Growing Meat Chickens at Home

 “Oh we’ll kill the old red rooster when she comes, when she comes. Oh, we’ll kill the old red rooster when she comes when she comes.” 

Back in 1947 when Gene Autry sang those famous lines in “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” a chicken dinner was a treat served mostly when hosting dinner guests. Traditional chicken dinners came from old hens past their egg laying prime or roosters from heavy breed chickens like White Rocks, New Hampshire Reds, or Buff Orpingtons.

Since then, poultry breeders developed an amazing hybrid that grows at an astonishing speed and revolutionized human diets, making chicken a common meat. In 1960 the average American ate 63 pounds of beef but only 24 pounds of chicken. By 2016 beef consumption had dropped to 56 pounds while chicken soared to 90 pounds.

A dual-purpose breed rooster takes about 16 weeks to reach broiler size, and by then his flesh is staring to toughen. He also lacks the thick breast meat featured in many of today’s recipes. In contrast, a modern Cornish broiler reaches eating size in only six weeks and his tender meaty body includes a deep breast.

Hybrid broilers are amazingly efficient. Back in 1925 an average broiler chicken ate 4.7 pounds of feed for each pound it gained. By 2011 a Cornish Cross broiler ate only 1.9 pounds of feed to gain a pound of body weight. Feed efficiency and rapid growth has made chicken an inexpensive and healthy meat.

Big commercial growers enjoy the cost advantage of scale by buying thousands of chicks and hundreds of tons of feed. Small flock owners must spend more for chicks and feed to produce their own broilers. Then they must slaughter their birds. It likely costs more to raise broilers at home than buy them in the store, but there are outstanding reasons to do it.

Nothing beats the pride of producing food at home, whether home grown tomatoes or broiler chickens. They just seem to taste better than supermarket counterparts. Growing winter chicken dinners yields satisfaction as well as meat. Many hatcheries sell Cornish Cross and Red Ranger hybrid chicks all year. Ordering some to arrive in early fall will fill the freezer before Thanksgiving.

Cornish Cross Broilers are super achievers that produce the most meat on the least feed in the shortest time. These are single purpose chickens bred for meat only. Hens are slaughtered when they reach eating size and aren’t good layers. Cornish Cross Broilers get so heavy so quickly they have a hard time walking and prefer to stay by the feeder and eat. They need a special high protein diet and careful management.

Red Rangers or Red Broilers are a hybrid well suited for small flocks. They grow slower than Cornish but faster than dual purpose breeds and lack the health problems of faster growing broilers. Rangers enjoy foraging outdoors and can be raised with standard breeds. They produce the meaty breast most people enjoy and are ready for slaughter by 12 weeks. Hens can be kept and will lay about 175 eggs a year.

Before anyone buys broiler chicks they should determine how they are going to process them. Slaughtering and dressing chickens can be done at home for personal use. Several You Tube videos show how to do it in graphic detail. Another option is to bring live birds to a processing plant. Usually state laws require that dressed birds offered for sale be processed in a licensed plant.

Most urban chicken ordinances are written allow homeowners to keep a few laying hens and prohibit slaughtering. However, many families who raise chickens are part of a network of other poultry raising families. Some may live outside city limits where birds can be brought for processing.

Growing broilers in a small flock is more challenging than tending laying hens, but growing healthy in a backyard coop is satisfying and makes delicious winter meals.

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