Chickens scratching around the yard is a classic homestead picture. Chickens are terrific animals for any sustainable homestead. They convert scraps and insects into eggs and meat for the family. Their waste is a healthy addition to gardens. Chickens put more meat on your table with the least amount of time and effort than any other form of livestock.
Keeping a flock of chickens can do more for the homesteader than just providing a steady supply of meat and eggs for the family. They can be a valuable source of income. There are tips and tricks to turn your backyard flock into healthy cash flow.
One of the first products homesteaders consider taking to market is eggs. This makes sense because farm-fresh eggs are always a big hit at the farmer’s market. Before you decide the egg business is for you, though, do some research. You will quickly realize that some hens lay more than others. The best layers are smaller breeds that lay white-shelled eggs. These include Ancona, Leghorn, and Minorca. Of course, brown and green eggs are very popular sellers and can command more money. Visit several markets to determine what customers seem to want and what they are willing to pay. If you can make more money selling brown or green eggs with less birds, it may be a fun and profitable niche in the egg market.
Most good layers will lay about 22 dozen eggs each year. A pullet will start laying when she is between 20 and 24 weeks old, but these eggs will be very small and the laying will be erratic. By 30 weeks you can expect to get a normal size egg every day. At 18 months of age, your hens will molt and most of her energy will be spent on growing new feathers. This process can take up to three months, after which, she will resume laying. She will lay larger eggs but will drop her production down to 16-18 dozen a year. In order to meet consumer demand and continue to make a relatively steady income from your eggs, stagger your flock so you have hens at various stages of development at all times.
Another thing that homesteaders don’t do enough, in my opinion, is effective marketing and fair charging. Free-range, pastured, and organic eggs are healthier for consumers and take slightly more time and energy from farmers. Charge what the eggs (and your time and effort) are worth, and educate your customers about how you came to that price. In my part of the country, a dozen of eggs from free-range hens will bring four dollars. You may have to charge a little less, or be able to charge a little more, depending on where you live.
Marketing is also very important if you are interested in butchering your birds and selling them for meat. Every chicken does not fetch the same price because every chicken does not do the same job. Just as you pay more for veal than you do for ground round, some chicken meat costs more. It is easy to do market research by visiting your local grocery store. If you don’t want to walk around the meat aisle with pen and paper, price comparisons are simple to do online.
Before you decide how much to charge, you need to choose your chicken. Just as there are egg breeds, there are meat breeds. Some good meat breeds are Australorp, Cornish, and Orpington. In addition to choosing the breed you want, you need to decide how you will raise them and how you will harvest them. How you choose to raise them is purely based on your values, and availability of time and resources. How you harvest them requires some investigation into local regulations. Your local Department of Agriculture can assist you with this.
Factory farms raise chickens in indoor confinement which allows birds just enough space to get to feeders and waterers. They are raised in such close quarters in order to efficiently convert feed into meat. The standard feed-conversion ratio for birds raised in indoor confinement is two to one. This means each bird averages two pounds of feed for every pound of weight gain.
Range confinement is another option that involves keeping your birds confined in a portable building that is kept on pasture and moved daily. This method reduces feed costs by allowing chickens to meet some of their nutrient needs by foraging. It takes slightly longer to reach butchering size than those raised in indoor confinement. The meat you sell can be labeled “Pastured” or “Grass-fed,” increasing your poultry income over chickens raised in confinement.
Free-range chickens freely come and go from their shelter. Because these chickens are allowed to exercise and forage, their meat is darker, firmer, and more flavorful. Free-range chickens average 4 ½ pounds and are usually butchered between 10-12 weeks of age. Because of the added time and amenities, free-range chickens cost more than chickens raised in confinement. Selling free-range chicken not only increases the amount of money you will earn, but also gives you an opportunity to discuss the values of your homestead and the benefits humanely-raised livestock has for humans, animals, and the environment. Individuals are not the only people becoming more interested in free-range meat. Studies have shown executive chefs at high-end restaurants are not only committed to buying humanely-raised meat, but also to supporting local farmers. They are willing to pay up to 10% more for regional products as long as the supply can meet the demand.
Another important part of your poultry business is deciding what classification of chicken you want to sell. There are several classifications of chickens and it is imperative to your money-making venture that you are familiar with them. You may organize your flocks into several different classifications and that is fine. In order to be profitable, keep a calendar. Each classification of bird is harvested at a different age. By keeping a calendar, you not only keep your flocks straight with purchasing, incubating, and harvesting records, but you are also able to label and price your birds appropriately.
