Chickens have been the topic of conversation in our home for the last 6 months. We have now raised 7 different breeds of chickens and tried to evaluate the pros and cons of each breed. There has been a lot of failure and some success.
We have evaluated the different methods of raising chickens. The commercial industry raises their chickens in dark warehouses as most of our customers understand. Joel Salatin of PolyFace Farms is one of the pioneers in pasture based farming in our era. He raises Cornish cross chickens in "Salatin" pens or chicken tractors. These consist of large 8x12 pens with an open floor that allow the chickens access to fresh pasture. The pens are moved each day onto fresh pasture. This system offers many benefits to the chickens when compared to traditional chicken CAFOs. However, there is one drawback which is the chickens are still closely confined. In our experience, this has led to more pecking problems and less exercise for the chickens, which in turn negatively impacts the quality of the meat.
We have been raising our New Hampshire Red chickens in large paddocks enclosed by electrified netting. The chickens are protected from the shock due to the insulating properties of their feathers. However, predators receive a shock that sends them running. To date, we have not lost one chicken to predators. The chickens get to run around, flap their wings, and enjoy roosting on top of their portable shelters. Those who have visited our farm have enjoyed watching the chickens roaming about.
The additional exercise does slow down our growth rates which has resulted in us pushing our delivery dates far longer than we had originally anticipated. The hatcheries told us that our chickens would reach a harvest size in 9-10 weeks. However, we found that it actually takes 11-12 weeks. Now that the days are getting hot, the chickens stay in their shelters until it cools and primarily come out in the mornings and evenings. While we feel they are comfortable, they just aren't eating during the day like they used to. This means that they have slowed down even more. We are now looking at 14-15 weeks to reach a harvestable size. This is basically 6 weeks longer than we calculated when we first set up our schedule and calculated our chicken prices. At 14-15 weeks, we are making very little (if any) profit after we have accounted for all the costs. Pound for pound, chickens are far more labor intensive than pigs or cows. These two elements combined are the reason we are talking chickens lately.
So we have decided to change things up a bit. Next spring we will build an open shelter in the pasture that will allow the chickens access to food and water in the shade. We will also provide them with misters during the warmest part of the summer to help cool the area. In addition to the New Hampshire Reds, we will also start raising Cornish Cross chickens. This is a significant change for us as we have been opposed to the use of this breed as we feel that many of the chickens suffer because of their fast growth rates. However, we found that by making some adjustments to the way we raised them, that we were able to raise happy, healthy chickens that didn't experience the leg problems and heart attacks that we had seen in the past. The result is a beautifully dressed chicken with abundant white breast meat. Because they are raised on pasture, they still produce firmer, leaner, healthier, and more flavorful meat.
We are also excited to announce that all our poultry is now fed a mixture of Utah grown grains. Like our pigs, the chickens are now exclusively on a diet of Utah grown wheat, barley, triticale, corn, alfalfa, and of course, pasture. All of the feed is mixed right here in Vernon using recipes created by me. It is part of our continued commitment to sustaining the local economy, supporting local farmers, and reducing pollution. I also don't like the idea of buying govenment subsidized grain. It also gives us peace of mind knowing exactly what goes into the feed. This really hit home recently after reports of high levels of arsenic was found in some children who eat home grown eggs. The chickens producing the eggs were all being fed feed from a large feed mill here in Utah. I am sure there are investigations under way and it may or may not actually tie back to the feed mill. However, it really brought a feeling of peace when we heard about this and didn't have to panic.
We still have lots of chickens on the way! So if you haven't ordered yet or didn't order enough to get you through the winter, hurry and get your order in! Click here to order from our website! We really work hard to keep our prices affordable. We believe that healthy, humanely raised meats should be the standard and not a luxury. While we know we can "get away" with charging more, we are striving to keep our prices low while still staying profitable/sustainable as a farm.
Thanks for supporting your local farmer! We thank those who have provided us feedback and would love to continue to hear your thoughts and ideas.