I placed our order with the Freedom Ranger Hatchery for 40 red broilers yesterday! Very excited to raise up some more pastured chickens. We skipped it last year due to everyone being so busy, not to mention the ‘pasture’ was basically a mud puddle right up until summer. When I found myself buying pastured chicken from another local farm last fall I really felt the sting of that decision.
This will be our fifth round of chickens! Over the years we have done a little experimentation with different hatcheries, breeds, order sizes, feeding methods, and whether to vaccinate them or not. There’s a lot to tweak! For example, we found that by far the Freedom Rangers have the best survival rates and quality of meat over other broiler breeds and heritage breeds. They’re a hybrid, meant for eating, so they’re not going to reproduce very well or become your favorite pet chicken. There’s something romantic about the idea of raising a real heritage breed on our homestead, but the romance wears off when the birds start attacking and killing each other and take twice as long to grow out! Horrible!
Also, although I’m not against vaccines, we thought we’d try ordering unvaccinated chicks after reading an article about how rare Marek’s disease is and how easy it is to remove it from your flock if it turns up. For those of you who don’t know, Marek’s is a viral neurological disease that causes paralysis and death. It’s ghastly, and it requires you to cull the chicks when they start showing symptoms. We lost 5 or 6 chicks one year from it, and between the financial loss and having to break a tiny chick’s neck, getting them vaccinated is well worth the 5 or 10 cents a piece it costs.
Another thing we’ve learned over the years is that we can actually switch from the more expensive, higher protein chick starter feed to the regular adult feed a few weeks earlier than we’d read. In fact, we found that both reducing protein earlier and also limiting access to food by not free-feeding actually produced healthier chickens and better yields. That’s because these chicken will eat and grow themselves to death if given the chance. Their legs cannot grow as fast as their muscle, and they become crippled. Supplements can help with this problem, but we’ve found that slowing things down a bit is still essential. We’re happy to let them grow for two or three weeks longer to reach market weight.
Things we don’t tinker with: organic feed from Modesto Milling, and access to pasture. Those components are a must for our little chicken operation. The chicks start in a nice cozy brooder until they turn from fluff to feather. Then, still peeping, they go into a fortress-like chicken tractor with a heat lamp to keep things comfy at night. Once they’re tough enough, we open the door of the tractor and let them forage during the day, safely contained in an electric fence. We’ll move the whole set up periodically to give them access to fresh grass and forage.
Over the years, we’ve learned so much about how to raise a flock of broilers up right. I know we have even more to learn. For those of you who raise chickens, what tips and tricks have you picked up?