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Raising chickens for meat
- You can raise chickens for meat on a small scale, even in your backyard.
- It is important to do some planning to provide chicks what they need:
- clean space
- heat lamps
- starter feed
- plenty of clean water
Are you thinking about raising chickens for meat?
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 6 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.
Calculate the cost
Most small flocks only produce enough meat for your household. If you plan to market any birds, consider the current market prices for each class of meat birds. Also, don't try to compete with retail sales at special sale prices. Often, rural customers prefer heavier weight, fryer-type chickens over the lighter weight range common in many stores.
Calculate your production costs and compare to retail market prices.
- Calculate chick cost by adding a few extra chicks to account for any death.
- It will take about five pounds of feed to age 6 weeks and eight to nine pounds to age 8 weeks for commercial strains.
- Roasters and capons need more feed per pound of meat produced than fryers.
- Plan to not keep birds longer than the time it takes to reach a desired weight.
- Figure that equipment costs will depreciate over a 10-year period and housing costs over a 20-year period.
- Estimate litter, heat for brooding, lights, and miscellaneous costs. Allow for any payments made for labor for caring for birds, cleaning out house, etc.
Convert your figures to a per pound basis by dividing the total cost per bird by the expected market weight. The ready-to-cook weight will be 70 to 75 percent of the live bird weight.
Meat chicken breeds
Cornish, Plymouth Rock and New Hampshire breeds are the most economical meat strains. These crosses feather rapidly and mature early and have the most economical conversion of feed to poultry meat.
Some flock owners use White or Barred Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds and New Hampshires for meat. However, these breeds generally don't grow as rapidly as the crosses and take more feed per pound of weight gained. Leghorn males don’t make good meat birds and are unprofitable even if you receive day-old chicks.
The various classes of chicken meat birds are raised from the same commercial strains.
- Broilers or fryers: birds slaughtered at 7 to 9 weeks of age when they weigh 3 to 5 pounds and dress a 2 ½- to 4-pound carcass
- Cornish game hen: birds slaughtered at 5 weeks of age
- Roaster: birds grown out to 12 weeks or longer
- Capons: male birds neutered at 3 to 4 weeks and marketed after 18 weeks
Meat-type chicks are usually purchased on a straight-run (males and females mixed) basis.
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 government 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.
Caring for meat chickens
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.
At 6 to 10 weeks of age, you will need to increase floor space to 1 square foot per bird. From 10 weeks on they will need at least 2 to 3 square feet each if they don’t have access to a yard or range.
Butchering some of the birds at various ages will increase floor space for the remaining birds. Most poultry meat birds are raised under total confinement, although some roaster and capon flocks are allowed limited access to a yard area
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.
Keep the litter in good condition. Remove wet spots and caked litter as necessary to keep the floor dry and the birds comfortable.
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.
You will need to change the size of feed hoppers as the birds grow. Changing sizes can allow them to easily eat without wasting feed. You can use hanging tube-type feeders, adjustable in height, as the birds grow. Place a platform under water fountains to avoid wet litter. Automatic waterers save labor even with small flocks.
Provide a 1-gallon water fountain for 50 chicks for the first 2 weeks. Increase the number of size of waterers from 2 to 10 weeks to provide 40 inches of watering space per 100 birds or 1 gallon capacity for 15 chicks. Provide 1 gallon capacity per 10 birds for older birds if using fountains or 1 inch of trough space.
Provide a chick starter feed to give them a balanced ration, that is 22 to 24 percent protein or close to it for at least the first week and up to week four. Then switch to a finisher feed, but no less than 18 to 19 percent protein for the duration. For the first two days, place feed on chick box lids or trays of cardboard. Chicks need 1 lineal inch of space for the first two weeks, 2 lineal inches for 2 to 6 weeks and 3 lineal inches after 6 weeks. You can reduce feed waste by filling hoppers half full.
Feeding meat birds a chick starter and developer feed with lower protein and energy will result in slower weight gain than that of birds on a broiler feeding program. You can feed a small amount of grit once or twice a week.
High energy, broiler feed programs can lead to leg problems and breast blisters in roasters and capons. Birds intended for heavier weights should be fed developer feed with lower protein and energy content following the broiler starter and until two to three weeks before processing. The developer feed reduces early fat buildup and provides better skeletal and muscle development during growth. A high energy, finisher feed is then fed for the final two to three weeks.
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.
You can watch the chicks to gauge their comfort. If the chicks crowd together under the brooder, increase the heat. Lower the temperature if they tend to move away from the heat source. Allow 7 to 10 square inches of space under the brooder for each chick. Provide 1/2 square foot of brooder house space per chick. Start the brooder the day before the chicks arrive and adjust to proper operating temperature.
Infrared lamps provide a convenient heat source for raising chicks. Use porcelain sockets approved for these lamps with a chain or wire (not the electric cord) so the lamp is no closer than 15 inches to the litter. 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.
If the average brooder house temperature is 50 degrees Fahrenheit, one 250-watt infrared lamp is generally sufficient for heating 80 chicks. You can add one chick to this estimate for every degree over 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove one chick for every degree below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Use more than one lamp so that the chicks aren’t without heat if a lamp burns out. You can supply more heat by lowering the lamps to no less than 15 inches above the litter or by using more or higher wattage lamps. To reduce heat turn off some lamps, use smaller lamps or raise the lamps to 24 inches above the litter.
Thoroughly clean and disinfect the house and equipment before starting chicks. If chickens have been in the house previously:
- Remove all litter and wash the house and equipment with water under pressure.
- Scrub and scrape all organic matter from building and equipment surfaces.
- After cleaning, disinfect building and equipment using an approved compound and following manufacturer's directions.
- Dry and air the building.
- Place two to four inches of wood shavings, straw or other litter material on the floor.
- Place a cardboard fence around the brooding area to confine the chicks to the heat source for the first week.
- 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.
Keeping birds isolated from other birds is a first means of preventing disease. Limit traffic of people and pets to the poultry flock. If you have multiple ages of chickens, separate the flocks the best you can by age. Care for the younger birds first. It’s easier to control diseases and parasites if you keep the birds confined. Other prevention tips include:
- Obtain chicks that are from pullorum-typhoid clean stock.
- Keep your chicken’s environment clean and use a low-level coccidiostat drug in the feed to prevent coccidiosis.
- Rotate range areas so that birds are not on the same ground year after year.
- Adjust ventilation to avoid moisture and ammonia build-up in the house.
- Clean waterers daily and periodically wash them with a sanitizing solution.
A local veterinarian, county extension agent, or commercial field serviceman can assist with flock health and other management problems or direct you to competent help.
Breast blisters result from an irritation of the tissue in the keel bone area. Factors that can help reduce the incidence of breast blisters include:
- Keeping the litter clean and dry
- Preventing overcrowding
- Using equipment without sharp edges
- Using feeding programs that develop good body structure before reaching heavy weights
Cannibalism and feather picking
Cannibalism and feather picking are other problems that may develop with poultry meat birds. Debeaking at the hatchery will eliminate these problems. Picking may result from many factors including:
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Poor ventilation
- Too little drinking and eating space
- Too much light
- The appearance of blood on an injured bird
Good management can frequently ward off cannibalism. In small flocks, you can use a pick-paste remedy with much success if the problem is not out of hand.
Reviewed in 2018