It would be great to have a hard-and-fast rule for the exact day, weight, or age to slaughter a chicken. That kind of precision is nearly impossible due to the number of variables involved. In this article, I’ll go over the variables to consider when planning your chicken processing day so you’ll have the perfect dressed-out chicken when you’re done.
Understanding the Growth and Development of Chickens In Planning Chicken Processing
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that chickens go through a few different phases of development on their journey to adulthood.
And, most importantly, all chickens mature at different rates depending on a variety of factors (including breed, feeding schedules, and types of feed, for example).
Knowing your breed’s characteristics, growth rates, and finishing sizes will help you make the right choices when it comes to slaughtering your chickens.
Weight vs. Age
When it comes to slaughtering different kinds of animals for human consumption, the two biggest determining factors regarding processing timeframes are the weight and/or the animal’s age.
Often age is a determining factor used to choose a processing timeframe.
This is often done to prevent overfeeding and cut down on feed costs while increasing profit. Plus, it’s easy to predict the maturity and weight of an animal-based on its age.
On the other hand, different breeds mature at different rates. Thus age might not be the best determining factor when deciding on a butcher date.
Chicken Processing, Slaughter Dates Depend on Chicken Breeds
If you’ve been evaluating different breeds of chickens to determine which you’d like to raise as a meat bird, you’ve probably noticed that there is no shortage of options.
Some breeds of chickens grow faster than others, and the growth rate will certainly play a role in choosing your butcher dates.
In general, there are two different types of chickens to choose from (aside from specialty breeds), and which you chose will play a large role in your processing timeframe.
Cornish Cross Broiler
When you think of the typical meat chicken, the Cornish Cross is what probably comes to mind. This is the signature bird of the big commercial operations because they grow big and extremely fast.
Since this breed grows abnormally fast and large, it is best to process it at a determined date to prevent illness and death due to predisposed health conditions in this breed.
With that being said, there are many prescribed feeding plans available that can help cut down on losses and keep the processing timeframe more predictable.
If you chose this breed and feed based on a prescribed schedule, usually, the hatchery you purchase will have this information.
You can expect to slaughter them in 8-9 weeks…like clockwork.
With that being said, there are a few other factors to consider that will affect this timeframe (more on that later on)
Meat Chicken Alternatives
Aside from the Cornish Cross broiler, the Ranger breed is another fast-growing, large chicken breed to consider.
These chickens don’t grow quite as fast as the Cornish Cross, but they can usually be butchered around 10 weeks, depending on your chosen feeding schedule.
These breeds are an excellent choice for someone who isn’t interested in the Cornish Cross broiler and wants to raise their meat chickens on pasture or free-range, as they are savvy chickens that excel at foraging.
Remember, this may affect your processing timeframe.
If you’ve decided to raise heritage breeds as meat chickens, you’ll be looking at a longer wait time for maturity.
In this instance, you’ll have a less predictable timeline for processing, especially because you have many different breeds to choose from.
For example, if you chose a large breed, like the Jersey Giant, you could be waiting 6 months to a year to butcher it due to its slow growth rate.
With that being said, you’ll also be rewarded with a nice large carcass on processing day.
When it comes to heritage breeds, it might be more beneficial to determine your slaughter date based on weight until you are familiar with the growth of the breed you’ve selected.
Once you have a firm grasp on that, you can probably start predicting the perfect slaughter date.
However, keep in mind the longer you wait to process a chicken, the tougher they tend to get. If you’re ok with soup or crockpot chickens, you can wait as long as you’d like.
In general, any breed that is not a Cornish Cross or alternative meat breed can be processed between 4 and 10 months of age without it getting too old and tough.
Feeding Practices Affect Chicken Processing Timelines
Typically, when raising meat chickens, you’ll opt for a feed that’s labeled as grower or finisher feed, which has a higher concentration of protein than layer feeds.
The extra protein helps your chickens grow quickly and produce a carcass that is more palatable.
On the other hand, if you’ve chosen to raise your meat chickens organically on pasture, for example, their feed supply cannot be controlled or monitored as well.
And in this type of situation, it’s important to monitor health and growth to project an appropriate processing day.
You’ll definitely need to decide on a processing date based on weight and not age in a free-range situation.
Since you won’t have control over feed rations or what they are eating. Depending on your location and your chickens’ ability to forage for what they need.
Layer vs. Meat Chickens
Another point to make here is the difference between layers and meat chickens (and how you’ve fed them.
Because if you’ve been feeding your chicken’s layer feed, they’ve been consuming less protein than if they were eating feed formulated for meat chickens.
And in most cases, the birds will not grow as quickly.
For example, many raise chickens as layers, then cull and replace them after a certain amount of time. In doing so, have a nice meat chicken (that’s not too tough) and fresh eggs.
As a rule of thumb, heritage breeds, typically kept as layers, start to lose their tenderness after about 8 months.
So, you might not get many eggs out of your chicken by that time, but this is a route many homesteaders take to optimize their chicken’s protein-giving abilities.
Slaughter Dates For Chicken Processing Depending on The Finished Product
When you decided to raise chickens for meat, you probably put some thought into the finished product (i.e., a whole broiler, fryer, wings, breasts, or soup chicken).
If that’s the case, timing will play a large role when choosing a date to slaughter your chickens.
The following descriptions should help you plan an appropriate timeframe.
Young Broiler or Fryer
A broiler is typically a younger chicken, weighing around 2 ½ pounds dressed.
For simplicity’s sake, a Cornish Cross butchered and dressing out at this weight. Around 8 weeks could be considered a broiler. This is when the meat is the most tender.
Many interchange broiler with the fryer. In truth, a fryer is usually butchered around the same age as a broiler, but it will weigh about a pound or so more.
In this situation, both age and weight come into play. As long as you know your intentions, you can plan for broilers or fryers fairly easily.
Roaster chickens are older than a fryer or broiler but less than 8 months old.
Typically, roasters also weigh more, around 7 pounds.
Soup or Crock Pot Chicken
If you’re raising your birds for eggs as well, or keep them around a little too long, you can still slaughter them and employ cooking methods that reintroduce tenderness to the old bird, like in soups or crock pots, for example.
Chickens older than 10 months are often used as soup chicken because they become quite tough after this point.
Hen vs. Rooster vs. Capon
As you probably know, hens are usually smaller than roosters, which can also play a role in butcher deadlines.
As you approach your planned processing day, take a moment to assess the size of your broilers, especially if they are Cornish Crosses.
Keeping back smaller ones for a later date may allow them to bulk up a bit more after the “food hogs” or large roosters are out of the equation.
And don’t worry about the birds becoming tough if it’s only a week or two because they can easily be used as roasters.
On another note, some choose to castrate their roosters. This is called caponizing, and it’s done to create a fatter, more tender meat than what a rooster typically produces.
Caponizing, however, is a surgical process that takes some extensive learning and practice.
Other Factors In Chicken Processing
Factors such as environmental temperature, husbandry practices, or illnesses also play a role in your meat chickens’ development speed and size.
Raising chickens in cold temperatures, for example, will force your birds to spend more energy keeping warm rather than packing on the pounds.
Therefore, you may have to butcher later than planned.
As you can see, there are many factors involved in predicting the right time to slaughter your chickens, but if you understand these variables, you’ll be able to plan with much more confidence.
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