When you decide to raise chickens for meat, you’ll undoubtedly have questions about how to get the best dressed-out bird and how to care for them. Since the COVID-19 pandemic there have been serious questions being asked by individuals and families around the world. These questions include how to become self sufficient in sourcing protein due to shortages in poultry at local grocery stores and supply chain issues. We are here to provide information to our readers on how to raise meat chickens, how to process chickens, when you should process chickens, and more details including the best chicken breeds for meat.
In this article, we’ll go over all the basics to get you started.
Read on to learn about the best meat chicken breeds, feeding instructions, and environmental factors to consider before you get your first meat chicken.
Choose the Right Chicken Breed For Meat
In truth, you can raise any breed of chicken for a meat bird. From a teeny bantam to a standard heritage breed, to the commercially raised breeds of chicken. With that being said, some chickens provide more meat and better flavor than others.
1. The Size of Your Chicken
Some chicken breeds are larger than others and yield a much larger carcass. Throughout this article, you’ll often see me refer to the Cornish Cross and the Ranger breeds of chickens as the standard choices for meat chickens. This is mainly due to their fast-growing abilities and the size when dressed out (which is much larger than standard breeds).
2. Humane Considerations
There is some controversy over the genetics and humane treatment surrounding the Cornish Cross meat chicken. That’s because it was developed to grow at an unnaturally rapid rate for the commercial industry (to keep up with demand and of course, make more money).
Unfortunately, the Cornish Cross grows so fast that there can be medical complications, including heart problems and the inability of the bird to support its huge body with its legs.
Luckily, there are feeding schedules that can help offset these problems (more on that below). But, if this turns you off, there are alternative birds that grow quickly and to a large size with fewer health concerns.
One favorite is the Ranger chicken (often referred to as a Freedom Ranger, Rainbow Ranger, Gray Ranger, and other forms of the name).
Alternatively, larger heritage breeds can be used as well, like the Buff Orpington, for example.
3. Time Constraints
If you’re up against a timeline, for example preparing for the holidays, or looking to source your protein as soon as possible, then maybe you need a bird that finishes out faster than others. In that case, you’ll want to research the breeds that your hatchery offers.
If you’re up against the clock, you’ll most likely choose a bird that is labeled as a meat chicken, like the Cornish Cross or Ranger.
4. Taste of the Meat
Some chickens have slightly different flavors than others, but if you’re looking at the typical meat chickens or standard dual-purpose breeds, the taste will not vary all that much. Often, the taste has more to do with the way you’ve fed your chickens, rather than the breed of chicken you are raising. Also, the older the chicken, the tougher the meat and typically a chicken you have used for egg production and now want to process for meat is traditionally used for soups and broths.
5. Appearance of the Finished Product
There’s a big difference between the chicken breast in the store, which most likely is from a cornish cross, and that of a heritage breed (like a Buff Orpington or Rhode Island Red).
Cornish crosses are typically white, large, pieces of meat. Whole Cornish Crosses have that “picture perfect” look to them while heritage breeds may have yellow or slate-colored skin and a “bony” appearance. If looks are important, chose a breed that reflects what you’d prefer to see on your dinner table.
Throughout the remainder of this article, I’ll be referring to how to raise large broiler breeds, like the Cornish Cross, and not heritage breeds.
Brooder Basics For Meat Chickens
If you’ve ever raised layers, your brooder will most likely be good enough for meat chicks as well. With that being said, don’t forget that they grow quickly.
And some of the stronger, larger birds, may make it difficult for the others to eat and grow if there is not enough space.
All you need is a large tub, tank, or box for your brooder. And try your best utilize a container that is easy to clean and will not promote the growth of bacteria.
Heating temperatures will remain consistent no matter the breed you are raising. For example, you’ll start with either 90 or 95 degrees Fahrenheit in the brooder, and reduce it by 5 degrees weekly until you can turn it off.
Always monitor your chicks to ensure they aren’t too cold or too hot based on their behavior in the brooder.
A hot clutch of chicks will try their best to stay away from the heat source, cold chicks, on the other hand, will huddle up and sit tightly beneath it, which can also cause suffocation amongst chicks on the bottom of the pile.
Feeders for Meat Chickens
But as they begin to grow, bullies may emerge in the pecking order, limiting feed to the weaker chickens. Hanging feeders (and plenty of them, depending on the number of meat chickens you’ll be raising) will be beneficial to prevent overeating and bullying.
