Raising your own meat birds is a wonderful way to provide some of your own food. You will also ensure that your food is raised in the manner that you see fit and is handled properly. Getting started with them can seem somewhat overwhelming but it doesn’t have to be.
We are happy to have Jenna from Flip Flop Barnyard as a guest poster this week!
If you follow some simple steps, you can get ready to start raising your own meat birds in no time. Meat chicks are very similar to any chicken breed and have the same basic needs. Once they reach a couple of weeks old, there are some things that you will want to do to get them on pasture.
Choosing a Breed
When you decide to raise your own meat birds, you will need to choose a breed. The 2 main breeds used are the Cornish Cross (hybrid) and the Freedom Ranger. There are other breeds that can be used as well but these are the most popular with homesteaders.
The Cornish Cross is a hybrid breed and grows very quickly. You can process them in as little as 8 weeks, I have even known people that processed at 6-7 weeks. They are very efficient in turning their feed into body mass. The downside is that they grow so fast that sometimes, their hearts and legs can’t keep up.
The chicks also seem to be much more fragile than other breeds. We have experienced a high rate of loss at times with this breed. They also do not forage as efficiently and require more supplemental feed. They do not do well as free-range birds but do well in a chicken tractor. Because they are ready to butcher sooner, the cost of the extra feed is offset by the shorter time.
The Freedom Ranger is a heritage breed so raising them helps to preserve the breed. They take 10-12 weeks to grow to butcher weight. Freedom Rangers are also very good foragers. They do very well in a free range environment. You can raise them in a chicken tractor or as completely free ranged.
The chicks are very hardy and have far fewer losses than the Cornish. They begin foraging as soon as given the opportunity, it is just natural for them. Because they are hardier, their immune systems are stronger as well and they tend to stay well and not get as many illnesses.
Either breed is a good choice for the homestead. You need to weigh out the pros and cons as well as your situation and decide which will work best for you.
Food and Water
The chicks will arrive when they are just 1-2 days old. They will need access to food and water immediately. Most people use a chick starter feed that is 20-24% protein. This helps the chicks growth when they are young. It is also made in a crumble form which is easy for the chicks to eat and digest.
Once they reach 3-4 weeks, you can switch to a grower feed. The protein in grower feed is around 16-18%. Some grower feed is also in a pellet form, it just depends on the brand. You can also choose to leave them on the higher protein feed, some people feel that’s a better option for meat birds.
Chicks will need access to fresh water at all times so that they stay hydrated and healthy. It is a good idea to add raw apple cider vinegar to their water to help boost their immune systems and give them probiotics. The ratio is 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar per gallon of water.
For an extra boost, you can also add a clove or two of raw garlic to the water. This is a wonderful immune system booster and will help the chicks fight off illness.
Setting Up a Brooder
When your chicks arrive, they will need a safe brooder to stay in for a couple of weeks. There are several options for brooders. You can build one out of wood, you can convert something else into a brooder (like a rabbit hutch, old crate, etc…), or you can use some kind of tote.
The brooder needs to have some sort of bedding for the chicks. Pine shavings are a great option, it’s best to avoid cedar because the aroma and oils in it can cause respiratory problems for chickens. The bedding should be cleaned often to keep the chicks healthy. The timeframe of cleanings will vary by the number of chicks and the size of the space.
You want to be sure that your brooder has solid sides and it needs to be secure. It needs to be draft free so that the chicks don’t get chilled. A secure brooder will keep predators out and small, well-meaning, helpful hands if you have children.
Keeping Chicks Warm with a Heat Source
The chicks will need a heat source to keep the temperature between 90-95° F for the first week of life. You need to decrease the temperature by 5° each week for the next 4-5 weeks. At this time you will have your chicks used accustomed to being at 70-75° F and they will no longer need a heat source.
Some options for heat sources are a 250-watt infrared bulb, a holder and lamp made specifically for chicks, and a heating mat. You can choose whichever option is the best and safest for your situation.
When the chicks are moved to the chicken tractor, the heat source can still be used. The chicks will gravitate to the heat as they get cold.
It’s always a good idea to keep a close watch on your chicks health. Keep an eye out for symptoms of injury, spraddle leg, coccidiosis, pasty bottom, or respiratory distress. By identifying illness or injury early on, you will be able to treat appropriately and hopefully save the chickens life or lessen the extent of the issue.
Moving to Pasture
At about 2-3 weeks old, your meat birds will be ready to move to pasture. This is where they’ll remain until it is time to butcher them. You will need to choose whether you will free range or will build a chicken tractor for them.
If you plan to free range your meat birds, you will need to train them to a coop for locking them up safely at night. Each morning, you can let them out and they can forage all day. They will still require some feed as well.
If you choose to use a chicken tractor, you will want to build it to be sturdy yet light enough to move easily. You will need to move the tractor to a new patch of grass every day for several weeks and then twice a day for the remaining time. There are several types of chicken tractors to choose from. We have used the Salatin style chicken tractor with great success.
After you have moved the chickens to pasture, you are well on your way to a freezer full of homegrown meat. What a wonderful accomplishment and sense of satisfaction to know that you raised it for yourself.
Knowing what went into growing your own food is very important. Raising your own meat birds will help you know that you have the highest quality and healthiest food possible.