Raising your own chicken can be a good way to make use of leftovers from other farming enterprises, table scraps, and keep insects from being such a problem. Some chickens are best for eggs and some for meat with a few that fall in between.
The first thing that needs to be said to avoid disappointment is that the only bird that will give you the type of chicken you are used to buying in the store is the Heavy Cornish Cross.
Other breeds are going to have a lot less breast meat and more dark meat. The rib cage has a sharper ridge to it and is just not as heavily muscled. The modern super chicken makes potential farmers have the wrong impression about what they can realistically achieve with other breeds and traditional feeds and forage.
It is going to take you longer to get a traditional bird up to butchering size but many people find they like this type of meat better than the commercial Cornish variety they are used to. Fat on a traditional meat bird is yellow and rich while Cornish varieties have white fat and usually not a lot of it unless you let them get quite large and feed a lot.
Best Meat Birds For The Small Producer
This is just a few of the dual purpose and meat birds out there. These were picked because they are the top ones that are accessible to everyone through the mail. That being said, there are probably some of you out there that have raised up your own mixed flocks and crossbred some chickens that have grown off well.
Here are a few breeds to get you started on the path to raising your own meat birds.
1. Red Ranger or Freedom Ranger
A lot of homesteaders are big fans of the Red Ranger as a free range alternative to the heavy Cornish crosses. They are a reddish color and will lay brown eggs if you have some hens. The Red Ranger can reach weights of 6-7 lbs in about 80 days or 11 weeks. These birds have yellow fat and skin and you get about 70% dress out weight under normal circumstances. This means a 6 lb bird will yield about 4.25 lb dressed and ready to roast, fry, etc.
The Red Ranger is an excellent forager and is quickly becoming a favorite for natural chicken operations that utilize poultry netting or chicken tractors for production. Breast meat is proportionate to the chicken. They are tolerant of hot climates.
Although it is said that Red Rangers do not need the 20% protein feed or more that traditional broilers do, unless you have a lot of space to free range them I would still try to use a 20% protein ration throughout the growth period. If you have a lot of space you could get away with 16% protein feeds. Just remember to at least use a good chick starter for the first 3 weeks or so for best results.
If you are considering a dual purpose bird then the Ranger is a great one to consider. The large brown eggs they produce are delicious and they lay an amazing amount of eggs for a bird that is usually just for meat production.
2. Heavy Cornish Cross – Main Commercial Breed in USA
Weight: up to 12 lbs for males and 8 lbs for females
Harvest time: in 4-6 weeks for tenderest meat and fryers, 8-10 weeks for large size roasters and broilers
Note: These chickens will not go broody and will not breed true anyway. You buy the chicks, raise, and butcher. If you try to raise out of these birds, the next generation is often flawed.
When you buy chicken at the grocery store, unless it states differently on the label, you are eating a Cornish Cross. These solid white birds have been bread specifically for double the breast meat. With all the health crazes in the past, the demand for white breast meat from the American public and abroad demanded for a bird that could gain a lot of weight in the front.
Who hasn’t bought a package of chicken breasts where two breasts weigh well over a pound?
These are a good way to get a lot of meat off each bird. You can also split the difference and butcher some when younger and then allow some others to gain very large sizes for roasting.
This can be a good way to do it if you don’t want to butcher all of them at once anyway because you are just learning or simply don’t have the time to do a lot of them at once.
My husband and I raised these birds in chicken tractors while we were building our house and living in an old camper. I have to say the meat quality was good but the birds are messy. The tractor had to be moved 1-2 times a day and it was pretty smelly work.
The giant Cornish Crosses do forage some but they eat a lot. We would feed a 50 lb bag of high protein feed every 3-4 days depending on the age of the birds. All that eating means a lot of fertilizer being put down.
If you want a lot of meat quick then this is your bird. If you want an old time yard bird that you supplement the feed of then this is not your bird.
High Elevation Warning: Since Cornish Crosses grow so fast and have so much muscle mass on them, their lungs are not their strong point. This results in birds that can have respiratory issues above 5,000 feet in elevations. While I know that only a small portion people are going to have this problem, it is important to realize the health issues associated with such accelerated growth.
Growth Rate Precautions: These birds want to grow really fast and eat constantly. While you want them to grow fast you also don’t want them to gain so quickly that they have leg issues. This can be a real problem and if a chicken is not the best specimen if can happen to one or two in a big batch even if you are making major efforts to do everything right.
Parasites: Diatamaceous Earth is advisable to feed to chickens that you are raising for meat. Even if you are allowing a decent amount of room per chicken, being in proximity to each other, parasites can spread fast and they can cut down on growth rates and the efficiency of your feed thus costing you a lot of time and money over the course of raising a batch of birds. You will likely never see a parasite if you just add a a cup full or so of this to each 50 lb bag of food.
3. Kosher King
These are really pretty meat chickens with their striking black and white striped pattern. They resemble the popular Barred Rock chicken normally and share a lot of the same genetics with them and the Speckled Sussex.
