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

 

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.

Tour the Chicken Digestive System

Ever wondered how a chicken’s digestive system works? Now you can find out!  Check out this video for all the details.

Questions or comments? Leave them below!

Supplementing Your Chicken’s Diet

Oyster shell. Grit. Scratch grains. So many choices – but what do your chickens really need, and when? Find out below!

when to feed grit to chickens, when to feed oyster shell to chickens, does a chicken need scratch grains

Click the image to enlarge.

What’s in poultry feed – Part I

Corn, soy and grain are common ingredients in most poultry feeds.

Corn, soy and grain are common ingredients in most poultry feeds.

One of the most common questions I am asked in my job time after time is “Can you tell me what is in your feed?” People are naturally curious about the ingredients in their animal’s feed and have been trained to read labels on the food we eat, so why not on the feed our animals eat? Most poultry feeds consist of similar main ingedients, the most common of which are discussed below:

Soybean Meal – This is the most common form of plant protein, and if your feed tag lists “plant protein products” as an ingredient, chances are soybean meal is what is being used. Soybeans are readily available throughout the country and have the highest concentration of protein of any of our plant sources, with a typical level of 44-48%. When high protein soybean meal is blended with other ingredients, it can raise the overall protein content of the feed.  Additionally, soybean meal contains a close match nutritionally to what animals require for amino acids. Especially important in this profile is the amino acid lysine, which is essential in young growing animals.

Canola Meal is sometimes used in conjunction with or as a replacement for soybean meal. While the protein content is not quite as high, this ingredient is still considered a great source of plant-based protein.

Corn is added to feed as an energy source and provides a whopping 1.54 Mcal of digestible energy (DE) per pound (1.54 Mcal/lb = 1540 Kcal/lb = 1540 Calories/lb) . If “grain products” are listed on your tag, it is usually referring to corn, wheat, or other grains. Feeding grain as an ingredient in a complete feed helps to provide the energy necessary for maximum egg production and optimum growth.  However, feeding straight corn or other grains (like those found in scratch) in excess by themselves can be detrimental to the health of your birds. With low protein content and no vitamins or minerals added, too much grain alone can affect laying rate, growth rate, and overall health and immunity. Keep any added straight grain at no more than 15% of the total diet, with the bulk of the ration being a commercial poultry feed.

Wheat Midds are obtained from the milling of wheat, wheat bran, wheat shorts, wheat germ and wheat flour. Wheat midds may be represented on your feed tag as “processed grain by-products”. To many people, by-products have a negative connotation. Most think of by-products as “left overs” or “fillers”.  This is simply not true. Some of the most nutrient rich ingredients we have for poultry feeds are made of the product that remains after a grain has been processed for another specific purpose. Midds in particular are a good source of energy, protein and fiber. Additionally, wheat midds help create a nice pellet that holds together well; midds can enhance the quality and make a clean pellet with minimal dust and fines.  

These main ingredients typically make up the highest inclusion of most poultry feeds. In the next article in our series, we will explore the differences in nutrition that can be made by value-added ingredients, such as probiotics and prebiotics, marigold extract, and others!

The truth about chickens and bugs

These chickens are searching for earthworms and centipedesThere is a common belief that free ranging chickens will rid a yard of pesky insects, snails, slugs and ticks. Many think that a flock of chickens converts pests into eggs, meat, and fertilizer. It is important to remember that chickens are opportunistic omnivores who spend hours combing the yard for edible tidbits.They scratch through leaves, tall grass, and garden mulch looking for bugs.  Sometimes they’ll even snatch a fly from the air.  Chickens aren’t picky and don’t care whether a newly found morsel is a pest or beneficial earthworm.  Insects, worms, seeds, grass, spiders, ticks, and a host of other morsels quickly become lunch.  

Turn a few hens into a growing garden and they’ll dine on Japanese beetles, squash bugs, and many other invertebrates. Unfortunately, they will also devour tasty lettuce, chard, spinach and other greens.  Chickens love to peck tomatoes just beginning to ripen and immature squash, and they can damage other garden crops. 

The trick is knowing when and how to allow chickens access to the garden so they eat the pests and ignore the crop. The simplest way is to let them forage in mid fall after all crops are done for the year. Many pests overwinter as larvae or eggs, and chickens will methodically scratch through remnants of the garden, devouring pests as they go and leaving fertilizer in their wake. This certainly can reduce pest numbers in next year’s garden.  

Chickens can also be allowed to forage into growing crops that they tend to not eat or when crops are at a stage of maturity when their fruits or leaves won’t be damaged. For example, chickens rarely bother tomato plants but they love to peck on their nearly ripe reddish fruit. So it’s probably safe to let the birds forage in the tomato patch before ripening fruit is present.   

Because chickens don’t distinguish between garden pests and beneficial invertebrates they will  dine on beneficial worms and pollinating insects as well as pests, although they probably don’t significantly reduce populations of these gardeners’ friends.

Chickens will eat nearly any invertebrate they can catch, but most of the bugs that bite people, chickens, and other animals are stealthy, fast, or very small, giving chickens less of an opportunity to reduce their numbers than slow moving plant pests. They’ll devour the maggots of pesky flies if they can find them but they have a hard time catching adult biting flies other than an occasional one they snap from the air. Mosquitoes are mostly active when the light is low and chickens are nearly comatose on their roost, so they have a hard time reducing those populations.  Hens love to eat ticks, and guineas enjoy them even more. They may reduce the population of larger tick species but likely won’t get all of them. 

You should never assume that free ranging chickens render a yard free of disease carrying pests.  Wear insect repellent when outside, even in the yard, and conduct a personal tick check before taking a shower.

Letting a flock of chickens forage in a back yard reduces their food bill, as the birds eat a diversity of protein rich insects. When carefully managed they will eat garden pests but may not be as effective in devouring the tiny animals that bite humans and other animals.