Meat and Eggs -The Best of Both Worlds

August 7, 2017

Chickens Are Good to Eat
Thousands of families tend small backyard chicken flocks to produce delicious eggs. Chickens also provide an outstanding opportunity for children to understand where food really comes from and to learn responsibility by caring for animals.

Chickens historically provided eggs and meat for the family table, but today only a few backyard flock owners eat their chickens. Producing meat is more challenging than raising a few laying hens but can be an extension a chicken raising hobby. There are two ways to approach chickens as meat.

Meat as an Egg Laying Bonus
Hatcheries employ experts able to segregate baby chicks by gender shortly after they hatch. This allows a family to only buy females, or pullet, chicks. Sexing is usually accurate but occasionally, a mistake is made and the baby pullet turns out to be a male. Since most communities don’t allow keeping roosters he becomes a candidate for chicken dinner.

So, do old hens. Typically, hens lay the most eggs during their first lay cycle, which lasts a little over a year. Then they stop laying for a month or six weeks before beginning to lay again. They’ll lay fewer eggs the second time around and every year after egg production drops. Eventually they need to be replaced with younger hens, creating a dilemma. What to do with the old birds. They may have become faithful friends that are hard to think of as stew, but their flesh is delicious.

Most backyard laying hens are from “dual purpose breeds” like Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, or Buff Orpingtons. In the days before modern hybrid broiler chickens were developed, farmers butchered roosters and kept hens for egg production. These roosters take about 16 weeks to reach eating size, and by then their flesh is starting to get slightly tough. They may be heavily muscled but lack the broad breast of grocery store chickens. Old hens of dual purpose breeds have tasty meat that’s tougher than nails.

Americans are accustomed to popping chicken breasts on the grill and enjoying tender meat. That won’t work with old birds. Pressure cooking them or slowly stewing their meat for many hours tenderizes it. The meat is darker and has a richer flavor than grocery store broilers and is best used in stew.

Raising Chickens Especially for Meat
Modern chicken breeding has revolutionized the American diet. Years ago, it took upwards of six pounds of feed for a dual-purpose slow growing rooster to gain a pound of weight. That made raising birds for meat expensive. Chicken was the centerpiece of a rare special dinner, usually featured when a friend or relative visited.

That’s changed. Poultry breeders developed hybrids mostly based on the old Cornish Breed that grow at an astonishing rate. They eat less than two pounds of feed for every pound they gain and reach eating size when only six weeks old. They have a broad breast of white meat featured in many recipes. Cornish Cross broilers revolutionized our diets and chicken has become a nearly everyday meat. Today’s Americans eat much more of it than beef.

Broiler chickens don’t have to be bought at the supermarket. Hoover’s Hatchery sells Cornish Cross broilers that grow just as fast in a backyard coop as in a commercial flock, but they require special management. These are specialty birds that grow fast but don’t live long. If kept beyond their normal slaughtering age they often develop health problems. Hens are poor layers and normally are slaughtered well before they ever could begin laying. Chicks need special feed and management, and Hoover’s prints rearing instructions in their catalog.

An outstanding meat bird for small flocks is the Red Ranger or Red Broiler.  It grows slower than Cornish Cross Broilers but much faster than dual purpose breeds. Rangers have broad tender breast meat and can be raised with other breeds. Unlike Cornish Cross they are good foragers and enjoy going outside in the run. Hens can be kept for egg production and will lay about 175 medium brown eggs a year.

Slaughtering chickens can be a dilemma. Many ordinances prohibit killing chickens inside city limits and few people today know how to humanely kill a chicken and dress its carcass for cooking. There are a few options.

In past years processing plants were fairly common in rural areas. Live chickens could be delivered and employees would slaughter and dress them for a fee. Some licensed processing plants still exist but they are scarce and rarely at a convenient driving distance. If one is nearby it can be a good option for small flock owners.

Without a processing plant, nearby or a friend willing to butcher chickens anyone raising birds for meat must kill and dress birds themselves. YouTube videos show how to do it in graphic detail, and it’s possible to learn how to humanely kill and process chickens by watching them. Because many cities prohibit slaughtering in town it may need to be done at a friend’s property outside city limits.

Although raising chickens for meat is more challenging than managing a small flock of laying hens it is a way of producing delicious healthy meat for the family.

Post submitted by: Winding Pathways

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