Care and Feeding of Meatbirds

Chick Care
The basic care of meatbird chicks is similar to other types of chicks. You’ll need to provide a heat source along with free choice fresh water and appropriate feed. An important part of raising meatbirds is allowing for enough space for them to grow. With a growth rate that is

A dry and clean brooder is a must for chicks.

A dry and clean brooder is a must for chicks.

second to none, these birds will become too big for a brooder that seems the right size in just a week or two. Make sure to plan for expansion of your brooder to allow the space to get bigger along with the chicks. A dry and clean brooder is always essential; this will keep the birds comfortable, discourage the development of flies, and help prevent disease.

Dual purpose breeds are traditional breeds like Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, etc. They can be raised for eggs or meat. These birds are the slowest to finish and are typically harvested around 22 weeks of age. They have less developmental problems than hybrid meat breeds, and they will usually yield less meat.

Red Rangers are a type of meat chicken that provides a ‘happy medium’ between dual purpose breeds and Cornish Cross. They should be harvested around 12 – 14 weeks. They aren’t as delicate as Cornish Cross and have less developmental problems. In addition, they do better foraging than a Cornish. Their meat yield is in between a Cornish and dual purpose.

Cornish Cross is a hybrid and is the most common meat chicken. It makes up the majority of meat purchased in stores or consumed in restaurants. Cornish are very economical with their feed to meat conversion, which means they grow very fast –  they

A typical Cornish Cross bird

A typical Cornish Cross bird

are usually ready to harvest around 8 weeks! A few things to be aware of with this breed: because of their rate of growth they can have problems with organ failure and leg issues. These birds do not do well when comingled with other breeds – it’s best to keep Cornish separate. Additionally, they are ONLY suitable for meat production – do not try to keep them long term.

Feeding meatbirds
For dual purpose chicks, you may choose to feed a meatbird ration from the start. However, if you have straight run chicks and are not sure which are males, you can start the  batch on chick starter and then switch the ones you will harvest to meatbird feed once their gender becomes apparent.

For faster growing hybrid birds, you’ll want to feed a specific meatbird ration from day one. This will ensure that the birds are getting certain amino acid levels and protein amounts to encourage muscle development and growth. Because meatbirds have been developed to put on muscle mass quickly, the ration must be balanced to make sure that nutrients are present for skeletal and internal organ development as well. If the correct ration is not fed, the birds are more apt to fall victim to common maladies like organ failure and leg issues. Follow these simple feeding recommendations to help avoid complications:

  • Feed free choice the first 3 days of life
  • After 3 days, allow 12 hours with feed, 12 hours without

 

Kids and Chickens: At the show!

In previous articles, we’ve covered selecting chickens for kids as well as preparing your children and chickens to go to a poultry show, including how to wash your birds.

At this point my two girls (ages 5 and 7),  were as ready as they would ever be to show a chicken. The birds were somewhat trained, the kids were fairly well prepared, and we hit the road. We arrived at the fairgrounds the evening before the show and took the birds to the waiting area. A vet check is required at our fair for all incoming animals. The vet looks to make sure that the bird has no nasty communicable diseases that could spread to the rest of the birds. Once we were cleared to unload, we took the birds into the barn and got directions from the barn manager as to which pens were ours. Then we put the birds in and immediately filled the waterers and feeders to make them feel a bit more at home.

The girlShow Day Sadie and Peachs were hesitant to leave their birds in a strange place all alone that first night, but eventually we decided they were in good hands and headed for home. The next day was the big one – show day!  We began by getting the birds fed, watered and checked up on. They were in good shape – more so than my girls who needed clean shirts and hair done and new jeans, etc. etc. The first rule when showing is to always look professional. A collared and nicely pressed long sleeve shirt is a great idea. Tuck your shirt in and make sure your hair is off your face. We talked about smiling and keeping their eyes on the judge while they were showing and – most important of all – don’t let your chicken get away!

The time for their class finally arrived and I have to admit, they did great! We had lots of adults on hand to help, but those kids had their birds in control (well, mostly). Each one did great and showed off their birds as well as answered questions from the judge. They all learned valuable skills and experience and earned beautiful ribbons!  They were proud of themselves when the show was over and really enjoyed showing all their friends at the fair their birds.

All in all our chicken showing experience was a great one – and I have a feeling that we won’t be strangers to the poultry barn in the future!

Kids & Chickens: Bathing Chickens and other adventures

In the last article, we covered choosing chicks and getting them tame and calm. My kids (4 and 7) worked on this skill throughout the summer, and with the fair fast approaching on Labor Day weekend we realized we needed to get serious about the details of showing chickens. What did we need to do to prepare? What should my girls know? What would the chickens be asked to do? We asked some friends who had chicken showing experience, looked online, and investigated other community resources, like our extension office and 4-H clubs. Here’s what we found out:

Peach standing on table

My 4 year old practicing with her bird, Peach.

