I wouldn’t deliberately choose to process chickens in a cyclone. It’s just that when you raise meat chickens, you’re working on a timeline. There’s a lot to line up: you have to consider the day the chickens were hatched, and calculate 7-8 weeks to determine the butchering window. And when you’re a part-time farmer, weekends are when you get stuff done, so that further restricts your timeline.
If you’re lucky enough to have access to a poultry processing equipment co-op (we do), then you also have to check the rental schedule to make sure the equipment will be available on weekend 7 or 8 from the chicks’ hatch date. You have to order bulk feed in advance based on their estimated lifespan and anticipated consumption. It’s a lot to figure out before you even place an order for a batch of baby chicks.
But after all of your careful planning and scheduling, there’s no possible way you can know that the “storm of the century” will be predicted to landfall the same weekend you decided to order chickens 7 weeks ago. (One report went so far as to compare the force of the impending storm to a Category 3 hurricane, with anticipated gusts exceeding 100 mph.)
I’m learning a lot about “best laid plans” as a farmer.
Due to our work and travel schedule, we were in a bit of a bind, and decided to carry on with plans despite the dire forecast.
In an effort to be smart and prepared, we picked up the processing equipment and set everything up Friday night, in hopes of being indoors for the worst of the storm on Saturday. We bought a generator so that we could still power the plucker and scalder if the power was out. We moved the chickens out of the field and into the barn and secured all of the doors. We prayed.
Saturday came–the forecasted stormageddon day–and then it went. But the storm never really showed up. We scratched our heads and shrugged, grateful to still have a roof on the barn.
Three capable volunteers came to the farm on Sunday and helped us process the 26 birds. The Featherman plucker that we rented had a defect and tore apart several of our birds, which were then unsellable. We ended up plucking over 20 birds by hand. It was fine.
There are dozens of YouTube videos showing you how to kill and eviscerate a chicken, so I won’t go over the details here. But there are considerably fewer resources out there that break down the economics of a meat bird venture. I want to provide a breakdown of our expenses, both for anyone considering raising meat chickens, and also for those who think organic chicken is too expensive. This stuff is good to know.
Fall 2016 chicken expenses in the Pacific Northwest:
|Starter feed||1 40 lb bag||$33.90||$33.90|
|Grower feed||2 40 lb bags||$29.99||$59.98|
|Broiler feed||6 40 lb bags||$32.99||$197.94|
|Processing equipment rental||2 days||$27.13||$27.13|
*This cost includes shipping from Murray McMurray Hatchery.
Of the 30 birds we ordered, 26 survived to processing day (better than average mortality rate for the Cornish cross breed), bringing the average cost per bird to $16.14. After 7 weeks, they averaged 4.1 lb per bird dressed, averaging out to a cost of $4/lb. Of course this doesn’t include the amortized expenses like the chicken tractor, waterers, and feeders, or Farmer Josh and Farmer Gwen’s time watering, feeding, and moving the birds daily (~6 hrs/week), not to mention butchering. So there you go.
We charged $5/lb dressed, which equals a pretty small profit margin if you assume that all 26 birds were sold, which they weren’t. If you’re super into this topic and want more insight into the real costs of raising meat chickens, read the Chicken Thistle Farm post on this topic. Those guys are amazing, and we hope to one day have our shit as together as they do.
I have reflected a lot on this recent endeavor, and I have some valuable takeaways for next time.
- We have to reduce expenses. Clearly the most expensive part of this endeavor was the organic locally milled feed. Organic feed is expensive around here, there’s no way around it, but we could realize some savings in the future by buying in bulk. Buying by the barrel instead of by the bag would have saved us about $60. We didn’t know where to find organic feed in bulk when we started the chickens, but now we do and will buy by the barrel in the future. If you can buy by the ton, the savings is even better.
- Our chickens had a poor feed conversion ratio. There are lots of charts out there telling you how many pounds of food you should expect a Cornish cross broiler chicken to consume in 7 weeks; most estimate 11-12 lbs per bird for birds raised in confinement. Our consumed a whopping 13.8 lbs, and they weren’t all that big. Why? They were on pasture and had bugs and grass to eat, so we thought they would eat less than a confined bird because of all of that wholesome natural goodness, but this did not turn out to be true. Something we need to consider for the future.
- I need to line up customers before even ordering chicks. Most of our acquaintances (claim to) eat on the organic and free-range end of the spectrum, so I assumed that I’d have no trouble selling these chickens when the time came. We priced our chickens a little lower than a comparable product from our local organic food store. But I had trouble selling these chickens. I don’t know if it was the sticker shock of an organic pasture-raised bird (~$20), or if people prefer their chicken already boned and neatly divided into thighs and breasts (maybe a topic for another time), or if I overestimated my community’s culinary preference for chicken. I do understand that it’s hard to reconcile your ideal preference for pastured organic chicken when you can get a roasted chicken at Fred Meyer for $5.99. I will have to give more thought to advertising and finding customers if we decide to raise chickens again next year.
And finally, a few nitty gritty tips for people considering processing a big batch of birds:
- Screw a nail onto the edge of your worktable to hang your hose nozzle on. You will be constantly reaching for the hose while eviscerating, and you don’t want to be digging around on the ground for it.
- Nylon mesh dish scrubbies (3 for $1 at the Dollar Store) make quick work of cleaning up the yellow crumbly outer layer of chicken skin.
- Have several clean, sanitized buckets nearby full of cold water. There are many stages of chicken processing where it’s useful to dunk the bird for another rinse or a quick chill.
- Have one small bucket of bleach water nearby, clearly labeled so it doesn’t get mixed up. This is useful for sterilizing any cutting surface that gets contaminated by chicken poo, which is inevitable.
- Shop towels are useful for blotting dry cleaned birds, which get very waterlogged after all of the various chillings. Shop towels are more durable and absorbent than paper towels.
- Cheerful and capable volunteers are gold. Processing meat birds is not difficult and anyone who can responsibly handle a knife can do it. That said, people who are inattentive or have poor coordination should probably not do the eviscerating, so assign tasks to your volunteers thoughtfully 🙂 We totally scored in this department.
There it is! Maybe not the most entertaining post, but I hope this information is useful. When you are considering buying meat or produce from a local farmer, and you’re wondering if it’s worth the price tag, consider the tremendous logistical challenges your farmer has worked out on your behalf, the math that’s done in the background, the unforeseen cyclones they had to work through, and the real expenses of raising organic and natural food.