How to Raise Chickens for Meat- The Cornish Cross Chicken
With all of the additives, preservatives and chemicals that have started showing up in our food, many people have decided to turn to raising their own. Chickens are the easiest meat to raise because they require less space and less food than other animals that humans eat.
Raising meat chickens is a rewarding experience from start to finish. The meat does taste different and has a denser texture than the bird you purchase from the grocery store. This is because it is all natural without the broth or water injections that are so commonly added to the bird in commercial processing plants.
If you are considering raising meat chickens, there are quite a few things that you need to know. It is the old way of doing things and can reconnect us with where our food actually comes from. Unfortunately, for the most part, we have become disconnected from where our food comes from which has resulted in a broken and unsafe commercial food system.
It is important to not treat your meat chickens as pets because come processing time, that can create a problem with the psychological side of the processing because for most of us, this isn't an easy thing to do. There is no enjoyment on processing day. The enjoyment comes later when the chicken is eaten.
Chicks Start Their Lives in a Brooder
Supplies You Need for Brooding Meat Chicks
This list can vary slightly depending on if you are raising Cornish Cross chickens or not and the number of chickens you are planning to raise. Brooding materials are an up front cost of raising chickens for meat and most of the items will only have to be purchased or built once.
You will need:
- A source of heat such as a heat lamp. Chicks need to be kept at a certain temperature for their first few weeks and a source of heat is a must have.
- Chick drinker and feeder.
- Litter for the bottom of the container. It can be newspaper, straw or wood chips (anything but cedar).
- Some sort of large container to keep them in. A large plastic tote will work for less than 10 chicks for a couple of weeks but after that, you'll need something larger as the chicks grow until they are fully feathered. Some people find watering troughs work well as brooders. You will also want to have something that will work to cover the top as a lid.
How to Set Up a Brooder
It doesn't have to look perfect or be perfect. Since it is now fashionable and trendy to raise chickens for backyard coops and so many people are doing it, there's a lot of equipment to choose from for brooding chicks. This information is the same whether you are brooding laying hens or meat birds.
- Choose the right area for brooding your chicks. You want to stay away from high draft areas around doors and windows. It is personal preference whether you want to brood the chicks in the house, in the garage or outside but all will work if done correctly. I keep my chicks in the kitchen for the first two weeks then move them to the garage until they are ready to go outside.
- Fill the bottom of your container with either a layer of newspaper or 1 inch of the material you are going to use for litter.
- Attach the heat lamp either to the brooder container or somewhere that it will hang over the top of the container. You will want to keep the lamp to one side so the chicks can get away from the light and the heat if they need to.
- Fill the water container and the feed container and put them inside the brooder. I always advise to put the water in the side of the brooder box that doesn't have as much light and heat. That way their water doesn't get heated up from the lamp.
- Add the chicks and put the lid on it.
You are done with setting up your brooder.
A 4 Day Old Chick
There are a few important things to remember when raising chicks.
Brooder Temperature: For the first week of the chick's lives they need to be kept in a 90 degree environment. After the first week, the temperature inside the brooder can be brought down about 10 degrees per week and the light removed once the nighttime temperatures don't require the use of the light.
It's a good idea to use a red colored heat lamp bulb when the brooder light is being used at night so the chicks aren't disturbed by lighting when trying to sleep. You wouldn't like trying to sleep with a bright white light shining down on you and neither do they! The red color does not disturb normal sleeping patterns and when their eyes are closed, the light doesn't shine through the eyelids.
Changing the Litter: Depending on what breed of meat chicken you are brooding, plan on changing the litter as often as every other day to at least twice a week. If you are raising Cornish Crosses, the litter will have to be changed a lot more often.
Feed and Water: Change the water twice a day and keep the feeder full. Chicks grow extremely fast and will eat more than what you would expect. They can also be messy. Even though they are babies, they will scratch in the litter which means they will toss litter up into their food and water. Some people set their water and feed containers on bricks or blocks of wood to elevate them and help keep the litter problem to a minimum.
Handling the Chicks: Even though these are meat birds and you won't want to treat them as pets, it is important to have the chicks used to being handled. You will want to pick each chick up daily for a few seconds so they will be used to being handled when they are bigger.
When to Put the Chicks Outside: Just like laying hens, meat chickens are ready to go to an outside pen or coop when they are fully feathered out. They can be allowed to free range or be outside in a fenced in area during the day after they are a couple of weeks old but since they require a certain amount of heat to keep them warm, only allow them to go out when the outdoor temperature is even or higher than their current temperature requirement.
