It may sound like a cliché, but after watching countless documentaries about industrial agriculture, specifically industrial poultry, my partner, Brooke, and I decided that we could no longer support such a broken system that seemingly cares so little about the animals, the farmers, and the environment. A seemingly obvious option would be to go vegetarian, but that would only solve part of the problem, the meat, and not that the whole industrial agriculture system, including industrial-scale organic, is just as broken. Our solution was to opt-out of that system entirely, and we decided only to eat the food we can raise/grow ourselves or get from local farmers that we could actually talk to. We already had a small garden and a few chickens, so we decided that we could pretty easily add some broiler chickens to raise for meat. The first round went well (see Chicken Processing pt. I and Chicken Processing pt. II for more on the first batch), so we decided to have another go, and 20 fresh chicks arrived last week. This time around, I plan to keep better records and share that information in weekly blog posts in hopes that it may help someone else take back control of their food too. I have broken this post up into what I believe to be the main milestones leading up to and through the first week of raising broilers.

Choosing a breed, and hatchery

Choosing what breed you want to raise is an important first step in becoming a chicken tender, and in this post, I will only be talking about the two most popular broiler breeds: Cornish Cross (often written as Cornish X), and Freedom Rangers. It’s worth mentioning that I only have experience with raising Cornish Cross broilers, and have only raised and processed one batch so far, and a lot of the information I am presenting here is a summary of my own research (a lot of information came from John Suschovich’s Pastured Poultry Packet and YouTube Channel, Freedom Ranger Hatchery, and McMurray Hatchery)

Things to keep in mind when choosing a breed

Each breed has its pros and its cons; for instance, the Cornish Cross is bred to have an incredibly fast grow-out period and feed conversion ratio, reaching processing weight in just eight weeks, while the Freedom Ranger takes roughly 50% longer reaching processing weight at 11 – 12 weeks and lower feed conversion, thus being more expensive to raise. That said the Freedom Ranger is supposed to be better in both colder and warmer climates, as well as better foragers; Cornish Cross dont do well in cold or hot weather, although I did raise my last batch through a heatwave where temps got over 110f and with some creative cooling methods they all survived, and when it comes to foraging you really cannot rely on that for much of their diet.

When I was deciding on which breed to start raising, the questions I learned to ask were:

  • How much of their food will come from foraging?
  • How hot/cold will it be while they are growing?
  • How much space will I have?
  • How long do I want the grow period to take?

But, in reality, I already knew I was going to be raising Cornish Cross, due to the grow-out period and feed conversion.

Choosing a hatchery

Unlike breed choices, there are countless hatcheries to chose from, and that will really be up to you to choose based on your needs, budget, location, and personal preferences. Things I had in mind while choosing a hatchery:

  • How are the reviews?
  • What is your budget?
  • Where are they located relative to you?
  • What are the methods of contacting their customer service?
  • Do their philosophy and values align with yours?

I originally chose McMurray Hatchery because I heard great things about their quality and customer service, and I have to say that I have not at all been disappointed. In three orders I have only had a single issue, that was very quickly resolved by their customer service, and I have had 0% mortality. I highly recommend McMurray Hatchery, but will likely be getting my next round from Metzer Farms because they are in California not that far from me.

Setting up the brooder

Once I had my chicks ordered it was time to get the brooder set back up. I had learned a few things from the last two batches of chicks, and finally feel like I have a stress free, low maintenance brooder set up. These are the things I took into consideration when designing this brooder originally:

  • Feeding
  • Watering
  • Keeping the chicks warm
  • They would have good natural light
  • They would have enough space
  • Litter to help keep everything clean and dry
  • Well ventilated, but not drafty.

I started with a medium-sized plastic tub, a single cheap plastic waterer and feeder off amazon, and a Titan Panel brooder plate. With the first batch of chicks I quickly realized that the tub was not big enough for chicks and all the accessories, so I upgraded to a large wooden crate. The second batch of chicks brought to light a few more issues:

  • 15+ chicks create A LOT of poop
  • If it is even remotely possible, a lot of that poop will end up in the water and feed along with a lot of the bedding.
  • Once they are big enough they will hang out on top of the heating plate…and again…poop.

While the second round was in the brooder I started making modifications trying to improve the maintainability of the brooder. I started suspending the waterers so that it was harder for the chicks to poop and kick shavings into it, I also got a feeder that is sort of covered to make it harder to poop in it. Inevitably they find a way to fill everything with poop and shavings so I still have to clean it out at least once a day, but it’s not nearly as bad as the first batch. The other thing i changed toward the end of the second batch being in brooder was to start just adding shavings on top of the dirty shavings rather than removing everything a few times a week, this is known as the deep litter method.

Here is a list of improvements I have made for this batch as well as a couple other items that help keep the brooding period less stressfull:

  • 1 waterer per 10 chicks (2 in at a time with an extra one ready if needed)
  • 1 feeder per 20 chicks ( I have an extra one to put in if it looks like they need it)
  • 1 heater plate with roost preventer cone per 20-25 chicks
  • 200lbs of locally grown and milled non-GMO/Corn/Soy high protein starter/grower (this should be enough for the whole grow out period)
  • 1 Wyze cam for remote check-ins.
  • Chicken wire lid to keep them from jumping out, this does eventually become a potential issue

McMurray has a great page with everything you need to keep in mind when setting up a brooder.

Chicks in the mail, and first day in the brooder

By the time I get the shipping notification I like to have everything I need, all the feed (at least for the brooding time, but preferably for the whole batch), brooder set up, and their second home built and ready for them too, but I’ll go into the coops/tractors in a later post. It’s important to be ready because by the time you get the shipping notification you’ll have less than 72 hours until the babies arrive.

On the day they arrive, I usually get a call from the post office around 7 am letting me know that I can pick up the chicks, so I plug in the heat plate and head out to pick them up.

Chicks on the way to their new home.

The chicks come nestled together in a little box, and are usually cheeping loudly. They will be stressed, hungry, thirsty, and probably a little cold, so it’s import to get them into the brooder as quickly as possible.

When I get them home I cover up their bedding with paper towels or recycled packing paper so that they dont mistake it for food, and I take them out of the box individually and make sure to dip their beaks in the water to let them know where it is then let them run to explore their new home.

Once they know where to go to get water, food, and warmth, I make sure the Wyze cam is positioned so that I can monitor them remotely, then it’s just a matter of monitoring through out the day to make sure their water and food are clean, and that no one has pasty butt, and in general not having any issues.

What’s next?

The chicks will be in the brooder for around 3 weeks, then I’ll be moving them to a tractor, on grass in mt front yard. Stay tuned for weekly updates and plenty of pictures!