Trials And Tribulations Of Suburban Meat Bird Production

Discussion in 'Meat Birds ETC' started by Birdinhand, Jun 21, 2016.

  1. Birdinhand

    Birdinhand Chillin' With My Peeps

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    May 23, 2016
    I'm starting this thread because I've come across some challenges that are somewhat unique to growing meat birds in the suburban environment.

    background:

    I grew up on a farm in PA many years ago and now wish to share some of my farm experiences with my children, even though we live on a 10,000 square foot lot, not the 125 acre farm of my childhood. We started out about a year and a half ago with the building of a coop and the making of a DIY cooler-bator for my daughters kinder garden class. this year, we've expanded our venture to meat birds, preparing the kids for the difference between our pets and what we will be relying on for food. after clarifying the local ordinance, the city clerk informed me that the limit of 6 hens applied to birds over 6 months old and that currently there were no limits on how many younger birds we could have. she basically told me it was legit to grow out some fast growing meet birds in addition to our egg layers as long as they were dispatched before the 6 month mark.

    to coop or not to coop

    In the suburban environment there are a variety of pressures that make homesteading challenging, not the least of which are neighbors. between the concerns that a neighbor complaint could lead to a visit from an inspector with a "fine toothed comb" and the fact that dogs, birds of pray, coons and coyotes abound, we decided that our birds must be confined to the coop. while this is not as "sexy" or economical as free ranging, it does assure a secure place for our beloved birds to live. The coop was plenty big for 6 hens but adding meat birds was going to require additional space efficiency modifications. I basically added a second story within the coop, made up of three separate pens and decided to keep the meat birds off the ground on pine shavings.

    Frankenbird Cornish Cross, fact or fiction?

    our next challenge was to determine which bird to go with for meat. there are so many horror stories out there about cornish cross being gross and sickly that I initially was drawn to the stories about other types, like the "freedom ranger" that are better at free ranging and known for their hardiness. I did a lot of reading up and decided that I wanted to go with a fast growing meat bird and see if I could make it work, feeling that moving them through the coop and on into the freezer in a timely manner was the safest bet with the neighbors.

    OK, so which strain of Cornish Cross?

    our first run of 16 birds was kind of nightmarish, pretty much textbook frankenbirds, of which half died within days of arrival and the rest that survived gave off tremendous heat, pulsed and quivered like something out of a radiology test lab, more akin to test tube meat. This lead me to asking around for a good hatchery and a good strain. I was recommended to Jenks hatchery in OR. I called them and spoke with the owner, who was kind enough to teach me a lot of subtle details about the meat bird industry, particularly that there were vast differences in the strains within the "cornish cross". He said I'd be much happier with the strain they sell, the COBB 500, because it is livelier and retains more of a chickens natural instincts, even able to free range. we ordered 30 and are 6 weeks into it and have only lost one. these birds are night and day from the first ones, they run around, spar, fly a bit and are generally way more active. I also adjust the food and water height as they grow so they have to stand to eat and keep the food and water apart to encourage physical activity.

    what to feed?

    seeing that I was not able to free range, it became imperative to find a good economical source of food. I became a member of the local coop and was able to get modesto organic grower formula in 50 lb bags for about $35. after about 10 days I went from free access to pulling the food at night so as to avoid the myriad problems these voracious eaters can have, if allowed to gorge themselves.

    Water, water, water

    as these birds virtually double in size each week and consume ever greater quantities of food, so does their water intake increase exponentially. I check water levels at least twice a day.

    the poop-space continuum...

    with all that food and all that water comes a mind boggling amount of wet poop and with it, the challenge of moisture control. I learned about a product called stall dry, which is diatomaceous earth and clay, which has the ability to lock up ammonia, making litter management much easier and more economical, and if they eat it, could have the side benefit of deworming. I sprinkle it in, then add pine shavings, then sprinkle some more on top and then about once a day I turn it over to fluff it up and attempt to keep it dry-er. As some point I lose the battle and have to muck out the pens and start over. I am trying to experiment with how many birds I can have per square foot at various stages and still provide a reasonable of quality of life. for the first few weeks, the chicks pretty much stay close to the heat lamp and food and water and then, as they grow, the venture further away from the heat. it seems that somewhere around 3 square feet per 6 week old bird makes for a much more manageable moisture situation. drying out all the wet droppings/shavings is the key for their health. birds can stand on their own droppings up to a point, as long as they are dry. finding this perfect balance appears to be my greatest challenge so far.
     
