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. Let me show you some tips from what we learned on how to raise chickens for meat.
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 best chicken breeds for meat, the one we use most often for our broilers and roaster chickens are Cornish Cross chickens.
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 chickens for meat, such as 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.
However, before you invest in a flock of meat chickens, you need to ask yourself whether this is something you definitely, 100% want to do.
To raise enough chicken for your entire family for the entire year, you are going to have to have a lot of birds – that means a lot of poop, and it means you are going to have to slaughter the chickens eventually.
While this is a natural part of homesteading, you need to make sure that it’s something that you, personally, can handle before you jump into the endeavor.
Best Chicken Breeds to Raise for Meat
Obviously, the first step in raising chickens for meat is to get your hands on some broiler chicks. You can purchase these from your local farm store or you can order them online and have them shipped to you. Or, if you are feeling particularly enterprising, you can purchase hatching eggs from a local source and try to incubate your own baby chicks! It’s up to you.
Where you get your chicks from is your decision – but know that the type of bird that you get is very, very important. When you are 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.
Don’t think that you can just go out back to your laying hen’s chicken coop and stick a few of those in the roasting pan, either. These chickens tend to be a bit more on the thin side, because all of their energy goes directly into egg production -plus, they have been bred over generations for their egg production, not breast size.
You can raise separate flocks of laying and broiler chickens, or you can opt for a dual-purpose breed. A dual -purpose chicken, like a New Hampshire Red, won’t be the best at laying or the best at meat production, but it will provide a good middle ground. Here are some good dual-purpose chickens to think about:
- Brown Leghorn
- Rhode Island Red
- New Hampshire Red
- Speckled Sussex
However, if you want to raise chickens solely for meat production, know that it will take up to twelve weeks to raise a broiler chicken to maturity in some cases.
In others, as I mentioned, it will only take six. Do your research on the breed so that you will know exactly when it needs to be slaughtered.
Here are some good broiler breeds to consider for your farm:
- Cornish Cross (or the regular Cornish)
- Jersey Giant
- Freedom Rangers
As I mentioned, we went with Cornish Cross chickens. Many people assume that these chickens are GMO – this is not true. They are a hybrid breed, but they were bred naturally between two non-GMO parents.
This chicken breed grows out quickly, and while they can be prone to some health issues, you can avoid these by maintaining a good butchering calendar.
When raising chickens for meat, they will need about ½ sq. foot of space per bird. When you are starting out. This isn’t a lot of space – but they are going to grow rapidly.
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.
You have a few options in terms of how you set up your chicken housing. Since meat birds grow out so quickly, you have more housing options than you would if you were raising a flock of laying hens to be kept throughout the entire season.
A popular option for raising meat birds is in chicken tractors. Chicken tractors are portable chicken housing that can be moved around on pasture in your back lawn. You move the tractor every day, or every few days, depending on your stocking density, and the chickens have access to fresh grass each and every day.
A major benefit of raising your chickens in a chicken tractor is that they are always on fresh ground so there is no need to control for parasites or other illnesses. Your feed bills will be dramatically lower, since the birds can forage, and the upfront costs to build a chicken tractor tend to be a lot less than those involved in building or buying a fixed-location coop.
Basically, chicken tractors just need to offer shelter from the wind and rain. You can use tarps, even, to suit this purpose, as long as your birds are protected against predators.
However, if you want to build a permanent structure, a coop is a great option, too. Just make sure you give your birds some access to outsides pace. As meat chickens, they won’t need a ton of room to roam, but remember that giving your chickens access to green grass and sunshine will reduce your likelihood of disease – plus, it will reduce the frequency with which you need to clean the coop!
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.
You also need to make sure your meat chickens have a good roost bar system. They will need a place to sleep up and off the ground (disregard this, of course, if your chickens are in a chicken tractor) and these roost bars shouldn’t be quite as high as they might be if you were raising laying chickens.
The reason for this is that as they grow larger, your chickens’ legs won’t be quite as strong as they used to be – you don’t want them to break their legs hopping off the roost.
You won’t need nest boxes in your chicken coop, as you would with a flock of laying hens, but you will need to make sure your coop is properly ventilated.
