If you find yourself with a surplus of cockerels that you don’t want to keep, don’t lose hope. With proper care, these birds can be transformed into a valuable source of homegrown food.
It’s common to end up with more male chicks than you need or want, whether due to local regulations, concerns about fertilization, or fear of aggression. But there’s no reason to worry! By approaching the situation with some foresight and an open mind, excess cockerels can be raised humanely and turned into a delicious source of meat.
When hatching eggs, the chances of getting male chicks are roughly 50%, whether you’re using an incubator or a broody chicken. With unsexed chicks from a hatchery or farm store, the male-to-female ratio may be lower or higher than 50%, but it’s a reasonable expectation to have at least half the chicks turn out to be male. However, even if you purchase “pullets” (female-only chicks), there’s still a chance that some may turn out to be cockerels due to the margin of error in vent sexing, which has an accuracy rate of about 90%.
For breeds that can’t be autosexed or sex-linked, it may take a few weeks before you can determine the sex of the chicks. Male chicks may exhibit physical characteristics like faster comb growth, larger body size, and longer hackle and sickle feathers, as well as behavioral traits such as assertiveness and chest-bumping with other chicks. However, these signs may not be obvious in some breeds or individual birds, and it may not be clear whether you have a male bird until it starts crowing.
If you end up with more males than you want, you can try to re-home them, but keeping them is also an option. Male birds raised on your farm can be a delicious source of homegrown chicken.
On our farm, we frequently hatch eggs and accept the reality of raising cockerels. Once we can determine the sex of the chicks, which usually happens around 3 to 4 weeks for the breeds we raise, we move the males to secure low tractors or hoop tractors located away from the females. This separation reduces the likelihood of conflict and allows us to raise the cockerels to an ideal weight.
The breeds we raise are dual-purpose, intended to provide both eggs and meat. Consequently, they grow more slowly than meat-specific breeds, which allows for the development of more complex and flavorful meat. Commercially raised chickens, such as Cornish Cross, are typically processed by 6 to 8 weeks of age, which results in comparatively bland flavor.
We move our cockerels frequently on pasture, ensuring that they have access to fresh bugs and greens in addition to the high-protein fermented feed we provide. In their tractors, the cockerels can dust-bathe, bask in the sun, get some exercise, and make choices about where to sleep and which bugs to chase. The dual-purpose birds we raise have small breasts and large thighs, which is a sign of their unimpaired mobility.
Our cockerels reach their peak growth at around 5 months old. If they continue to mature beyond this point, they may become more aggressive and engage in dominance-related conflict more frequently. At this point, we begin processing them.
Processing birds at home
Processing chickens for personal consumption is an involved process, but it can be done on a small scale with some basic supplies and equipment. If you are only handling a few birds at a time, you can likely make do with supplies that you already have on hand.
One essential item that you’ll need is a clean plastic garbage can lined with a garbage bag to contain the feathers and other discarded parts. You’ll also need a stainless-steel prep table, or any table that can be thoroughly disinfected before and after use.
A large plastic tub for keeping the carcasses cool in ice, sharp knives and a sharpening steel, plastic bags for the carcasses, organs, and feet, paper towels, bleach or other disinfectant, ice, and running water are also necessary.
In addition to these basic supplies, you will also need a way to scald the carcasses prior to plucking. A turkey-frying setup (burner, liquid propane tank, and sturdy stainless-steel stockpot) works well for this purpose.
To prepare for processing day, we withhold supplemental food from the birds the day prior to processing. This helps ensure the birds’ digestive tracts are empty, which makes the processing environment cleaner, particularly when dressing out birds. However, whether to withhold supplemental food is a matter of preference.
On processing day, we carry each bird to the processing area, keeping them calm by talking to them along the way. We understand that this is their one “bad day” (really, a few bad moments), and we want to minimize stress as much as possible.
We keep any birds awaiting processing far from our work area so they don’t hear or smell the activities. Ideally, they shouldn’t be aware of what’s occurring. We do our processing in a sheltered area well away from the waiting birds, and we usually end up trekking out into the pasture to retrieve birds two at a time from their tractors.
Once we are ready to begin processing, we place the birds into killing cones to hold them in place. We use cut-down traffic cones for this purpose. We then quickly remove their heads with one swift cut from a sharp pair of loppers.
It’s typical for the birds to have a reflexive movement after decapitation, so we keep the bodies in the cones until they’re still. We prefer this method because it’s quick and nearly foolproof, in keeping with our aim of humane processing. However, if you’re new to processing chickens, learn how to properly dispatch a bird before you attempt it.
