Raising Meat Birds on the Homestead
Producing your own meat source is a level of sustainability that shouldn’t be taken lightly. When you raise animals for meat, it isn’t just physical labor, time, and money that you put into the process, but you will also spend a good chunk of emotional energy preparing to butcher and process. It is important to consider all aspects of raising meat birds before purchasing your first chicks.
Raising Meat Birds on the Homestead
Are you getting ready to take control of your family’s meat source by bringing home meat chicks? Read through this article first to make sure that you are prepared for all that it entails.
The Emotional Toll of Raising Birds for Meat
As homesteaders, we have the responsibility of growing & raising our own food. If we are meat eaters, then this includes the butchering of animals. This can be a very emotional process (I know it is for me).
I have quite a bit of trouble dispatching my birds. I tend to be very empathetic and taking a life, no matter the reason, is not an easy thing for me… nor should it be. We should be very aware of and very grateful for the sacrifice made by each animal that we raise to feed our families.
I like to pray over the animals and thank them on processing day as a way to manage the icky feelings and to honor the birds as well. It is important to me that I use as much of the animal as possible so that none of their sacrifices go to waste.
It is also vital to understand the butchering process. You need to familiarize yourself with the dispatch method that you want to use so that you cause as little pain as possible.
Taking the time to give thanks to the animals and making sure that you know how to humanely dispatch will help to curb the uneasy feelings that come along with this part of the homestead life.
Where to Purchase Meat Chicks
This should be your first choice when purchasing chicks. Building a sustainable local community is what this lifestyle is all about.
You can purchase heritage dual-purpose breeds from local breeders, but you will not be able to purchase Cornish Cross birds this way as they have to be specially bred from the specific parent stock.
Hatcheries typically have a larger selection of breeds and can provide Cornish Cross broilers. Be mindful of when you choose to have your birds shipped. If it is too hot or too cold, you may end up with several dead birds by the time they make it to your post office.
Tractor Supply, Rural King, and other farm & feed stores usually carry chicks in the spring. You can find a variety of breeds, but they aren’t always labeled correctly so be sure that you know what you are looking for.
Common Broiler Breeds:
When it comes to choosing a meat chicken breed, you have several options. The Cornish Cross is going to be the quickest turnaround with a processing age of 8-10 weeks of age. Other broiler breeds, like Rangers, can be processed in 12+ weeks.
You can also raise dual-purpose breeds for meat. When doing this, you can process extra roosters when they reach processing age (typically 16-20 weeks), process hens when they reach the end of their productive laying cycle, or process males and females together at processing age just like you would with broilers.
The Cornish Cross is one of the most popular broiler breeds among homesteaders and in the commercial chicken industry. This is because of the exceptionally rapid growth rate, heavy meat production, and quick turnaround time from hatching to processing.
Since these birds are bred to grow so quickly, they tend to be lazy. This means that they have a higher feed conversion ratio because they aren’t exercising to burn fat. They do eat a ton, but the majority of feed goes directly into building muscle (meat).
The feathers don’t fully develop across the whole body of a Cornish Cross chicken so plucking is a bit easier.
This bird can (and should) be processed between 8-10 weeks of age. You will harvest a 4-6 pound table bird with a significant amount of breast meat. If you are a white meat fan, you will not be disappointed with this breed.
Keep in mind that Cornish Cross birds tend to have more health issues (leg and heart problems specifically) than other broiler breeds because the muscle grows too fast for the rest of the body to keep up with. This is why it is so important to process between 8-10 weeks.
If you want a broiler breed that yields a good amount of meat without the issues of the Cornish Cross, take a look at the Red Ranger.
Red Rangers tend to be more active than Cornish Crosses and they like to forage for bugs so keeping them on pasture may cut feed costs a bit and develop more flavor in the meat.
These birds reach 5-6 pounds between 9-12 weeks of age so they can be processed around the same time as the Cornish Cross broilers.
Rangers have a higher dark meat content and they do not experience the same health issues as Cornish Crosses.
Dual-Purpose breeds are breeds that can be raised for both meat and eggs. These breeds do not grow as quickly or put on as much meat as the broilers mentioned above, but you will still have good-sized table birds for your family. The processing age for most dual-purpose breeds is between 16-20 weeks.
Some of the most common dual-purpose heritage breeds include:
- Buff Orpington
- Black Australorp
- Speckled Sussex
- Jersey Giant
- Plymouth Rock
Meat Bird Housing
For the first 3-5 weeks, the baby chicks will need to be in a brooder with a safe heat source. Read this post to see how you should set up your chick brooder.
