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.

Types of Poultry

Once you decide to start raising fowl, it is important to select the right type of birds to suit your needs, environment, and desires. Below is a quick overview of the main types of birds available to most people.

Chickens

Many different breeds of chickens have been developed for different purposes. For simplicity, you can place them into three general categories: Laying, meat-producing and dual-purpose breeds.

  • Laying Breeds:
    • These breeds are known for their egg-laying capacity.
    • Popular laying breeds include the White Leghorn, Red Sex Link and Black Sex Link breeds.
    • A healthy hen will lay eggs for several years. Hens begin to lay at approximately 16–20 weeks of age and will lay between 20–23 dozen eggs the first year.
    • At 14 months, laying hens usually begin to molt, the process by which they drop their old feathers and grow new ones. No eggs are laid during this period.
    • After molting, hens will lay larger but fewer eggs per year (about 16–18 dozen).
  • Meat Breeds:
    • Meat-producing breeds are very efficient at converting feed to meat, producing approximately one pound of bodyweight for every two pounds of feed they eat.
    • A popular meat-producing breed is the Cornish breed. The Cornish game hen is a cross between the Cornish and the New Hampshire or Plymouth Rock breeds.
    • Meat-producing chickens are broad breasted and larger than the laying breeds.
    • They grow and feather rapidly and will weigh five pounds or more at eight weeks.
    • Broilers and fryers are butchered at 31/2 to 5 pounds, while a roaster is butchered at 6 to 8 pounds.
  • Dual-Purpose Breeds:
    • The dual-purpose breed is the classic backyard chicken. These breeds are hardy, self-reliant and fairly large bodied. Most lay large brown-shelled eggs.
    • Examples include Rhode Island Red and New Hampshire breeds.
    • Some laying and dual-purpose hens tend to get broody, which means they will want to sit on and hatch eggs. Because broody hens don’t lay eggs, egg production will be affected.

Turkeys, Game Birds and Other Poultry

Turkeys, geese, ducks and pheasants are often raised as pets or for their egg and meat-producing qualities. They also can make terrific projects for children to learn responsibility and animal husbandry skills. Your local feed dealer and extension agent are excellent resources for information on breeds and species that are appropriate for your goals and geographic region.