Getting back to the basics

-A A +A
By Dennis Morgeson




For those of you that aren’t friends with me on Facebook or haven’t attended any of my programs lately, I wanted to fill you in on what I have been up to for the last couple months.
It seems I have become a chicken farmer of sorts?
We have had four laying hens for two years that have provided us with all the eggs we have needed.
I wanted more chickens and wanted to raise some for meat. So, in August, I decided to take the plunge without having set up a brooder and a chicken tractor-more on what a chicken tractor is later. Also, if you know me, I don’t do anything without studying it for a while. So after reading about heritage breeds of chicken, broilers (meat birds), feed requirements, housing, etc. for at least a year, I just up and ordered 25 Freedom Ranger broilers and a mix of 25 laying hens, and two roosters.
For the sake of space, I am going to concentrate this story on the meat birds but in the future, I will fill you in on the types of laying hens and why I chose the breeds that I did.
The Freedom Rangers are a broiler chicken that originates from France and is a little more active than the Cornish Cross, which has been the standard broiler in the United States for the last 50 years. The FRs for short are a mix of red, buff and speckled and have yellow skin. They were developed to grow a little slower than Cornish Cross to avoid leg and health problems that can develop from growing so fast.
I got a call Sept. 1 from the Lebanon Post Office that I had chicks to pick up and I could pick them up anytime that morning. This call was at 7:30 a.m. with chicks chirping in the background!
Chickens are born or hatched with three days worth of food and water inside them from swallowing the yolk sac. Therefore freshly hatched chicks can be shipped nationwide via the Postal Service.
If you remember Labor Day weekend, it was over 100 degrees and you have to keep chicks body temperature at 95 degrees so for the first day or two it was a piece of cake keeping them warm but I did have a heat lamp that I turned on at night.
Two days in, we get a heavy thunderstorm (after going over six weeks with little rainfall) it blows a board off the building that housed my chicks and the rain blew all over my chicks with two inches of rain! I was sure to lose some of them I thought...I lost one. From what I hear from other chicken growers I was very lucky to not lose a bunch of them!
Three weeks later the chickens were fully feathered and let me tell you they eat and grow like crazy! Broilers have one thing on their minds and that is food.  By this time they have outgrown the brooder, a little faster than I was expecting but none the less, I had to get them moved because my new baby laying hens and roosters were on their way!
A brooder is just a term used for an area that you keep heated for chicks.
During the three weeks that the broilers were growing to get ready for the great outdoors, I built a chicken tractor which is just a moveable coop.
There are all kinds of designs for chicken tractors but the simplest and easiest to build and what many of the poultry growers in Kentucky use is a simple wooden frame as a base with two cattle panels bent over them with chicken wire and a tarp stretched over it.
I used pressure treated lumber for the base and this thing was really heavy to the point that all I could do is pick it up from one side and move it about a foot at a time. So....being the brilliant person I am, I decide it is heavy enough that I don’t need any kind of tie down, I mean this thing is heavy!
The first night the freedom rangers were in their new chicken tractor, we had a severe thunderstorm complete with wind and rain. I got up at 5 a.m. because the wind was blowing so hard and the rain was beating against the window. I looked out of the window and during a lightning flash I could see my chicken tractor upside down at the other end of the field and little groups of chickens scattered around.
I immediately awaked my wife and tell here we have to go pick up dead chickens!
We both rushed out in the wind and rain and started picking up birds and putting them in baskets and buckets...they were shivering and shaking!  They didn’t run from us or move away from us in any way.  We put them back in the brooder and turned on the heat lamp.
By that afternoon they had no signs of being any worse for the ware.
Needless to say, the chicken tractor was in bad shape so I put it back together as best as I could and then drove metal posts into the ground to anchor it to...it made moving the tractor more time consuming but it had to be done!
Everything went smoothly with the freedom rangers until week seven when I found one of the biggest birds dead beside the water bucket...it was still warm.
I don’t know what happened to it but I have heard stories of meat birds having heart attacks, etc. so I figured it could have been that until I noticed little bits of plastic picked off of the garbage bag I stretched over the bottom of the tractor to block some wind off of the birds. Needless to say the plastic was taken down and I decided to move the processing date up a week.
By week eight, I was ready to have the deed done!
I awoke early on Nov. 1 and in the frost and dark went into the tractor and loaded the birds one by one into plastic chicken crates I borrowed from Stone Run Farm in Washington County. They sell pastured poultry locally and in Louisville.
I took the birds to Marksbury Farm near Lancaster and dropped them off. The cost for processing was $109 for 24 birds, which was a little higher than usual because I had a small number of birds and I wanted the livers.
One thing of note Marksbury is USDA inspected so meat processed there can be sold if you get the proper licenses, etc.
The average weight of the Freedom Rangers was a little over 4.5 pounds, in just eight weeks and I didn’t have to deal with many of the health problems of the Cornish Cross, which generally would have had that weight in six weeks! They consumed 350 pounds of feed, which was $150, the chicks cost $50, and with that we ended up paying about $2.40 per pound for our chicken. Kentucky raised antibiotic and steroid free pasture raised chicken can cost anywhere from $3 to $4.25 per pound, so we figured we saved about $100 by doing it ourselves. It was fun and the chicken is delicious!
The Freedom Rangers have a good textured meat and a good “chickeny” flavor.  We will definitely do them again and maybe some turkeys too...who knows?
If you would like to know more about raising chickens for meat or eggs join us on Tuesday Nov. 22 at 6:30 P.M. at the Washington County Extension Office.  Robbie Smith (Horticulture Agent for Nelson County) and I will teach you the ends and outs of raising chickens.
We will discuss housing, feeding, space requirements, as well as the pros and cons of particular breeds. The cost is $5 and we do request that you register by Nov. 18 by calling the Extension office at (859) 336-7741. You can also check out the line up for our new series Back To Basics of which the chicken class is a part of.
Highlights include growing fruits and vegetables, raising beef, lamb and pork for a family, making cheese and butter at home, home food preservation, cooking in a solar oven, building a small root cellar, meat curing, and bread making from seed to slice.
You can check this out on our website at http://ces.ca.uky.edu/washington-files/back_to_basics_2.pdf.
Happy Gardening!