Chicken Skills – the chicken should be able to stand on a table during the show with minimal holding by the handler. It should be calm and be able to be approached/held/handled by the judge without getting its “feathers ruffled”, so to speak. We practiced for this by setting up a small table with a cloth that provided good footing for the birds. The girls would set their birds on the table and to get them used to it at first we gave them small treats – like pieces of grain, etc. This distracted them and made them look forward to standing on the table.

To get them used to be handled even more, the girls would recruit their dad or I to play “judge”. As pretend judges, we would approach the birds and feel their legs and feet,  stretch out their wings, and feel their combs and pet around their faces.

Showman Skills At our fair, the rules clearly state that the child must be able to carry their own bird to the table and handle it. We practiced this a lot – for my 4 year old it was hard to get that big bird up and into her arms (she has a Buff Orpington named Peach). With practice came competence – my daughter became competent at carrying and Peach became competent at being manhandled. The girls also had to know basic information about their birds. We practiced with questions like:

  • What breed is it?
  • How old is it?
  • What do you feed it?
  • Does it lay eggs? What color are the eggs?

Then came the time when we realized that the chickens would need a bath in order to be clean and ready for the fair.   And so the adventure began.

Harley going into the water

Harley, the Barred Rock, gets a bath.

Harley in a towel

Don’t worry, this isn’t one of my “good” towels…

To be honest I think I was more nervous about this step than either my kids or the chickens! It just seems a little unnatural, doesn’t it? Dipping a chicken in a tub of water? At any rate, about two weeks before the show we gave it a shot, following the advice given in this video by my colleague and friend Twain Lockhart. And everything went fine. The chickens, I believe, were so flabbergasted at what was happening that they didn’t react. At all. They went into a weird chicken paralysis as we dunked them, swished them, rinsed them, and dried them. That was just fine with me. We repeated the process the night before the fair with equally good results and got ready to go to the fair.

Next installment – At the show!

 

Kids & Chickens: Getting ready for a chicken show

Our family started on a unique adventure this spring when my two girls (ages 4 and 7) decided that they wanted to show chickens at our fair, which lands yearly on Labor Day weekend. With this in mind, we headed for the feed store at the end of April to check out their selection of baby chicks. Since this was the girls’ first year showing and they are both rather small, I thought a bantam breed would work well. Bantams are about 1/4 the size of a regular chicken and would be easier for my little girls to handle. However, when we got the store we saw that the tubs of bantams were straight run only – meaning we did not know if we would be getting males or females. We knew we did not want to have roosters, and so we moved to plan B and decided to go with a standard breed chicken for each of them. These birds had been sexed at the hatchery and so we were fairly confident that they were, in fact, females (pullets). We picked up four chicks – a Buff Orpington, a Golden Sexlink, a Barred Rock, and an Easter Egger.

Thebaby chick girls were very excited with their new chicks! We set them up in a warm brooder and let them settle in. We gave them several days to acclimate, and then “show training” began. The girls started to handle each chick for 5 – 10 minutes each day (turns out baby chicks and small children have similar attention spans). At this time, it really helped that each chick was a different color – so we could tell who had already had their turn being held and petted! SAFETY NOTE: We kept a jug of hand sanitizer right next to the brooder. As soon as the girls were done holding the chicks, feeding, watering and cleaning, they each got a squirt until we got into the house where they would wash their hands thoroughly with soap.

Sadie and chickAs the chicks grew, the girls continued to try and handle them on a daily basis. I learned it is best to get them into this habit when the chicks are very small. We were out of town for two weeks and had someone else taking care of the birds for us. During that time, they grew significantly and the girls were a bit intimidated by their larger size when it came time to start handling them again. The tamer you can get the birds when they are still small, the better.

We moved the chicks out of the brooder and into a large pen inside our barn towards the end of June. While this was a much needed change from the chicken’s perspective (they had outgrown the brooder), it was no longer simple for the kids to scoop one out of the tub to pick them up. The kids now had to learn how to calmly and quietly move around the birds, get them into a corner and pick them up without causing widespread panic. This was definitely a trial and error period – at times my kids can make way more noise trying to be quiet than they do at normal volume.

Once we hit August, real show training had to commence. Up to this point, the girls had simply been catching and holding their birds. Now, though, we realized that more would be required of them at the show. Our next installment will cover Advanced Show Prep (Hint – chicken bathing is involved – you don’t want to miss it!).

