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Chicken update

July 15, 2010

I realized I never posted a follow-up to about our Cornish Cross harvest.  You Cornish dislikers will laugh – I was not happy with their growth.  I know, to be PC I am supposed to say with disgust that they are gross, genetically modified, Chickzillas, (insert eye-rolling here from me when I hear these complaints) but I actually like growing this chicken for our meat needs.  And my disappointment stems from them NOT growing large enough in 8 weeks.  My average weight for my 73 birds was 4 pounds 1 ounce.  I had a couple that were 5 pounders and most were under 4 pounds.   I had plans to sell 20 or so to offset my costs, but my 73 birds fit in the freezer where 48 were stuffed in last year.  Some are game hen size, and I will have to use 2 for my weekly chicken.

The chickens enjoyed good health, I killed a chick right off the bat that was deformed, and one died at 3 weeks.  The rest just plugged away, doing what chickens do.  No real surprises there, we don’t usually lose many meat chickens.  Our weather was horrible, so we brought grass to them, instead of making them suffer in the rain.

We finally got them out on pasture and they were very good grazers.  And they blew through the food.  And the food is where I had my problems.

I tried to do the right thing and buy from a “local” guy, I had purchased feed from him before and he made it to our specifications.  But the logistics of getting his feed delivered to Portland and then for us to pick-up was a nightmare so we skipped it last year.  We decided to try his feed again, and specifically asked for broiler feed.  He assured us that he had only made a few changes, but they were for the best.  His feed was non-GMO and he was using the Fertrell minerals we requested.  Where I made my mistake was assuming that he actually knew or remembered how to make the chicken feed.  Most of the grains were not ground they were just mixed in whole.  Fine for 12 weeks old or mature birds, but definitely not chick starter.  My pullets are eating it well now at 11 weeks.  My calls and questions about the grain size, were answered with excuses.  He claimed that he didn’t know I was raising baby chicks – which made no sense to me, all broilers even the slower growing breeds are still quite young when butchered… .  I dealt with the shortfall of nutrient availability by adding boiled eggs, and I gave the larger grains and seeds to my laying hens and pigs.  But those steps shouldn’t have been necessary.  Long story short, I have to chock this up to a lesson learned.  It wasn’t a disaster, the chicks were healthy, just small.  There were no harmful additives in the feed, and if I don’t like the price and quality I need to shop elsewhere, or if I continue to use this business as a feed source I need to be less assuming when I bite for a ton of feed.

When I moved the chickens outside, I cleaned out 14 wheel barrows of deep bedding to get down to the soil.  My plan was to plant my heat loving peppers in this brooder/greenhouse and utilize the space for the second time this year.  Even though I have removed the bedding, the soil is rich in nutrients and perfect for solanums.

Greenhouse growing space is expensive square footage compared to an outside garden, that’s why we don’t build raised beds in our greenhouses, we can use this space in a multitude of ways, making a greenhouse a more economical expenditure.  This building is 20′ x 20′ with 15′ x 20′ available for brooding chicks or growing plants.  With the rich soil left by the chicks, I can plant intensively in this space.  My rows are about 18″ with plants at about 12″ spacing in the row.

Summer greenhouse growing for us is a plus since we have cool nights all summer, (it has been hovering around 45°F most nights.)   I’m posting this in a chicken post because of the fertility provided by the chickens, and to also show what happens when whole grains aren’t utilized by poultry.

To prepare the space for planting, I soaked the soil to pre-sprout any weed seeds, and I had seen quite a bit of the whole grains from the chicken feed so I expected some to sprout…I tilled in the initial sprouting weeds and planted (see first pepper photo.)  This photo was 2 weeks later!  Expensive cover crop seed is all I can say.  If you look closely you can see my peppers in that oat and pea forest.

Here is it weeded.  On the bright side the peppers are doing great, setting fruit, and the grains and legumes  are easy to weed.  Sigh.

And as I said earlier the chicken raising this year wasn’t a total bust, my freezer is full, and the golden schmaltz on the broth attests to their grazing abilities.

