If you have been considering raising backyard chickens for meat, but just need a little push form logic before diving in, maybe I can help.
The popularity of backyard chicken farming is growing each year with few signs of slowing down anytime soon. The idea of sustainability, self-reliance, and healthy food sources has people embracing this hobby. Many like the idea of producing their own food giving the security of knowing they can take care of themselves and their loved ones.
We raise chickens for both meat and eggs. Besides buying chickens specifically for meat, we use the laying hens once their egg production stops. I urge everyone to raise laying hens, however I also suggest careful consideration to raising meat chickens. The most important question to ask yourself is; “Can I do this when the time comes?”
After 20+ years of raising chickens, there are still tears at the killing station. My husband and I have great affection for chickens, so when we slaughter for meat, it is because of that affection. We know that our chickens lived well and died quickly and humanely. In keeping with my husband’s Cherokee teachings, we give thanks to them for sustaining us. If we didn’t feel so deeply about giving all life respect, we would buy our chicken from the store.
Never overlook all aspects of raising chickens. Becoming emotionally attached to your chickens is a possibility, making butchering difficult. Do some introspective thinking about whether you or your family will have difficulties with this. You always have the choice of taking your birds to a butcher, but this will add to the cost of raising your chickens.
Best Breeds – My Experiences
So what breed is best for meat chickens? I’ve heard this question many times. Whether you want better sustainability or just a bird to roam with your hens without adding extra chores, picking the right breed is sometimes difficult.
Dual-purpose chickens are not meat or egg chickens; they are both. Many of your dual-purpose chickens are heritage breeds, consisting of both rare and not so rare birds. Usually, the layers don’t lay massive amounts of eggs but lay steadily throughout the year. The males dress out with a weight of about 5 pounds after 20 weeks; the hens are slightly smaller at 3 pounds. We like to process our males at 16 weeks because with a smaller bird, the meat is leaner. I like the way the smaller birds cook more uniformly. Dual-purpose chickens are a perfect starter bird and I recommend trying them for meat chickens before moving to faster growing chickens like the Cornish X or Cornish Rock.
For those living outside the United States, here is a listing of dual-purpose breeds in your country.
• Most dual-purpose chickens are good for any suburban farm space and are aggressive foragers, making them excellent free rangers.
• If you process before 24 weeks, their meat is flavorful and tender: if kept longer, the meat becomes tough. We normally keep Rhode Island Reds and Black Star hens for laying. When they get too old for laying, we butcher them for soup chicken and at 4 pounds dressed, they make a good amount of meat.
• If you plan to sell your dressed birds, their smaller carcass weights might make them harder to market.
• They have less overall meat compared to standard meat breeds and the feed to meat ratio is substantially higher.
• It takes longer to process the chickens for meat which may be too long for people with busy lifestyles or short growing seasons.
• With their harder keel bone, dual-purpose chickens are difficult to process while older birds have hair which needs singing to remove.
Cornish X Rock or Broilers
Cornish X Rocks are the favored commercial farm chickens because of their feed to meat ratio: 1.9 pounds of feed to meat ratio makes a commercial dream. For a backyard chicken farmer, these chickens have a 2.5 pound ratio because of the lack of facilities and equipment.These birds are genetically superior through selective breeding with the sole purpose of processing in 6-12 weeks. If you want birds with short growing periods, then this breed is what you need. White feathers, light skin, and a short squatty stance are good characteristics of a meat bird.
• Chick price is cheap, sometimes 60¢ during spring sales.
• Fast growth rate with an average weight of 4 pounds with both males and females making excellent meat birds.
• Excellent feed to meat ratio of 1.9-1.
• Body contains soft bones with easy to access cavities.
• Easy to pasture in tractors and will forage for up to 25% of their food.
• If raised correctly by the backyard chicken farmer, whether on pasture or in confinement, Cornish X Rocks don’t face many of the health problems commercial birds do, like, leg problems and heart failure.
