Raising Meat on the Farm for the Holidays and Beyond
Stuff The Freezer By Raising Meat Chickens
Reading Time: 11 minutes
Homesteaders looking to grow their food usually start at the easiest entry point and work their way up. Gardening is the simplest and cheapest way to start, but for those of us who want to stuff our freezer with meat, poultry is the next step. Raising poultry for meat is a cost-effective means of growing meat, and the turn around time is quicker than other farm animals. If you’re ready to take the plunge and try raising meat for yourself, I highly suggest starting with broilers.
Raising Broiler Chickens
Learning how to raise broiler chickens, for those of us who have had chickens before, is quite easy. For the most part, raising broilers is not much different from brooding layers. However, there are a few special considerations you should know before you get started.
Why Raise Broilers?
Sure, you could buy a package of chicken breasts for dinner, but that’s not why you got into homesteading, is it? There is a certain level of pride that comes with growing and processing your meat, and peace of mind that comes with knowing how you raised your food.
The Difference Between Store-Bought and Home-Grown
Those of us who have tasted the difference know that home grown chicken is significantly tastier than store-bought chicken. Not to sound snobbish, but the difference between factory farmed meat and local is significant, and I’ll tell you why.
One of the reasons home-grown chickens taste better is what we feed them. Commercial growers know how to raise broiler chickens, but growers buy the cheapest ingredients to make their feed because they have profit margins to maintain. Using the cheapest foodstuff is not a recipe for great tasting poultry. Conversely, when we buy grain at retail, that formulation is largely a fixed recipe. The retail market (those of us that buy feed by the bag, not the ton) demands quality and consistency well above that of a commercial grower. As such, what we feed our birds is typically higher quality than the feed used in your standard commercial farm.
Adrenaline and other factors of stress play a significant role in the quality of meat, be it poultry or otherwise. In a commercial operation, birds are either rounded up and crated by a team of farm hands, or by machines. These crates are stacked on pallets, moved by forklifts and strapped to tractor trailers. These tractor trailers drive great distances to the processor where they’re unloaded and processed. It’s a stressful journey to your dinner plate.
When it comes time to process my broilers, I pick one up gently, walk it 30 feet to the processing line and before they know what happened, they’re gone. No forklifts, no long journeys crammed in crates and very little adrenaline. Processing birds this way makes an enormous difference in tenderness. If done right, your birds should be fork-tender when cooked.
Broilers, also known as Cornish Rock crosses, or “Cornish X Rocks,” are a hybrid, much like sex link chickens. Broilers are meant to do one thing exceptionally well — grow. For a first-time grower just learning how to raise broiler chickens, I always suggest trying broilers for their fast turn around.
At six weeks old, these hybrid birds are ready for slaughter and will dress out at around three to five pounds each, which is a nice size for roasting, grilling or breaking down into parts. Don’t hold them for longer than six weeks.
Classic dual-purpose breeds like the Jersey Giant and Wyandotte can be raised as meat birds, but if you want a slower growing bird, there are better options. Specialty hybrids such as Red Rangers and other slow-grow broiler breeds are an excellent choice. Expect to grow these hybrids for 10 to 12 weeks.
Meat birds are far less mobile than layers, and they don’t forage as much. People who raise broiler chickens will agree that having a deep litter floor in your coop is critical. Otherwise, conditions will get disgusting in a hurry. When I raise my broilers, I like to keep a pine shaving bedding pack of at least 12 inches deep.
Using a deep litter system with pine shavings allows the bedding to absorb moisture, and then release it as the environment allows. If you try to raise broilers on hay or straw, bacteria grow in the bedding, and your ammonia levels will become overpowering. It’s not healthy for you or your birds, and may even kill them or make you sick. Avoid this and use lots of pine shavings.
Broilers don’t need any specialized feeders. Your typical chicken feeder will do. However, you should use a nipple system or nipple bucket for water. Nipple valves will provide clean water that stays fresh, unlike trough style water dispensers. Additionally, nipple systems will result in less moisture making its way to the bedding.
