Where Do You Get Your Chicken?

Murray McMurray day old chicksOur chicken comes from Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa via the USPS as day old fluffy little puff-balls. Most of these buggers are from the “Barbecue Special” package of broiler and fryer types (we call them Meat Blobs); the brownish fuzz-balls are Red Leghorns for our layer flock; and that grey guy is the “Special Chick” which is a free addition to every Murray McMurray order, who almost always turns into a rare-breed rooster — a neat way for Murray McMurray to get rid of the chicks that no one orders. By the looks of this guy, I’m guessing we got a crested Polish breed of some type who will eventually have a “top hat” of feathers.

After this first important day of getting them out of the little shipping box and into a run with water and feed and a heat lamp, they will spend about four weeks down in our barn basement under the lamp until they feather out. Then they will transfer into our “chicken tractor” which is a simple 10′ X 4′ chicken wire box with no bottom. They will eat grain and grass and bugs for another six weeks in the “tractor” until the Meat Blobs are slaughtered and put in our freezer. The layers will be put in with the rest of our laying flock.

chicken in a boxWhy do we call them Meat Blobs? Because these chickens are designed to grow enormous legs and breasts at a very young age. Young meat is tender meat, and (in the U.S. at least) BIGGER is BETTER. You’ve heard of “Cornish Rock” birds? These are them. Cornish are a breed of squat chickens with enormous breast muscles. Rock breeds have very big frames — they can stand three feet high. When you cross these breeds, you get a giant framed bird with enormous breast muscles. That’s what we all eat when we eat “chicken” these days. Those little branded “Cornish Rock Game Hens” you get from Tyson or Purdue are probably the cull chicks that wouldn’t/couldn’t make it to four pounds. Hey — all businesses find creative ways to cut their losses! Were you to slaughter one of my layer chickens, even at more than a year-old (which we have done), once you strip it of feathers you would see a scrawny frame of bones and a bit of meat around the wing, kind of like a long rat with a beak. (It takes layers between six months to a year to start laying eggs.)

Why do they have to cross a Cornish with a Rock to get our meat bird breed? Because these cute fuzzy balls turn into literally meat on two legs. By six weeks of eating non-stop, they can hardly walk because their body is growing so fast compared to their feet. They stomp around (never far from the food tray) if they move at all. Once they reach twelve weeks of age they stop being able to move altogether. Their genes want to make meat, not a mature fertile bird — they would never live to breeding age (around one year for chickens).

In addition, they give lie to the notion of “free range” chicken meat. A Meat Blobs will not move more then one or two feet from the feed tray because its body is ALWAYS hungry (growing more tender protein for us, of course). The reason for the wire box around the birds isn’t to keep the Meat Blobs from escaping, but to keep the local fauna from feasting on our year’s chicken meat before we can put them in the freezer. If you put a Meat Blobs out in the middle of a lush pasture (which our Chicken Tractor allows us to do) it will only investigate the grass and bugs immediately adjacent to where the food tray is located. So every morning we go out and move the tractor (and the feed tray) to a new spot with new grass and bugs, so that our chicken meat will have as much flavor from our “terroir” as possible. Unless your “free range” chicken source is moving their chickens every day what you’re getting is just about the same as non-free range chicken, only you’re paying more for the labelling.

The payoff, for us, is great tasting, honestly produced organic grain fed chicken meat for the year. We’ll raise twelve Meat Blobs to about four pounds each for a total of 48 pounds of chicken, and we’ll spend about $100 on chicks and organic feed for about a $1.20/lb. total cost (not including labor, of course). That’s probably equivalent to $4/lb. retail including all costs. That’s pretty close to our local store’s prices for premium organic birds. Our bonus is that we know exactly what they ate, and that part of their flavor comes from our land. Yum.

4 thoughts on “Where Do You Get Your Chicken?

  1. The chicken in my Arroz con Pollo story on Eats was a nearly three pound (including neck, head and feet) organic free range bird. Unlike your meat blobs, they had pretty good legs, small thighs, big breasts and tiny wings. I’ll have to ask about the breed. It was on sale at the Marin Sun Farms stand at the market for $6 per pound. It was damn good, but I probably won’t buy another one.

