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By Katie Ostrander
If you’re like me, you’re totally put off by the chicken you see in the grocery store. Hard to understand advertising, cuts that see to be too large for a chicken, and what exactly is all that water from in the little foam tray? If you’ve had all these thoughts and you’re willing to get up close and personal with the harvesting process, growing meat birds is for you.
If you already have chickens for eggs raising meat chickens won’t be too big of a stretch for you, but it is a different way of raising birds. This article discusses what it will take choose and raise meat birds, and provides references for the actual harvesting process once you decide to raise your own.
Choosing a Breed
You have quite a few breeds to choose from when growing chickens for meat. Red Rangers, for example, grow slower and smaller but the flavor is absolutely mouth watering. They are also preferable for a free range situation.
Cornish Cross grow the largest the fastest and are more feed efficient. They do well in a more confined situation as well.
There are a ton of other breeds to choose from, and don’t overlook the dual purpose layers either! Many hatcheries even sell bundles of roosters from egg laying breeds because they also make great eating.
On our ranch we grow Cornish Cross for meat. The Cornish Cross is a cross between Leghorns and Cornish. These babies grow FAST so be ready! In six to eight weeks you’ll be plucking.
We start our meat chicken like any other chick – in a brooder with lots of feed, water, and heat. We feed a chick starter crumble for the first 2 weeks, followed by a meat bird crumble until harvest.
Because these meat chickens grow so fast, they’re prone to horrible leg problems. The breast muscle is growing faster than their little legs can support. We address this issue by supplementing their crumble with greens 1-2 times a week. We chop up romaine lettuce, mustard greens, carrot greens, and other green produce for them.
These greens are high in calcium, and those little legs need it to support the weight. Just make sure you pull the crumble when feeding the greens because they will much prefer the crumble. We find that with this feeding schedule we avoid most, if not all, leg problems.
Another thing to consider is that meat birds are major couch potatoes. If they can sit and be pampered, they will. Keep moving their feed and water around their pen. Make them get off their little feathered tushes and walk…even if it’s just to the feeder. This will also help avoid leg problems by giving them a little exercise.
They’re pretty slow for chickens as well. You’ll have no problem catching them up if needed. Of course, this makes for a painfully slow trip if they escape their pen and you need to herd them back in.
Preparing to Harvest
At 6 weeks of age you want to start weighing your meat chickens to see if they are ready to be harvested. We harvest our Cornish Cross when they are approximately 7-8 pounds (during processing you could lose 1 -2 pounds of weight).
The easiest way I have found to weigh them is by using a hanging game scale. A canvas or light fabric tote bag is the perfect size to hold a chicken. I throw the bag over their head and pick it up. These birds are quite hardy and can tolerate a little tussle in the bag without any problem. Pop the bag on the scale hook and you’re good to go.
The roosters of the lot will be ready right around 6 weeks of age. You can harvest the hens at the same time if you want a smaller chicken. I keep the hens back until 8 weeks so all of my birds are about the same size in the freezer. Breaking up harvest days also makes it easier on you because it can take about 45 minutes to process each chicken from start to finish.
Harvesting, or processing, your meat chickens can take one or a few days depending on how many you are processing and if you choose to do them all at once.
While I do not cover the whole process here, there are some great resources out there to learn about the harvesting process, including this article by Melissa Norris on How to Butcher Chickens at Home and this You Tube video by High Desert Hollow on How to Process a Turkey from Start to Finish (I use the exact same process with my chickens).
Enjoy the Rewards
Processing your own meat birds can offer quite a few benefits. We just harvested a flock of 15 birds – 8 roosters over 6 weeks and 7 hens for 8 weeks. Overall we fed 200 pounds of feed (50 pounds chick starter and 150 pounds meat bird crumble). The average price was $7.50 per bird, with each bird weighing in around 5-6 pounds. That’s actually quite a savings since my local grocery store carries whole pasture-raised birds for $4.99 a pound!
Beyond the cost savings, knowing how my food lived and what it ate is also priceless.
Katie Ostrander hails from the Diamond B Ranch in San Diego, CA. Alongside her husband they are raising cattle, turkeys, chickens, and cowgirls. Katie is an active Agvocate spreading her passion for ranching through numerous speaking engagements and classes. Her ranch is founded on the principal of know your farmer, know your food.She is also a member of her local chapters of California Women for Agriculture and Cattlewomens Associations. Keep up with Katie and her herd at www.DiamondB.org or instagram at @DiamondB_Ranch.Katie