Our plan all along had been to rebuild the sheep flock based on wool. Well, wool and mothering capabilities. We had already arranged to buy some Romney lambs, when a local sheep farmer called us and said he was selling some North Country Border Cheviots. We went to look at them, and went back again on shearing day. They were skittish, but they looked healthy and strong. We brought them home in the van, along with Beatrice and Hudson (a pair of Cochin chickens the farmer threw in). There were 3 pregnant ewes and 1 ram. We named the ram Buckwheat, and the Ewes were Apricot, Clover and Daphne.
First comes the egg, then comes the chicken. Here is the thing for raising chickens in general, and specifically for raising meat birds in any quantity: you need chicks. To get chicks you need eggs hatched. So, you can either get eggs and hatch them yourself (in an incubator or with broody hens) or you can take the easier route and just order chicks.
Chicks are generally ordered from a hatchery. If you order them from your local feed store they are more than likely getting them from a hatchery. Hatcheries, unless they are specialized, carry only a couple of varieties of broilers (meat birds). They carry breeds that perform well and convert feed efficiently - which are generally not breeds that are endangered, or heirloom or interesting. It turns out that there are basically 2 options: quick growing and slow growing.
The quick growing birds are what I would consider "commercial" birds. They reach their optimum slaughter weight at 9 weeks. The breed (if you could call it that) has been developed to be incredibly efficient at converting feed into body weight. Apparently, they are content to sit at their feeders all day eating and putting on weight. They grow so fast that they are prone to heart attacks and leg problems. It is recommended that they be slaughtered no later than 9 weeks or they start dying from heart and lung problems.
Then there are the slow-growers. These are also hybrid birds, but ones that grow at a more traditional rate. This breed takes 14 or so weeks to reach market weight.
It is also possible to get more dual-purpose birds to raise as meat birds - these would be breeds that both lay eggs but also put on weight (such as Plymouth Bar Rocks). But efficiency is something that can't be underestimated when you are raising meat birds. You need to balance ideals with economics. If the birds take too long to reach a suitable weight (ie a weight that your customers will want), then you are feeding them to some extent. The cost of feeding them depends on how much of their diet is supplemented by either foraging on pasture or supplied (eg. kitchen scraps). But the cost of feeding has to be taken into consideration when you calculate the price per pound that you'll sell the meat for. So, while the more traditional dual-purpose breeds seemed less engineered, I ended up going with the slow-growth broilers. Michele, who has more experience than me, was very convincing about the feed expense.
We ended up ordering 60 slow-growth broilers. 20 for each family, and then 20 for our egg customers. They are slated to arrive May 7.
This is as close to an idyllic country photo as I could get. Chickens and dog. I should start by saying that I have loved raising chickens, even though I am not a fan of eating eggs. But during the winter I started thinking about raising meat birds for our families. We have been raising the layers in the best way that I know - free ranging, healthy food to supplement what they get on their own, protection from the local predators, exciting treats daily. Our layers act like they have a great life - scratching in the gardens, dust bathing in the driveway, hunting for bugs. We sell the eggs, and people swear that our hens lay awesome eggs. So it occurred to me that I could give meat birds the same chance at a good life. If the people I care about are going to eat chicken, then they should eat chicken that had had the opportunity to live well. Which means NOT living in a cage, indoors, crammed together. Which means getting to be outside and eating bugs and scratching. I should mention that I am a vegetarian. So I had to really think about whether I had the inner strength to raise birds that would eventually be slaughtered. It surprised me to discover that I was actually OK with it. People are going to eat meat no matter what. And they are going to buy it. Better that they have access to chickens that have been raised in a healthy, conscious way as opposed to only meat raised in an industrial setting. Better that they understand where their meat comes from. And so the vegetarian becomes a small-time meat farmer.
A sheep farmer meets an urban gardener. Fleece ensues.
The Reading List
*Animal, Vegetable, Miracle