First Year Raising Meatie Chickens

10 week old meatie

10 week old meatie

Up until this year I have focused on raising dual-purpose birds.   I finally succumbed to trying a few meaties this year.   For those of you not familiar with chickens there are some breeds whose focus is eggs, some to have lush meatie bodies and finally dual purpose birds who do both well but don’t really do outstanding at either.   Meaties are generally selected cross breeds that convert food to weight with a high efficiency, grow fast, and have that large breasts that American diet demands.

I got “Freedom Ranger” style meaties.   These are meaties that grow much slower than the commercial Cornish Cross you are getting in the pink tray in your supermarket.  Unlike the Cornish Cross that sit at the food trough and do nothing but eating, the FR are active.   Ours actually got out and walked around and foraged.   They claim that the FR have a healthy set of legs on them, unlike the Cornish Cross who often become crippled because the body grows too fast for leg development.   Ours held true to that claim.

Our meatie roos had started to become protective of the flock.   One of them was more than willing to take on Mr. Ranger Sir daily.   We decided it was a little early, but it was time for them to go.     They were taller than our dog.

This weekend we butchered the three roosters of the bunch.   There were 10 weeks old.   They dressed out at about 3 pounds each.   I have a female who was smaller that is still left that we will butcher later.

Were they worth the time, expense, and trouble.   I guess so.  They did not wow me.

Time will give me a little more information to base this on.   I have one female meatie left and a bunch of males that will need to go.   I can use them for comparison once we butcher them.

Chicken Isn’t What It Used to Be

I just read a great blog article on meat cuts from Kitchen 101.   It reminded me of a great article by Gina Bisco on cooking with heritage chickens.   I have supplied links to both and they are worth a visit to read.   So many folks today don’t know any more about the meat they buy in the grocery other than the price per pound.

I am an owner of a small backyard flock whose size ranges from as many as a dozen in the summer to six over the winter.  My backyard flock is always a mix of ages and breeds. We eat both the eggs from our birds and our chickens themselves.   I  have to deal with the reality of culling hens from my little flock.   Culling sucks, enough said.  But with this comes an assortment of really good eating, that modern recipes have no idea how to handle.

Modern egg laying chickens are a specialized breed. A chicken’s best laying production usually tops out at about two years of age.   Production birds that lay the eggs in your store, don’t usually live to their second birthday.   Production birds are egg laying machines and don’t end up on your table after their useful life.   There isn’t enough meat on those bones, and it isn’t the big breasted bird you find in you meat department.

Modern meat birds are also an extremely specialized breed.   These birds without any growth hormones, just years of selective breeding have given us a bird that almost everyone today considers normal.   These birds are highly efficient with food, growing from chick to dinner table in as little as six weeks.   These birds are susceptible to a host of health problems because they grow faster than often their legs or heart can handle.

Heritage dual purpose birds are the breeds your grandmother or great-grandmother had.  They could lay eggs and when the family was ready they could be dinner.  They ended up as fried chicken on a picnic, Sunday’s roasted chicken, or chicken noodle soup.   They are the breeds that are the basis after much selective breeding that made our modern production egg and meat birds.   They are not as productive as modern egg layers, nor do they have monster sized big white meat breasts.  They are a jack of all trades and a master of none.

One of the problems of having a flock of old-fashion dual purpose birds is that the modern cookbooks and online recipes call for that famous skinless boneless chicken breast.  That monster blob of white meat that  can serve two with only half a breast.   It is easy to cook; easy to cut; without much form and can take on almost any taste.   Old-fashion birds actually have assorted classes based on their age and size.   They are broiler, fryer, roaster and stewing hen.   Those are listed from youngest to oldest, smallest to largest.  These like the many cuts of meat from your four-legged meat source also need different kinds of cooking methods, to be at their best.  For this you need to get out to your favorite used book store, library book sale, or scour estate sales for old cookbooks.

If you have a dual purpose or heritage flock, you first need a print out of Gina Bisco’s article.   She has done her research and brought it all together in a single source.    Armed with knowledge of your butchered bird and cook books that actually call for broilers, fryers, roasters, spring chickens, stewing hens you are on your way.  Once you understand how to use your chicken no matter the age, you will then be empowered to know how to use them in your modern recipes and understand any adjustments you might make.

If you have a back yard flock and have had less than stellar results when cooking them, I hope you will be inspired to take another look.   If you have purchased chickens at your farmer’s market and gotten something you did recognize as chicken, hopefully you will now.    Most of all I hope you will appreciate the depth of character a chicken can provide and not always insist on the mass of white meat known as skinless, boneless chicken breast.

