Discover some of the basics to raising chickens for meat — from the varying kinds of meat breeds to the benefits of free ranging.
Since birds in confinement have little else to do, when they're not eating, they get bored and resort to feather pecking.
Illustration Courtesy Storey Publishing
Whether you are raising a couple of backyard chickens or a flock of one hundred, Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens (Storey Publishing, 2010) is the only book you need to keep your birds healthy and safe. The updated third edition includes valuable information on understanding fowl behavior, dealing with chicken predators, free-range feeding options and more. In the excerpt below from chapter 13, “Managing Meat Birds,” learn about the different breeds, management styles and feeding patterns used in raising chickens for meat.
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens.
If the idea of raising your feathered friends for meat doesn’t appeal to you, read no further. But if you are among the many folks for whom an important reason to keep chickens is for their clean, healthful and delicious meat, read on. Of all the different forms of livestock, chickens can put meat on your table with the least amount of time and effort. In a matter of weeks, your chicken-keeping chores are over, and your freezer is full of poultry that’s tastier and better for you than anything you could buy at the store.
When it comes to raising chickens for meat, you have two basic choices. You can produce a commercially developed Cornish-cross strain or you can raise one of the old-fashioned heavy or dual-purpose utility breeds.
Cornish-cross broilers have the advantage of being interested in only one thing — eating. Since all they do is eat, they grow fast and tender. But this characteristic also makes them coop potatoes. When they’re not eating, they have nothing to do but sit around getting sick and dying, or developing bad habits, like picking on each other.
And because they were developed to be raised in climate-controlled housing, they don’t actively forage and won’t do at all well outdoors when the weather is extremely hot or cold. Managing these hybrids therefore requires careful attention, but at least the homegrown result is better than the store-bought version.
Old-fashioned meat or utility breeds are hardier than commercial-strain broilers, but they grow much slower. Where a commercial broiler reaches 5 pounds (2.25 kg) in 6 to 7 weeks, a purebred meat breed takes 9 or 10 weeks to reach the same weight, and a utility breed takes 12 to 16 weeks. The old-fashioned breed offers more flexibility in butchering age and, unlike the Cornish cross, does not grow uniformly, so not all the birds of the same age will be ready to butcher at the same time. Cornish cross, on the other hand, must be butchered when they reach broiler weight or they will get too big too fast and develop bone ailments or heart failure.
Compared to a commercial hybrid strain, the meat of a purebred strain is lower in fat, firmer in texture, and juicier; has thinner breasts and more dark meat; and has a stronger chicken flavor, thanks to its older age. According to some reports, the longer growing period also makes the meat more nutritious, because it has more time to develop complex amino acids.
Some people describe nonhybrid meat as tough and suitable only for slow, moist cooking. I couldn’t agree less. After years of enjoying the meat of dual-purpose birds cooked in all the same ways as store-bought meat, I find the latter has a bland taste and an unnatural mushy texture. Old-time American utility breeds with the greatest potential for meat production are the Delaware, New Hampshire, Plymouth Rock, and Wyandotte.
We raise meat birds as a by-product of keeping layers. Each spring we hatch a batch of dual-purpose chicks to get replacement pullets. When the pullets are big enough to go out on range, we separate them and confine the surplus cockerels until they reach fryer size. Later, any pullet that doesn’t measure up is culled as a roaster. When the pullets start laying, our old layers become stewing hens.
The idea of raising meat birds as a by-product of the laying flock is far from new. It is, in fact, how today’s broiler industry got started in the first place. In the 1920s many housewives like Mrs. Wilmer Steele of Ocean View, Delaware, purchased chicks every year to raise as layer replacements. One year Mrs. Steele mistakenly received 500 chicks instead of the 50 she had ordered, so she raised the surplus for meat and sold them at a dandy profit. The next year she bought 1,000 chicks, and again the money rolled in. When Mr. Steele’s wife had worked her way up to 25,000 chicks a year, he retired from the Coast Guard to stay home and help. For years thereafter Delaware was the center of the broiler industry and development of efficient meat strains.
The class of poultry meat you prefer may influence your choice between hybrids and nonhybrids. Meat birds are divided into these basic classes:
Rock-Cornish game hen — Not a game bird at all and not necessarily a hen, but a Cornish, Rock-Cornish, or any Cornish-cross bird weighing between 1 and 2 pounds (0.5 to 1 kg). To get plump, round game hens, you must raise Cornish hybrids, although I’ve grown surplus bantam cockerels into respectable single-serving birds.
