Raising chickens for meat, either as broilers or roaster chickens is one way to be assured of the quality of chicken you are feeding your family.
Our family raises 150 meat birds each year, and we will can and freeze the meat to eat throughout the rest of the year. The breed we use most often for our broilers and roaster chickens is the Cornish Cross. We have found that this breed produces the best tasting meat chickens. Other meat chickens breeds are White Mountains or Red Rangers. They can be ordered from your local farm supply store, or online.
Raising roaster chickens, or raising broilers from start to finish is the same process, regardless of the breed. With the exception of different feed and time spent, raising chickens for meat is not that different than raising chickens for meat and eggs.
When raising chickens for meat, they will need about ½ sq. foot of space per bird
until they are 2 weeks of age, then you will need to provide 1 sq. foot of space per bird until processing time. If you can provide them with 2-3 sq. feet of space per bird, they will have much more room to move around, and the floor will stay cleaner and drier. If you use litter for the flooring, it should be maintained to a depth that is dry and fluffy, somewhere around 6 inches deep. If you have them on fresh grass, moving their pen daily will keep them healthy. When they are on excessively wet, caked, or dirty litter or ground, they can develop breast blisters. Breast blisters can easily lead to a loss of that meat.
Having constant access to clean water is a key to bird health. You will want to refresh their water on a regular basis. This means at least once a day, twice when it’s hotter outside. We have added pennies to the watering bases to encourage them to peck at the shiny objects and drink more. Placing a light yard sprinkler by the waterers will give them a “shower” as they get a drink. This will help cool them off.
Even chickens for meat like dust baths to stay cool, but when they get larger, they are not always able to kick enough dust on themselves to cool off. Providing a sprinkler, plenty of water and shade will keep them cool.
As for what to feed meat chickens, a higher protein food is needed. The feed that layer chickens will get is lower in protein, usually 16-18%. Roaster chickens for meat, or broilers need a feed that is 21% protein to gain weight properly.
Feeders must also be large enough to supply the flock’s needs for at least a full day. They will need to consume feed in order to gain weight. You will want to plan for about 10 lbs of feed per bird from chick to market weight. You can get them to consume more feed just by going out there 3-4 times a day, and adding as little as ½ cup of feed to the feeder, and they will think they need to eat again since you are adding more food.
This is one of the tricks in how to make a broiler chicken grow faster. You need to provide plenty of feed at all times. Placing a light over the food at night will also keep them eating more. If the food is there, and they can see it, they will eat.
When raising chickens for meat, understand that a meat bird that is considered a “roaster” is about 6-8 pounds in weight.
If you are wondering how long do you raise meat chickens, the answer is “depends on how big you want them.” Broilers and roaster chickens are the exact same breed, and the only difference is their weight. They will weigh in at 3.5-5 pounds when they are processed, or butchered, and that is usually around 6 weeks of age. Waiting longer than 8 weeks to process the birds can lead to some issues such as heart attacks and broken legs. They simply are not “designed” to carry the weight they put on so fast.
A big issue that can come about with chickens for meat is breast blisters and bumble foot.
Breast blisters can occur when the birds are laying in a lot of manure constantly. Because they gain weight so quickly, they spend a lot of time laying on their breasts. To avoid the blisters, and losing that part of the meat at processing, make sure they have clean ground and/or litter to lay on. It won’t be uncommon to have to move a free ranging pen several times a day during the last two weeks of their lives. If you have them in a penned area, keeping the litter clean and dry is a must. You may have to change it two times a day the last two weeks as well.
Bumble foot is when the ammonia from the manure gets on their feet, and they have no way to get it off.
They will get blisters on their feet, and in many cases will no longer be able to walk. Keeping their run on fresh grass, or their pen clean will keep this problem to a minimum.
When it comes time to slaughter, or process, you have a couple of options.
Either you can do it yourself, or you can take them to someone and have them do it for you. If you choose to have someone do it for you, ask around to people you know who have had it done to get recommendations. You can also call your local county extension office for referrals.
When you make an appointment to have your chickens processed, a key thing to remember is that they will be very busy in the week or two following a local county fair. Most of the 4H members will now have their projects taken in to be processed. If you can get them processed before this, or three weeks after, you shouldn’t have any problems.
If you can, go inspect the place before you take your birds there.
Check for cleanliness of the place itself, the equipment, and check the sinks. Do they have a hand washing sink by the processing place and is it stocked with soap and towels? Is the floor clean and free of debris, blood, or feathers? Do they have a walk in cooler and is it clean? If they don’t have a walk in cooler, how do they keep the chicken cold before you come to pick it up?
You will also want to know in advance what their prices are for the whole bird, and to have them cut it up for you in pieces.
Do they charge for keeping the heart, gizzards, and livers for you? Can you get the feet and heads back? Once you have made your appointment, and are satisfied with the place, the process is pretty simple. You will transport your live birds to them, and pick them up when they are done, usually the next day. Most places will have the cages to put them in, and if you ask, will let you take the cages home to put the birds in to return to them. Remember to bring a cooler or two with you to take your meat home in.
Processing the birds yourself can be tricky, but once you get the hang of it is easy.
You can check out how we processed a chicken ourselves here. But I will tell you that if you are doing it yourself, it can be messy. Wear old clothes, and have a LARGE pot of boiling water at the ready before you start. You can compost the insides of the chicken, the blood, and the feathers as well.