Last year we raised a free-range flock of egg-laying hens. It was pretty simple to do and worked well. Lots of farmers raise free range layers. No big deal. But this year we decided to try something different – free range meat birds. All the chicken meat available in stores comes from one basic breed – the broiler. These birds have been bred for one thing – to quickly convert grain into meat. They’re not very good at basic chicken skills like walking around and foraging for food and finding water. They like to live their lives lying down with their head in the feed trough. These birds can be raised on pasture. Joel Salatin developed the chicken tractor method and even wrote the book Pastured Poultry Profits describing how to run a pastured broiler chicken enterprise. But these chickens live their lives in a small cage and, although they have access to sunshine and fresh bits of grass everyday, they aren’t truly living a chicken life. They aren’t running around scratching at the ground for grubs and worms, fly larvae and beetles. They aren’t knocking over stalks of grass and picking out the seeds.
So we decided to try a different breed and a different set-up. One of our neighbors has a sweet chicken breeding and egg-hatching set up. We got several batches of Cornish hen/Jersey Giant crosses, and New Hampshire Reds – all adept foragers that can put on a good bit of meat. We built them a portable chicken wigwam we move across the pastures behind the cows. They get to scratch through cow patties, eating insect larvae, controlling flys, spreading manure, and recycling nutrients. It’s a big help. They also get to live real chicken lives. They have their own social groups – hunting parties which separately spend days out in the pastures hunting insects and eating grass. They follow the cows around – just like their ancestors would have followed migrating megaherbivores.
They grow much slower than broilers. They’re taking about 12-14 weeks to reach maturity rather than 5-7. We don’t mind the wait – especially because we only feed them a small grain ration. The rest of their calories comes from grass, insects, and seeds.
I have never eaten a truly free range chicken before. Only “pastured” broilers. Our birds are just now reaching full size and we can’t wait for the first campfire rotisserie.
Want to try one for yourself? Our chickens are now available to members.