And what pastured poultry using the Polyface style pens is known for is applying manure in a timed application so you can build soil and grow great grass.   Due to monsoon type weather this spring my chickens weren’t in the pasture pen very long, only about two and half weeks.  I moved them across the pasture until I reached the garden, and then turned and moved back to where I started.  The grass on the right is where I started the pen,  and the on left is where they stopped.  It’s amazing how thick they put on the well, ahem, fertilizer and how well the soil and grass responds during the growing season.   This is why I don’t like free-range, I need to utilize that manure to it’s fullest potential – I gained a huge amount of chicken manure bedding for my compost pile, the soil in the greenhouse has plenty of residual to grow a bang-up crop of peppers, and the chickens fertilized a small section of ground for me in their last weeks here.  Lovely.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2010 7:34 am

    If it makes you feel any better, my PC meat birds are growing very slowly. I had planned to butcher some at 10 weeks and some at 14 weeks, but may just wait ’til they’re all 14 weeks. I blame being ill-prepared for the extensive cold and damp. I am looking at your greenhouse set up and wondering how I might do something similar next year.

    On a brighter note, our ducklings and goslings thrived this spring. I got them as an experiment this year and wasn’t sure if I would like raising them. The mess factor is definitely high, but manageable. They make up for the messiness with abundant personality.

    • July 15, 2010 7:41 am

      Chris, yeah thanks for that – I would have waited too if I didn’t have an appointment at my friend’s to butcher with a group. His equipment is so nice. Just goes to show how us Type A personalities get a little tense when things don’t go our way.

      • July 15, 2010 6:16 pm

        Oh, and another thing I wanted to mention is that a couple other farmers I’ve talked to have mentioned that their birds are growing more slowly than expected, both Cornish and Le Poulets. This spring was rough!

  2. Chris permalink
    July 15, 2010 8:01 am

    Type A is right..ha ha…and along with SUCH energy..or does that go along with type A? You must work from dawn till dusk and then some…you are amazing! And then you find the time to photograph and record it all in such a wonderful blog! 🙂
    Speaking of your little birds…how do you prepare yours for the table? Mine tend to always be a bit dry..I’m probably overcooking them. Do you have a secret recipe for us?

  3. July 15, 2010 8:46 am

    What a creative way to use and reuse space. I am sure my garden would love some chicken manure. It sure needs a boost this season. I put in several commercial bags of steer and peat last spring, but plant growth has been sporadic. But maybe the weird weather has had something to do with it as well. – Margy

  4. susan permalink
    July 15, 2010 8:50 am

    Ditto on the PC meat birds. I got an equal number of “slow red chicks” and “slow white chicks” from our local feed store. While the slow reds have grown fairly well at 8 wks, I swear the slow whites are leghorns! They are half the size. I will have to keep/feed them for weeks more. Never again – it makes more sense to grow the Cornish X in half the time, while treating and feeding them well. To me, it’s more important how well you treat the animals that furnish your food, than what breed they are. I have ordered some Cornish Xs to try and boost my winter larder. I had the same problem with using a local feed grower. It’s great for my egg layers, but not so much for the meat birds. Every year I learn something new!

  5. July 15, 2010 8:54 am

    It sounds like most of us in the Puget Sound area are having a rough and weird growing season this year. My chicks are 8 weeks old now and they not where they should be growth-wise either.

    All I can hope for is that since everything got a late, wet start, that we’ll be getting a monster growth spurt shortly.

    I learn SO MUCH from each of your posts. Thank you for sharing your experiences with newbies like me! 🙂

  6. July 15, 2010 10:07 am

    Great update! I am interested in the way you utilize your greenhouse. When we have more space I think I’d like to try that, too. Especially seeing what the weather has done to solanums here this year…just pathetic.

  7. July 15, 2010 11:49 am

    We harvested our Freedom Rangers somewhere around 90 days. I couldn’t live another week with them. They were the meanest, nastiest animals I’ve ever known. Not that I’ve really known very many chickens…but I’m just saying…they were NOT nice! I hated every day of this job and am glad it’s over. They averaged 3 lbs. We only had 2 that were close to 5 lb at 4.79 lb. and 4.89 lb. They all survived and had great health, except for the poor guy that got stepped on my the cow…not once, not twice but three times! Stupid chicken!