• Not good for sustainability. Must buy new chicks each year because letting them mature to breeding age is costly; the feed cost is more than the chicken’s worth. Dual-purpose breeds are better for sustainability.
• Care is time-consuming because of leg and joint problems from overfeeding and not enough exercise, making them unwilling to forage. This also contributes to heart problems and early death.
• Birds are not willing free rangers and must have food withheld to force them to forage. They don’t venture far from the feeders.
• Must keep Cornish Xs separate from other chickens because of their different needs of feed and pasture. This is time-consuming and may not fit into some people’s lifestyle.
• Frankly, these birds are ugly and go through an awkward growing stage. Their plain white feathers is an unappealing to poultry lovers accustom to bright, colorful birds.
Freedom Ranger chickens are slower growing than the Cornish X and prettier to look at with their red, bronze, and gray feathers. Developed in the 1960s, Freedom Rangers are a French hybrid, developed from Continental and American heritage chicken breeds. It takes 12 weeks to reach 4 to 5 pounds dressed. An alternative to the Cornish X, Freedom Rangers taste better because of their slow growth and free ranging ability.
• Aggressive foragers make them perfect for pasture ranging.
• A similar meat to bone ratio as the broiler chickens, makes a meatier and more appealing carcass than the dual-purpose chickens.
• Freedom Rangers are eye appealing meat birds with colorful feathers.
• No need to separate them from your layers, making them good for people with limited space.
• Freedom Rangers are a hardier bird, making them a good breed for beginner backyard chicken farmers.
• They have excellent flavor like dual-purpose chickens and the tenderness of commercial broilers.
• Good market birds because of their meatiness.
• You need to buy new chicks every year. Like the Cornish X, the cost to feed them is far more than their worth.
• Freedom Rangers are expensive to raise because of their longer growth time and feed conversion rate. This makes them a specialty item with a premium price if you plan to market them.
• Messier brooding since the Freedom Rangers produce more manure than the dual-purpose breeds yet less manure than the Cornish Xs.
My Learning Experience
Over the years, I’ve discovered the biggest difference between dual-purpose chickens and broilers is the rate of return on my investment of time and money. With the fast-growing rate of broiler breeds, it’s possible to have healthy and tasty meat on the table in less than two months. Layers and dual-purpose breeds don’t start producing until about five months of age. They also need roosts, nesting boxes and housing during the winter.
I won’t lie to you; raising meat birds is an emotional experience. I knew it would be difficult but I was unprepared for just how difficult our first flock kill would be. Being the animal lovers we are, we couldn’t help forming a small attachment to the birds in the short time we had them. We still get a lump in the throat come butchering time but the process is easier now.
If you don’t know who Joel Salatin is, I urge you to learn more about him and read some of his books. Joel advises not to kill chickens every day as slaughtering too often can blunt our natural feelings of compassion for other living creatures. We are firm believers in Joel’s advice; we slaughter one time, devoting the entire day to the task just so we don’t have to do a second day of it.
Raising our Chickens
We raise our meat birds later in the season in Oklahoma preferring August for starting our flock. The hot summer is perfect for new chicks with September and October cooling down as they gain weight and feather out. By late October and early November, when the chickens are mature, the odor and flies are less during processing. We normally slaughter at 7 ½ weeks so a spring flock means processing in June with all the pesky bugs, heat, and odor. A fall flock is mature mid to late October. With the cooler temperatures, there’s little or no pests to contend with and the odor is slight.
While processing equipment is not necessary, it does make the task easier. Try plucking a few by hand then try using processing equipment: you’ll appreciate the efficiency of specialized equipment.
If you’re like us and don’t raise enough chickens to justify buying processing equipment, find someone who owns the equipment or rent it. We have urban homesteading friends to share the rental cost and slaughter our flocks together. Between the two families, we slaughter about 75 birds in one day. Believe me, it’s well worth the cost to rent the processing equipment.
Raising meat chickens isn’t for everyone, but if you like knowing your food is raised healthy, happy, and humanely, backyard meat chickens might be for you.