Why do hens crouch when approached?

It is fairly common for a hen to crouch to let another hen mount her as if it were a rooster. Occasionally if you approach your hen she may squat down as well. Just what is going on when your hen exhibits this behavior?

A hen mounting a hen is social, not sexual, behavior. If there’s a rooster in the flock he is almost always the dominant bird.  Before mating a hen crouches low to the ground and slightly spreads her wings enabling him to climb on and mate. The crouching posture also signifies submission. In an all-female flock a submissive hen will go into a crouch and be mounted by a female higher in the pecking order. The dominate hen is asserting her place in the pecking order and not mating.

Large breed hens seem more likely to crouch when a human is near than light breed counterparts. Sometimes a person can slowly approach an Orpington or Brahma and hover over her, causing her to crouch. She’s telling you that you’re the boss. It’s often easy to reach down and pick up a crouching hen.

A hen that mounts another hen remains female and will continue to keep her feminine characteristics and lay eggs.  So don’t be concerned – this behavior is absolutely normal and does not mean that something is wrong with your hens!

The importance of water for your flock

Keep fresh clean water available at all times.

Keep fresh clean water available at all times.

Like all living things, chickens need water. It’s essential for digestion, egg production, and regulating body heat. On oppressively hot summer days hens, because they lack an ability to sweat, spread their wings and pant. Water evaporating from their mouths and throats cools bodies but must be replaced by frequent drinks. Chickens don’t drink as much in winter but they still need plenty of fresh water daily.

Owners have many ways to keep clean water constantly accessible to chickens. The simplest and least expensive waterer is an old fashioned bucket. Those made of heavy duty rubber never dent and are indestructible. The downside of buckets is their relatively small capacity, the ease birds have tipping them over, and a large water surface, which allows dirt and feces to enter.

Commercially built waterers work well. Most hold three to five gallons and have a relatively small surface area, tending to keep water clean, thus reducing evaporation and spillage. Because they hold more water than buckets they need to be refilled less often.

Hauling heavy buckets from a distant tap is a time consuming chore. Rain falling on the coop’s roof and channeled through the gutters into a rain barrel puts plenty of water right where it’s needed without pipes. Typical rain barrels hold around 50 gallons and fill during a light shower. Filling buckets from a spout at the bottom of a rain barrel is easier than hauling it a distance.

Fortunate chicken owners have a hose tap near their coop. They can use automatic waterers hooked to the hose. These systems refill by themselves. There’s no chance of running out and spillage is minimal.

Winter challenges all types of waterers, but there is a simple solution. Electrically heated chicken and pet waterers can be purchased. All are thermostatically controlled to keep ice from forming. The downside is that birds can easily tip over some electric water dishes. A simple cradle made of scrap prevents the problem. Even on the coldest days the heating unit keeps the water liquid and the birds happy.

The Importance of Grit for Chickens

There’s an advantage to not having teeth. Chickens never need to visit a dentist! But they have a dilemma.

Chickens happily dine on pieces of food as hard as a stone. Somehow it must be moistened and masticated before the digestive tract can extract nutrients. Mammals have teeth to get the job done. Birds use a different strategy. Small stones, called grit, are their surrogate teeth.

 

Scratch_Hens1

Chickens fortunate enough to have daily access to an outdoor run occasionally swallow pebbles that go down the throat and end up in the gizzard, a hollow circular organ about the size of a golf ball. Grit ends up in the gizzard’s interior. As food enters the gizzard, its’ powerful muscles contract, grinding the food into pieces between the stones. Those tiny
particles then can be digested as they move through the bird’s interior.

Grit gradually wears down in the gizzard, so birds need to occasionally swallow new stones. Chickens confined to a coop where they have no access to the ground are unable to locate natural grit and so, rely on their owners to supply it.

Bags of grit are usually sold in the feed aisle. Look for the NatureWise 7-pound bag. It will be enough for a small flock for several months. It is a combination of fine and medium particles of granite, so is edible by both small and larger breeds of chickens.

A handful can be tossed onto the litter once in a while, or it can be placed in a small bowl where birds can access it. Heavy pottery bowls sold as dog dishes work perfectly because they are not easily turned over. Chickens know when they need grit and will swallow a few stones every now and then. A bowl full will last for weeks.

Chickens that are only fed a commercial pellet probably don’t need grit, but almost every owner of a backyard flock tosses the birds an occasional handful of corn or table scraps. Grit is a chicken’s teeth and to ensure good digestion they need access to it.

A good rule of thumb with both grit and oyster shell is, “if in doubt, put it out.” It is very inexpensive and will assure your flock is able to fully digest the food and other tidbits they are eating.