Broiler-fryer — A young, tender bird of either sex weighing between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 pounds (1 and 2 kg) dressed. The skin is soft, pliable, and smooth textured; the breastbone is flexible; and the meat is tender enough for any method of cooking. Hybrids and nonhybrids alike make good broiler-fryers, although a hybrid reaches target weight in about half the time of a nonhybrid. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a broiler-fryer as being “about 7 weeks old.”
Roaster — A young tender bird of either sex, usually weighing 5 to 7 pounds (2.25 to 3.2 kg) dressed. The skin is soft, pliable, and smooth textured, but the breastbone is less flexible than a broiler-fryer’s. This bird is usually roasted whole. Because of the hybrid broiler’s voracious appetite beyond the fryer stage, and the ensuing health issues, nonhybrids are more economical to raise as roasters but will be a little smaller, in the 4- to 6-pound (2 to 2.5 kg) range, and may take longer to get there. The USDA defines a roaster as being “about 3 to 5 months old.”
Stewing hen — A mature (10 months or older) female chicken with less-tender meat than a broiler or roaster and a nonflexible breastbone, requiring use of moist cooking methods such as stewing, braising, or pressure cooking. Stewing hens are generally older laying hens that are no longer economically productive.
Rooster — Any male chicken that has entered the stag stage, when the comb and spurs develop, the skin becomes coarse, and the meat turns dark, tough, strong tasting, and generally not fit to eat, although with long, moist cooking, it may be rendered tender enough to chew.Capons
Before highly specialized, fast-growing broiler hybrids were developed, meat birds were nothing more than cockerels from a batch of straight-run chicks raised to get pullets for laying. Those of us who keep dual-purpose flocks still raise meat birds the old-fashioned way. Due to the slow growth of nonhybrids, we have to take care to butcher cockerels before they reach the stag stage, when the meat gets strong tasting and tough.
In the old days, before the development of modern hybrids, such cockerels were caponized, meaning their testicles were surgically removed to channel their energy into continued growth rather than sexual maturity. A capon grows to the size of a small turkey and was once considered an alternative to the holiday gobbler, only much easier to grow — turkeys being notorious for sitting around thinking up ways to die.
The hackle, saddle, and tail feathers of a capon grow longer than those of a cockerel, but instead of developing a large comb, the capon keeps the cockerel’s small, pale head. The capon has a calmer disposition than a cockerel and rarely crows. He gains weight at about the same rate as a cockerel to about 18 weeks of age; then his growth rate surpasses that of a cockerel.
The capon is more expensive to raise than a cockerel, since he isn’t properly grown and finished until he’s at least 20 weeks old, and the heavier capon is more susceptible to weak legs and breast blister (a blister caused by the pressure of resting all that weight against the breastbone). For these and other reasons, few people bother caponizing these days.Color Preferences
Many fine meat breeds never caught on in the United States simply because of the color of their skin. The skin color of a meat bird is a matter of preference, and consumers generally prefer what they’ve been taught to like. As a general rule, European consumers favor white-skinned breeds, Asians like black-skinned breeds, and Americans prefer yellow-skinned breeds. The hybrids developed for meat production in this country have yellow skin.
Even within a single breed, skin color varies with the chickens’ diet. Marigolds, for instance, are sometimes fed to hens to make their egg yolks a richer yellow and will also deepen the color of the skin. A yellow-skinned bird that isn’t feeling well, or for some other reason isn’t eating well, will have paler skin than its flockmates. A young chicken with little fat may have bluish-looking skin.
In North America, birds with white plumage are preferred for meat because they look cleaner when plucked than dark-feathered birds. Regardless of feather or skin color, the taste is pretty much the same. Since many people now remove the skin before cooking or serving chicken, preferences in feather and skin color have become less important than they once were.
The breed you raise will, to some extent, determine how you manage your meat birds. Or your chicken-managing practices will determine the most suitable breed for your purpose. Methods for managing broilers fall into three basic categories:
• Pasture confinement
• Range feeding
The last two methods are sometimes grouped together as pasturing, a method favored by those of us who prefer our food to be produced as naturally as possible. Since the first two methods involve confinement and the last two involve pasturing, the middle method, pasture confinement, bridges the gap between indoor confinement and the freedom to openly forage.Indoor Confinement
Indoor confinement is the preference of large commercial growers because it lets them maximize capacity in terms of capital investment and facilities. It is also favored by small-flock owners who don’t have much space for raising meat birds. It involves housing chickens on litter and taking them everything they eat.
Indoor confinement requires less land than the other two methods (all you need is a building) and less time (set up your facilities properly, and you should spend no more than a few minutes each day feeding, watering, and checking your birds). The goal is to get the most meat for the least cost by efficiently converting feed into meat.
