Messy. And delicious.
That’s how I’d sum up raising meat chickens.
I guess technically it’s not our first year raising meat birds, as we did have a small test-run last year. But this is the first time we’ve had a larger bunch, so I’m calling it our first “official” year.
I don’t really feel qualified to write a definitive, all-encompassing “how to raise meat chickens” post since we’re still new at this, but I did want to share our experiences. (And I wanted to write everything down so I don’t forget… You wouldn’t believe how often I Google my own blog to remember something.) So here ya go.
We started with 25 Cornish Cross meat chicks this winter and we’ll likely get another 20-25 later in the year. That puts us at about one chicken per week for meals and I feel like that’s plenty, at least for us. (We have tons of homegrown beef and pork to eat, too. Especially beef. SO. MUCH. BEEF.)
Where to Buy Meat Chicks
We ordered chicks from Meyer Hatchery this year. We didn’t lose a single meat chick during shipping (unfortunately I couldn’t say the same for the Wyandottes we got at the same time, but I don’t think that was the hatchery’s fault) and they were extremely hardy during their first few weeks in the brooder.
There are other larger hatcheries out there as well (Murray McMurray is another common one), although if you are looking at getting heritage meat breeds, you may need to find a specialty hatchery or order from a smaller supplier.
The Breed Debate
After trying both Red Rangers (a heritage variety) and Cornish Cross meat birds during our trial run last year, we decided to go 100% with Cornishes this round.
Contrary to popular belief, Cornish Cross birds are a hybrid breed– not GMO (there’s a big difference). Some people dislike them because they are prone to leg issues (because they grow so fast) but after talking with a number of chicken folks, it seems as though the majority of those problems can be avoided by proper rationing.
During our comparisons last year, we just couldn’t argue with how much more efficient they were– they grew a much greater amount of meat in a shorter time period. So as much as I love heirloom things, this time practicality/economics wins for me…
We didn’t experience any of the horror stories that seem to float around about Cornishes, although we did have two who seemed to have leg issues the last week. (We also were a little late on butchering, so that probably didn’t help.)
Sure, they are a little lazy and they are definitely obsessed with food… But I guess that doesn’t bother me. I wouldn’t like them if I was looking for a new pet, but they are meat animals. Therefore, I’m fine if eating/growing is their main goal in life.
If you prefer Freedom Rangers or Red Rangers, that’s awesome. Isn’t it fun how we can all have our own preferences and opinions? 😉
What to Feed Meat Birds
Spoiler alert: We used unmedicated meat bird starter/grower from the feed store… So if you were hoping for a super-awesome DIY Meat Bird Feed Recipe like the one I have for layers, I’m sorry to disappoint. I haven’t come up with a proper balanced ration yet (proper protein content is important for fast-growing meat birds), so we just opted to purchase feed this time around. Maybe we’ll have something else figured out for the next batch.
I had a number of folks on Facebook asking how much we fed… And when I get questions like this I desperately wish I was more of a numbers person… But alas, I am not. So my answer? I have no earthly idea. We fed a big scoop in the morning and a big scoop in the evening. The feeder would run out in between feedings, which is a good thing considering free-choice feeding for meat birds can cause growth issues.
They had the option to forage/peck around their chicken run, and they did that a little. However, they are not nearly as active as a layer would be, which brings us to the next point:
Shelter for Meat Birds
It took us approximately 1.5 hours on the day the chicks arrived to figure out we could absolutely not keep the laying chicks and the meat bird chicks together. The delicate Wyandotte chicks were no match for the stampeding meat chicks and trampling became a very real concern.
From that point on, we kept the meat birds in a separate brooder, and then transferred them into a bigger pen a few weeks later.
The biggest difference between layers and meat chickens is:
a) Meat birds don’t seem to be nearly as intelligent and therefore are less prone to figure out how to go in/out of a door…Or maybe they just don’t care.
b) Meat birds poop a lot. Like, a LOT.
This meant their indoor pen would get nasty extremely fast… We had to strip it every other day, lest it get so wet and stinky it was unbearable.
During the last few weeks when the weather warmed up a bit, we would put them outside into the adjoining pen to get fresh air (and also keep them from destroying their inside pen as quickly). It was a pain, though, as most of the meat birds couldn’t figure out how to go in/out of the door, and we had to move each one individually.
For future batches, we’re planning on making more of a mobile pen or chicken tractor, as stripping the pen every other day isn’t my favorite task…
When to Butcher
Cornish Cross birds are generally ready to butcher between 8-10 weeks of age. Slower-growing heritage breeds will take longer than that (sometimes twice as long).
When you purchase your chicks, be sure to check the calendar and mark when they will be at butchering age, as you do not want to let the chicks too far past that. (Otherwise you’ll end up with leg issues.)
We were at the 9-10 week mark when we butchered ours, and we ended up with 5-6 lb birds (after processing).
How to Butcher Chickens
Since that’s a whole ‘nother process, I have a separate post with pics for you on how to butcher a chicken over here. And if you’re leery of the emotional aspect of killing an animal you’ve raised, here are my thoughts on that.
Eating Homegrown Chicken
The very best part… Roasted homegrown chicken is one of my favorite simple meals. I keep my process simple and either toss the whole bird in the slow cooker with seasonings for rotisserie-style chicken, or rub it down with olive oil and herbs and roast in the oven for several hours.
Depending on the size of the chicken and the size of your crew, a roasted chicken will stretch 1-3 meals, plus you’ll have beautiful bones for homemade chicken stock afterwards.
Growing your own food is hard, dirty, frustrating, all-consuming, and somehow strangely addictive.
It feels good to master a new skill. It feels good to have a hand in growing the food you eat. It feels good to be a producer instead of just a consumer. It feels good to set a goal, and see it through to the end.
That’s why we continue to do it year after year, and that’s why I don’t think I’ll ever stop. I’m completely and utterly addicted.
If you’re looking for even more information, my friend, Justin Rhodes, has created the definitive course when it comes to doing chickens the natural way– packed full of actionable information, tutorials, and more! The Rhodes family is the real deal, and if you want to know everything about chicken, this course is for you.
More Chicken Posts for You:
- How to Butcher a Chicken
- Preparing for New Baby Chicks
- Homemade Electrolyte Solution for Chicks
- 15+ Ways to Save on Chicken Feed
- Beginner’s Guide to Chicken Coops
- Fly Control Strategies for the Chicken Coop
- How to Build a Chicken Run