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How to Raise Chickens for Meat

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If you're interested in raising chickens for meat, not eggs, you'll need to do things a little bit differently. There are some additional steps to consider as well -- for one, slaughtering, processing or butchering the birds when they are fully grown to market size. Chickens raised for meat are commonly called "meat birds" and are usually a different breed from laying hens.

Should You Raise Meat Birds?

A Freedom Ranger chicken.
Photo © Freedom Ranger Hatchery

This is the critical first step, before you actually get the chicks. Consider whether you really want to raise meat birds. They're very different from laying hens. You'll have a lot (usually 50 or more, although you could just raise a few) of fast-growing birds, which means a lot of poop. And the biggest question to answer: can you handle saying goodbye in six to eight short weeks? Whether you slaughter them on-farm or take them to be processed, if you're a new farmer, you will need to face this reality, or be a vegetarian farmer. It's up to you - but it's cruel to meat birds to let them live longer than a few months as they are heavy-breasted and can die of heart failure if they grow too big.

How to Choose a Meat Bird Breed

Photo © Lauren Ware

Meat birds are truly a breed apart from laying hens. Although a hundred years ago, laying hens were truly dual-purpose, meaning most people kept a flock of hens and roosters and killed older birds as needed for meat, older chickens tend to be tough and stringy, better for stew or soup than a roast chicken like we eat today.

Cornish Rocks, which are a cross between a Cornish and a White Rock, are the typical meat bird breed, used in factory farms all over the US and on many small family farm operations as well (both pastured and conventional). They are extremely efficient converters of feed to muscle. However, other breeds more suited to pasture are also becoming available.

How to Choose a Coop for Meat Birds

Chicken tractor. Photo © Flickr user wisemandarine, used with permission.
Photo © Flickr user wisemandarine, used with permission.

You will need a coop for your chickens, just like for your laying hens. Coops for meat birds are often larger so that you can raise 50, 100, or more birds at a time. Many people raise meat birds just during the summer season, so they can often be more temporary shelters like hoop houses or tarps. You will need to make sure your birds have protection from rain and wind. They don't need roosts because meat birds don't really like to roost. If you're pasturing your chickens, you will want to have something movable or use a day ranging method (see below).

How to Start From Day-Old Chicks

A brooder area made of cardboard boxes and duct tape.
Photo © Lauren Ware

Most likely, you will buy your chickens as day-old chicks from a hatchery or feed store. Baby chicks require a bit of specialized care: they need a brooder area and heat lamp to keep them warm; they need their brooder temperature monitored closely; and they need to be prevented from developing issues like pasting up.

Raising Meat Birds on Pasture

You can keep your chickens in a coop with just a small run attached, but I love raising my meat birds on pasture. The meat is higher in omega-3s, and the birds are just happier in my opinion. I love raising the Freedom Rangers and watching them forage for bugs and chomp on grass every single day. I will even let my birds run out of feed for a little bit so that they have a day when they are highly motivated to forage.

Processing Chickens on the Farm

Photo © Lauren Ware

When your birds have grown to full size, typically 5-7 pounds depending on whether you're raising broilers or roasters, it's time to process them into chickens for the freezer. You can do this on-farm, or you can find a poultry processor and transport the birds to the site to be slaughtered and processed. If you plan to sell your birds at a store or farmers market, you will need to have them slaughtered at a USDA-approved facility. There are even mobile facilities in some states.

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