What do you know about protein? Or, more to the point, what do you need to know about protein beyond that it’s a really important component of every cell in your body and you need a fair amount of it to do things like generate muscle, make enzymes and walk across a room?
For those living off-the-grid lifestyles, the need for protein rivals that of our hunter and gatherer forbearers. Doing things the hard way on purpose calls for a nutrient-dense diet.
Garden-raised beans, legumes and nuts are great, but, for omnivore diets, meat is really a prime protein source. Sure, hunting can fill freezers and bellies throughout the seasons. But if you’re seeking a little more control over your menu than the forest provides, homegrown livestock represents protein-dense meals for months to come.
Pastured chicken is an excellent protein source. These chickens are healthier than red meat, versatile and delicious. There are some upfront considerations you’ll need to make, but once your yard birds settle in, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without the delectable protein of homegrown grilled chicken or backyard coq au vin.
Generally speaking, there are two paths forward when raising chickens for meat, determined by a loose breed association.
Birds bred to grow fast and large, or broilers, are commonly recognized as “meat birds.” Most often these are Cornish cross or Cornish Rock chickens. (Red Rangers are considered a heritage broiler.)
They eat a huge amount daily, producing copious meat in the breast, thighs and legs. They reach slaughter weight around 7 weeks. Combine this with their limited mobility, and you get the tender white meat many associate with chickens.
While broilers are the backbone of the commercial poultry industry, they’re also popular with small farmers for their economical feed conversion rate—they make a lot of muscle from limited
feed—and the quality of their meat.
When raised outside, most often in movable pens, broilers enjoy a high-quality life. They fertilize pastures and produce meat enhanced by flavors of grass and foraged bugs.
You can raise broilers off the grid—after going outside, they require only shelter, feed and water—but meat storage can be a challenge. Most on-grid farmers raise a flock to slaughter weight, then store carcasses in a freezer.
Pressure canning your chickens is an option for off-grid meat storage. But careful scheduling can ensure you have fresh birds for roasting, grilling or frying all summer long.
Seek out a hatchery that has low minimum orders. Stagger small orders a few weeks apart to ensure birds come of age at different times throughout the season.
For example, if you order six Cornish cross chickens—often the minimum for free shipping—you can begin harvesting them one at a time beginning at the age of 4 weeks, when they are considered Cornish game hens.
Just choose the largest from the flock each time you go out to collect dinner. Males grow faster than females, so you’ll probably take them first and harvest the females last.
When your final two chickens are 8 weeks old, take both. Solitary conditions ail a chicken left alone in a pen.
Order more chicks to be delivered when your first flock leaves the brooder. This is usually around 4 four weeks, when they’ve feathered out enough to withstand temperature changes.
For your season’s final flock, order as many chickens as your pen can hold, then slaughter, process and can them all for meat through the winter.
The second way of raising birds is simpler and involves dual-purpose breeds, traditionally raised to provide eggs as well as meat. Popular dual-purpose chickens include:
- Jersey Giant (also called “poor man’s turkey”)
- Black Australorp
- Speckled Sussex
The immediate benefit is the addition of eggs to the menu, but it’s also handy that these birds can be processed on demand.
Usually this happens once egg production slows down after the chicken’s first year. No schedules, special housing or long-term storage is required. Just catch, kill and process a bird for dinner.
There are some cons, though, with time and texture being among the most notable. Dual-purpose chickens take longer to reach maturity—as long as 8 to 9 months—during which time they move around a lot, hardening muscle fibers.
For people accustomed to commercially available chickens, the tougher meat could be off-putting, especially when fried. Younger dual-purpose birds are, however, great for roasting, while older hens are good in a stew pot.
Regardless of which breed you raise, a chicken journey starts with chicks. Order these for delivery from a hatchery with National Poultry Improvement Plan certification. Most hatcheries have mail-order catalogs, and you can place an order online or by phone.
