The True Cost of Raising Chickens for Meat- Year 1
For the last three years we’ve been raising meat chickens. We’ve learned a lot. The biggest lesson we’ve learned is how important the industrial food complex is to all of us. This is the story of our three years as chicken farmers to serve as a warning to all our readers, and to help us all be more thankful for the people who grow our food for us.
We buy 20 fast grow meat chicks. Seven weeks later, when they should have been almost full-grown and ready for harvest, we discover, we were given the wrong birds. They’re pullets. (Your garden variety egg-laying chicken.) We load them in the cat carrier, take them back and start again.
How do we know our second batch is really fast growers? A friend picks one up to cuddle it and it shoots a long stream of golden poop down her lace shirt. At first we thought the golden coating of something smelly all over the bottom of their pen was a result of them spilling their water. No, we learned that it was their poop and it only got worse by the day.
About the time they are the size of softballs they get all sweaty like teenage boys and they stink just like them too… that’s not true, I’ve been in middle schools, they smell better than meat birds since they’re not also covered with a constantly growing layer of “poop.” All these birds do is eat, drink, grow and poop. Additionally, sometimes we’d go to check on them and one would just be belly up dead. There’s this thing that happens called “flip-over disease” which seems to happen when they eat too much and grow too fast and then seizure, flip over and die. It’s awesome.
We raise the young birds inside with a heat lamp so they stay warm until they get their feathers. The first year we built our first chicken tractor to move them into when they got big enough. It probably cost us about $150 to build and a lot of time and brain power (to make it light enough for two women to move around). About the same time, we realized the local bear was scoping out the neighbors chickens. We thought there was enough other “easy” things for the bear to eat, so we put pavers around the bottom of our chicken tractor (to keep the small predators out) and called it good.
Killing chickens is physically, emotionally, and financially draining. We sang “Goodbye chicken, goodbye chicken, goodbye chicken, it’s time for you to die” to our first victim to soothe all of us. Then we tied it’s legs together, slipped it head first into the killing cone (made from a $5 Home Depot bucket and some duct tape – classy!), and let it “rest” there before slitting it’s throat when it was finally calm. Then we walked off to let it calm down again (or die in peace) while it thrashed around in the cone. This was all done in view of the road and the neighbors who knew enough to stay away from girls with knives.
Meanwhile, our not inexpensive turkey fryer, which has never yet been used to fry a turkey, is heating up a big pot of water. When the chicken was truly dead, we chopped off it’s head and dropped it in the blood collection bucket just below the killing cone. To pluck a chicken you have to dunk it in 200 degree water for about 15 seconds to loosen the feathers up. This enhances their natural aroma. Then you plop them on top of the plastic covered grill (the sideburner makes a great plucking table when closed) and yank out all the feathers. The big tail and wing feathers are the hardest to pull and the little fine feathers are the most tedious to finish off. If you’re fast, this takes 15 minutes. We were not fast the first year.
THEN you use the burner for the turkey fryer to singe off all the fine hairs and feathers you were unable to pull out. This smells AWESOME! (if you like the smell of burning hair, feathers and flesh). Now, drop the body in a cooler full of $5 worth of ice and water to let it cool before gutting. Don’t take a break or you’ll never get this done. So while it’s cooling, go grab a chicken, sing to it, let it calm, slit its throat, let it drain, cut off its head, dunk it, pluck it and singe it. It’s good to have multiple people to keep the assembly line moving.
Now to gutting. We plop the chicken on the plastic-covered picnic table and cut off its neck and feet. Actually, cutting off the feet is the most fun part of this whole process – don’t ask me why – it just is. Now, cut a horizontal incision between the bird’s back legs, and then carefully cut out the butthole. If you’re not careful, you’ll have poop everywhere. Even though we cooled the chicken, it’s still warm on the inside, which you notice when you stick your hand inside the bird and then gently pull out all the insides. We thought it was a little spooky when sometimes the chicken would cluck as we pulled out the insides. This is because we were pushing air through the yet-to-be-removed Cluck Box which is in the windpipe.
Now the chicken looks like what you would buy in the store (if you’d been smart enough to buy them in the first place). We are very proud of ourselves and manage to get 7 done in one day. Then we cleaned up the bloody plastic, the disgusting turkey fryer, and the killing cone and blood buckets, and ourselves. Our hands always smell like weird, dead, teenage chickens after a day of slaughter.
We butchered our first 7 chickens on a Monday and left the rest for the following Friday. Tuesday it looked like something had been prowling around the chicken tractor, and something had even reached in and nabbed a chicken, so we threw an old trellis on the roof and added extra bricks around the bottom. Wednesday morning, all was fine. Wednesday afternoon, it looked like a glimpse of the apocalypse had happened in our back yard. It appeared a bomb had exploded the chicken coop; the roof was ripped off, there was blood and chicken carcasses all over, and there were very scared, traumatized chickens left in the pen. We moved the remaining chickens up to the hen house with our egg layers. While in the process of calling the Dept of Wildlife, the very happy bear returned to check out the murder scene. We chased it off and promptly put an electric fence around the chicken tractor. We left a dead chicken in the area and the Dept of Wildlife left a bear trap near by in hopes of catching the perpetrator…No luck, though we did hear it scream from touching the fence.
Then we slaughtered the remaining 9 birds and decided it would be a really good idea to raise another batch of birds later that summer… Did we mention the bear was not trapped? We had not totaled up the cost of each bird? We were inexperienced and optimistic.
We bought another 25 birds, fortified the chicken tractor with sheets of galvanized metal roofing, beefed up the electric fence, lost some birds to flip over disease, and went through the whole process all over again. We even sold a couple chickens to some friends for the high price of $15 each. Our freezers were stocked for the winter and we felt very successful.
Cost of chicks – $2.35-$3 each from the store
Cost of feed for about 45 birds- $15 / week for approx 7 weeks
Cost of the first chicken tractor- approx $120
Cost of repairs and renovation of the chicken tractor $40
Cost of materials for slaughter (year 1)- approx $100
PLUS at least 150 hours spent raising chickens, building the chicken tractor, putting up fence, repairing the tractor, and slaughtering 2 batches of birds… so $1200 at minimum wage
Total estimated cost of year 1 per bird – $43
We ate like queens (who didn’t do the math until much later).