Additionally, meat chickens tend to be a bit lazy and may prefer to lay in open feeders and eat as they do. This causes overeating, food hogging, and bacteria to grow in the feed—due to droppings.
To prevent this, try to keep the feeders off the ground, automatic feeders, and ensure all chickens have access to the food. The same goes for waterers; they can also become quite dirty if not placed strategically off the bedding.
Consider employing waterer stands, raised waterers, or automatic cup waterers to keep bacteria at bay.
The Best Bedding for Meat Chickens
Meat chickens need bedding material that is absorbent and slip-free. Newspapers, bare plastic, or anything that doesn’t give your chickens traction will only exacerbate leg issues—preventing them from walking and causing them to become trampled…and quite possibly die.
Your best bet is pine wood shavings (and never cedar shavings, which can be toxic to chickens). Read our chicken bedding guide here to learn more about chicken bedding.
No matter which betting you chose, it needs to be changed and rotated more frequently than the typical heritage breed chickens’ bedding. This is due to the amount of feed consumed by the meat chickens. So keep this in mind when you plan. Consider the amount of bedding and how often you will need to change it based on how many broilers you’ll be raising and the size of your brooder.
Lastly, always ensure that your meat chickens are kept clean and living in dry conditions because bacteria love to grow in a wet, dirty, brooder.
Feeding Instructions for Meat Chickens
When raising Cornish Crosses, and even some Ranger breeds, there are certain feed portions to give to your chickens based on their age to prevent death from overeating, medical conditions, and poor meat quality. When you first get your broilers, give them free-choice access to their feed for the first week.
This means, keep their feeders full.
During their first week, your chicks will need a lot of protein for proper growth, and free-choice is perfectly fine at this age. Meat chickens should be fed a 20% protein chick starter during their first 3 weeks of life. Then, they can be switched over to an 18% protein grower feed.
After a week, feed your chickens 12 hours on (free-choice) and 12 hours off. And take the feed away during the off hours to prevent over-eating.
Type of Feeds For Meat Birds
When you first get your chicks, make sure you’re feeding them chick starter. Typically this will be the same for layers as it is for broilers (but always make sure it has at least 20% protein content).
You can decide to feed medicated feed or non-medicated feed. Medicated feed protects your chicks from contracting coccidia when they are most vulnerable to the intestinal infection.
Coccidiosis is an infection of the intestinal tract, caused by protozoa found in chicken droppings. It can be deadly, so medicated feed might be worth it in the beginning.
At three weeks, your chicks should be switched over to a grower/or broiler formula. It’s also during this time that your meat chickens should be provided with grit to help them digest their food.
At some point, your chickens will outgrow their brooder. Always try your best to accommodate your chickens as they grow to prevent overcrowding. Some sources say that Cornish Crosses only need about 2 square feet of space per adult chicken. If you can give them more, always do so. Smaller spaces invite pecking, pileups of feces, and overweight chickens. More space gives your chickens more room to move, flap their wings, and exercise their bodies…it’s just polite to allow them the room to wiggle and move about and act like a chicken. We prefer free ranging our rangers. The cornish can free range but not as willing to do so in our experience.
In the Coop
Whether you’re keeping your meat chickens in a coop or chicken tractor, make sure that you implement the same mindset regarding feeder and waterers. Keep them clean, off the ground, and plentiful so everyone can eat what they need in order to grow and develop into happy, meaty, chickens.
Along those same lines, ensure you can keep feeders and waterers clean so bacteria does not grow and make your chickens sick.
Knowing When to Process Your Chickens
We have a complete guide on knowing when to process your chickens here for all the details. But in general, if you’re raising Cornish Crosses, the rule of thumb is to process them at around 8 or 9 weeks. And if you’ve followed the above feeding schedule, you should have some nice meat chickens at that time with very few losses.
On the other hand, if you’re raising heritage breeds or rangers, your processing date will most likely be pushed back from a few weeks to a few months depending on the breed you’ve decided to raise.
When it comes down to it, meat chickens should be processed when they’ve reached the desirable weight for the breed you’re raising. With that being said, waiting too long to butcher after a chicken has reached maturity will result in a stringy or tough carcass—in other words, a soup chicken.
When raising meat chickens, it’s important to understand your breed, and always research recommended processing time frames for the type of chicken you’re raising.