The standard feed conversion ratio is 2:1 — each bird averages 2 pounds (1 kg) of feed for every 1 pound (0.5 kg) of weight it gains. To get a feed conversion ratio that high, you must raise a commercial strain developed for its distinct ability to eat and grow.
On an industrial scale, feed-conversion efficiency is improved by adding antibiotics to rations. No one is quite sure why it works, but some researchers speculate that antibiotics thin a bird’s intestinal walls and thereby improve nutrient absorption. While no detectable drug residues are legally allowed in commercially produced meat, in practice no one seems to be minding the store and inevitably some residue remains. Antibiotic residues in meat are harmful to humans for several reasons: they disturb the natural balance of microflora in our intestines, they can induce a serious reaction in those of us who are allergic to antibiotics, and they cause resistance to prescription drugs. But not all commercial producers use growth promoters. Like most small-scale flock owners, some producers rely on careful management and good sanitation for efficient feed conversion.
Even if your management is meticulous, you can’t raise broilers indoors for the same low cost you would pay at the grocery store. For starters, the cost of chicks by the dozen is much higher than the cost of buying by the thousands. The same holds true for buying feed by the bagful, rather than periodically having a truck roll in to fill your silo.
You won’t get the same high feed-conversion ratio, either, unless your facilities are designed to encourage feed consumption, right down to conveyor belts that keep feed moving to attract birds to peck. On a small scale, the best you can do to pique the flock’s interest in eating is to feed your birds often to stimulate their appetite.
Efficient feed conversion also means keeping housing at a temperature between 65 and 85°F (18 and 29°C), which entails providing supplemental heat or crowding birds enough for them to keep each other warm. If you give your meat birds more room than the minimums (see Minimum Space for Confined Meat Birds table in the Image Gallery), be prepared to either heat their housing or feed them longer to get them up to weight.
Another aspect of efficient feed conversion is controlled lighting. Compared to artificial light, natural light causes birds to be more active. As a result, they use up more calories and grow more slowly. Because birds in confinement have little else to do, when they’re not eating, they get bored and resort to feather picking. If you let your confined birds enjoy natural light through windows or screened doorways, you’ll have fewer picking problems by closing the openings to limit natural light to no more than 10 hours a day.
During the rest of the time, provide just enough light to let the birds find the feeders but not enough to inspire them to engage in other activities. Get chicks started eating and drinking under 60-watt bulbs, placed in reflectors 7 to 8 feet (2 to 2.5 m) above the floor. After 2 weeks switch to 15-watt bulbs. Allow one bulb-watt per 8 square feet (0.75 sq m) of living space.
The total number of light hours meat birds should get per day is a matter of debate. The trend in commercial production is to shorten daylight hours for chicks 2 to 14 days old. Shorter days give them less time to eat, slowing their growth rate and thereby reducing leg problems and other complications resulting from too-rapid growth. After the birds reach 2 weeks of age, light hours are increased to encourage them to eat and grow.
Raising broilers under continuous light is a bad idea, in any case, since they may panic, pile up, and smother if the power fails. To get the birds used to lights-out, turn lights off at least 1 hour during the night. Some growers contend that as little as 14 hours of light per day is enough for efficient growth. During hot weather, when chickens get lethargic, turning lights on in the morning and evening encourages them to eat while the temperature is cooler. Putting lights on a timer will save you the trouble of having to remember to flick the switch.
Since rapid growth characteristically causes weak legs, don’t provide roosts for your meat birds. Leg injuries can occur when heavy birds jump down from roosts. Perching can also cause blistered breasts and crooked breastbones. Injuries and blisters may also occur when heavy birds are housed on wire; wood; bare concrete; or packed, damp litter. Avoid these problems by housing confined meat birds on a soft bed of deep, dry litter.Pasture Confinement
Like indoor confinement, pasture confinement involves keeping broilers in a building, but this building is portable, is kept on range, and is moved daily. Pasture confinement is suitable for hybrid and purebred strains alike, although (as with indoor confinement) the former will grow more quickly than the latter. Furthermore, since Cornish broilers were developed for climate-controlled confinement, they won’t do well on pasture if the weather is much cooler than 65°F (18°C) or much warmer than 85°F (29°C), while other breeds have a much wider range of temperature tolerance.
The up side 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 for an hour before feeding them their morning ration. On the down side, you need enough good pasture (or unsprayed lawn) to move the shelter daily, and without fail you must do it each day. As they reach harvest size, birds will graze plants faster and deposit a greater concentration of droppings, so they’ll have to be moved more often — at least twice a day — for the health of the broilers and to avoid burning the pasture with too much nitrogen-rich manure.