Meat chickens can be moved to a portable chicken tractor or to a chicken coop around 3 weeks of age (whenever their feathers fully come in).
Chicken Coop for Meat Birds:
Using a coop to house your meat birds is a good option if you are raising dual-purpose breeds. If you have fast-growing broiler breeds, you would need to change the bedding almost daily because broilers excrete a large amount of waste.
You can free-range broilers, but breeds like the Cornish Cross are easy pickings for predators, they tend to be a little on the lazier side, and they do not actively forage.
Chicken Tractor for Meat Birds:
A portable chicken tractor is my go-to choice for broiler birds. You can purchase or build a chicken tractor, but keep a few things in mind…
- The tractor should be lightweight and easy to move. It will need to be moved 1-2 times per day.
- Predator-proof the chicken tractor to keep your birds safe. Choose hardware cloth instead of chicken wire.
- Broiler breeds do not need a roosting bar so the tractor can be low to the ground (2′-3′ tall seems to be the usual height).
My meat bird tractors measure 8’x4’x2’ and 10’x5’x2’.
Feed for Broiler Chickens
Use chick starter feed for day-old chicks until they hit 3 weeks of age (about the time they will move to the outdoor chicken tractor or chicken coop). Then you will need to switch to a grower or a broiler feed.
Only offer feed during the daytime. Remove the feeder at night if it has anything left in it. This is important for two reasons:
- Removing the feed at night reduces the risk of predators and rodents being attracted to the coop/tractor.
- Meat birds (specifically Cornish Cross) will eat 24/7 if you let them and this will cause health issues to take over more quickly.
Laying hen feed comes, most often, with a 16% protein level. This isn’t sufficient for meat birds. You will want to feed at least 20-22% protein to your broilers. Broiler breeds will also consume more than layers so expect to purchase additional feed during the grow-out period.
You can find meat bird feed at your local Tractor Supply or another farm store, but I highly recommend trying to find a local feed mill that produces its own feed. You will find higher quality products and support a local business at the same time.
Grit is Important
**Be sure to feed grit! This is especially important for Cornish Cross birds as they do not forage well so they won’t pick up as much natural grit from the ground.
The first time I raised meat birds, I didn’t feed grit because they were on grass so I figured they would pick up natural grit as my layers do. I was wrong and I ended up with birds that had very impacted crops on butcher day.
Processing Meat Chickens
- Cornish Cross: 8-10 weeks
- Rangers: 9-12 weeks
- Dual-Purpose: 16-20 weeks
You will want to have your processing equipment ready to go before your chicks come in.
To process meat birds, you need:
- Kill Cone
- Buckets to catch blood and internal organs
- Scalding Pot/Propane Heater (a turkey fryer works great)
- Plucker (or you can hand pluck)
- Sharp knives
- Plastic shrink-wrap bags & Zip Ties
- Ice Water Bath (large clean trash can works for this)
- Stock Pot and Propane Heater for shrink wrapping
- Table for evisceration/processing
- Garden Hose for spraying the processing table
You can make a DIY kill cone and you can pluck by hand (or skin) if you choose to not purchase a plucker. If this is your first batch of birds, I suggest trying to find friends who already have processing equipment. See if you can rent their equipment or if you can process with them.
How to Process a Chicken
Here is a quick rundown of how to process meat birds:
- Place the bird upside down in the kill cone, stretch the neck, and slice through. I like to cut the head all the way off to make sure I have a clean kill.
- Scald the bird. Pay attention to your temperature and time in the scalder. Too much heat or too much time in the scalder can cause the skin to tear in the plucker.
- Move the scalded bird to the plucker or hand pluck (or skin).
- Eviscerate from the back end. Pull out all of the innards being careful not to puncture or rip the stomach, intestines, or gallbladder.
- Remove the feet. I do this step after eviscerating to I can hold onto the feet for leverage while removing the organs.
- Rinse the bird.
- Place the whole bird into a shrink-wrap bag and dip it into a pot of hot water. Remove air from the bag by placing a straw in the opening and then removing it quickly once the bird is pulled out of the water. Tie the bag with a zip tie.
- Place the wrapped birds in an ice water bath to cool.
Raising meat birds is very rewarding and a huge step toward sustainability, but be aware of the emotional toll that it may take on you. Taking a life, even for sustenance, is not an easy thing to do… it isn’t meant to be easy.
Do you have any questions about raising meat birds?
Do you have any additional tips for people who are just starting out raising their own meat birds?