You’ll order your chicks according to hatch date. Mark this date on the calendar and start getting things ready for the day you’ll pick them up at the post office. Then start addressing climate controls, as chicks need very specific temperatures in their first weeks: 90 to 95 degrees the first week, reduced 5 degrees weekly until week five.
A lidded, ventilated box next to a wood-burning stove or other constant heat source can bring temperatures to exact points in tandem with a succession of hot water bottles placed within the box and replaced every 4 to 6 hours.
If you have a robust solar system, you might choose to use a heat lamp, gradually moved higher to reduce temperatures.
Feed chicks starter crumbles in chick feeders—pay attention to the ingredients, too, as some are medicated and others not—and make sure there’s always fresh, clean water available.
You’ll also need to provide and maintain bedding material such as pine shavings or straw. Avoid potentially slippery surfaces, such as newspaper, which can lead to “spraddle leg,” and clean out the brooder at least once a week, adding fresh bedding daily between cleanings.
And keep an eye on chick’s hind ends. A condition known as “pasty butt,” treatable with a wet washcloth, can be fatal.
Your chicks can go outside once they feather out around 4 to 5 weeks (different breeds develop at different rates). Switch broilers to a grower feed at 5 weeks, and dual-purpose chickens to layer feed at 18 weeks.
If you’re raising dual-purpose birds, they need a coop or tractor with nesting boxes and roost bars.
Broiler chickens don’t need either of these. A mobile pen and the means to move it once or twice a day will keep them on fresh grass.
As mentioned earlier, you can start taking broilers for processing as early as 4 weeks. Dual-purpose chickens can be processed starting at 4 to 5 months old.
Processing is the same regardless of breed. You just need a metal cone affixed to a tree, a sharp knife, clean water and a sanitized surface. (A propane grill and large pot are optional but helpful.)
First, select the chicken(s) you’d like to process—the largest male or one with a problematic personality. Separate this bird or birds from the rest so that it can withdraw from feed for 8 to 12 hours, clearing the digestive tract.
Ideally, you withdraw the chicken from feed overnight for an early-morning slaughter. Collecting a sleepy bird is less stressful than catching an alert one.
Once you have your bird, clasp it by both feet, then invert it so that the head points to the ground. Hold the chicken’s head in position for a few seconds, then let the bird go limp—not asleep, exactly, but unresponsive.
Insert the chicken headfirst into the metal cone so the head emerges from the bottom (sometimes you have to reach with two fingers to pull it all the way down). Take the sharp knife in one hand and the head in the other, and, drawing the knife toward you against the neck, sever the arteries on each side. Cutting the arteries in this way allows the heart to pump all the blood out for a quick, efficient death.
(Note: As the nervous system shuts down, the carcass is likely to thrash. It’s a neurological response, and the bird is already dead, but secure either the head or feet to ensure it doesn’t flop out.)
Once the carcass has bled out, de-feather it. You can heat a pot of clean water on a grill to 140 degrees and dunk the bird to loosen the feathers, or you can hang the bird by its feet from a tree branch and hand-pluck.
As a rule, white feathers are easier to remove than darker ones.
Once the carcass is free of feathers, place it on a sanitized surface and, with a sanitized knife, chop off the head and cut around the chicken’s vent—the multipurpose cavity in the rear—being careful not to slice through the intestine where it attaches. (Putting a finger into the vent can help prevent this.)
Then, turn the chicken upright and eviscerate. The organs should all come out together with a tug. Put a hand into the empty carcass and scrape your fingers against the rib cage to pull free the lungs and any clingy bits.
Finally, cut the feet free from the body at the joints.
Rinse the carcass, and, voila—your chicken is processed. If you’re batch processing, put the chicken into a cooler full of ice water to chill and go fetch your next bird.
Pasture-raising chickens for meat is not effortless, but it’s a straightforward way to provide clean, healthy protein for the off-grid dinner table. And a hearty chicken dinner can be just the thing to fuel up before heading out for a long day of hunting wild game or working in the vegetable garden.