For the next few weeks, we will be releasing previous posts from the old website.
Raising Meat Chickens- the Healthier Way
By Ellen (1-30-10)
One of our main goals here, which is the biggest reason why we homestead, is to produce our own food. Everything we do here relates back to that. We have a big garden every year, lots of young fruit trees (not producing much yet!), dairy animals for milk, cheese, and yogurt, hens for eggs, at certain times of the year a beef cow, pigs, and poultry, and Great Pyrenees to protect it all. In this essay, I’m going to talk about the chicken part of the operation; in particular, raising chickens for meat.
Eight billion chickens are consumed every year in the US. The commercial meat chicken business is booming…. but there are some problems. The conditions in which most birds are raised are horrible. Barring the fact that commercially-raised chickens have a miserable life, eating their meat is suspect for its potential nutritional inferiority. But chicken is good; We like it, and in and of itself, it is a completely healthy food. Fortunately, there is an alternative to eating commercial poultry. At many farmers markets throughout the country, there are farmers selling “Free-Range Chicken”, or “Pastured Poultry”. Although it tends to be more expensive, we believe it to have health benefits, not to mention the fact that you are supporting a local farmer. To read more about pastured poultry, check out this website: Joel Salatin Pastured Poultry
Rather than buying pastured poultry meat, some Americans, like us, are starting to take the plunge into raising their own chickens for meat. We have done this for several years now. In this article, I’ll give an overview of how we raise our meat birds and what we have learned so far.
There are many choices when it comes to what kind of chicken is the best for meat. Unfortunately, it isn’t a yes or no question. Each breed has its aspects that make it better suited or unsuited to meat production. Here are the three types we’ve tried :
1) Laying Breed Roosters (Rhode Island Red, Buff Orpington, Delaware, Black Star, New Hampshire Red, White Rock, etc.)
* These chickens are NORMAL! They act like chickens.
* They are very hardy.
*Some people say they have more flavor. We agree that they make excellent broth, but the meat can be tougher (they are older when butchered).
* They take longer to grow to market weight (in our experience, it’s been about a min. of 14 wks.)
*They may have any feather color, and dark feathers are especially unsightly if some are missed at the plucker
*Their dressed carcass is scrawny, by comparison to a meat breed, and not as appealing or attractive. LESS MEAT!
2) Cornish X (typical meat chicken used in commercial operations)
* These chickens grow to market weight quickly (4 lbs./6 wks, 6 lbs./8 wks.)
-they have white feathers, which are less noticeable if a few are missed at the plucker
-they are less hardy; they have a higher mortality rate than a laying breed
-this is sad, but they are pretty miserable by the time they are six weeks. They no longer walk around much, but sit in front of the feeder and eat, eat, eat.
-Cornish X are sterile… they cannot reproduce
-the dressed carcass is plump attractive.
-Alternative to Cornish X breed (Freedom Ranger, Rosambro, Red Broiler, etc.) To read about Cornish X Alternatives from the opinion of someone who does not like Cornish X, click here: What’s Wrong With This Picture?! And just to find out what “Cornish X Alternatives” are, check out this site: (They have a good overview of the basic types of alternative meat chickens): Coulee View Family Farm Pastured Chicken (we ordered our alternative chicks from the same farm that they get theirs)
-with a Cornish X alternative, you get a livelier, and slower growing, yet still plump, tender, and attractive bird.
-They take 12-14 weeks to grow out.
-they, like laying breeds, come in different feather colors, which is not a plus in my opinion
-with our batch we raised, we experienced a high mortality rate. However, we have just done one batch of 50 and it may have just been a fluke. The mortality occurred mostly in the early weeks. The Rosambro’s were only somewhat heartier (my mom says 30%), while the others acted just like normal chickens.
-they act more normal and experience a higher “quality of life” while they are growing.
-they can reproduce! We liked the Red Broilers best and are keeping some for breeding.
In conclusion, I’d have to say that we, so far, prefer Cornish X. We like to have a chicken that’s attractive on the table. That’s not to say that we don’t ever do laying breeds for meat. On a pretty regular basis, we’ll have extra roosters, because a hen went broody, etc. But we usually use them in soup. However, we have a friend who prefers to raise normal chickens for meat and has ordered about 200 laying breed rooster castoffs from a hatchery for a very cheap price. If you prefer this type of bird, this is an excellent option. As far as “alternative meat breeds” go, we did like the finished product very much (more like Cornish X). But, they tend to be more expensive, we lost 1/2 of the Rosambros, and they do take longer to grow out. We are keeping a breeding pair in the hopes of raising our own chicks so we don’t have to go to such a big expense.
Now that I’ve talked about which meat chickens to raise, I’d like to spend a little bit of time talking about how to raise them. There are kind of two stages in a meat bird’s life, in our experience. is from 0-3 weeks. During this part of the chickens lives we have kept them in the garage in a plastic pool, or a large floorless box made of four pieces of plywood. We use pine shaving as bedding. We keep a heat lamp on them at all times for the first couple weeks, then only at night, and eventually they get moved outside. Alternatively, we’ve also put 2 week old chickens in a closed off area of the hen house, and moved them outside as they get bigger.
There are several different ways to raise older meat birds. One of the most popular ways, and a way we’ve gone with many times, is “The Chicken Tractor”. A chicken tractor is a movable, floorless pen with a wood or PVC pipe skeleton, over which is stretched some kind of chicken wire. Usually a portion of it is covered so the birds can have shelter. Some chicken tractors have wheels one end, and handles for pulling it. Some heavier ones can be hitched up to a tractor to be moved. The reasons why a chicken tractor is so good are:
1) It doesn’t take up much space
2) It’s movable, so the chickens can always have fresh grass. If they stay in the same place all the time, the grass becomes depleted and feces build up
3) It allows fertilizer to be spread over your grass, one patch at a time.
4) By the time you have moved it several times, the first patch of grass will be regrown.
5) A chicken tractor is especially good for Cornish X because they are LAZY! This way, they are encouraged to eat fresh grass because it’s always right under their nose. If they lived in a chicken coop and had to walk outside to get the grass, they wouldn’t get nearly as much.
There are many different designs, shapes, and sizes that a chicken tractor can be. We always used a rectangular or square style with a flat roof (angled roof is better as it will shed water). We covered ours with tarps held on by bungee cords.
If you’d like to read more about chicken tractors, click here: Talkin’ Bout My Chicken Tractor
We’ve also raised meat birds in our regular laying hen enclosure (pasture or electric poultry netting). Of course, we don’t turn the meat birds loose in an enclosure until they are big enough to not attract hawks (about 3-4 wks.)
As a side note, we’ve found that a decoy owl, perched on a fence post in the chicken enclosure is a good hawk deterrent.
As far as feeding the chickens go, in addition to grass/bugs, etc. that they get by foraging in the chicken tractor/net enclosure, we give some grain. We usually start meat chicks on non-medicated chick starter and then switch at two weeks to layer ration (ours is a specially formulated non-pelleted feed made of corn, wheat, distiller’s grain, etc.) Of course, we always give plenty of water. It’s especially important to make sure Cornish X have plenty of easily accessible (near by) water, as they easily succomb to heat stroke and generally won’t walk far to get water, even if they really need it!
Thanks for reading this! It is a lot of work to raise chickens and butcher them, but the results are awesome! Hopefully we’ll be posting pictures of our current chicken enclosure and chicken butchering process soon.