Unhappy with the way most chicken was raised, I started growing out our own meat birds for the freezer. Our birds have more than a square foot of living space (organic regulations, which are more generous than standard, are 1-5#/sq.ft. indoors and 2-5#/sq.ft. outdoors). Once feathered and out from under heat lamps, our birds are in open-bottomed pens that are moved at least once a day to produce a clean, well exercised bird; a lightly fertilized field without manure run off concerns; and delicious meat.
Every year I tweak our system. A few years ago I switched to a Freedom Ranger hybrid, which extended our grow out period by 2 weeks. The following year I ordered all males so the birds finished the same week. The longer grow out forced me to get our chicks even earlier so they can finish on the lush May/June pasture. After reading a study linking feed freshness and consumption, I started picking up my feed weekly instead of every other week. Our local , organic feed mills are small so I know the feed is fresh.
This year I added a bowl of starter sized Gran-i-Grit. I feed GG to our egg birds to make sure their crops have a good supply of grit for grinding grain, so it made sense that the meat birds chicks would benefit too.
Starting the chicks in the barn is another change this year. Inclement weather and strong predation put my birds at risk last spring. The sheep are In the field already, so I have room to let the chicks feather out in the barn. Because they do not have greens underfoot, I have been bringing them weeded greens from the garden. Last year I moved our donkey into the field with the chicken pens to help guard against predators. I may encircle the pens with electrified net fencing to deter predators too.
So far our biggest change this year, brooding the chicks in the barn, is working well. Last night’s torrential rain and strong winds didn’t harm the chicks and neither this past week’s higher temperatures.
I’ll keep you updated as the season progresses.