A good plan is to arrange your shelter rotation so the chickens don’t get moved farther into left field the bigger they get. Otherwise, you’ll end up hauling greater quantities of feed and water a longer distance, and have to transport all those pudgy broilers back to home base for butchering.
During the first few moves, the birds will be reluctant to follow their shelter, and if you’re not careful, they’ll pile up, and some may get hurt. After a few times, they learn to walk along when you move their floorless shelter. Don’t be tempted to try making the move easier by adding a wire floor so you can lift the birds along with the shelter. For one thing, adding the birds’ weight makes the whole shebang heavy and unwieldy. Furthermore, while their shelter is in motion, the birds tend to stabilize themselves by curling their toes around the wire, causing toes to get crushed by wire when you set the shelter back down.
The pioneers of modern small-scale commercial pasture confinement are Joel Salatin and Theresa Salatin of Swoope, Virginia, who describe their method in detail in their book Pastured Poultry Profit$. The Salatins confine up to 100 broilers per 10 by 12 by 2 foot (3 by 3.5 by 0.6 m) pen made of chicken wire stapled to a pressure-treated wood frame and roofed with corrugated aluminum. Weather permitting, chicks may be moved from the brooder to the pen once they reach 2 weeks of age. For broilers to do well on pasture, they must begin foraging by the age of 25 days.
Using a homemade dolly, the Salatins move each pen daily, requiring a total of 5,000 square feet (465 sq m) of good grazing per pen per 40-day growing period. The couple raises a commercial strain that reaches a butchering weight of 4 to 4 1/2 pounds (1.8 to 2 kg) in 8 weeks, the same as they would if confined indoors. The management differences are basically twofold: feed costs are reduced, and because the birds spend so much time grazing, they have less time to pick at each other. The end result is meat that contains less fat and more omega-3s and other nutrients than confinement-fed broilers.Range Feeding
Range feeding is similar to pasture confinement, except the birds are allowed to come and go freely from their shelter. The extra activity creates darker, firmer, more flavorful meat but also causes birds to eat more total ration because they take longer to reach target weight.
The time-honored method of range feeding chickens, widely practiced in the days before confinement became conventional, is traditionally called free ranging. But since the term “free range” has been corrupted by the USDA to mean “the poultry has been allowed access to the outside” (but not necessarily requiring that chickens actually go outside), the latest descriptive phrase is day ranging, as described by Andy Lee and Patricia Foreman in their book Day Range Poultry — Every Chicken Owner’s Guide to Grazing Gardens and Improving Pastures.
Range feeding 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 periodically. Compared to either form of confinement, ranging requires more land — enough for the shelter itself as well as pasture for grazing (and trampling), multiplied several times to allow for periodic fresh forage.
Utility breeds take to grazing quite readily because they retain some of the foraging instincts of their ancestors. Commercial strains don’t think too much of getting out and around, but they will roam more than they do in confinement, and the energy used during roaming slows their growth and makes them less susceptible to leg problems. The end result is a trade-off between faster growth and better health.
If you raise straight-run chicks, you’ll have to separate the cockerels as soon as they become sexually active; otherwise they’ll harass the pullets, and neither will grow well. Sexual harassment is not a problem with confined broilers, since they go into the freezer before they get old enough to notice the opposite sex.
Not everyone is willing to raise broilers an extra few weeks, and not everyone appreciates the full flavor and firm texture of naturally grown chicken. As a result, backyard pasturing is less often used for growing meat birds than for keeping laying hens.
A wide variety of meticulously formulated starter, grower, and finisher rations has been developed with one thing in mind — to keep feed costs down. Newly hatched chicks need a lot of protein. As chicks grow, their protein needs go down and their carbohydrate needs go up. Since protein sources (legumes and meat scraps) are more expensive than carbohydrate sources (starchy grains), switching to rations with progressively less protein saves money.
To precisely target the protein-versus-energy needs of meat birds according to their stage of growth, big-time growers formulate their own rations and have them privately milled. We small-flock owners are at the mercy of local feed providers. Depending on where you live, you may have little choice in the available combination of starter and finisher or starter/grower and finisher.
How much that matters to you depends on your method of management. A confinement-fed broiler eats approximately 2 pounds (1 kg) of feed for every pound (0.5 kg) of weight gained. If you raise your birds to 4 pounds (1.8 kg), each one will gobble up at least 8 pounds (3.6 kg) of feed during its lifetime. A purebred strain may eat twice that much, a factor you can somewhat mitigate by letting your birds forage for some of their sustenance.
