Getting Started with Broilers

If I were just starting, if I knew absolutely nothing, and if I lived in town and wanted to raise broilers, how would I get started?

Let’s make sure you know what you’re getting into.  You’re going to raise a broiler.  These are typically a hybrid chicken selected and bred to gain muscle mass in the minimum amount of time.  The cornish cross hybrid will eat nearly 18 pounds of feed over the course of it’s life.  That’s nearly $6 worth of feed per bird if you buy at the major farm supply stores.  Each chick will cost you at least a dollar, purchased mail-order from a reputable hatchery.  Because these are high-octane birds and you are inexperienced, there’s a fair chance several chicks will die.  In spite of my experience, there’s still a chance my chicks will die.  The animal and the feed will cost you more than a similar-looking finished product costs in the store.  No, your chicken will not compare to that $7 factory bird but there really is no comparison on quality.  With me so far?

Good.  Let’s start at the end.  These are birds for eating…as in they will die..and you will eat them.  These aren’t pets, they are radishes.  You harvest and eat them.  Don’t think you can do the work personally?  No problem.  You can drive (possibly for hours) to a processing plant.  Go into this with the right attitude.  These are food.  You are growing them for food.  If you’re still with me you need to see the work being done right so you can make sure you handle your birds in a humane and safe manner or you can make sure your processor does the same.  Several of these videos that were filmed by David Schafer of Featherman Equipment feature Joel Salatin.  Those two men have done more than anyone else to pioneer efficient, humane small-scale poultry production.  I’ll post links because they aren’t for the squeamish.  We got the most out of the Polyface Processing Overview video.  The Other Featherman Videos are the very best we have found online for every stage of poultry processing at various levels of scale.  If you want to see true, large-scale processing there are videos you can watch but I don’t have any I can recommend.  I can’t imagine standing in one place all day making the same cut over and over and over.  I can’t imagine wanting to watch a video of a worker standing in one place all day making the same cut over and over.  That’s tipping toward a rant so I’ll just stop there.

You also might try to find a local pastured poultry producer who processes his own birds for a more personal demonstration.  You’re welcome to stop by our farm anytime.

Now, assuming you’re still in for the long haul, how many are you going to raise?  Let’s say you’re just going to put your toe in the water and raise 25 birds in your suburban backyard for your own consumption.  Yes, it’s probably illegal but that’s the hypothetical situation.  You can deal with issues of morality vs. legality vs. nobody will care, they are only on pasture for 5 weeks and the healthy meat is worth the fine besides your lawn will look great.  Begin by reading this book.  You can read while you are waiting for the post office to deliver your chicks.

Image from Polyface Farm website. Click image for detail.

So, 25 birds.  Those 25 baby chicks will need a brooder.  Almost any brooder will do.  Use plenty of wood chips or course sawdust from a sawmill to build up deep bedding underneath.  Make sure there are no right angle corners where the birds could pile up and crush each other.  Watch the birds under the lamp to see if they are huddling, panting or whatever.  There are a million resources online for brooding chicks so I’m wasting your time here.  Don’t forget to add creek sand.

While your brooder is keeping the birds warm you need to build a chicken tractor.  I’m going to suggest you build an inexpensive hoop structure as in this link.  It’s going to cost you $200 and a couple of hours to put together but you can cover it with plastic and use it as a greenhouse to extend your garden season spring and fall.  That will help you recoup some portion of your infrastructure costs.

At 3 weeks (at the latest) you’ll move the birds to their new home on pasture.  Get ready for growth.  The chickens will flourish on grass and clover.  Every day that structure needs to move to fresh grass.  If the structure is 8×12 (as mine are) and you have it stocked with a mere 25 birds you can get away with moving it every other day, though every day is better for the birds.  That means you need at most 35 8×12 spaces for that tractor…about 1/8th of an acre…half of a suburban yard.

Still on board?  Good.

99% of Christopher Columbus’ trip was just going there. Once the chickens are in the tractor it’s just a daily grind of move, feed, water, feed, water, feed, water and move again.  They don’t need much from you, just fresh pasture, feed, clean water and security.  Security.  Everything likes to eat chicken.  There are a lot of raccoons in suburban areas.  Good luck.

Early one morning in the 8th week after the chickens hatched you’re either going to sharpen your knives and get to work in some way displayed in the videos above or a variation thereof or you’re going to truck the birds off to slaughter elsewhere.  The end result is the same: nearly $350 worth of meat.

Let’s review.  You paid $25 for chicks.  You paid $150 for chicken feed.  You may have paid $2 per bird to have them processed or you bought some good knives, heated water on your stove, hand plucked, eviscerated, chilled and bagged the chickens yourself…maybe totalling $50 anyway.    That money is spent and gone.  You paid $200 to build a chicken tractor and another $20 for the brooder and supplies for it.  Thest two could be sold to recoup costs.  At this scale, you’re paying an absolute premium for your chicken.

Obviously, I think it’s worth it.  Beyond the meat you have also gotten a broad education that covers how to raise poultry from start to finish, ecological and environmental stewardship and a new depth of understanding of what real food costs.  You also either learned that this is something you could do or you learned that it’s better for you, personally, to outsource your chicken raising to a gifted farmer nearby (like me).

I hope you find out it’s for you.  I can’t raise anywhere near enough chicken to meet customer demand.  Not only do I need help and assistance with bulk purchasing, I need competitors.  I need someone to push my efforts toward ethical efficiency.  You, as a consumer, need pastured producers with open door policies to become more numerous and more efficient so prices can fall.  We can only achieve this goal with more consumers.  I can’t handle more consumers alone.  I need additional growers…who will become competitors.  With luck I’ll be pushed out of the poultry business and can focus more on dairy, hogs, forestry, gardening or whatever is next.  I’m ready.  I need you to get started.  Now.