4 Lessons Learned Raising Meat Chickens

Raising Chickens For Eggs Isn't The Same As Raising Meat Birds

I knew this already; I grew up on a farm. I’ve seen Food, Inc. and read The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I know the difference between raising egg layers, dual-purpose chickens, and raising meat chickens. I’d spoken to others who raised meat chickens.

This May, a local feed store gave my friend 35 meat chicks since they were starting to feather out and were no longer cute and sellable. Knowing her children would revolt if she told them they were raising meat chickens, she called me. I kept 10 and redistributed the others to farming friends.

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The experience was more educational than I expected.

Lesson #1: Free-Roaming Meat Chickens are a Myth

I placed my 10 chicks in my mini-coop, a double-decker structure with roosting bars, nesting boxes, a ladder, and a fully enclosed run.

Until 3 weeks old, the chicks flapped their wings and climbed the ladder. They roosted a foot from the ground. At 4 weeks they were land-bound. At 5 weeks, they lay down beside the dish to eat. At 6 weeks, they no longer explored the coop. By slaughter at 8 weeks, they pushed their heavy bodies off the ground, waddled three steps out of fresh excrement, and lay back down in more fresh excrement.

My birds would not explore their run, no matter how brightly the sun shone. If I placed them in idyllic fields of flowers, they would still walk three steps before lying back down. A friend had a similar experience. “They just laid there,” he said. “I put them on green grass. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get them to move around.”

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Raising meat chickens – four lessons learned.

When raising meat chickens commercially, “free range” means the barn has access to the outside. No regulations exist regarding how large the run is, or how often the chickens go outside. And in truth, barns with “free range” access can be more humane than idyllic fields. Barns provide shelter. In open spaces, predators could trot right up and grab the helpless chickens. So you can forget everything you thought you knew about how to raise free range chickens when raising meat chickens.

Lesson #2: Gender is Almost Irrelevant When Raising Meat Chickens

Despite internet misinformation, no chickens are genetically modified; nor are they raised with hormones. Cornish X Rocks are hybrid chickens, originally offspring of Cornish and Plymouth Rock. Selective breeding for raising meat chickens has produced birds that reach five pounds within 8 to 10 weeks, with breast meat up to 2-inches thick. Allowing them to breed will not produce the same quality offspring. Also, these chickens are too big to breed when they reach sexual maturity.

When we butchered at 8 weeks, the chickens still chirped like babies, though they weighed more than most of my laying hens. The cockerels developed larger red wattles but were still unable to crow, and though the pullets dressed out at five pounds and the cockerels at six, I noticed no other differences.

Some hatcheries offer sexed Cornish X Rocks, primarily because gender can determine finished results. Males do mature faster; females dress out with a fine smooth finish. This is one of the few breeds where pullet chicks are less expensive than cockerels. But we did not experience enough differences to influence future purchases.

Lesson #3: Raising Meat Chickens Humanely and Organically is Easy

As my birds grew in an open-air environment, I had no infection. They lay in their own excrement but I easily moved them to clean the coop. None got sick. None got injured.

When raising meat chickens, the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology states that space requirements for broilers is “one-half square foot per bird.” That means I could have used my 50-square-foot mini-coop and shoved 90 more chickens into it. Less work, more meat. More contamination. Some commercial operations distribute low doses of antibiotics into daily food to avoid infection and disease caused by overcrowding when raising meat chickens.

So how do organic farms manage it? In addition to using organic chicken feed, they don’t pack the chickens in so tightly when raising meat chickens. Diseases like infectious bronchitis may travel on the wind, but farmers medicate as necessary and remove those birds from the “organic” group.

And what about the “humane” part? You see, that term is relative. What one person sees as “humane” can be negotiable to another. Obvious cruelty includes inadequate veterinary care, inadequate food and water, or frequent injury to the chickens. But if a chicken won’t move out of a two-square-foot area, is it inhumane to only give it the space it’ll use? Is it inhumane to enclose them if open fields leave them vulnerable?

Lesson #4: Raising Meat Chickens Is All About Priorities

In those few weeks of raising meat chickens, we purchased two 50-lb bags of feed, at $16 per bag. The chickens averaged five pounds dressed out. If we’d purchased the chicks at $2 apiece, the meat value would be $1.04/lb. And if we’d used organic feed, we would have organic chicken at $2.10/lb.

This year, whole chicken averaged $1.50/lb in the United States.

But what’s the cost of convenience? According to a study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for October 2014 was $24.17. My husband and I spent about 10 minutes butchering each chicken. That added $4.03 per chicken.

With the cost of chicks, feed, and slaughtering time, each bird was valued at $9.23 apiece … about $1.84 per pound. Organic chicken would have been $14.53, or $2.91 per pound. And that doesn’t include time spent caring for the chickens prior to slaughter.

By slaughtering on the weekends, without taking time away from our day jobs, we negated the $4.03 per chicken at the cost of missing a few episodes of The Walking Dead. But raising 100 chickens in the mini-coop, or even in our larger chicken run, would be ridiculous in our urban environment. And what about the poor neighbors? Meat chickens stink much worse than laying hens. The cacophony would carry blocks away until Animal Control came knocking on our door. Backyard poultry enthusiasts operate with one shared concern: happy lives for our birds. I don’t believe half-a-square-foot per bird is a good life, even if the chickens don’t know any better.