Occasionally, you might have a golden or silver Kosher King in a batch of chicks and that is totally normal. Males grow faster and achieve higher weights than females. They can be good layers if you keep a few girls.
Some hatcheries have chicks available year round so you can have some flexibility in when you get them.
The Orpington is a heritage breed dual purpose bird. They are excellent layers but they also produce some delicious meat. They do excellent on forage and can handle hot to cold climates with ease.
You often see the Buff version but Orpingtons can be blue, gray, black, etc. The Orpington takes awhile to grow out to size but for the small flock owner that wants meat and eggs, they are worth looking at.
According to other chicken growers, they butcher out at 19-24 weeks at 3-4 lbs so they are not the biggest bird but they also don’t require extremely high protein feeds and produce good quantities of eggs. Older males and hens make excellent stew birds. Of the older breeds, this is an easy chicken to find. Basically any hatchery in the USA will have these birds.
Buff is the most common color for them but the range of colors and patterns they come in is stunning and makes for a pretty chicken yard.
Age Of Meat Birds & Butchering
If birds are allowed to get too old then they provide meat that is tougher. Younger chickens are tender while those beyond 6 months old are better for roasting or stewing. Brining an older bird before cooking can help tenderize.
There is also a time when they start to feather out that you don’t want to butcher because plucking is a lot harder.
If feathers are starting to come in then you might want to wait and just butcher them as older birds and remember to cook them slowly or pressure can the meat.
Choosing Your Chicken
As much as it pains me to say it, a lot of people that raise chickens for meat seem disappointed with the amount of work and feed it takes to get some meat. Even after you have them up to a good size, there is still the work of butchering and packaging or processing them further.
The Heavy Cornish Crosses usually give people the results in terms of meat production that they expect but they are not practical for a situation where you cannot get access to very high protein feeds so if there is a crisis you are out of luck. Also, they are not hardy when it comes to parasites and disease like a heritage breed.
The Work Involved
If you can get out of the commercial chicken mind set then besides the work involved, you will probably be happy with the quality of your meat with any of the breeds on this list. There are a few things that need mentioning when it comes to raising and butchering chickens.
No matter how clean you are about it and careful, butchering chickens is a smelly and messy business.
It might sound like I am trying to convince you not to raise meat birds but that is not the case. I just want to be honest about the reality of it if you feel it is a good choice for your situation.
My husband and I have raised hundreds of chickens and butchered them ourselves, and our experience was that with the basic set up we had that we would rather butcher a 600 lb hog ourselves than 25 chickens.
This might sound really harsh but even if you have very clean yard birds there is still the messy business of slitting their throats, scalding, plucking, and then carefully gutting.
Some people wring chicken necks still but I don’t advise that. Slitting throats in a killing cone results in a carcass that is not bruised. Disposing of the innards is another challenge that must be met. Putting them in a bag for the trash man to get next week is not an option.
The first time we butchered chickens, we only managed to butcher out 5 in a day before we got tired of it. With an improved system like a homemade plucker, we one day managed to do 40 and get them packaged up.
The cost of packaging also must be included. Vacuum sealing is best when doing a big batch because freezer bags often result in freezer burned chicken within 6 months or less.
Sending them to a processor
There are not a lot of processors that will deal with chickens for the small producer. This has started to change in some areas where there is a more thriving local independent agricultural scene.
Mobile processors are only practical if you have a sufficient quantity. Regardless of what type of processor, the cost is going to add a lot to what you have invested in each bird by the time it makes it to your table.
Cost & Quality
When we added up the cost of feeds and the time we spent, we were not making much off of raising meat birds. Economy of scale comes into play with this.
If you have a cheap or free source of feed or a lot of space to free range then it can help. There is a reason why when you buy a pastured free range whole chicken from a farm that it costs $3+ per lb. The large chicken farms around the country use subsidized feeds that they can get a large quantity discount on.
There is no question that the quality of the meat was better with the chickens we raised at home versus the store bought chicken meat. I can see keeping a small flock of chickens for meat and eggs but raising a lot of meat birds is going to be a lot more work than a lot of working people have time and energy for.
If you do not have adequate free range for your chickens, then I cannot advise a substantial amount of meat birds. Confining birds results in a large feed input that makes it cheaper to catch organic whole chicken on sale at the grocery store.
When it comes to raising meat birds, it is important to start out small while you are learning so you don’t get too overwhelmed.
Plenty of hatcheries will allow for smaller orders now since so many people don’t want to order 25 chicks at once when stating a small flock, especially in town. Friends and family often split orders to save some on shipping and meet the 25 chick mark. You do have to pay somewhat of a premium for a smaller order.
No more than a dozen birds at once is a good place to start. You could also do a few batches throughout the season that are smaller and try out a few breeds to see which seems to work better for you.
Learning any aspect of farming and processing takes time but after raising a few batches of birds, you will be amazed how much faster and easier everything seems to be.
Feed Warning: Read feed labels carefully and use as directed. Always check to make sure you are not feeding certain types of medicated feeds to ducks, geese, and turkeys if you have a mixed flock. The antibiotic medications in chick starters and some commercial growers can kill your ducks, turkeys, etc.
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