From Coop to Freezer: Raising Backyard Meat Birds
By Twain Lockhart, Nutrena Poultry Expert
Raising meat birds can be a very rewarding experience. A certain satisfaction comes from raising your own food and knowing that you fed and cared for the meat you’re putting on your family’s table. This process allows you to know where your meat comes from, how the animal was treated and what it was fed.
Before You Start
There are several things to consider before you bring chicks home with the intention of raising them for meat. First, are you up for doing the processing yourself? Keep in mind this may not be an option, as some cities and towns do not allow processing within their limits. If this is the case, or if you don’t want to tackle the process of harvesting the birds yourself, locate a processor nearby and book them early.
Also, make sure that you are committed to harvesting the birds when the time comes. Dual-purpose birds can exist long term, but meat chickens have been developed specifically for meat and keeping them longer than their finished age is not recommended. Lastly, start small. For the first batch, go with 10 to 12 birds to get a feel for what is required from start to finish.
Basic Chick Care
The basic care of meat bird chicks is similar to other types of chicks. You’ll need to provide a heat source along with free-choice fresh water and appropriate feed. An important part of raising meat birds is allowing for enough space for them to grow. With a very fast growth rate, these birds will become too big for a brooder that seems the right size in just a week or two. Make sure to plan for expansion of your brooder to allow the space to get bigger along with the chicks. A dry and clean brooder is always essential, no matter what type of chick you are raising. This will keep the birds comfortable, discourage the development of flies and help prevent disease.
Dual-purpose breeds are traditional breeds like Orpingtons, Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds. They can be raised for eggs or meat. These birds are the slowest to finish and are typically harvested around 22 weeks of age. They have less developmental problems than hybrid meat breeds, and they will usually yield less meat.
Red Rangers are a type of meat chicken that provides a “happy medium” between dual-purpose breeds and Cornish Cross. These hybrid birds are not recommended as layers, and should be harvested around 12 to 14 weeks. They are not as delicate as Cornish Cross and have less developmental problems. In addition, they are better at foraging than a Cornish. Their meat yield is in between a Cornish and dual purpose.
Cornish Cross is a hybrid that is the most common meat chicken and makes up the majority of meat purchased in stores or consumed in restaurants. They are very economical with their feed to meat conversion, and this means that they grow very fast — so fast that they are usually ready to harvest around eight weeks! A few things to be aware of with this breed: because of their rate of growth they can have problems with organ failure and leg issues. These birds do not do well when comingled with other breeds — it’s best to keep Cornish separate from other types of birds. Additionally, they are only suitable for meat production, so do not try to keep them long term.
Feeding Birds Raised For Meat
For dual-purpose chicks, you may choose to feed a meat bird ration from the start. However, if you have straight run chicks and are not sure which are males, you can start the whole batch as normal on regular chick starter and then switch the ones you will harvest to meat bird feed once their gender becomes apparent.
For faster growing birds like Cornish Cross and Red Rangers, you’ll want to feed a specific meat bird ration from day one. This will ensure that the birds are getting certain amino acid levels and protein amounts to encourage muscle development and growth. Because meat birds have been developed to put on muscle mass quickly, the ration must be balanced to make sure that nutrients are present for skeletal and internal organ development as well as meat development. If the correct ration is not fed, the birds are more apt to fall victim to common maladies such as internal organ failure and leg issues.
Backyard meat birds are a great way to provide a healthy source of food for your family.
If you are raising CORNISH CROSS, follow these simple feeding recommendations to avoid complications from overeating that this type of bird is prone to: Allow unlimited access to feed the first three days of life. After three days, feeding schedule should be 12 hours with feed, 12 hours without.
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