nice to run across this blog! Whenever you talk about the philosophy of producing food, it almost sounds as though I’m talking. :o)

    I’ve thought about trying the Freedom Rangers, and was wondering how the finished, dressed weights were for you at, what, 10 weeks?

    I’d love to come help you out on a chicken slaughter day, just to see what it’s like doing it on a more-than-three-or-four-at-a-time scale.


  2. February 1, 2010 at 12:35 am

    Hey Laura! Thanks for commenting. We should definitely trade stories and hang out! I’ll add you to the notification list for the next chicken processing day.

    We’re really happy with the Freedom Rangers. They were super healthy and happy and chickeny.
    I would like to figure out how to reduce cost to customers — these are 9 to 11 week birds, so they eat significantly more than a Cornish Cross will at 6-8 weeks … We really want to avoid CXes and to continue feeding organic, but it’s understandably hard for customers to see $25 birds on their tabs (even when it’s a 5 pound chicken and works out to at least 3 meals for two people), and it’s also hard for us to know we’re barely making any money on that $25 bird.

    Anyway, we should chat about it! We have lots of thoughts. :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *