Topic of the Week - Broilers and other table birds

Discussion in 'Meat Birds ETC' started by sumi, Oct 30, 2016.

  1. sumi

    sumi Égalité Staff Member

    Jun 28, 2011
    Rep of Ireland
    Many of us here either raise birds specifically for consumption, or process older and unwanted members of our flocks when their time comes. In our topic of the week this week I'd like to hear you all's thoughts, tips and suggestions when it comes to raising and processing birds for the table. Specifically:

    - Housing broilers - How much space do they need?
    - Free ranging broilers?
    - What breed(s)/crosses make the best table birds?
    - How do I get the best from my meat birds?
    - Tips for processing and preparing older birds (spent layers, old cocks etc)

    For a complete list of our Topic of the Week threads, see here:
    Last edited: Jan 27, 2017
  2. abbevilleoz

    abbevilleoz Overrun With Chickens

    Dec 6, 2015
    Upstate South Carolina
    We've had chickens for close to twenty years but just started our first run of meat birds. Our birds have been egg laying pets and we have a few in their tenth year. After hours of reading and watching videos we decided on Cornish Crosses from Cackle hatchery. The guys on the meat bird forum have been great guides. We opted for a chicken tractor for 25 birds on a field next to our home that we had oversown with rye and fescue in early September.
    The chicks arrived on September 26 and stayed in the brooder for three weeks. We "trained" them on grass everyday . We're in SC so heat in September is brooder temp.
    As they grew we moved the tractor twice a day. The tractor has two square feet for 25 birds but we ended up with 27. It still appears to be adequate space. They free range at least once a day, too.
    We processed our first bird this weekend. I severed her jugular/carotid and then pithed her to make it quick. Suffering was brief. We hand plucked her but are renting a plucker when we process the rest later. She dressed at 4.68 lbs. at six weeks. Her gizzard showed about 50/50 grass/feed.
    We'll let you know how she tastes. I've enjoyed raising these birds. Very gentle and funny. We're trying to save a few hens to create our own line of table fowl.
    3 people like this.
  3. donrae

    donrae Hopelessly Addicted Premium Member

    Jun 18, 2010
    Southern Oregon
    I've been processing quite a few layer type cockerels this last season (hatching addict, and they've got to go somewhere, right?). Just wanted to share a "recipe" I did recently that was pretty good.

    I cut the bird into pieces, not necessarily pretty pieces, just small enough to fit in the crockpot. I did 3 smallish roosters and it filled my large crockpot. I poured 2 bottles of raspberry vinaigrette dressing over them and let it cook on low for about 8 hours. I rotated the meat so it was mostly submerged as it cooked. Cooled, pulled the meat, it was wonderful! Used it for creamed chicken and veggies, and some chicken salad sammiches.
    5 people like this.
  4. Ridgerunner

    Ridgerunner True BYC Addict

    Feb 2, 2009
    Northwest Arkansas
    I don’t raise broilers so I’ll skip those questions.

    - What breed(s)/crosses make the best table birds?

    In my opinion people really get hung up on breeds when it’s not really all that important. If you read through the “Meat Bird” section you’ll see several threads where people talk about something much more important, strain. There are certain attributes that make for a good meat bird, how fast they reach butcher age, how efficient they are at converting feed to meat if you buy or produce their feed, proportion of white to dark meat depending on your preferences, skin color and feather color if you pluck them and leave the skin on so carcass appearance is important. I skin mine and cut them into serving pieces so skin color and feather color is irrelevant as far as carcass appearance. Dark pin feathers aren’t a problem for me but they can be a pain if you pluck. That’s why light colored chickens work best if you pluck, you get a prettier carcass.

    If the person selecting the breeding birds selects for certain traits those traits will be enhanced. If they do not select for those traits, they will not be enhanced but will quickly decline to “average”. This applies to the different qualities that make a good meat bird as much as egg shell color and shade, whether or not a certain strain of chickens go broody, how large the average flock eggs are, and even behavior trends. Hatcheries in general do not select for most meat bird qualities so there is not a lot of difference in most dual purpose birds based on breed.

    An example, final size doesn’t mean a lot, amount of meat at butcher age does. Brahma’s get really big but they are slow to mature. They are not good at converting feed into meat at a young age but are mostly bone until they mature. And they eat more to maintain that larger frame than some other breeds so they are often not a good choice for a meat bird. But some people have bred Brahma’s to put on more meat early so these may make an acceptable choice. A lot of that depends on when you butcher them and how you feed them. If you are buying their feed it’s usually not a good choice, but if they forage for most of their food so you don’t have to buy it and you wait until they mature before you harvest them, they can be a good choice.

    Sixty to seventy years ago the main breeds raised for meat were Delaware, White Rock, and New Hampshire. But when the Cornish Cross broilers were developed, hatcheries stopped breeding these for meat bird qualities, especially things like rate of growth and feed to meat conversion. While these still make good choices, especially if you pluck, they are not a lot better than most other dual purpose breeds. Egghead_jr has done a lot of research and has a thread where they talk about different strains from breeders as far as meat bird qualities. I’ll give a link to that thread.

    As far as what crosses work best, a lot of that depends on your personal preferences and a lot on the quality of your original stock. The only place I see breed coming into this more than strain is to use Cornish as part of the cross if you like a lot of breast meat. I’m talking about the true Cornish, not the Cornish Cross broilers. Those are two totally different things.

    - How do I get the best from my meat birds?

    I hate the word “best” in this context. It’s so subjective, what does it really mean? I don’t know what Sumi means by “best”. There are so many different ways this can be interpreted. And it implies any other methods are sub-par even if the goals are totally different.

    A lot of this depends on your actual goals and your set-up. At what age are you going to butcher? Do you buy all their feed or do they forage for most of their food? Do you butcher only males or do you also butcher the females? Are you breeding your own or buying the chicks or hatching eggs? How important is “big” to you. And just so many more options. There are only two of us so big isn’t that important to me. I butcher cockerels, pullets, old hens, and old roosters. Mine forage a lot. We can get two meals out of even a pullet, plus a lunch or two out of a larger bird. I butcher the cockerels after they hit 18 weeks if I have time and freezer space, or I let them go later. I actually prefer 23 weeks. I try to evaluate pullets for laying before I butcher them so they are older but they never get that big. What works “best” for me is not at all relevant to someone raising them to a certain age and butchering only cockerels. Those might be for personal use or they might be selling them.

    Sumi if you can describe what you mean by “best” I might be able to respond. Maybe not. But right now best is just way too ambiguous.

    - Tips for processing and preparing older birds (spent layers, old cocks etc)

    Some people “starve” their birds before they butcher, lock them up with water but no feed the night before they butcher so the digestive track is pretty well cleaned out the next morning. I don’t, just rinse really well if I nick something I shouldn’t. A lot of people age their meat, often in brine, before they freeze it regardless of the age of the bird. It does tenderize the meat, especially in older birds. I don’t, I freeze mine the day they are butchered. But I take mine out of the freezer on Sunday and let them thaw in the refrigerator until Thursday when I cook them. That might count as aging but it is not brining.

    The older the chicken the more connective tissue they have. If you pluck that isn’t a big deal, but I skin mine. Older hens aren’t too bad but even a cockerel at 5 months age can have a fair amount of connective tissue holding the skin to the carcass. Older roosters are a real pain. I wind up cutting a lot of that connective tissue when skinning. And it still takes a fair amount of brute force. My wife wants skinless meat anyway so I skin, but it may well be worth plucking older roosters, especially if you don’t have a lot of upper body strength or stamina.

    Females, pullets about to lay all the way through older hens, have a lot more fat than males. The hens store this fat so they have something to live off of if they go broody. This excess fat is mostly stored in the pelvic region in a “fat pad”, but that extra fat is scattered all though their body, including on internal organs. The amounts of fat can be huge. Don’t think there is something wrong with your hens if you see a lot of fat, it’s normal.