Next, we scald the carcasses to loosen the feathers and facilitate hand-plucking. Plucking is the most labor-intensive and time-consuming part of the process, and if your budget allows for a mechanical plucker, it’ll save you a lot of time and effort. However, we haven’t been able to justify buying a plucker for the relatively small number of birds we process, so we just do it the old-fashioned way.
Once the carcasses are cleanly plucked, we eviscerate them and then give them a final rinse. Next, we bag the carcasses and place them in ice water to keep cool until packaging. If you’re new to processing, familiarize yourself with the conditions for safely storing processed chickens until you can get them bagged and into a freezer or refrigerator.
Though we’ve used shrink bags for packaging in the past, we prefer to vacuum-seal our processed birds because we’ve had far fewer failures with vacuum-sealed bags. After recording the date, breed, and weight of the processed birds on the bags, we put them in our chest freezer until we’re ready to cook chicken. Recording this data is useful for comparing the growth rates of different breeds to inform future planning.
Techniques for tender meat
When it comes to taste, there is no comparison between the pasture-raised chickens we raise and the commercially-raised birds sold in grocery stores. Our chickens are raised in a free-range environment that allows them to move around, peck for food, and enjoy the sunshine. This lifestyle translates into a more flavorful and nutrient-dense meat, thanks to the terroir of their environment and the specific breeds we raise.
We believe in using every part of the chicken possible, as it is not only respectful but also ensures nothing goes to waste. This includes the organs, such as the gizzard, heart, and liver, which are all highly nutritious and can be enjoyed by humans and pets alike. Even if the idea of consuming organs doesn’t appeal to you, your furry friends will be grateful for the tasty treats.
When it comes to cooking the chicken, we have found that a pressure cooker is an excellent tool for making tender and delicious meals. This is especially helpful when cooking pastured rooster, which can be tough due to its age. A pressure cooker can tenderize a fully frozen bird, eliminating the need for lengthy thawing times, and it makes collagen-rich bone broth much more quickly than other methods we’ve tried.
For a slightly frozen cockerel of about 5 months old, we typically pressure-cook it for about 45 minutes. For an older rooster of 1 year or older, we increase the cook time to around an hour. Checking for tenderness is essential, and we use the fork-poking method to make sure we get it right. The result is always a tender and juicy bird that can be used in a variety of meals, including soups, ramen, sandwiches, and casseroles.
One of our favorite ways to use our farm-raised chicken is to make a warm and comforting chicken soup. This dish is deceptively simple but incredibly nourishing, thanks to the complex flavor of our pasture-raised chicken and the luscious bone broth we create from the bones. It’s a meal that not only satisfies our taste buds but also supports our overall health and wellbeing.
In conclusion, our pasture-raised chickens are not only more flavorful and nutrient-dense than commercially-raised birds, but they are also a more sustainable and respectful way of raising animals. By using every part of the chicken and making delicious meals with them, we honor their life and the impact they have on our lives.
A final word
Growing your own food is more than just a hobby or a trend – it’s a way of life that promotes self-sufficiency, sustainability, and a deeper connection to nature. For those who are interested in taking the first steps toward growing their own food, raising chickens for meat can be an excellent starting point.
As discussed earlier, raising pasture-raised chickens provides a unique flavor profile that is hard to find in commercially raised birds. By raising and processing your own chickens, you have the power to control their diet and environment, resulting in a high-quality, nutrient-dense meat. Moreover, by utilizing the entire bird, including the organs and bones, you can maximize the benefits and minimize waste.
Pressure-cooking is an efficient method of cooking pasture-raised chickens, which saves time and energy while retaining the nutritional value and flavor of the meat. With an electric pressure cooker, you can cook a fully frozen bird and create a collagen-rich bone broth in a matter of hours. This delicious and nourishing broth can be used as a base for soups, stews, and other dishes.
Raising and processing chickens for meat is not just about the end product – it’s about the entire process. It teaches us about where our food comes from and how it is produced. It also provides us with a sense of accomplishment and pride in knowing that we are capable of producing our own food.
In conclusion, growing your own food, specifically raising cockerels for meat, can be a fulfilling and rewarding experience. It allows us to become more self-sufficient, promotes sustainable practices, and provides us with a deeper appreciation for the food we eat.
Suggested resources for preppers:
7 Essentials When Choosing Chickens For Your Homestead
The #1 food of Americans during the Great Depression
Protect Your Chickens From Their Top Predators
If you see this plant when foraging or gardening, don’t touch it!