The promise of a chicken in every pot just got easier with our guide to raising broiler chickens. Here's the scratch on raising meat chickens — everything from poultry breeds to organic poultry feed.
Because their rapid growth results in lower overall food costs, hybrid chickens are more economical to raise than heritage poultry breeds.
Photo By Wayne Hutchinson
Raising broiler chickens can put meat on your table quicker and with less effort than raising any other livestock. In just a handful of weeks, your chicks will reach target weight and your larder can be stocked with meat that's tastier and better for you than anything you could buy at the grocery store. Plus, raising meat chickens lets you opt out of the profoundly inhumane industrial food-production system. The choice between hybrid or heritage breeds, confinement or free range, and conventional or organic feed are entirely up to you.
Growing broilers — young chickens with pliable skin and tender meat — involves making several choices. Your first decision is whether to raise hybrid or heritage poultry breeds. The fundamental differences are the amount of time they need to grow and the flavor of the meat. The quicker your birds reach the target weight of about 6 pounds, the cheaper they are to raise overall and the more delicate the meat. The longer they take, the more they'll cost you (as is the case with heritage breeds), but the meat will be healthier and more flavorful.
White hybrids. The most efficient hybrid broiler chickens are an industrial creation developed by combining White Cornish and White Plymouth Rock genetics. The resulting hybrids — the type most commonly sold at the supermarket — grow and feather rapidly. Chicks of the same age and sex grow at the same rate and efficiently convert feed into meat, reaching target weight in just six to seven weeks. Their edible portion (excluding excess fat, intestines, feathers, heads, feet and blood) is approximately 75 percent of live weight.
Under careful management these broad-breasted hybrid broiler chickens will consume approximately 2 pounds of feed for every pound of weight gained. Unless they're raised on range, hybrid chickens must be butchered as soon as they reach target weight, or they will develop bone ailments or die of heart failure as a result of their excessively rapid growth.
White Cornish hybrids have fewer feathers to pluck and no underlying hair-like feather to singe off, making them easier and faster to clean than other broiler chickens. I like roasting them with the skin intact. When I raise other broiler breeds, I skin them because it's faster than plucking the feathers off. However, you can choose to pluck your birds regardless of breed.
Colored hybrids. These broilers were developed for France’s famous Label Rouge organic free-range chickens and adopted by some producers in the United States. Trade names include Black Broiler, Color Yield, Colored Range, Freedom Ranger, Kosher King, Redbro, Red Broiler, Red Meat Maker, Rosambro and Silver Cross. Most strains have red plumage, but they also come in black, gray or barred — anything but white. Their colored feathers make them less visible to predators, especially hawks, but difficult to pluck cleanly so that the bare skin appears neat. (See Wrong About Freedom Rangers to learn more about colored hybrids.)
Colored hybrid broiler chickens are usually raised on pasture and grow more slowly than white hybrids — they take at least 11 weeks to reach target weight, and the chicks don’t necessarily grow at a uniform rate. They eat about 3 pounds of feed per pound of weight gained because of their longer growth period and the calories they burn while foraging. Some people find the meat of colored hybrids to be more flavorful than that of faster-growing white hybrids. The edible meat is approximately 70 percent of live weight.
Heritage poultry breeds. If you keep heritage chickens for eggs, you have the option of hatching eggs from your own flock, keeping the pullets as future layers and raising the surplus cockerels for meat. Delaware, New Hampshire, Plymouth Rock and Wyandotte are heritage poultry breeds with great potential as dual-purpose egg and meat chickens.
All of these breeds are good foragers and have a moderate to slow growth rate, reaching target weight in about 16 weeks. Compared with Cornish hybrids, they have thinner breasts and more dark meat. The higher foraging activity of heritage chickens results in meat that's lower in fat and firmer in texture. The meat has a richer chicken flavor because the birds are older when slaughtered.
Non-hybrids do not grow at a uniform rate and are not as efficient as hybrid chickens at converting feed to meat. Heritage chickens consume at least 4 pounds of ration per pound of weight gained, and the edible portion is only about 65 percent of live weight. See the Comparing Broiler Chickens chart for a summary of the pros and cons of raising hybrid or heritage poultry breeds for meat.
You'll need to take into account hybrids' size and rate of growth when brooding chicks. The birds eat almost constantly, rarely moving far from the feeder. They also drink a lot of water to wash down all that feed, The brooder house needs plenty of room to accommodate their body mass, as well as sufficient feeders and waterers.