    Pullets and hens that are laying of close to laying will have several egg yolks in various sizes in their body cavity. I feed those to my dogs. If they are not laying you may just see a mass of tiny ova up next to the backbone, but if they are close to laying, expect to see some decent sized yolks.

    That’s the only differences I can think of in butchering older chickens versus pretty young ones, connective tissue mostly in males, and fat and egg yolks in females.

    Cooking older hens or roosters, or even older cockerels and pullets, is quite different to cooking broilers processed at 6 to 8 weeks of age. The older a chicken gets, the more flavor and texture it has, just like other meat animals. Aging and brining (not exactly the same thing) makes a difference. So does the perception of the person eating it. If you are only used to eating the chicken purchased at the store, you may not like the flavor or texture of older chicken. Some of us much prefer it.

    In general, the older the chicken the slower and with more moisture it needs to be cooked. Some people may be OK eating 15 week old chickens grilled or fried, especially if it was brined or aged, but to many people that would be like leather. There are a lot of different ways to cook older chickens, age and sex has something to do with what works. Cog au Vin is a traditional way to turn an old rooster into a gourmet meal. Chicken and Dumplings is a comfort food traditionally made with old birds. They can be great in soups and stews. I often bake mine, coat them in herbs then bake in a sealed baking dish for a few hours at 250 degrees. Just rinsing the pieces off but not shaking the water off provides plenty of moisture if the dish is sealed. Cooking them in a crock pot overnight can give tremendously fall-off-the-bone meat. Some people use a pressure cooker to get the same general result. It may take a little practice and the results may not be what you initially expect, but there is no reason you can’t serve an old chicken suitably cooked at a dinner party.

    When I butcher mine I cut them up into serving pieces. Drumsticks, thighs, breast, and wishbones are reserved for the table. The backs, necks, wings, gizzards, heart, and feet are reserved for broth. I blanche the feet, dropping them in boiling water for 15 to 20 seconds, the timing depending on how old the bird was. As long as you don’t overcook them the skin peels off pretty easily and the toenails twist off. That gets them clean enough for me. Some people use the heads but that’s too much for me. Even I have my limits. I’m just not going to pluck heads. You just can’t get better broth than from using old birds, especially old roosters.

    I cook mine in a crock pot on low overnight, maybe 12 to 15 hours. After I remove the chunks and the fat from the broth, I pick the meat. A lot of it has fallen off the bone, but be careful. There are a lot of pretty small bones in that. That cooked meat if fabulous in chicken tacos, chicken salad, chicken soup, or any other uses you can come up with for cooked meat.

    If you don’t want to cook an old hen or rooster for the table, use it all for broth and pick the meat. It can be a little time consuming and tedious, especially trying to avoid the small bones, but to me the meat you get is worth it.
    5 people like this.
  5. Vermont Poultry

    Vermont Poultry Out Of The Brooder

    Sep 22, 2016
    Northern Vermont
    (Posting to subscribe)
    I have also had meat birds, great experience and fun to watch the whole process.

    We had 12 Cornish crosses, and 14 red broilers. They grew up insanely fast. We put them in a paddock most of the day starting at 3-4 weeks old. Raising 2 different broiler breeds with vastly different personalities and growth rates may have been a mistake, the red broilers liked to pick on the Cornish crosses, despite being less than half their size.

    Once it was time to harvest we had a friend come over, set everything up. Took a while but got it done.

    Some of the best tasting chicken I ever tasted. Our biggest broiler wouldn't fit in the large freezer bags so we had to chop him up, made many meals out of one chicken.

    Overall was very fun, had ups and downs. Biggest mistake was not having a big enough coop. I will be doing this next spring.

    (Edit: sorry I realized I didn't really answer the questions, just my experience.)
    Last edited: Oct 30, 2016
  6. MikeTodd

    MikeTodd Chillin' With My Peeps

    May 15, 2015
    Rensselaer, IN
    This is from my limited experience.