    Anyway…I digress. I would never raise Freedom Rangers again. They were so demanding even though they free ranged (roamed over 3 acres and non killed by predators) and did a GREAT job of reducing our fly population. Every single cow pie was scratched through. They ate every single nanny berry right as they dropped (I’m really not kidding….I told them “these are NOT fudge drops!”). BUT they attacked me in the end. Jumping on my back for food. Jumping on the back of my goats, eating the goat grain along side them, waiting for anyone to drop a morsel. The Rhode Island Reds that I allowed to stay in with them are now nasty! The hoop coop has a new name….SOUP COOP!!!!

    I really do digress. If my calculations are correct…I’m not a Type A….$7.00 a chicken is what we put out. Not bad for the kind of perfect meat it is….and it IS so delish. So much more flavor than the CornishX we’ve had. The dark meat is wonderful with no layers of fat like I’ve had on CornishX. They have beautiful yellow flesh and the breast is juicy. And I’ve only cooked them on the grill so far. But no more. WE had to process them the old fashioned way due to some unexpected circumstances…and it took us 8 hrs to do 49 birds. The labor was free.

    Honey says we’ll pay $3.79 a bird from now on!!! He wasn’t suppose to have to do anything with these chickens…but he was my evening chicken wrangler and he plucked feathers for 8 hrs. What a man I’ve got!!!

    Your Cornish X’s look very very tempting to me!!! But Honey said “NO MORE”!!!

    • Dawn permalink
      July 15, 2010 2:52 pm

      We’re just north of you, Victoria on Vancouver Island – and we shared your wet spring/early summer…we sent our 50 Cornish X to the processor at the end of June, they were at 7 weeks, and averaged around 4 1/2 lb, smaller than we expected (last year at 8 wks they averaged 6 lb) We buy bagged feed from a major Canadian supplier, same as we always do..our big difference was having to keep the birds inside for so long – like you, we didn’t want to put them in the field shelters when it was raining all the time, so they only got 2 weeks on pasture. I do all the eye rolling, these birds are so bizarre stuff every year too, but we’re not likely to change breeds in the short term – 8 weeks to processing vs 12 wks or longer – in BC, if we want to sell the meat, we HAVE to have the birds processed in an inspected facility (at $3.95 CAD/bird), so there’s already a big piece of profit gone – if we had to buy feed for twice the time,to grow a classic breed of some sort, we’d have no profit at all. So despite potential issues with the Cornish, that’s what we’re using in the forseeable future – and like you, we’ve had very little trouble with legs/hearts etc in the last few years, probably due to TLC which can be lavished because we’re doing 50 birds at a time, not 1000’s.

  8. July 16, 2010 2:32 am

    Two growers that I know of (myself and Paul Johnson at both had slower than expected growth of our chickens. I think that we’ve all had the universal weather experience this year — from portland to lower bc.

    I raise heritage and some cornish, as does paul. We use different feed regimens. For both of us to get poor results wouldn’t be a feed issue.

    • July 16, 2010 4:51 am

      Bruce, I would think that too , if I didn’t butcher chickens with 4 other families (in SW Washington) who used the old feed recipe which had a higher protein and didn’t rely on field peas, etc and so many other alternative grains. Our chickens all came from the same hatchery the same week, 2 pastured, 1 day-ranged, and one raised their birds inside like I did until week 5. The pastured and day-ranged birds averaged 5.5 #’s, the birds kept inside until late in their life, average 6.5 with some 8# roasters. All were healthy, no leg problems, no ascites or heart problems and the livers all looked great.

      I think it is too easy to blame the weather. How many springs have you, other commenters and Pastured Sensations been raising chickens? We have suffered through many a wet spring…for us the food was the only difference in the husbandry/conditions.

  9. July 16, 2010 5:38 am

    I seriously LOVE coming here and reading your posts and then the comments left by readers. I learn so much, and I come away with a better understanding of how grasses and pastures should look; how life is on a working farm; how ownership of a milking cow can be heartbreaking but rewarding; about growing winter gardens and storing root crops in the ground and so much more!! Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us, for the great photos and your wonderful memories.

    I’ve been wanting to go to the local mill and make a custom chicken feed instead of buying bagged commercial feed. Do you have a recipe you use for yours??

    • July 16, 2010 7:19 am

      Hi Jenny! thank you 🙂 This recipe from Fertrell is close to what we like to use, however it does contain corn and soy, which some people absolutely freak out over, but this feed gives consistent results. Check Karl and Tabitha’s site too – if I remember Karl broke theirs down into smaller increments in a post.

