If you’ve always wanted to raise meat chickens, but aren’t sure you can actually go through with it, then this week’s podcast is for you.
In this session of What The Cluck?! we talk all about how we raise meat chickens on our homestead and harvest sustainable meat.
(Want to raise a sustainable flock? I can help! Check out my new book, Chickens: Naturally Raising A Sustainable Flock on Amazon!)
Once you have a certain mindset, and using some tips in the podcast you’ll learn how to do it, you can easily start to raise meat chickens on your farm.
- The breeds I recommend if you’re scared to raise meat birds
- How to handle the emotions (with practical advice)
- The ONE TOOL you should always have on hand (and why it’s terrible to be without it)
- Why I recommend raising roosters instead of hens for meat (and it’s not necessarily what you think)
Links we discuss:
Hi there, and welcome to session 18 of What the Cluck?!, a podcast devoted to keeping chickens for fun and self-sufficiency.
I’m Maat from FrugalChicken, and in this episode we’ll talk about how to raise meat chickens, and getting started raising a flock you can later harvest for food.
So, we’ll cover different chickens and their advantages, when it comes to breeds, there’s a couple things to take into consideration, and we’ll get to that, how to approach the emotions about raising meat chickens, and what you’ll need to be successful.
We’ll also talk a bit about the whys, meaning why raise meat chickens at all, and some of the more difficult aspects of raising meat chickens.
This will be a valuable episode that’s full of advice you can use today. Just as a reminder, you can get this episodes show notes at TheFrugalChicken.com/Podcast18, that’s podcast one eight.
So stay with me!
So first, let’s talk about the why. So why raise meat chickens in the first place? And this certainly isn’t for everyone.
While there’s nothing wrong with keeping chickens as pets, if you plan to raise them for self-sufficiency, then deciding to raise chickens for meat will be a bridge you need to decide if you’ll cross at some point.
I can’t tell you why you should raise chickens for meat, because it’s truly an individual decision, but I’ll tell you why I do. I like knowing where my food comes from, and I like knowing they had a good life before they became food.
All the chickens on our farm have access to sun, good quality food, the ability to dust bathe, hang out with each other, and just be chickens before they’re harvested.
For me, knowing the quality of their life was the best it could be is more meaningful than just going to the grocery store to buy whatever is there because it avoids the inconvenience of having to face death in the face.
With some of the issues going on with food in this country, namely that the meat industry is no longer required to label country of origin and the meat industry is allowed to ship US bred and raised chickens out of the country for processing, I just don’t want to buy or eat meat from the grocery store if I can help it.
Now, for some meat, like beef, I can’t help it, but for chickens, I can because I can raise them myself.
Now, you might find you want to raise meat chickens for different reasons, and that’s perfectly fine. As you start your journey, you’ll have to decide what those reasons are for yourself.
Now, let’s move onto breeds. So, when it comes to chickens to raise for meat, you have some options, namely whether you want to go with a hybrid or a heritage breed. There’s advantages and disadvantages to each.
Hybrids typically are bred to grow larger in a shorter period of time, and these chickens require less feed to get to harvest weight. There’s obvious financial advantages to these hybrids, but some people don’t like them for reasons we’ll discuss in a minute.
Your other option is to go with a heritage breed, meaning a purebred bird of an established breed recognized by the American Poultry Association.
These chickens are usually hardier and there’s a nice ring to saying you raise heritage breeds for meat. There’s a lot of options, and we’ll talk about a few and why they’re good for meat.
The disadvantages to heritage breeds is they’re developed as dual purpose breeds, meaning for eggs and meat, so they are usually smaller, and take a lot longer to reach harvest weight.
While hybrid chickens are ready anywhere from 10 weeks to 20 weeks, in my experience, to have a sizeable heritage breed chicken to harvest can take up to a year.
They also have a bit different taste than heavier hybrids, which some people prefer. Compared to some hybrid chickens, they’re also healthier and lead better lives during the time you have them, so some people just prefer to raise them because of that.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with raising either hybrids or heritage breeds. I’ve raised both, and you’ll have good, serviceable meat either way. It’s simply about preference.
Now, my pro tip when it comes to meat chickens is with the exception of Cornish Crosses, try to raise only roosters. And I have a particular reason for this. First off, roosters get bigger than hens, so for the same amount of food, you’ll get a pound or two more meat.