Decision Made

This week I did my homework on all the local farm store’s  chick days.  I spent time calling stores and quizzing their chick person on what was coming and when.   I was surely not the only person calling this week because I hardly got the word chick out of my mouth and they knew who I was looking for.  I am sure these calls were being placed from California to New York to any place known for having those magical “Chick Day.”

Most of the folks were patient and very helpful with what I am sure was their 100th plus call with the same questions; What are you getting and what day are they coming?    I did not need them to run through the list of everything coming in, I just wanted to know what heavy dual purpose birds they were getting and the planned arrival dates.   Most of them knew then exactly what I was looking for and the call was short and sweet.    One location, the chicken man  talked about a couple breeds saying how well they dressed out for him last year. One location asked me what a dual purpose bird was, it made me smile wondering if she thought it meant they dueled like chicken fighting.    He should have spent a little time reading up if he was going to be in charge of birds for the store.   Lord knows what advise he will give to beginners.

All the time I spent finding phone numbers of farm stores on the internet, and then placing phone calls, drove home to me that the farm supply stores don’t really get the value of leveraging the net. I know that ordering chickens is a little unpredictable, but I honestly don’t know why farm stores don’t post a list for the store of the planned delivery/order schedule of chicks.   They can add a disclaimer at the bottom that the actual in store chicks are subject to change due to hatchery availability and shipping schedules.     It would save tons of their employee’s time.    They make changes to their website to announce chick days, so adding the schedule would be no big deal for their website manager.

My decision is that my chicks will becoming from either Bozeman or Helena.  I will be at the store early to get chicks, and will make the best with what they have that week.   I won’t have the prettiest group of hens that my neighbors and friends have come to expect.   But as always they will  lay well and tolerate Montana winters just fine.  In the end I will have some nice egg layers and a few birds in the freezer.

Six, ten, twelve?

Right now as I ponder this spring’s chick selection I am also debating how many to get.    I know that six is the best number to over winter, no questions on that number.   So the debate is how many do I want for the freezer?  How many do I want to butcher?  What chicken breeds do I want to work with?    The answers are still rolling around in my head, but they are all over the spectrum and the decision is not clear yet, but I need to have a single answer soon.

I would definitely like some chicken for the freezer.   Using my Mom’s old rule of thumb when we put up veggies from the garden, a chicken a week would be nice.   Reality sets in and there are just two of us with a half a steer and half a lamb already in our little freezer.  So I guess I will take what I can get, but the number in my freezer is not a big deal.

I really hate butchering.  It always sucks for me because I hate it for that moment when  I kill them.   After that deed is done, I really don’t mind the rest of preparing them for the freezer because I don’t pluck them.   None of the scalding.   None of the feathers. I have a system down where we strip the skin off and clean them out that is pretty quick.  It also works well when you only butcher one or two at a time because all you need is a method to kill the bird and a boning knife.    Occasionally I wish for a roaster, but the thought of plucking them stops me in my tracks. We do run into a problem if we do too many at a time, because we have a small refrigerator.   Chickens like beef need to be aged a few days before you cut them up and put them in the freezer.

The breed choice is somewhat hard for me.   If I get the breed considered the best meatie, Cornish Rock X, the bird will be in the freezer in 6 weeks.  It is the result of selective breeding to have big breasts and grow fast.  Sounds like an easy choice, but the CRX is plagued with health problems, legs that can not support its weight and high mortality due to congestive heart failure, because its heart can’t keep up with its size. Another issue for me is that the CRX has lost its native chicken survival skills.   They don’t forage; they are the couch potato of chickens.  They eat and poop over and over, and the idea of moving to even so they don’t sit in their own waste is too much effort. So what is the point of eating chicken to be healthy if they aren’t.    As I write all this down I come to realize that decision is really already made for me, I am going with old-fashioned dual purpose birds.  These birds that Grandma used to keep.  My chickens can lay eggs for breakfast and be dinner at night.  The downside of the dual-purpose birds are: they are not as meatie, the muscle tissue is firmer because the chicks have had exercise, and most significant they grow slower, much slower than CRX. The upside is that I can save what I think are the best egg layers for the winter and the following spring.

This review has cleared up lots for me I am thinking ten dual purpose birds will work well for me.    Of course 12 would make one a month.    I guess the day I get chicks will be when I determine the final number.