  10. Nowhere, Kansas permalink
    July 16, 2010 6:13 am

    We got our Cornish-Cross chicks early this year so we could butcher before the extreme heat, fed them Flock Raiser and butchered at 7, 8 and 9 weeks. They averaged just over 6 lbs, with some going over 7 lbs! So our freezer is packed full and the meat is really good, altho we do like to brine before grilling them. But we do see the Chickzilla aspect as being not completely natural, and are going to try Jersey Giants next year.

  11. July 16, 2010 1:05 pm

    My fourth year with cornish, 6th year with heritage. I can’t speak for paul. But I do note that 10 of the chickens that I retained inside and raised as part of my chicken experiment did grow to normal weights and times. The outside chickens were 2/3rds of their weight at the same time.

    This year I was particularly focused on weight; weighed the chickens idividually every week and recorded it, and the bigger and smaller chickens were randomly selected from the same box from a single hatchery and everyone was fed the same feed.

    I can’t speak to your feed issue, but I do know that weather played a part in my results this year for chickens.

    I’d expect that people who raise chickens for a living (and factory farms do…) would have the science down as far as what a chicken needs for maximum weight gain on minimum feed. No surprise that commercial feed does very well in a comparison to any other food to put weight on a chicken. that’s what they’re designed for.

    My cornish crop is similar to yours; i raise them for personal consumption mostly, because our customers really won’t buy white birds from me. They’ll pay extra for a red, black or spotted bird.

    • July 16, 2010 1:16 pm

      Bruce, I missed your follow-up post on your chickens. I would blame the weather if I hadn’t kept mine in until we hit a good stretch of weather. My tomatoes that I planted out look like…well, you know. The ones inside look great.

      I’m not totally writing this feed guy off, either, if he gets a grinder and at least cracks those peas, I think his food will do the trick. Or I can quit being so lazy and make my own – I know how to do it, but it is nice to have all bagged and ready to go.

  12. July 16, 2010 4:31 pm

    I have done a lot of studying when it comes to poultry nutrition, and have consulted with some of the best animal nutritionists in the north west(and the world for that mater). I did all of this work so I would not have to rely on someone else to make the feed for me and to make the kind of feed I wanted more affordable. From what you have said in this thread, I think the major problem is particle size of the feed. If the peas were not ground the young birds could not digest enough of the protein in them to sustain the growth rate you are used to. Similarly, the energy would be low if the other grains were feed whole instead of ground.

    The weather this spring was certainly the major factor at my farm in terms of the slow growth, but it also provided me an opportunity to look even closer at the rations we make for our flock and make some minor changes. We do not use the fertrell nutribalancer but instead are having feed samples sent to a forage lab so we can custom make a premix that fits with the grains we use more precisely. I also am convinced that feed less than a month old(and usually less than a week) is both more nutritious and more palatable for the birds.

    • July 16, 2010 7:30 pm

      Paul, I couldn’t agree more, (see my comment on Bruce’s comment) thanks for weighing in. When we sold pastured poultry we sourced, ground and mixed our own feed weekly for 5 years. Our business grew, and we had to make the decision to have our feed made every week, and grow our business, or continue making our feed and stay at the page we were on. We opted for finding a mill to grind and mix our feed for us and take on more egg and meat customers. It was fine for many years, until the mill owners decided to retire and sell their feed business – the new owner had no intentions of continuing with that part of the business. About that time we also were also tiring of the endless talk from our customers of sustainable meat chickens and eggs delivered weekly year-round, it seemed too hypocritical for us to continue – chickens on a livable wage scale in the Pacific Northwest are not sustainable whether it is eggs or broilers. That is why there aren’t really that many commercial chicken growers here compared to those clustered in the grain belt. But to make a long story short (oops too late) we were tired period. Tired of the dairy like aspect of gathering eggs and packing eggs every day, hauling and storing feed every week, delivering those products to town every week. I guess we just chickened out – literally, so now we just raise a few for our table and that is it. I enjoy them while they are here and I really enjoy them in the freezer. Next year is another year, I may grind and mix my own food like I use to since we have the equipment. It truly for us is just finding the time.

      Best of luck to you in your new feed business – there needs to be more small producers like your family around to provide quality feeds with attention to detail. I am sure you have a waiting list for your products 🙂

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