So What Can You Do?

Hybrid meat chickens are here to stay. Consumers want 2-inch-thick breast meat that melts in their mouths. Farmers want maximum profit per bird. Animal welfare groups want humane conditions, but many factors are negotiable if the basic needs are tended. We can picket the CAFOs all we want, but commerce usually wins.

One alternative: Stop eating chicken. If you’re against what our meat chickens have become, you’ll probably have to avoid all commercially prepared chicken products. The profit margin is just too high to use anything but meat hybrids.

Another alternative: Eat heritage chicken breeds. Also called dual-purpose chickens, these egg-laying birds have heavy bodies. They’re our Rhode Island Reds and Orpingtons. Just like heritage turkeys, they breed naturally, roost, and even fly short distances. The disadvantages: Meat is darker and tougher (but has more flavor.) Breasts are ½- to 1-inch thick, not 2 inches. It takes 6 to 8 months to reach slaughter weight, rather than two months. Feed-to-meat conversion is much lower, and farmers need more space per bird. Also, heritage chicken can be hard to find in supermarkets. Look behind the meat counter at Whole Foods, for birds with sharp breastbones and lean flanks. Or find a local farmer. Or raise them yourself.

For us, the priorities line up. We intend to do this next year, purchasing 10 to 15 chicks every six weeks. Two weeks in the brooder, then six in the mini-coop, aging out into the freezer just in time for the next batch. By avoiding overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, we can raise antibiotic-free or organic chicken for less than supermarket averages, and can teach our children exactly where their food comes from. We face reality, and act on it. It’s what we’ve chosen.

For someone else, it may be different. Everyone has to make peace with their own food, whether that means eating hybrids, heritage breeds, or avoiding meat altogether.

Originally published in 2014 and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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Comments
  • Everything in this article is true, IF YOU FOLLOW THE FEEDING GUIDELINES established by the megachicken industry. However, many backyard chicken people are experimenting with a restricted diet, or putting these big boys on a diet. The truth is, they will continue to eat as long as food is available, leading to a fat, wallowing chicken with no muscle tone (couch taters) with a rapid onset of health issues such as heart attacks, breathing difficulties, broken legs, ascites (fluid pockets in body cavity) etc.
    Restricting their diet leads to more active and healthier chickens. They will grow slower , with a loss in the feed conversion ratio, but I prefer to KNOW what my dinner was raised on. I am currently raising 2 batches, the older group is now at 12 weeks, and averaging 10 pounds live weight. I have “sampled” a few, and have detected no health issues. The feeding guidelines you can find online are worked out by the big producers, and have only one goal, the biggest chicken, in the shortest amount of time. IT WORKS. But not the healthiest alternative for the chicken.

    Reply
  • There’s another option not listed in this article, purchasing one of the newer meat bird breeds. I’ve been very pleased with my Freedom Ranger chicks from Freedom Ranger Hatchery. In about 9 weeks the roosters are around 5lbs and the pullets around 4 pounds. They are a bit smaller in the breast and larger in the leg quarters than a CX, but they are active and healthy. I’ve had some I’ve kept till 10, 11 and even 12 weeks, and while they do get bigger and the roosters start crowing, they are still healthy and active. Having tried CX and heritage roosters for meat as well, I’m much happier with the Freedom Rangers. I think there are similar chickens offered under the name of “Rainbow Rangers” or “Red Rangers”.

    Reply
  • An article got published by someone who kept meat birds for the first and only time…and did it incorrectly from the sounds of it….and they pronounce that free range meat birds are a myth. How can you even publish or post such an article? The description of how these birds were raised and the resulting reasoning of why it’s not exactly inhumane to raise these birds in crowded conditions because they won’t move “out of their own excrement” is just ludicrous! Please, please present the truth about these amazing birds and how they can indeed free range successfully, enjoy wide open spaces as much as the next bird and they can remain very mobile if raised correctly. Here’s a video link of the mythical free ranging meat birds…they don’t look like unicorns, do they? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0B6YMcRHWvo and another vid of them a little older….and they were this mobile right up until butchering time. And I’ve raised them to 11-12 wks and they were still very mobile and actively foraging on pasture. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvCY9GGKQIQ Think of the people who are uninitiated to chickens and especially meat chickens who will be misled by this article and please do the proper research and a more informed article on this if you would be viewed as a respected source of information.

    Reply
  • just a note on the subject, we have raised meat chickens for the last ten years. ours are vigorous and move all around. we have them in a tractor designed as Joel Salatin. while we have had losses most happen when moving them to fresh grass. ours run about 3.5 to 5 lbs. we hand feed twice a day.

    Reply
  • Maureen P.

    umm I raised a few this year.. I feed them all they could eat 2x a day and they free ranged the rest of the time… granted they stayed in the couple of acres and didn’t visit the neighbors but 12lbs live and 8lbs dressed at 11 wks is good..I kept one, she is 7 months and started laying 2 months ago. Another hen hatch 4 of CX eggs.

    Reply
  • My 6 meat birds are pets. They run around our yard like crazy. Follow us everywhere. They do not just lay down. Actually mine hardly lay down. They love to roam and will follow us into the garage if we are not carful. They run and flap their wings.. they are funny birds.

    Reply

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