by Christy Cole
The photos of us with our first chickens are impossibly adorable. Baby-faced, tan versions of ourselves, grinning and snuggling our little golden fluff balls, excited with the anticipation of a new adventure. We collectively called our first chickens “The Ladies,” and they were unmistakably pets. They ran toward us like little dinosaurs when we called them for treats from the garden, and they walked right into the house whenever the door was left open.
When the amazing gift of fresh daily eggs started a few months later, we naturally began to think about raising chickens for meat. At the time, we lived in a rural community in North Carolina known for pottery, peaches and poultry. After the devastating decline of the southern textile industry, many people began contracting with corporate poultry farms to raise chickens for the meat industry. Production chicken and turkey sheds lined the narrow country roads spewing dust, feathers and fumes from powerful fans at each end. One farmer told us if he lost power on a hot summer day, all 10,000 chickens inside would die within 15 minutes. Newly giddy and confident from our success with our sweet hens and their incredibly delicious eggs, we decided to jump into the world of raising our own healthy, free-range broilers. But first, I needed advice from an expert.
My grandmother, Gogzie, and her sisters butchered chickens and harvested garden vegetables to sell other thrifty first- and second-generation immigrants and Great Depression survivors at the Cedar Rapids Farmer’s Market long before it was a hip destination. Gogzie is my original source for almost everything I know about growing vegetables, so I naturally turned to her with my chicken questions, too. She was simultaneously vague and precise with her advice to “just get yourself some chickens, Christybelle, and fatten them up.”
We headed to the local feed store and picked up the last eight chicks they had. The “fatten them up” portion of Gogzie’s instructions was more challenging, though, as the chicks turned out to be Barred Rock pullets. After 20 long weeks, we ate one and gave one to a friend who graciously let us know she was delicious even though she was too small to use for his preferred method of beer-can grilled chicken. The rest of the slender Barred Rocks joined The Ladies for a lifetime of strutting around in the sunshine and laying eggs.
We have since gotten much more savvy and successful in raising meat chickens on a homestead scale. We are good enough at “fattening them up” to keep Gogzie supplied with all the chickens she needs for her famous noodle soup. I love to experiment, so we have raised everything from waddling, wide-breasted commercial Cornish Crosses that are ready for the grill at eight weeks to Freedom Rangers, which are bred for free-range life. We have raised Slow Cornish and random bargain-bin roosters. Last summer we dove into the world of rare meat breeds with Bresse, a breed from France that is billed as the best-tasting chicken in the world due to its genetic ability to marble fat like a beef cow. This summer I plan to add Dorkings, a short and stout ancient breed developed during the Roman Empire, to our flock.
As much as I love to try new breeds, we have consistently found that the most important factors in how our meat birds taste is how they live and what they eat. Even breeds like the Cornish Cross, which are famously lazy and prone to injury and early death when packed into a confinement facility, are lively explorers on sunny Wisconsin afternoons. After they get their feathers — or within days of hatching if a mama hen from our layer flock is raising them — our chickens are foraging and eating from our land from dawn until sunset. Insects, worms, pebbles, snakes, wild berries, chickweed, mice, fat caterpillars … they are the ultimate Driftless omnivores.
We also like to finish our chickens on whatever is seasonally abundant — usually tomatoes or watermelon in the summer and squash or pumpkins in the autumn. The land becomes their bodies, and their bodies become our bodies. After we have eaten, we make broth from their bones. Then we add the softened bones to our open compost pile, where they disappear into foraging bellies or sink into the compost to be reborn in the vegetable garden.
The flip side of giving our meat chickens a wild and free short life is that we are also intimately acquainted with the predators who share our land. My endlessly patient husband has built chicken tractors, hoop houses, coops and day-range shelters as we search for the balance between keeping our flock safe and allowing them to live a good life. We have lost birds to bold hawks during the day and weasels at night. Stray dogs and resident raccoons have helped themselves. We have lost birds to blistering heat, unexpected cold and early June gnat swarms.
In spite of the challenges, the desire to provide for ourselves and our families and friends runs strong in us and in our family and friends in the Driftless Area. We are hill and valley people. We are curious and resilient. We may have chosen to live in a rural area, but we still want good food, and we know that our land and community can provide it for us.