Yesterday, Matt and I went to visit a free-range chicken farm. We learned a lot about how chickens are raised on small farms and some differences between “meat” birds and “laying” birds.
Meat Birds –White Rock is the most common breed used as they have large breast meat
which of course is an eater’s first choice for the dinner plate. Farmers buy hatchlings from their local farm store and are allowed to raise 300 birds per year to sell at their farm stands. Any more than 300 and they must purchase quota. Quota costs approx $100 per 6 birds and allows the farmer the right to sell his birds into the industrialized chicken system. Usually due to this “head count” expense once farmers buy into the quote system, in order to make it economically viable they make the jump to large commercial barns and raise thousands of chickens at time in enclosed barns, turning over 6 to 8 “batches” per year. Their chicken business takes the leap from “hobby” farm to industrial farm.
But back to the small family farm, raising chickens on pasture, the way Grandma used to do it and the way we like it.
The wee hatchlings are a barn cat’s first choice for a tasty snack so they are spend their first few weeks in incubated “club houses”, sleeping on straw and hanging out in the “sauna” under heat lamps.
The teen-aged chickens live in a portable ”group home”. This is a low laying structure that is built of wood or whatever “extra” materials can be found around the farm and chicken wire, often wrapped with tarps in the cold spring or fall to keep the wind out. These coups need to be easily moved across the grass twice per day, as morning and night the birds are moved to a different patch of grass, to snuggle, peck, scratch and otherwise make themselves at home in.
The older birds are moved to a “retirement home” of the same design but slightly larger where they spend the rest of their days lounging about in satisfied commradery. It’s interesting, it seems that no matter how much room they have to stretch their wings and wander about they all snuggle up in a bunch to nap and sleep. I wouldn’t say that that chickens purr but it is nice to hear their low tone clucking and cooing.
Meat chickens are actually quite young birds that do not live to sexual maturity. All hens will lay eggs but not until they are about 21 weeks old. Meat birds are raised to approximately 8 to 12 weeks old before they find themselves in the frypan, hence they do not lay eggs. Commercially produced, commodity birds are 35 days old when they “meat” their end. It makes one wonder what goes on in the industrial food system that it takes them 1/3 the time to raise a chicken to average slaughter size?