The sheer size of hybrid chickens keeps them warmer than other broilers of the same age. My white hybrids are only 2 weeks old when they start panting, so I move them out of the heated brooder house into a more open area of the barn. White hybrids tend to suffer more in hot weather than most other broiler chickens. In a warm climate, they’re better off raised during the cooler days of spring or fall, regardless of whether they’re kept in confinement or on pasture. Colored hybrids and heritage chickens are better, but none of the breeds listed previously could be classified as highly heat-tolerant.
Another important decision you'll make when raising chickens for meat is how you'll confine the birds — inside a building or within a pasture shelter — or whether you'll allow them to roam freely. Each technique requires attention to ensure the birds' health and safety.
Indoor confinement involves housing chickens indoors on bedding and bringing them everything they eat until they are ready to harvest. This technique requires less land than pasturing because it only necessitates a sound shelter.
Broiler chickens are less likely to fall victim to predators when they're housed inside a secure building. Managing them also requires less time — after the facility is set up, you need only a few minutes each day to feed, water and check the chicks. This method is most suited to white hybrids because they don’t move around much.
The shelter could be the same structure in which the chicks are brooded, if you start with a limited area and expand the available space as they grow. Each bird needs about a half-square-foot up to the age of 2 weeks, and 2 to 3 square feet by the time they reach harvest weight. Accordingly, an 8-by-8-foot shed would accommodate about 25 broilers.
Roosts aren't necessary. Leg injuries can occur when heavy hybrid birds jump down, and perching can also cause breast blisters and crooked breastbones. Avoid these problems by providing confined broiler chickens with deep, soft, dry bedding instead of roosts.
Pasture confinement also involves raising broiler chickens inside a shelter with a feeder and waterer — but this shelter is portable, has no floor and is moved daily to provide the chickens with fresh forage. Giving birds access to grass results in meat that contains less fat and more omega-3s and other nutrients. One study has shown that pastured-poultry meat contains 50 percent more vitamin A, 30 percent less saturated fat and 28 percent fewer calories than meat from commercially-raised birds.
The upside of pasture confinement is a slight reduction in feed costs, especially if you move the shelter first thing each day to encourage hungry birds to forage before they receive their morning ration. One challenge presented by this confinement technique, however, is that you need enough good pasture to move the shelter to new ground daily, and you must do it each day. As they reach harvest size, broiler chickens graze plants faster and deposit a greater concentration of droppings, so they must be moved more often — sometimes at least twice a day — to maintain the health of the birds and to avoid burning the pasture with nitrogen-rich manure.
Weather permitting, hybrids may be moved outdoors when they're as young as 2 weeks old. They tend to become pen potatoes unless they're started on forage by 3 weeks of age. White hybrids don’t do well on pasture if the weather is much cooler than 65 degrees Fahrenheit or much warmer than 85 degrees, while other broiler chickens have a wider range of temperature tolerance.
Pasture shelters are usually made of welded wire or hardware cloth stapled to a wooden frame and roofed with a tarp or corrugated aluminum. Using the typical proportion of 1.2 square feet of pen space per bird (less room than is recommended for broiler chickens confined indoors), a 4-by-8-foot camper shell will handily pasture-confine about 25 broilers. The shelter may be designed to be moved by one person using a dolly, or by two or more people grabbing strategically placed handles.
If the land is uneven, dips along a shelter’s sides can invite predators in or allow birds to slip out. In rainy weather, puddles may accumulate inside the shelter. In all cases, the broilers spend the night sleeping in their manure. For these reasons, I prefer free ranging my pastured chickens.
In this context, "free range" means raising meat chickens in a portable shelter that offers daytime access to the outdoors — a system sometimes called "day ranging." The extra activity creates firm and flavorful meat, but also causes birds to eat more total ration because they take longer to reach target weight.
Free-ranging involves less labor than pasture confinement because you don’t have to move the shelter daily, but more labor than indoor confinement because you do have to move it occasionally. Unless you fit the shelter with an automatic door as protection against nighttime predators, you'll also have to shut in the chickens every night and let them out again in the morning.
A free-range shelter is generally a bit larger than pasture-confinements, may or may not have a floor, and is bedded with deep litter. It may be a tarp-covered portable hoop house, or a structure built on skids so it can be relocated periodically by a vehicle or draft animal.