What Does Chicken Feed Look Like?
Feed and Food for Meat Chickens
Chickens are like miniature garbage disposals and they will eat almost anything. This is true when they are chicks too. Feel free to introduce your meat birds to all foods that chickens love like fresh vegetables, seeds, bugs and fruits. These foods are all nutritious for the chicken which will lead to a healthier chicken and a better bird on the table.
Chick feed is different than chicken feed. They are similar but the difference is similar to a child's vitamin and an adult vitamin. At different stages in our lives, we have different needs. If you choose to use feed, make sure to use chick starter feed for the first few weeks if using the Cornish Cross or about twelve weeks for other meat chickens.
Poultry grit is a necessary additive in both laying hens and meat chickens. The grit is reserved by the gizzard and helps the chicken digest their food. It can be mixed into feed or offered in a separate feeder for the chickens to eat as they need it. Poultry grit is simply small rocks and chickens that are not allowed to free range will need to be offered grit in order to be able to digest their food properly.
When it gets closer to processing time, a lot of people start upping the amount of corn that their meat chickens eat. This adds more bulk to the meat and "fattens" the chicken up before processing. The corn can be given fresh on the ear, in feed form or even out of a can.
Are you raising chickens for meat?
Chicken Breeds to Raise for Meat and Where to Get Them
Chicks are usually available for purchase at feed stores in the spring. Sometimes they are sexed and sometimes they aren't but if you are raising chickens for meat, sexing really doesn't matter.
Hatcheries are also a good option for purchasing meat chickens. You place your order and they will send your chicks to you through the mail. You will need to pick up your chicks at your local post office in person. Chicks are surprisingly resilient and can survive being sent through the mail.
The breeds that you want to look for when choosing your meat birds are the ones that are called "heavy breeds." These breeds include the Jersey Giant, Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rocks and Orpingtons to name a few. Heavy breed chickens are ready for processing at different times depending on the breed, feed and desired size.
The most common breed of chicken that is raised for meat is the Cornish Cross. These chickens grow quickly and can be ready for processing in as little time as 8 to 12 weeks. This is the same breed that is raised commercially for grocery store shelves.
Humanely Killing a Chicken for Food
Processing a Chicken for Food
Processing Your Meat Chickens
There are a couple of options available for processing meat birds. Some people do choose to do the processing themselves while others choose to take their birds to a meat processing company. If you are choosing to take your chickens to a meat processing company, it is best to have the processing company in your area located early on.
Processing birds at home is a rewarding experience. You have raised your own food, know exactly what the bird has consumed it's entire life and took the responsibility for the life of the bird. It is different for everyone on processing day. Sometimes it can be an emotional experience and sometimes it is just going through the motions of providing for your family.
There are a few different techniques for ending the bird's life when you process chickens at home. The ax method of chopping the bird's head off is the one that most people picture in their minds. The chicken is then left to flop around headless around the area.
There are more humane ways to do this.
- Cone Method- Place the chicken head first into a processing cone where the head is sticking out of the bottom. The chicken's head can be cut off with and extremely sharp knife and the blood drained quickly and easily.
- Holding the Chicken Between the Knees- Sitting in a chair with the chicken between the knees with their back facing you. Reaching around with an extremely, razor blade sharp knife, quickly cut the chicken's neck at the base of the skull being sure to hit the jugular vein. If done correctly, the chicken will bleed out, pass out and will be ready in a few seconds.
Once the chicken has been killed, the feathers need to be removed. This can be easily done by giving the chicken a quick dip into scalding water. Dipping into this water helps to release the feathers. Hanging the chicken by one leg upside down will make feather removal easier.
After feather removal, the innards need to be removed. Cut the chicken around the rear end being careful not to puncture the intestines. After the body cavity is open, the innards can easily be removed by using your hand to simply scoop them out. The liver, gizzard, heart and testicles can be separated at this point for saving.
The feet can be cut off and saved for using in stock. Adding chicken feet to chicken stock makes the stock thicker and more savory. You will also want to be sure to remove the oil gland that is at the base of the tail. The oil has a very unfavorable taste.
The chicken carcass will need to rest for at least 24 hours in the refrigerator before being cooked. This gives the meat time to relax and the rigor to leave the body. Processed chickens can be wrapped and frozen for later use right after processing.