HOW WE RAISE AND CARE FOR OUR MEAT CHICKENS (BROILERS)
We are planning on raising 5 batches of broilers in 2015, each batch is approximately 500 chickens depending on customer order quantity. For meat birds we have will exclusively be raising Red Rangers, a modern red hybrid breed descended from the French "Label Rouge" chickens.
We have chosen to raise this type of meat chicken as they are very hardy, excellent foragers, and grow more slowly than the traditional white cornish cross bird you find in the supermarkets. Because they grow more slowly they will have more flavor, we typically take them in for processing at 10 - 11 weeks, vs 6-7 weeks for the supermarket chickens. They have a smaller breast than the cornish cross and more dark meat.
First Few Weeks
The life span of a modern broiler is short, only 10-11 weeks in a pasture setting for the Red Rangers and just about six weeks in an industrial confinement cornish cross. In our pasture setting, we order the chicks from Freedom Ranger hatchery in Pennsylvania, and then we pickup the day-old chicks at the post office and then place them in the brooder greenhouses, where the first week we keep the temperature at 90 degrees. After about a week we open up the draft guard so the chicks can have the run of the entire greenhouse. Depending on the weather, we will move the chicks to the pastures when they are 3-4 weeks old.
Growing on Pasture
Once moved to pasture, the chickens will live outdoors for the remainder of their lives. They will have around-the-clock access to fresh growing green grass, clovers, alfalfa, weeds, and bugs to eat at all times. To ensure they are safe while on pasture, we confine the broilers chicks inside a floorless 10'x20' shelter for the first few weeks on pasture, moving the shelter daily to fresh grass. Once they are about 6 weeks old we will let them free range outside the shelter in a 1-2 acre paddock surrounded by several sections of electrified poultry netting. We move the entire enclosed paddock every 3-4 days, and then each morning we move their shelter houses and feeders to a new section of the paddock with fresh grass. The netting keeps the coyotes and foxes out, but we've had a problem with hawks this year so when the chicks are very young we often keep them inside the range shelter.
We feed a locally grown, certified-organic, soy-free, non-GMO feed mix provided by Cashton Farm Supply in Cashton, Wisconsin, which buys its organic grains and feedstocks from local Illinois and Wisconsiun farmers. We feed the chickens free choice out of range feeders that are filled up two times per day. Their organic feed mixture also includes Fertrell Nutribalancer, and organic mineral/probiotic supplement that keeps them healthy, along with granite grit which helps them digest the forage the collect from the pastures. We estimate 20% - 30% of their total diet consists of pasture forage - bluegrass, timothy grass, fescue, white clover, alfalfa, plus insects and seeds.
The chickens have a 1-' x 20'′ tarp-covered, floorless shelter covered with a white greenhouse tarp. shelter is framed with metal rods, close the the ground to keep predators out. We move the shelters every day and the fencing every week so the chickens have fresh pasture to forage and lounge on. They come and go as they please in their pastured area and shelter. We have geese sharing their space to keep the hawks and owls out of their yard.
Environment and Handling
Between the brooder and their daily life on pasture, the chickens are free to express all of their natural instincts, including roosting, foraging, and dust bathing, which altogether makes for a low-stress environment. When we walk among them, we do so slowly in an effort not to excite or frighten them as little as possible. When we need to handle any of them, we try to catch them quickly and without too much stress.
In 2015 we will begin processing all of our broiler chickens at Twin Cities Pack in Beloit, Wisconsin. Twin Cities is a small, family-owned processing facility that is USDA inspected. They will process whole chickens as well as cut-up chickens, and provide us with birds back that are vacuum sealed and fresh or frozen, depending on customer preference.