Meat Birds –
Our meat birds are raised seasonally from late April through fall. We are able to deliver chicken in our CSA year round because we stock our freezer with enough birds to last through our long winter and inclement spring weather.
We get our chicks at a day old from a hatchery in Ohio. They come via the US Postal service. We use the hatchery that we do, is, because the delivery route gets our chicks to us within 24 hours of hatching and they are very active on arrival to the farm. Although a chick can survive up to 72 hours after hatching without food and water (they suck up remaining albumin in the egg for sustenance just prior to hatching), the sooner they get to eat and drink the better. We get an early morning call from our local post office when they arrive, and we go and pick them up.
Our meat birds are Cornish cross. These birds are the fast growing, double breasted hybrids that consumers are most accustomed. Although not as active as our egg layers, these birds graze enthusiastically in our pastures.
New chicks are introduced to our brooder (think of this as a chick nursery) minutes after arriving at the farm. Each chick is taken from the box (there are about 100 chicks per box) and gets its beak dipped into the water bowl so they know from the start. The chicks are attracted to the red bowls of their feeders and begin eating soon after being taken from the box.
The brooder is warm and secure. Chicks require a floor temperature of 90 degrees at hatching – heat lamps and reflective hovers keep them comfortable. Our brooders are cargo containers, and we’ve found these six-sided steel boxes to be predator proof. Chicks remain in the brooders for 2-3 weeks depending on weather and overnight temperatures outside. When the weather outside is cool & damp, we keep the chicks in the brooder for a full three weeks as small chicks are vulnerable to exposure and hypothermia. By three weeks the young birds are nearly fully feathered and large enough withstand cool spring temps.
We have found that our meat birds perform best with a high (22-26%) protein feed. Our best results have been sourcing a pre-milled/mixed feed from a local source that includes soybean meal and cannot guarantee the absence of GMO grains. Our feeds are made without drugs or antibiotics. At some point, we would like to mill our feeds on farm; but that will require significant infrastructure investments (feed mill, bulk grain storage, etc).
At two to three weeks of age, our meat birds leave the brooder for our pasture field pens. These are 10’ by 12’ enclosed structures without a floor. Walls are wire mesh allowing the birds lots of fresh air, but it serves to protect them from the abundant predators (raccoons, coyotes, mink, opossums, etc.) on our wooded, riparian farm. We, also, have livestock guardian dogs to provide an added measure of predator protection.
The front 25% of the pen is open to the sun. The tarp cover can be closed for protection during raining and/or cold weather or opened completely for maximum ventilation on hot days. The birds are moved to fresh pasture once per day until they are five weeks old. From then on, they move twice a day.
Our birds snick the leaves of our mixed grass and legume pasture. They also dine on a large variety of bugs and worms as their pens glide across the fields. Because they travel over the same pasture as our beef cows, the birds provide a valuable service by reducing the fly and parasite population. Chicken nutrition is increased along with cow health and comfort.
Our birds are ready to go to the butcher at nine weeks of age. This is 2-3 weeks older than their industrial broiler counterparts, but 3-5 weeks sooner than it takes a heritage (non-hybrid) bird to reach market weight.
Our birds are butchered at Central Illinois Poultry Processing in Arthur, Illinois. CIPP is a family-owned, small-scale plant in an Amish community. It is the only USDA inspected in our state that accepts birds from independent producers (USDA inspection is required to sell birds at retail). The lack of processing options is a significant bottle-neck to local poultry production, despite the demand. We are hopeful that a proposed plant in Kendall County will receive approval later this year and begin operating in 2014. This new plant would cut our trip to a ½ an hour and allow an increase in local poultry production.
Because our processor is so far away (it’s a 3 ½ hour trip – one-way), we load the birds the day before. Ideally, the birds would not make such a long trip for processing, but this is the only option at present. In the mid-summer heat we wait until late afternoon to begin load up, so the sun is going down and it’s cooling off when we put them on the trailer. The chickens are loaded into plastic transport crates which keep them from getting overcrowded and ensure good ventilation. When it is especially hot, we spray a mist of water on them to keep the comfortable (imagine the cooling stations at theme parks or at an outdoor concert venue).
The alarm rings at 2:30 in the morning on processing day, and the trailer of chickens leaves at 3:00 am to get to the butcher before seven. Because it is still dark, the birds sleep much of the trip and they are processed before the heat of the day. This keeps stress to a minimum for the birds and ensures the highest quality. The birds are packaged and chilled by early to mid-afternoon when they are loaded into an enormous cooler and iced for their return to the farm.
Once back at the farm (late afternoon/early evening), the birds are unloaded directly into our walk-in freezer. Whew!