From Pip to Processor

How and Why My Family Raises Pastured Poultry

Almost ten years ago my husband and I, along with our two children ages 1 and 3, purchased 11 acres in central Maine with the intention of escaping in-town living and growing more of our own food. I was a stay-at-home mother blessed with the occasional but fulfilling catering stints to break the monotony of domesticity. Having finished up a couple of organic farm apprenticeships, I was gung-ho to try my hand at farm living. Our place was actually right in the middle of our quiet town, but our five acre pasture, old apple and pear orchards, and post-and-beam barn and outbuildings made it seem like we were legitimately rural.

To supplement my husband’s income we sold vegetables from our large garden at the end of our driveway and we raised pastured chickens on a section of pasture that was hidden from the road since, well, let’s just say our zoning didn’t exactly encourage livestock. While we kept a small laying flock, we raised our chickens for meat primarily, and the Cornish X breed we chose was the very same bird one might find among a flock of thousands on the floor of a factory farm in the Midwest. The difference was we were raising them in chicken tractors, or mobile floor-less pens that enabled us to keep them protected from predators while allowing them to graze on fresh grass every morning when we moved them. They could chase bugs around in the fresh air, lay out and suntan (which is a sight to see), and just generally be chickens, which frankly, we thought they were entitled to, being chickens and all.

Mickey the barn cat keeps an eye on the flock for us.

With our inaugural batch of fifty chickens, we learned that simple things like the height of the feeders and the protein content of the feed dramatically affected not only their growth but their ability to stay mobile, healthy, and happy. As Cornish X are selectively bred for rapid muscle production, their joints and cardiovascular health are incredibly fragile, so we had to feed them tons of high protein feed…these weren’t your grandmother’s patchwork flock of hens in the dooryard. Their metabolism is so high that we even had to withhold feed during the hottest part of the day because the increased body temperature caused by digestion might put them at risk for heat stroke.

We believed that keeping these chickens comfortable was as important as making sure they had water and food; after all, if we were only looking to secure meat to barbecue, we could buy it from the store. We wanted something we knew came from an animal whose incredibly short life–going from hatchling to freezer in just 6-7 weeks!–was a pleasant one. It just made sense that calm and comfortable birds were more likely to graze on fresh greens, stay hydrated and well fed, metabolize their feed and gain weight better, and suffer fewer ill effects from stress. Our ten years of experience has borne out the assumptions we made early on: that happy chickens would grow faster and succumb to fewer diseases and health problems, yielding a larger quantity of healthier food for our family and customers.

But every chicken who grows up happy on pasture eventually finds itself loaded into a crate and bound for the “big chicken coop in the sky” for, without a trip to the processor, we don’t get a chicken dinner. Our respect for our birds continues all the way through to the end of their line, as the processors we chose utilize humane kill methods that we know is the best we can do by them. Our small children have always accompanied us to the slaughterhouse, as we felt it was necessary for them to be aware of the process of food production from start to finish, including the uncomfortable parts. We didn’t want them to develop the common and frustrating inability to reconcile the vision of a fluffy feathered chicken walking around in a barnyard with the naked lifeless chicken wrapped in plastic at the grocery store. Our kids know that when it comes to meat, something had to die in order for our bodies to be nourished by it. The way we can best mitigate our feelings on the matter is to ensure that we did the best we could by that animal from the moment it set foot on our farm until the last breath it took. This understanding has resulted in a deeper appreciation for the food we all eat.

These days, my twelve year-old has assumed the role of head chicken farmer here at Eatswell Farm, and just yesterday we picked up fifty beautiful plump chickens from the processor. My son isn’t the biggest fan of handling live birds, so we’re around to help him move them to pasture and load them up for processing, but otherwise he’s a very mindful farmer, and his impossibly low mortality rate and incredibly high growth rates are a testament to his innate understanding of broiler husbandry. In fact, I’m beginning to think he’s onto something with his reluctance to touch or move the chickens, because his general m.o. is hands-off. He’s not trying to scratch their chests (which they love) or pick them up to show his buddies. He just lets them be in their own chicken world, and I think the reduced stress on the birds improves his outcomes.

Patrick shows off the fruits of his labor. His pastured chickens weighed an average of 7.5 lbs. at 8 weeks of age, a testament to his husbandry skills.

My son has his great-grandfather’s entrepreneurial spirit, crunching numbers and spreadsheets and keeping himself motivated with what he might be able to buy with the money he makes after he nets out his expenses and sets aside seed capital for the next batch. He tells me the iPad he wants to buy will help him better manage his business, but I know the hands-off strategy he employs with his own chickens probably won’t extend to the Angry Birds he’ll no doubt be entertaining himself with this winter. But it’s no matter: I feel fortunate that our family found a way to produce a delicious and wholesome food using methods we feel proud of. I’m glad our kids made the connection between the food we eat and the pride we feel in its production at an early age.

For more information about how you can raise your own pastured poultry, visit the American Pastured Poultry Producer’s Association website or read what we refer here to as “The Chicken Bible,” pastured poultry pioneer Joel Salatin’s book “Pastured Poultry Profits.” Give it a try!