    - Housing broilers - How much space do they need? We houses 27 cornish cross in an 8X8 tractor. This gave 2.3sqft per bird. They were fine but I would make it bigger if I had more.
    - Free ranging broilers? We had limited space so we weren't able to free range ours.
    - What breed(s)/crosses make the best table birds? I had great success with Cornish Cross and have hear Red Broilers are great too.
    - How do I get the best from my meat birds? If you are rasing meat birds, I would raise them for 8-12 weeks depending on size. We processed at 11 weeks and bira ranged from 5lbs-6.5lbs.
    - Tips for processing and preparing older birds (spent layers, old cocks etc) We have a young laying flock so we haven't had to process any older birds yet.

    The few tips I have are
    1: Make sure you have plenty of help! We had 7 helpers and it was so mich easier.
    2: Have the right equipment. We borrowes Killing Cones from a friend and everyone had their own station with their own tools and sanitary water bucket.
    3: MAKE STOCK!! Keep the feet and carcasses (we boned out 5). We made over 50 quarts of stock!!!!!!
    4: Acknowledge that you will make some mistakes and that you are doing the best job possible. Also remember that you gave these birds a better life than they would have gotten on a commercial farm.
    1 person likes this.
  7. Oleo

    Oleo New Egg

    Oct 30, 2016
    This is the first year we have raised "meat" birds. There is only the 2 of us, so I raised 12 Cornish Cross. Our coop is 8' X 10'. The space for chickens is 8' X 8'. The other 2 X 8 feet are used for covered, metal, garbage cans for keeping feed and bedding in and other critters, like mice, out.

    I let them out to free range everyday with my eggers. I found that the ladies were much more anxious to get out to free graze than the roosters were. The roosters like to hang out inside the coop most of the time, eating 22% protein chicken crumbles. I did take there feeders away from them at night because I was told they would overeat if given the chance.

    When it came time to butcher I kept them in the coop without feeders for 12 hours prior to butchering. I was told it was easier to butcher if they were a bit less full, and by golly, they were. I ended up having to buy another processing cone as the one I bought for big chickens was too small. Instead I used a cone for turkeys, cutting the carotid. I found it to be very quick and easy, but I did have to hold them in the cone by the head for about 1 minute to keep them from pushing themselves up inside the cone or out of it.

    I butchered at 9 weeks old and the smallest of the 12 was a hen at 9 lbs.3.5 oz. and the heaviest was 14 lbs.4 oz. dressed out. Because they were so big, I left them whole as bakers/roasters.

    They are absolutely delicious, with much less fat than I ever imagined. Next spring when I do it again, I will do it a little different. I won't let the roosters sit inside eating nothing but crumbles...too expensive!!! I would also divide my processing in two. Once at 9 weeks for roasters again, but once at 6 weeks for fryers as well.

    As far as old birds, I don't butcher "old". I butchered some extra roosters I had at 11 weeks and they were borderline tough. I'm boiling and chopping them up and using them for soup.

    Thanks everyone for all of the "Helpful Hints" and ideas!! This is fun!!
  8. itsasmallfarm

    itsasmallfarm Chillin' With My Peeps

    Oct 27, 2016
    this is my first year doing chickens at all and we stated out with 40 Cornish cross birds, right now there 6 weeks old and we plan to let them grow to 8-9 weeks of age. there a very nice size right now and we would butcher if we where going to quarter them, but as we all want roasting chickens we plan on leaving them whole right now where giving them about 2sqft a bird and i wish we had more room they are so messy in our coop i would never get so many maybe 25 max at a time.
  9. Radena

    Radena Out Of The Brooder

    Sep 25, 2016
    I was told yhe cornish cross chickens do not breed true since they are crosses. Also they get very crippled as they age. Too heavy for their own bones I think.
    1 person likes this.
  10. dmanhefner

    dmanhefner Out Of The Brooder

    Aug 25, 2015
    I have heard on a restricted diet they can live longer

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