Raising Meat Chickens
Even though the first day of winter was only a month ago, it is time to start planning for raising meat chickens during the coming spring.
If you’re still straddling the fence, I hope this article helps you decide if you’re able, or most importantly, if raising meat chickens is right for you.
First Things First
Processing your own food, whether it’s fruits and vegetables or meat, increases your self-reliance. It also ensures your chickens are raised humanely in a clean and cage free environment.
Supplying your family with natural organic meat, free from growth hormones and antibiotics, is an important reason for deciding to raise meat chickens. Add in the amazing taste of farm fresh chicken meat and you’ll wonder why you never raised your own before.
Not everyone wants to or is able to raise their own meat chickens. Some cities and suburb areas may not allow backyard chickens, and if they do, the number of chickens may be limited. Others may not have the space or have neighbors that object to raising chickens.
Then there is the last aspect of raising meat chickens. After putting the work and effort into preparing your chickens for the table, can you process them? You can take them to a processor, but even this might be difficult to do.
I won’t lie to you, the first butchering is hard for most backyard chicken farmers. Some find it more difficult than others do, making the first and most important consideration before raising meat chickens.
If your area allows chickens, you have the space for them, and you’re okay with the emotional aspect of butchering, consider giving it a shot. For many of you, you’ll be glad you did.
Once you’ve decided raising meat chickens is for you, research the breeds. There are different meat breeds as well as dual purpose breeds, good for both egg laying and meat production. Deciding which breed to buy is an important first step.
For your first batch of meat chickens, start small, keeping your group to no more than five or six. A good rule of thumb is buy one or two extra chicks since it is common for a chick or two to die.
Keep your choices simple by staying with a well-known breed like the Cornish Cross. They are inexpensive and available at most local feed stores or online hatcheries.
There is a lot of negative discussion about this breed, causing most first time backyard chickens farmers to pass them up. I’ve seen many horror stories about the Cornish Cross’ growing so fast they develop issues with supporting their weight and various health problems like heart attacks.
Speaking from experience, I can tell you, if done correctly, Cornish Cross chickens are easy to raise without any health issues. We’ve successfully raised many Cornish Cross flocks and consider this bird a great meat flock for beginners.
The two biggest mistakes flock owners make with this breed is over feeding and not butchering soon enough. When our Cornish reach 3 weeks old, we only feed them during the day, removing their food at night. If food is left out, these birds continually eat, causing them to gain too much weight, too quickly.
The Cornish Cross’ constant eating contributes to their rapid growth, making them ready to butcher at 8 weeks. Removing their food at night helps slow the growth process.
While you can butcher any time you want, we recommend 8 weeks. You’ll get a bigger bird by waiting longer than 8 weeks and not cutting back their feed, but they’ll also have the health problems you see mentioned. The 8 week butchering time frame is 2 weeks less than other meat chicken breeds and at least, one or two months before the dual purpose breeds are ready. By following these suggestions you should do great with raising the Cornish Cross.
There is also the option of raising dual purpose breeds, like the Delaware. Currently, we only use dual purpose chickens as egg layers, then for meat if we need to thin the flock for more productive layers.
The Cost of Raising Meat Chickens
No matter which breed you buy, always try keeping costs under $10 per bird, which includes the cost of the bird, shipping, and feed.
By choosing the right breed, raising meat chickens costs much less than you might think. If your backyard chicken farm is already set up, then the only cost you have is your chicks, feed, and possibly the brooder.
If you don’t have a brooder set up, you can make one fairly cheap by using repurposed items. You basic brooder needs are a container to keep the chicks in, a heat light, bedding, and feeders and waterers.
For the container, just about anything will do that has high enough sides to keep the chicks in, and provides a safe environment. We bought a used stock tank for $25 at our local feed store and it gives us a safe place for all our new chicks for years to come. You can also use plastic kiddie pools, even a sturdy cardboard box.
Whatever you use, all brooders must have the following characteristics:
- Enough space for each chick to easily move around
- Safe from any sharp objects or safety hazards
- Easy to clean or discard, like a cardboard box (Cornish crosses poop a lot)
- Easy to move
- Heat source – I recommend the EcoGlow for low-cost operation
- Easy to reach food and water*
* Water containers must not be too deep because your chicks can drown. For new chicks, I recommend a water nipple system or a drown-proof waterer specifically made for young chicks, like a mason jar waterer.
After Cornish Cross chicks are past the brooder age, about 3 weeks, you can move them to a larger area, as long as they are not showing any signs of illness. For other breeds, usually 6 weeks is a good time to start moving them.
No matter what breed you choose, you need to separate young chicks from older chickens and give them time to acclimate with the flock before mixing them together.
Our chickens are part-time free rangers. However, we rarely let the Cornish free range since, quite honestly, they are lousy foragers. Maybe if we let them free range from leaving the brooder to processing time, they might get better, but we have never tested that theory. Our other breeds are allowed to free range once we know they can get along with the older chickens.
When raising chickens for food, we are very respectful to the birds for giving their life to nourish our family. We follow the path of many Native American practices of giving thanks to each animal that dies so that we many have sustenance.
Our respect for each animal includes a happy, healthy life, with a never-ending supply of fresh food and water, and clean and roomy living areas. For our meat chickens, we minimize stress to the birds as much as possible by butchering quickly and efficiently using a cone system.
Once butchered, we use almost every part of the chicken. The meat, of course, is for human consumption and the feet, organs, and bones we add to chicken stock. We further utilize leftover bones after making stock by putting them in the burn pile or fireplace, then mixing the ashes in with the garden soil.
I was exposed to raising poultry, from incubation to butchering, at a young age. Learning to raise and eventually butcher teaches compassion while showing a meal’s true value. This lifestyle has taught us and our family thankfulness for even the smallest things in life. What many people take for granted, like where our food comes from and under what conditions, we understand and respect.
When to Start
Winter is the time to start planning and gathering materials for backyard chicken farming. Just researching and deciding on a breed to raise takes time. Then if you’re brand new to raising meat chickens or any type of chickens, you need time to build housing, buy supplies, and prepare the area for your flock.
If you live farther south, like us, you can start your flock indoors in early to mid-March and have a batch of Cornish Crosses ready to butcher by May. We butcher at two different times during the year; before the end of June and the end of October to the first of November. We don’t like the messy business of butchering chickens during the heat of summer. So try planning your flock of meat chickens around the seasons where you live. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
To be honest, raising meat chickens is time-consuming and at times, hard work. My husband and I work full-time jobs, yet are able to support a small urban homestead with 25 laying hens, and at least 10 meat chickens each year. We feed them, see to their needs, and butcher them when the time comes. And in our spare time, we garden and preserve a large part of our own food.
I feel confident that if we can do it, so can others. It’s not always easy, but you’ll find the pros far outweigh the cons.