A portable electric fence — usually plastic netting energized by a battery or solar controller — protects free-range poultry from ground predators and confines their foraging to one area of pasture outside the shelter. The fence is moved periodically to a fresh patch until the whole area surrounding the shelter has been grazed. Depending on the size of your pasture and the number of birds, you may need to move both the shelter and the fence to a fresh section of pasture after your chickens have grazed down the original spot.
Heritage poultry breeds retain some of the foraging instincts of their ancestors, so they take to grazing quite readily. Hybrid chickens don’t think highly of getting out and about unless introduced to pasture early, but they do roam more than in confinement, and the increased energy use slows their growth and makes them less susceptible to leg problems. The end result is a trade-off between faster growth and better bird health, more humane treatment and more flavorful meat.
Aside from maintaining clean bedding or providing fresh ground to forage, your main activity when raising broiler chickens will be furnishing feed and water. The birds need fresh, clean water at all times to aid digestion and help prevent disease.
Many different rations are available with varying percentages of protein or energy. More protein increases growth rate, while more energy slows the growth rate and increases fat, thereby adding flavor. People who regularly raise meat chickens balance broiler ration with scratch grain or oats until they're satisfied with the end result. (Scratch is a grain mixture that provides energy in the form of carbohydrates but has a lower protein level than most grower rations.)
But the choices don’t end there. Some folks want only certified organic, GMO-free rations. Others are happy using less expensive, run-of-the-mill farm-store feed. Most feed stores carry one all-purpose starter/grower ration which may be used from start to finish when raising broiler chickens. Some sources offer a full line of starter, grower and finisher rations targeted to specific stages of growth. If you choose the latter, follow directions on the label regarding when to switch from one ration to another. Each manufacturer’s recommended schedule is based on the formulations of its particular rations — and probably assumes you're raising hybrid birds. For more about different chicken feed types, and to find map showing organic poultry feed suppliers, see Organic Poultry Feed Suppliers Directory.
Medicated rations contain a chemical called amprolium to prevent coccidiosis, an intestinal disease that interferes with nutrient absorption and reduces growth rate. An alternative to using a medicated ration is to have the chicks vaccinated. A vaccine stimulates the animal's natural immune system and may be used for organic or naturally raised meat chickens. Some poultry-feed brands include a probiotic formula designed to stimulate the immune system and fend off disease. If the feed you use does not include probiotics, you can purchase these as a separate supplement from most poultry suppliers.
After your facility is established, your main expenses will be labor (your time), the cost of acquiring chicks and the price of feed. Calculating your return on investment is a good idea when raising chickens for meat, so let’s crunch some numbers. These figures are for colored hybrids only; you'll have to make adjustments for white hybrids or heritage poultry breeds.
A quick survey of hatcheries reveals an average price of $60 for 25 straight-run (unsexed) colored hybrid broilers. Add $25 for overnight shipping, and the cost of 25 chicks will be about $85. (If you raise a heritage breed, you can save money by hatching your own chicks with broody hens. Learn how in Raise Your Best Flock Using Broody Hens.)
If you raise your birds to 6 pounds live weight — adding 10 percent for spillage and other waste — you can expect to use about 500 pounds of feed. The cost of feed can run anywhere from about 35 cents per pound at the farm store to 75 cents for organic brands (plus shipping, if you order online), so your feed cost can range from about $175 to $375 or more.
If you free range your colored hybrids, you’ll need at least six bales of shavings for bedding in their shelter. At about $5 per bale, that comes to $30.
Figuring an average edible portion of 70 percent of live weight, and deducting 5 percent for typical loss due to predators, accidents and so forth (expect to lose about five broilers for every 100 you raise), you should end up with about 100 pounds of chicken meat.
Assuming you do your own butchering rather than pay a custom slaughterhouse (how-to videos on butchering poultry are listed under "Resources"), raising colored hybrid broilers on common feed-store feed will cost you approximately $3 per pound, while raising the same birds on organic poultry feed might run you $5 or more per pound. Homegrown chicken meat usually costs more than the cheap, industrial chicken sold in supermarkets. The extra cost means you can feed your family more nutritious, delicious and humanely-raised meat.
Read more: For help with choosing which breed is right for you check out Comparing Broiler Chickens, and see how raising your own meat is beneficial to your health in Organic Chicken Could Save Your Life.
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