  2. Birdinhand

    Birdinhand Chillin' With My Peeps

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    I have two issues to work out before I leave with my family for a 5 day vacation.

    the first one is a straggler. out of 29 birds I have one that did not make it through the first night without a heat lamp so well. all I can figure is that it got wet and cold or it may have something more substantial going on, like an internal organ issue. I took it in to warm it up under a heat lamp and got it back on track. unfortunately it didn't get all it's motivation back, or it was heading south before I stopped the heat lamp and I just didn't notice. it basically doesn't want to walk, although it appears that it still can. this isn't just a matter of being a lazy over eater, it won't get up and walk over to either the water or the food, but when placed in front of both, it drinks and eats profusely. I have been placing it near food and water and that has kept it going. my quandary is whether to put it down before I leave or leave it up to our house sitter to pull it if it dies, before it becomes a vector of disease.

    the second issue is bird spacing. I have my 29 cornish cross spread out amongst 3 pens but one of the pens is up high and likely to be a bit tricky for my house sitter to reach to clean, feed and water so consolidating them to the other two pens would make it easier for the caretaker. on the other hand the birds are growing bigger and eating lots and if anything could use being spread out even more, the larger pen with fewer birds is much easier to keep in a reasonable state. i'm at that point in the growth cycle where they need a fair amount of watching over to keep up with food water and poop management demands. If it were a week later in the growth cycle I'd just process them and move them on to freezer camp, but my goal this time around has been to grow them out to 8 weeks. last time, I got to about 4.5 lbs dressed by 6.5 weeks. my goal is to get up to more in the 7-10 lb dressed, and I think I'm on track for that by week 8. If I am satisfied with the weight when I get back at the beginning of week 7 I'll process them then.

    yesterday the meat grinder arrived. I am looking forward to all the things I can make with it like chicken sausage, meat balls, dog food and even compost meal. I read up a lot before choosing one to find one that can handle chicken bones, and apparently this one is built for it and not super pricy. it was $189, shipping included, much less expensive than the next class up of sausage grinders. out of respect for the life of the animals and out of not wanting to waste, I don't really want to throw anything in the land fill from broiler processing. this grinder will help me to make use of the extras for either people food, dog food or for speeding up the composting process of the head/neck/feet and other bones, without having recognizable body parts show up in the garden, where my vegetarian wife might come across them in the course of gardening and I don't want the dog to have any more reason to go digging holes in our yard.

    It's a STX MAGNUM 1800 AIR COOLED ELECTRIC MEAT GRINDER, I bought it through Mercantile Station 2, since they do repair and warranty and since it's the same price as Amazon prime, I figured I'd get it through them and be more direct (they are the main distributor in the US either way). they offer a 30 day no hassle replacement if defective and a 3 year warranty beyond that. I read reviews that praised it for it's ability to handle bones and chicken meat and I called up the seller, who also carries and does the repair on several models, and asked about which one was best for bones and they also said this one was the way to go, even though it's lower wattage than some, it has the right cutting blade/screen design to handle bones and chicken sinew with minimal clogging. so I don't have to worry about it breaking down while grinding bones, the warranty will cover breakages even if it's used for lots of chicken bones. so far, there are lots of happy user reviews out there, especially folks who make raw food for their pets, incorporating bones. looking forward to using it when the time comes in a week or two.
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    Last edited: Jun 23, 2016
  3. Lookin4GoodLife

    Lookin4GoodLife Chillin' With My Peeps

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    Is pet food the only thing you grind bones up in? I was just curious thinking about hot dogs and the like. :) I don't know what all has ground up bones in it. I don't know personally, but I've read some good things about these broilers: http://www.welphatchery.com/other-meat-type-birds/broiler-slow-white/ They grow slower, but would still be way under your 6 month limit. Maybe give them a try next go-round.
     
  4. Birdinhand

    Birdinhand Chillin' With My Peeps

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    yeah, I've got a lot to learn about the potentials for using bones in food, I imagine there are potential health benefits. as for my type of cross, I've been very happy with the COBB 500 CX from Jenks. I had only one die so far, compared to the other strain I tried initially, these are great. they are quite healthy, pretty lively, still running around at 6 weeks. I'm not likely to go with a slow grower because I feel the need for now to get the growing over with and on to freezer camp before a neighbor freaks out. the suburbs pose a challenge, you just never quite know where the line is until you cross it with a neighbor. next time I may split an order with someone and try 20 instead of 30. As I've been experimenting with density, it seems that there is a sweet spot where the birds are happier and their bedding has a chance to dry out, making for a better living environment all the way around. Over time I'll get it dialed in, but for now it seems 3 square ft per bird is way better but it means I just can't have as many at once... I'm just not sure how many times a year I want to be obligated to be in town for 8 week stretches.
     