Broiler-Fryers can weigh up to 3 ½ pounds, dressed. They are butchered before 13 weeks old. These birds have soft, pliable skin and flexible breastbones. As the name suggests, these chickens are best broiled or fried, but they can be used for any type of cooking.
Roasters are great for roasting and rotisserie cooking because they have a higher fat content. They are butchered between 3-5 months of age and weigh between 2 ½ -5 pounds. They also have soft and pliable skin but their breastbone is slightly less flexible than the broiler-fryer.
Stewing chickens are also called hens or fowls. They range in age from 10-18 months old and can weigh between 3-6 pounds. These are most often layers that are no longer productively producing eggs. They are more flavorful but less tender than other classifications due to their age, so they are best cooked with a moist heat such as stewing or braising.
Rock Cornish hens are a hybrid of the White Rock and Cornish chickens. They weigh up to 2 ½ pounds and are ready for market between 4-6 weeks of age. There is just enough meat to the bone that each hen is enough for one serving. These hens are best broiled or roasted.
Squab chicken, poussin in French, is different from true squab which is pigeon. These birds weigh up to 1 ½ pounds and are ready for butchering between 4-6 weeks old. These miniature birds are delicious broiled, grilled, or roasted.
Capons are roosters that have been castrated before they are 8 weeks old. They are then fed a fattening diet and brought to market before they reach 10 months of age. Capons range in weight between 4-10 pounds. Because capons are full-breasted with tender, juicy, and flavorful meat, they sell for up to $10 per pound, increasing your poultry income even more. Capons are well-suited to roasting and make a wonderful alternative to the traditional Thanksgiving turkey.
Before you can castrate a rooster, you need to sex them. The younger they are when you castrate them, the easier it is on the farmer and the less stressful it is on the bird. Birds are much more difficult to sex than mammals because their reproductive organs are inside the body cavity. Venting and down-color sexing are two methods of sexing chicks that offer a good rate of success.
Venting is by far the most accurate method of sexing your birds but, like any other skill, it requires some time to develop. To perform this procedure, hold the day-old chick in one hand. Spread open the vent and look at the reproductive organs. In both sexes, you will see something that resembles a necklace with “beads” of different sizes, the largest bead shape in the center. The center bead shape for males will be round. For females, the center bead shape will be flat or concave.
If venting is not a skill you are ready to master, your next choice is to sex them by down color. There are as many down-color sexing tips as there are breeds but in simplest terms, males will have lighter heads, sometimes with a white or yellow spot on the top of the head. Females will have a darker down, often with a black or brown spot, or stripes, on their heads.
Sexing your birds is important if you are going to market capons because castrating is a minor surgical procedure and you do not want to do an unnecessary procedure accidentally on a female chick. This article will run through the basic steps of caponizing birds, but I heartily recommend reading Caponizing by Loyl Stromberg.
In order to caponize your birds, stop feeding the roosters 36 hours before the procedure. Do not allow them to drink a full 24 hours before the surgery. This is an important step because it shrinks the size of the internal organs and lessens the possibility of nicking an artery or an organ.
Once you are ready to perform the procedure, immobilize the bird on a clean table with string and weights. Pull the skin under the wing towards the tail feathers and clean with rubbing alcohol. By pulling the skin in this way, you are ensuring the opening you cut in the skin will not line up with the opening you cut in the meat when the skin is released. This makes stitches unnecessary.
In order to locate the incision line, familiarize yourself with the ribs. The incision must be made between the ribs closest to the hip. Make the incision. Some birds will bleed a little and some will not bleed at all. Have a cotton ball ready in case your bird does bleed. Using hemostats, open the incision and locate the testes. It is a bean-shaped gland. Most testes will pull off and not need to be cut but you should have a sharp and sterile surgical blade ready. If you can see the other testicle, go ahead and remove it as well. If you cannot see it, release the skin and repeat the procedure on the other side. Once the procedure is complete, untie the bird. Keep him in a cage with food and water for two weeks before allowing him to return to normal activities.
By doing some simple market research you will know what price people are willing to pay for each classification of chicken meat and eggs. Remember that as a sustainable and local farmer, your products can fetch a slightly higher price than what is available at the local big-box grocery store. Clearly label your product, noting the classification, as well as some of the “extras” such as organic, pasture-fed, and free-range. You can add even more value to these products to increase your poultry income by adding a recipe tailored for the product you are marketing, such as a rich flan made with your country eggs, chicken enchiladas for your stewing hens, or a classic roasted capon recipe.