The other reason is I think roosters are easier to part with. When it comes to hens, there’s always that little voice in the back of your head saying “but she can lay eggs…” so when it comes to harvest time, it makes it a little harder, I think.
But when you have 50 roosters all fighting each other, and it’s time to harvest, things get a little less emotional. You only need so many roosters, and more than that bare minimum becomes a huge management issue as they start to get older and territorial. Just trust me on this.
If you’re concerned about getting attached or looking to give the chickens other jobs to avoid killing them, then raise roosters. You’ll get a better bang for your buck and their attitudes will make it easier to use them for what you initially intended.
Another option is to simply keep your meat chickens away from your layers, if possible. Have two separate coops, and that can give you a nice mental separation between the one’s you’ll keep and the ones you’ll say good bye to eventually.
For me, the easiest way to raise meat chickens from a psychological stand point is really to raise Cornish crosses. Once they start to reach a certain weight, you begin to see the quality of their lives declining, and it makes it easier.
So now, let’s talk about breeds. So when it comes to breeds of chickens to raise for meat, there’s a few options.
The chickens you see in the grocery store are Cornish Crosses, and these chickens are a hybrid between Cornish birds, which are broad breasted, and give the Cornish crosses of today their characteristic large breasts, and chickens like Plymouth Rocks that are larger.
Now, Cornish crosses have a bad reputation as freak chickens, and part of that reputation is because they’re bred to grow so quickly that they tend to have a lot of health issues as a breed.
Personally, if you raise them right, don’t allow them to over eat, and let them exercise, you’ll have less issues than someone who doesn’t control their environment well.
Personally, I’ve never really had an issue except in extreme weather.
One reason I like to raise Cornish crosses for meat is because, to be honest, they’re easier to harvest. And this is my advice to someone who’s starting out with meat chickens and is afraid to get attached.
Cornish crosses have a hard time surviving past a certain age. We’ve had some get to be a year, but it’s really not a good idea to let them live that long.
Ours didn’t have a hard time walking, but they were so heavy they were targets for our other birds, and frankly, they just sort of waddled around.
I think they lived that long because I didn’t overfeed them and made them exercise, but in the end, they still have a shorter lifespan than most other chickens.
But that being said, our Cornish crosses grew to be at least 25 pounds, and although they were the sweetest chickens, they did need help with things like walking up steps and I had to keep an eye on them when they were outside free ranging so they didn’t get picked up by a predator, since they can’t really run to defend themselves.
When it comes to Cornish crosses, and you see what they turn into if they live longer than they’re bred for, it’s easier to understand that their lives naturally end at a certain time, and you’re not really cutting their lives short by butchering them at 10 weeks.
The bottom line is you’re giving them a good life, which will come to its natural and expected end.
Allowing them to live longer will mean they’ll die anyway, probably from something worse than humanely being butchered, such as a heart attack or getting caught by a predator, and you will have lost all your hard work.
The other issue with Cornish crosses and allowing them to live longer than intended is they start to get very big, like we said, and this can lead to issues trying to maneuver around all the fat and meat to butcher them, remove the entrails, etc.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with raising Cornish cross chickens, I do myself, but these are the insider quirks you should know before choosing a breed of meat bird to raise this spring.
So really, my pro tip with Cornish Crosses is when you get attached, remember why you bought them and that you’re better off harvesting them.
Another option, if you don’t want to go with Cornish crosses, and not everyone does, is going with chickens like Red Rangers, or some other cross that hatcheries develop.
These are hybrids that are meant to grow to a harvestable weight faster than heritage breeds but slower than Cornish crosses.
They’re meant to get to a good weight, about 8 or so pounds usually, and they don’t have the same health issues that Cornish crosses have the reputation for. Namely, they don’t have issues with outgrowing the weight their legs can handle, as well as fluid around the heart, etcetera.
Red rangers, in particular, are meant to be harvested around 10 weeks, although in my experience you’re better off waiting longer.
And in the end, that’s not a bad thing, because at least in my area, you don’t want to harvest chickens in the summer because of flies and such.
So if you buy them in the late spring when it’s warm, let them grow all summer, then harvest in November or December, it’s a good time frame.
These chickens, because they don’t have the health issues Cornish Crosses do, are preferable because they’re quote unquote less likely to die, but when it comes time to harvest them, things can get a little more emotional, largely because they are so healthy.