In any case, if all you have available to you is one all-purpose starter/grower ration, nothing is inherently wrong with using it from start to finish. But don’t expect the same rapid growth or low feed-to-meat ratio you would get with a more targeted ration. If you do have a wider choice, follow directions on the label regarding when to switch from one ration to another. Each manufacturer’s feeding schedule is based on the formulations of its particular rations.
Unfortunately, standard commercial rations may not contain sufficient nutrients to sustain the rapid growth rate of Cornish-cross broilers, and as a result, they develop leg problems. If you raise a commercial-broiler strain, supplement the rations with a vitamin/mineral mix, added either to feed or to drinking water according to directions on the label. Some backyard growers withhold feed overnight to limit growth in an attempt to prevent lameness.
The older a chicken is, the less efficient it becomes at converting feed into meat and the costlier it becomes to raise. The conversion ratio starts out below 1 in newly hatched chicks and reaches 2:1 at about the fifth or sixth week. During the seventh or eighth week, the cumulative, or average, ratio reaches 2:1 — the point of diminishing returns.
From then on the cumulative ratio has nowhere to go but up, and the amount of feed eaten (in terms of cost) can’t be justified by the amount of weight gained. Although the most economical meat comes from birds weighing 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 pounds (1 to 1.5 kg), most folks prefer meatier broiler-fryers in the 4- to 4 1/2-pound (1.8 to 2 kg) range. If you want nice plump roasters, be prepared to pay more per pound to raise them.
Growers of pastured or range-fed broilers fall into two distinct camps, those who feed a high-protein diet and those who favor a high-energy diet. The high-protein group focuses on economics; the high-energy group focuses on flavor.
Muscle (meat) growth relies on protein. Broilers with access to pasture, and that are expected to grow as rapidly as confined broilers, may be fed a ration of up to 30 percent protein. Using a ration with as little as half that amount of protein can reduce the growth rate by as much as 50 percent. Broilers taking longer to grow eat more total ration. Therefore, feeding the less-expensive low-protein ration may cost more in the long run than feeding a pricier high-protein ration.
A diet that is high in nutritional energy, in the form of grains, reduces the growth rate of muscle and increases the development of fat. Grain-fed fryers therefore aren’t politically correct among cholesterol-conscious nutritionists but are trendy in natural-food circles, where the goal is to avoid feed additives by using so-called organic grains. The problem is that unless you grow your own, organically grown grains are hard to come by and sometimes mislabeled. Chances are good the scratch you feed your chickens is the same stuff used, in ground-up form, to make commercial rations.
The feeding method developed by producers of France’s famous Red Label (Label Rouge) organic poultry has become a model for American organic-broiler growers. The Red Label ration is of 100 percent vegetable origin, supplemented by insects and plants the chickens find in the pine forest where they actively forage. These broilers are not of the Cornish-cross commercial type but are a cross between the slower-growing heritage Cornish and other old-time breeds. These broilers do not have white plumage like industrial broilers, hence some of the trade names for similar hybrids in the United States include a reference to color: Black Broiler, Color Yield, Colored Range, Freedom Ranger, Kosher King, Red Broiler, Redbro, Red Meat Maker, Redpac, Rosambro, and Silver Cross to name a few.
The main element in the diet of the French broilers is corn, produced by the French farmers themselves. The corn is crushed and mixed into a ration consisting of:
percent corn (for energy)
• 15 percent soy (for protein)
• 3 percent minerals and vitamins
• 2 percent alfalfa
Although an important part of the Red Label diet is natural forage, if you don’t have available pasture, you can still enjoy broilers of similar flavor by raising grain-fed fryers. Feeding your birds up to 70 percent of their diet in scratch grains results in a slower growth rate that compares with the growth of range-fed chickens. Like ranged birds, they won’t be ready for butchering until about 13 weeks.
If a finisher ration is available, feed chicks commercial rations for the first 6 weeks, switch entirely to scratch grains (with a vitamin/mineral supplement) until the last 2 weeks, then let finisher supply 30 percent of their diet. If you have grower ration available or only one starter/grower formula, feed your chicks commercial rations for the first 4 weeks, then switch to grower (or stay with the starter/grower) for 30 percent of their diet and scratch grains for the remaining 70 percent right to the end. In any case, as soon as you offer your birds scratch, they’ll need free-choice granite grit to digest the grains.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, published by Storey Publishing, 2010. Buy this book from our store: Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens.
More than 150 workshops, great deals from more than 200 exhibitors, off-stage demos, inspirational keynotes, and great food!LEARN MORE