  5. greysandy

    greysandy Out Of The Brooder

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    It's interesting to see someone else doing suburban meat chicken production. I typically do 10-15 meat birds when I order a new batch of laying hens. I have a very secure 10'x 20' pen for my layers but this time I need to raise the meat birds out of the coop because my layers are only a year old and don't need to be replaced. I set up a temporary 10x10 pen on the other side yard which is on the north side and shouldn't be quite as hot for them. I have done the Cornish cross from McMurray and they did very well (I lost 1 or 2 out of 15 in the first few days) They were raised with layers so they had a bit more natural chicken behavior. I also raised red Rangers and they took a few weeks longer but were very tasty! The CX were very heat sensitive and it looks like SoCal will have a very hot summer so I think I will change my order to red Rangers and try out the pioneer chickens also. I have always ordered the pullets for meat so I wouldn't have the crowing although the weight is less. I'm mad that my neighbors are running an illegal short term rental next door (for Disneyland visitors) so this time I might go straight run. I will check out the info on the Cobb 500's.

    I started sprouting/ growing wheatgrass for my layers and will continue for my meaties. It is very easy and cost effective and adds so much nutrition especially since I don't have the space for them to free range. The hens also like the wheat berries just barely sprouted for 2 days. I feed mine any and all leftovers I can get my hands on to save money on feed. They get lots of beans and rice from the local Mexican restaurant.

    I have a huge commercial grinder and make my own raw dog food with wholesale meats and bones. I love it and between me and my raw friends, we have ground 3,000+ lbs of turkey, duck and chicken necks with organ meat. My dogS are very spoiled but the meat chickens are for us. :p even the bones go into bone broth for us.

    Sandy
     
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2016
  6. Birdinhand

    Birdinhand Chillin' With My Peeps

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    well I decided to send 15 to freezer camp before taking off for vacation to ease the crowding in the coop. Some weeks back I decided to divide the 30 up. I left 10 in the original pen which is about 30 square feed and divided the others between two smaller cages. Over the course of weeks I noticed that the 10 in the large area were much happier, they had space to run and frolic and probably most of all, the bedding stayed much drier and less amoniated. This lead me to conclude that it would be much better on the birds and the house sitter and be better all around in terms of smell if I reduced the numbers before i went on vacation so that the remainder would have about 3 sq ft per bird. When I came back home 5 days later I was surprised at how happy everyone was and how little the pens smelled, leading me to conclude that 3 sq ft per bird is a good finish out number given our mild and damp climate in the northwest. we've been seeing mostly mid 70's for June.

    the one's that I harvested at 6 weeks averaged 4 lbs dressed, and after doing some guestimation it looks like I'm around $1.50/lb of meat in terms of organic feed cost, not bad. I will know more once I've harvested the rest and can more accurately divide the total feed consumption by total dressed weights between the two harvests. I plan to harvest the remainder in the next couple of weeks. I used 150 f as my scalding temp, used a drill bit style plucker rented from the local farm coop... I am looking forward to making a drum style plucker at some point, it will make the process much easier. the dressed birds were chilled in a two stage ice bath with thorough final cleaning between baths then vacuum sealed using a food saver and frozen, all kitchen surfaces were then cleaned with a chlorine solution, I presume food born illness risk is no less, if not more, than a store bought chicken, so I take precautions.

    it's worth noting that I harvested the organ meats, giving me a good chance to inspecting heart, Liver and gizzard. all Livers and gizzards looked alike. it's worthy of note that the birds retain the grit from feeding for weeks on end, as I switched grit type mid grow out and the original grit, which was a different color was still in the gizzards (not sure if that's useful to anyone, but I've always wondered how much grit they retain and ultimately how often I need to continue to provide it as they grow). two of the hearts had noticeable fluid in what was surely the pericardium, the thin sack surrounding the heart. I would presume that the high protein I was feeding (23%) lead to pericarditis, and may be one of the reasons these birds are prone to heart attacks. I arm pleased with the rate of growth but may cut back a bit on the protein count next time to see if that helps keep them in top condition at harvest. I did lose one of the 30 chicks at about 3 weeks to an unknown cause and had one straggler but the rest showed signs of vigorous health, a world apart from the previous strain I grew out. I am very pleased with the COBB 500 line and only wish I could free range, they have much of the foraging abilities of typical chickens. I would often come down in the morning to find that they were digging down and mounding up the bedding in search of left overs from the day before. it's also worthy of note that indeed it appears that raising the food and water higher as they grow, requiring them to stand to eat and drink is well worth it, as is the practice of putting water and food further apart as they grow, to keep them moving. and one more thing, I got to use my meat grinder to process the head/neck and legs and it worked with barely a hesitation, creating an easily compostable mash.
    [​IMG]
     
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2016
    2 people like this.
  7. Lookin4GoodLife

    Lookin4GoodLife Chillin' With My Peeps

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  8. Birdinhand

    Birdinhand Chillin' With My Peeps

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    yeah, we lucked out, it was mid 90's in May and then cooled off in June, which worked quite nicely with the maturation of my birds.
     