So, that’s just one thing to remember when it comes to hybrids like Red Rangers. They’re a very good option, and one I’ll probably return to this spring as an experiment, but you have to remember why you got them and not lose your nerve at the last minute.
Now, for heritage breeds, let’s look at your options. Pretty much any heritage breed will work, since they’re historically bred to be for both eggs and for the table.
On our farm, we’ve raised heritage breeds like Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Rocks, and Delawares. Out of these, the Delawares and the Plymouth Rocks have grown the best.
The Rhode Island Reds grew well, but it’s been hit or miss whether they grow to a good size. Some did and some didn’t, and some got to be around maybe 3 or 4 pounds eating the same amount as other breeds.
The Buff Orpingtons grew to a good size, but weighed less than the Delawares.
So, if I were to pick a heritage breed to raise, it probably would be the Delawares because of their size, and also because they have, in my opinion, whiter skin, which if you’re a person who’s concerned about your food’s aesthetics then it makes a difference.
Cornish crosses, for example, can have yellowish skin, which can be off putting. I’ve found Delwares, or at least the ones I raised, didn’t have that.
Now, another option for a heritage breed, if you want to try something different, are Silkies. Silkies are from china, and part of the cuisine from that part of the world, and you can find silkie chickens for sale at Asian supermarkets.
Silkies have black skin, so they’re not for me, I grew up in America, and I find the color of the skin off putting, but meat is meat, and Silkies are considered a delicacy.
They’re smaller chickens, so you can expect a much lower harvest weight, but they eat less. It will take longer than a Cornish cross, for example, before your Silkies are at a harvestable weight. The other thing about silkies is they are very friendly chickens, and it’s very easy to get attached.
Now that we’ve talked about breeds, let’s talk about some of the tools you’ll need. Raising meat chickens is no different than other chickens for the most part.
You’re best off buying them as chicks, so you’ll need feeders that are easy to clean, waterers, and some sort of brooder and coop.
As for coops, anything will suffice as long as it keeps them dry and out of the elements. You’ll need to provide them with feed, either homemade or commercial, and just remember you are what you eat.
So if you don’t want to eat GMOs then you shouldn’t feed them to your chickens.
You should feed them a regular ration, again, either commercial or homemade, rather than letting them forage. You’ll get better tasting meat, because weird flavors from whatever they happen to pick up won’t get into them, and they’ll grow better.
Chickens left to forage, in my experience, might reach harvest weight or they might be smaller because they’re running around and looking for food and getting who knows how many calories a day.
You’re better off, and I think you’ll have a better experience and get more meat, feeding them some sort of meal daily.
Now, as for butchering equipment, the most important thing, and I cannot stress this enough, is to have a good quality, sharp knife.
Above all else, this is what you need, because without it, you cannot humanely slaughter and you’ll have a hell of a time cutting up and deboning your chicken later.
Any non-serrated knife will do as long as it’s very sharp. I recommend purchasing a sharpener because as you go along in your butchering journey, your knives will get dull, and it will get dull quickly.
I sharpen mine before every cut in order to make sure it’s as sharp as possible.
This goes for whether you’re actually slaughtering or cutting up meat. You always want a super sharp knife when boning or cutting up meat to reduce damage to your food and to make it easier.
So that’s it for today’s episode. When it comes to meat chickens, I encourage you to raise them responsibly, and to not be afraid to raise them.
It’s rewarding being able to harvest your own meat, and although it can be a little sad at first, it’s better knowing they had a good life, a much better life, than the meat you’re buying at the grocery store.
Raising them is no harder than raising chickens for their eggs, and I think you’ll find it just as rewarding.
Now, if you’re interested in learning to raise chickens for self-sufficiency, you can grab my free tip sheet on the blog at TheFrugalChicken.com/MeatChickenChecklist.
Thanks for listening to this episode of What The Cluck?! and I’ll see you next time!
Maat van Uitert is a backyard chicken and sustainable living expert. She is also the author of Chickens: Naturally Raising A Sustainable Flock, which was a best seller in it’s Amazon category. Maat has been featured on NBC, CBS, AOL Finance, Community Chickens, the Huffington Post, Chickens magazine, Backyard Poultry, and Countryside Magazine. She lives on her farm in Southeast Missouri with her husband, two children, and about a million chickens and ducks. You can follow Maat on Facebook here and Instagram here.