    What is the survival rate for your mail order chicks?
    Do you use your rooster “gifts” for breeding?
    Where do your layers go in the winter?

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  2. It sounds like your anatomically complete specimen was just a young-ish version of a meat blob because it had the big breasts and blocky frame. If you had gotten a layer or any other chicken breed, you would not have thought it was a chicken — a pheasant, perhaps — because it would look significantly scrawny. However, that shouldn’t scare you away from buying a nice old laying bird if you can find one — they make the BEST chicken stock in the world because they have 10 times more flavor than a weeks old meat blob. Congee (chinese chicken and rice porridge) made with one of these has no equal, especially on a cold winter night.

    To answer your questions:

    Murray McMurray guarantees safe delivery of chicks, and will refund for any “flat fluff-balls” found on arrival. In maybe ten deliveries over the years I’ve only had one delivery containing a flattie. After they arrive and have had a few days to adjust to our set-up, we will occasionally have one or two out of twenty five chicks die, but generally I’d say that we get well over 90% to survive to slaughter (ironic?).

    Interestingly, when I went to pick up my chicks this year, the postmistress told me that our chicks were in the “Sunday” mail bin, which means that they were delivered to Monroe on Sunday, but since there’s no one in our local PO on Sundays, no one called to have me come pick them up until Monday morning. I was concerned that our chicks had spend an “extra” day sitting in my local post office without water, feed, and heat, so I called Murray McMurray to ask how could they send chicks to a post office that is closed on Sundays??? They said that they’ve ALWAYS shipped chicks on Saturday, and that it sounds like it took them less time to get through the Boston sorting center to reach Monroe this time… The chicks seemed fine when I got them, and seem fine so far, so I guess they’ve always spent two days in their cardboard nest and I just didn’t know it.

    We have always kept a rooster or two around, as long as they’re not too mean (someday Alison will post the Pierre story), so our eggs have always been “bred” meaning fertile. Chicks will grow in the egg ONLY when the hen sits on them to heat them up — as long as you keep your eggs below 90°F, even fertile eggs will never contain anything resembling an embryo. Still, we probably could hatch some of them out instead of mail ordering them each year — all it takes is a “broody” hen and a place for her to sit undisturbed for 35 days or so. Our friend Moe does this regularly, and especially likes crossing “top hat” chickens with non-hat chickens to get funny hat designs. Up to now, however, we have not built a cage which would keep a hen on a nest, and keep other chickens (and pests who like eggs) out. So no, we have not tried breeding yet. At the same time, we now are regularly ordering meat blobs (which we couldn’t breed), so adding a few more layer replacements to that order is no big deal.

    Our layers live year-round in a little room on the south side of our barn that used to be the milk room (with pumps and tanks and sinks) when the farm was a dairy farm. We let the chickens out of this little room to scratch in and around the barn whenever we’re home to keep an eye on them. Believe it or not, they return to their roost in this room every night, so we don’t really have to fence them in — we just have to “close up the chickens” every night, otherwise they will get out when they wake up around dawn. During the coldest weather we don’t open the door to the room to let it warm up (especially if it’s sunny) as much as possible. But healthy layers have no problem going through a Maine winter (down to -30°F at night sometimes) as long as their protected from the weather.

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  3. So I guess hybrids and organics DO mix. I still haven’t given up on my idea to produce organic hybrid seed corn for the booming organic meat market. It’s the main bottleneck in that pipeline (at least it was five years ago and I bet it still is) and the premium paid for it will far outweigh the reduced yields — especially with the hybrid boost.

    Still, I’m surprised that you haven’t tried to shop around for old-timey meat breeds of chickens. I’m sure there’s plenty out there. I also wonder if you couldn’t take some young chicks to a nearby vet school and see if you can’t get some students to learn to caponize them (indeed, you could learn how yerself from instructions available on the web). Now that’s good eatin’.

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