  9. Birdinhand

    Birdinhand Chillin' With My Peeps

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    I'm gearing up to harvest the other half of my batch tomorrow, they are at 8.5 weeks now. had one more fatality due to unknown cause, just found it all blue, it was on the smaller side, so that makes 2 fatalities out of the 30 I got a little over two months ago. I'm getting more ice for this harvest to try and get the temp down more before they get in the freezer and I'm getting the ice today and putting it in my freezer ahead of time to drop the temp down to at least O degrees f, you can never trust store bought ice unless you put a thermometer in there and test it... no point in buying ice that's close to melting temp already! I have no idea what the max number of chickens one can safely freeze at once without the mass of the birds extending the freezing time to the point where microbial action rises. I'm sure it has a lot to do with hold cold I get them first. basically i'm hedging my bets a bit more on the safe side and going colder with the ice bags by adding more and by putting the second ice bath inside, next to the food saver where they will get sealed up, reducing the time between coming out of the ice bath and landing in freezer camp. basically, I assume everything is contaminated at every step of the way and treat it with caution all the way to putting in the oven after freezing. I remember a study some years back that showed that organic chickens, even free range, are more likely to cary microbes than the ones shot up with antibiotics. it makes sense if you think about it and is good to keep in mind as it is easy to think that a backyard operation is cleaner and safer when in reality there is no telling and it's impossible to remove all the microbes from outside the body of the chicken and it's challenging not to nick the intestines or get fecal matter from the vent to the inside the cavity as the entrails are removed and that's even with a lot of practice and having the birds off food for 10 hours prior to harvest. It will be interesting to see what the weights come in at, some of the birds are huge, i'm thinking 6-8 lbs dressed, they make a solid thump with their feet as they walk. even so, the COBB 500 still have "get up and go" and occasionally dark across the pen and make a little show of themselves and they still attempt to dust. It will also be interesting to see what the grain total is. I still have about 40 lbs of grain left that will have to come off the total, which surprises me. it seems that they have slowed down in growth from about 6 weeks onward. they are not as frantic to get to the food in the morning and they are more relaxed about eating throughout the day so my presumption is that the conversion rate drops a bit since more energy per lb of bird gets chewed by their metabolism vs turned into meat. Still, growing the birds out more before harvesting them is likely best for me in the long run since they will provide that much more food for us, allowing us to extend the time between batches.
     
  10. Birdinhand

    Birdinhand Chillin' With My Peeps

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    Fortunately I had a friend who was eager to help. we stared early, got the scalder set up, the kill cones hung, the drip buckets laid out, a bucket for the heads/necks/feet (to be ground and composted) and a separate one for the viscera (for the compost) and separate containers for the organ meats (livers for our food, gizzards and hearts for the dog). the hand held drill bit style plucker sure beats plucking by hand but I do long for a drum style plucker and I'm working with the local coop to see if folks want to go in on one... the day would have gone easier had we had the whizbang plucker built!

    here are some numbers:

    my average weight with the first batch which was harvested at 6 weeks was 4 lbs dressed. the second batch at 8.5 wks averaged was 6.14 lbs dress. I went through 338 lbs of feed total for both batches at $.75/lb or $253.5. my food to meat conversion rate was 2.5 lbs of grain per 1 lb of meat, which was so impressive I had to redo the math to make sure it was correct. I ran a 250W heat lamp 24/7 for about 37 days which I figured cost me about $21 and I went through about $45 in pine shavings. on top of that I paid about $45 for the chicks delivered. this brings my total out of pocket cost to $364.50. my total dressed weight for the two batches was 142 lbs. my cost per lb was $2.56. My goal was to beat the cost I was paying for organic chicken at the store, which is $3.30/lb (including tax) so I met my goal. I am not counting any value for my time, which I am throwing in as a hobby and a good experience for my kids as they grow up. there is great pride to be had in growing our own food, in particular, knowing that it was raised and dispatched in a humane manner. Also, there are a variety of side benefits that I have not put a value on, like the organ meats, food for the dog or the value of all the compostables. Rodale's classic composting guide lists the nitrogen values for even things like feathers and the high iron content of the blood. I figure I have a couple of cubic yards of compost coming along, some of the best compost one can create, which will be put to good use in our extensive gardens. all in all, I feel that this has been a worthwhile venture. we have filled our freezer with enough food to cover this family of four's chicken consumption through to about February of next year! Here is a shot of one of our 7 lb birds about to go into the fridge for a 72 hour herbed brine, and once it's served I'll post the finished product. It's kind of mind boggling to me that this bird grew from a one day old hatchling that came in the mail to this formidable dinner entree in just 65 days!
    [​IMG]
     
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2016
    2 people like this.

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