This can prevent things like chicken lice and chicken mites and it will also keep your chickens cooler in the hot days of summer. Make sure your coop offers protection from predators, especially when your chickens are young.
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. In addition to a dust bath, you should make sure that your chickens are given ample shade.
This is one of the major benefits of a chicken tractor – on a particularly hot day, you can move them to a shady location under a tree, but if It’s cold, you can put them out in the sunlight.
Food and Water
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.
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.
While you can easily make your own DIY chicken feeds to save money, it’s a good idea to use soybeans in your meat bird feed, as these tend to fatten up your birds the quickest.
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 to 15 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.
A good option, if you are pressed for time, is just to provide free access to feed. Many farmers do this to encourage their birds to eat. Remember, if your chickens don’t have water, they will be less likely to eat – you need to make sure they have plenty of fresh, clean water to help them prevent dehydration and to encourage them to eat on the hottest days of summer.
I recommend putting the water on the other side of the chicken pen. Some broiler breeds of chicken have a tendency to be extremely lazy – if you have food and water on two opposite ends of the pen, this will force them to get up every now and then. This way, they will form lean muscle instead of tons of fat -which is what you want in a meat chicken.
A big issue that can come about with raising 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.
It is technically a bacteria – the staphylococcus bacteria, to be precise – that enters the chicken’s bloodstream through a scratch or another injury. It affects all kinds of chickens, not just meat birds, but is more likely in sensitive broiler breeds.
It leads to permanent lameness if left untreated. Giving your chickens access to fresh pasture every day is a great way to prevent bumblefoot from decimating your flock.
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.
As I already mentioned, meat birds can also develop lameness as they rapidly grow. Basically, they stop being able to walk because their bodies are too heavy for their small legs to carry them. They may have trouble walking and eventually may collapse altogether, eventually being trampled by the other birds.
You can prevent this by reducing the growth rate. While it’s tempting to want to feed your chickens at all hours of the night, pulling their food during the evening hours can reduce lameness if you have this concern. You should also keep track of when the birds are ready to be butchered and try not to go past that date to avoid any undue stress to the animal.
In some cases, meat birds can also suffer from early heart failure. Similar to the issue mentioned above, this is caused when the small hearts and lungs of the bird simply can’t keep up with the rapid growth rate of the rest of the body. It can be dealt with in the same ways you would prevent lameness in a flock of meat birds.
Butchering Your Meat Birds
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.
There are also mobile chicken butchering facilities that sometimes handle this for you. However, if you want to do it yourself, processing the birds yourself is also a possibility.
The USDA allows on-farm slaughter in many cases without requiring inspection for this type of animal, so you can often get away with butchering your own chickens even if you plan to sell them to someone else (be sure to look up local laws, too, though, to make sure you are compliant).
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.
If you plan on butchering your own chickens on the farm, you will want to have some standard equipment on hand. For example, you will need some very sharp knives, a large pot for scalding or a scalding machine, and a chicken plucker. You can pluck your birds by hand, but it takes a very long time to do and can get tedious if you are processing a lot of birds.
You can compost the insides of the chicken, the blood, and the feathers as well.
It is entirely possible to use the whole chicken to make you feel less guilty about the butchering process – some people even rave about how chicken feet make an excellent addition to chicken stock!
Something else to keep in mind is that you will want to age your chickens before you put them in the freezer or process them in any way. When you butcher a chicken, it will begin going into the process of rigor mortis almost immediately. Freeze the chicken immediately after butchering it, and it will be tough and stringy when you go to eat it.
A good way to avoid this is by putting it in the refrigerator to “age” for a few days before you package and freeze it. It works wonders and your thawed meat when you go to eat it later on will be incredibly juicy and tender.
Do you raise chickens for meat? What breed of boilers or roaster chickens would you like to try? Be sure to pin this for later!
updated by Rebekah White July 27th 2019
Heather’s homesteading journey started in 2006, with baby steps: first, she got a few raised beds, some chickens, and rabbits. Over the years, she amassed a wealth of homesteading knowledge, knowledge that you can find in the articles of this blog.