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Getting started with broilers

Quick facts

  • You can raise chickens for meat, known as broilers, on a small scale - even in your backyard.
  • It is important to do some planning to provide the chicks what they need, including a clean space, heat lamps for warmth, bedding (wood shavings, peat moss or rice hulls), starter feed and plenty of clean water.

Are you considering raising broiler chickens?

Backyard gardeners and small-scale farm operators sometimes think about adding chickens, especially broilers, to their summer production activities. Whether growing for profit or as a source of food for the family, raising broilers can be a rewarding and educational experience for everyone in the family.

It's easy to get a batch of chicks started at relatively low cost, and they grow quickly. They are ready to be processed and put into your freezer or sold to customers in only six to 12 weeks, depending on the breed of bird and the weight you want them to have at processing.

Of course, raising healthy livestock of any type for fun or profit requires some attention to planning and detail, and broilers are no exception. Follow a few basic, general guidelines about the needs of baby chicks and growing chickens to help ensure success with the birds you raise.

When ordering chicks

  • Hatcheries in Minnesota and around the country can be found online.
  • Plan their arrival around their departure. Cornish cross broilers (most commonly raised) need only six to eight weeks to reach a market carcass weight of four to six pounds. Other breeds that grow slower may take 10 to 12 weeks.
  • You can order cockerels (males), pullets (females) or a straight run (mixed batch). Cockerels are a little more expensive but grow faster. They may weigh one pound more than pullets at processing, at the same age.
  • You will need to arrange processing well in advance.
  • If you grow birds for your own consumption within the limits of a town or city, check the local governmental ordinances prior to processing the birds in your backyard, as this is not typically allowed.
  • Consider having the birds vaccinated at the hatchery against coccidiosis. It is cheap to do so, and then you will very likely have healthy birds throughout their short growing period. This vaccine will help give the birds protection against a very common and costly poultry disease. Doing so can then give you the option of using non-medicated feed throughout the production period.

Prepare for their arrival — what chicks need

Space

Provide a draft-free, clean space that is protected from predators. A small room, or an area inside a building that is fenced in with hardware cloth or chicken wire, will help ensure the safety of the birds while keeping them close to heat, feed and water.

Bedding

Use bedding — wood shavings are best, but if there is a plentiful supply of clean straw at low cost, it will work fine with proper management. Straw does not absorb well (unless chopped), so it will need to be supplemented frequently with clean, dry straw. While keeping the environment draft free, the birds also need fresh, clean air. Too much humidity or the smell of ammonia resonating from wet, dirty bedding is irritating to the birds and can rapidly lead to pneumonia. If you smell ammonia, apply fresh bedding immediately!

Feeders and waterers

Appropriately-sized feeders and waterers are necessary so that chicks can eat and drink upon arrival. You will need to dunk each chick's beak in the water trough, so that they will know where the water is and how to access it.

Feed

Provide a chick starter feed to give them a balanced ration, that is 20 to 22 percent protein or close to it for at least the first week and up to week four. Then switch to a grower ration, but no less than 18 to 19 percent protein for the duration.

Heat lamps

Provide a heat source such as heat lamps. Chicks need 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit in the first week of life. Gradually reduce the temperature by 5 degrees per week, over the next three to four weeks to around 70 degrees. Birds are fully feathered at four weeks of age and will need little or no extra heat unless they are being raised in cold weather, such as below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. If they have access to the outdoors, wind and humidity are also factors that affect bird comfort. For chicks that are under four weeks of age, it might be worthwhile to build a small hover to help hold the heat close to the floor, if the room is larger and the air is cold away from the heat bulbs.

An infrared bulb only heats the body of the chick, but not the air around the bird. In really cold weather, it's probably better to use a regular incandescent heat bulb, though it does stimulate the birds, making them more active and aggressive.

Help the birds thrive

  • Give them clean water twice daily.
  • Full feed for the first week, then remove the feed at night for the next three weeks. This will help prevent flip disease, which is a heart attack from overeating. It is not unusual to lose 1 to 2 percent of the flock to this disease — almost always the biggest, fastest growing birds. Be sure to have plenty of feeder space during this period of feed withdrawal, because in the morning the chicks will be hungry and will run over each other to eat.
  • Clean bedding around the waterers frequently. Otherwise there will be ammonia buildup in the room. Add bedding as needed to keep the chicks clean and dry.
  • Keep the area as biosecure as possible. Do not let visitors into the pen where the chicks are.
  • If the birds are in the final weeks of growth and it's over 85 to 90 degrees, pull the feed during the hottest part of the day. Birds can be stressed by the heat and die during this period, especially if they eat heavily during the heat of the day.

Reviewed in 2018

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