Today’s feed suppliers are combining so many feed rations that it’s borderline confusing these days. Look at your chosen feed mill’s website, and follow their recommendations for feeding meat birds, but you can expect to be feeding a starter-grower feed ration from day one to slaughter. I don’t ever suggest using a “fat and finish” feed, it does little to improve your birds.
Raising your standard broiler is about as easy as raising meat ever will be. If you’ve conquered raising commercial meat birds, you can try your hand at the slower growing varieties to up the ante, or move on to the world of growing bigger birds.
Raising Turkeys for Meat
Raising turkeys for meat, be it for Thanksgiving or simply for the freezer, is a popular project among homesteaders. Sure, it’s far less expensive to buy a turkey in the store. It’s also a lot easier when the bird is already processed for you too, but for some of us, we’d rather do it ourselves.
Turkey on Thanksgiving
In 1621, Native Americans and Pilgrims did, in fact, share a feast, but that’s not where the tradition of the Thanksgiving turkey came from. According to historians, although turkey was on the menu, it was venison that was the center of attention at the time.
Americans didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving until President Lincoln declared a national Thanksgiving Day in 1863. Even after that, Thanksgiving wasn’t widely observed until it caught on in the 1900s. Being a native bird, and an easy way to feed a gathering of people, the turkey became the traditional dish.
Breeds of Turkey
Half the fun of raising a turkey for Thanksgiving is picking a breed. Unlike broiler chickens, where you’re somewhat limited in choices, any turkey will produce an excellent meal. If you want a heritage turkey for Thanksgiving, like the Royal Palm, go for it! If you want a smaller bird, try the Beltsville Small or Midget White. If you have a lot of people to feed, or simply want a big bird, go for a commercial Broad-Breasted Bronze or White. Have some fun with it.
I’m not very good at raising turkey poults, so I leave that to farmers who specialize in it. Instead of buying day-old poults, I buy them at a month old from a local grower. These are known as started poults. Doing it this way is cheaper for me because I don’t have to pay for heat. I also don’t need to worry about mortality rates as I would with day-olds because, at this age, they’re pretty hardy.
Raising Turkeys for Meat
At the 12- to 14-week mark, you can expect hens to weigh 14 to 20 pounds live weight. Toms, on the other hand, should weigh in around 25 to 42 pounds live weight. If you want to estimate your bird’s dressed weight, take 20 percent off their live weight. That’s a ballpark estimation for commercial Broad-Breasted Bronze or Whites, but other breeds should be close to that, with exception to smaller breeds like the Midget Whites.
When I started raising turkeys for meat, I began buying retail feed (by the bag) at my local feed store. That worked just fine, but when I started growing thirty or more turkeys at a time, I began to buy feed by the ton. I had lots of options back then, but today is different.
Small, local feed mills are going out of business left and right these days, which leaves us with the large name brands of the feed market. These mills have simplified their offerings, which makes it easier on us. You can expect to feed one feed from start to finish, whereas I used to start with a starter, move to a grower and then a finish feed ration.
Check with your preferred feed company’s website for their feeding recommendations. You will likely end up with a single stage game bird ration, but consult the mill’s website first. Whatever brand you pick, stick with it. Changing feed is an easy way to set your birds back developmentally.
One challenge of raising turkeys for meat is supplying adequate drinking water. Few things will stunt the growth of birds as much as poor water (in quality or volume). For those of us who use gravity-fed nipple drinkers, we can use these systems with day-old poults, but turkeys will quickly outgrow the layer valves.
Nipple valves come in different styles. These styles provide proper flow rates for specific bird types. Turkey valves offer birds a much higher flow rate, but because of that, they drip. Turkey nipple valves require special drip cups and a controlled input pressure, unlike a layer chicken valve. The real downer is that, if you install a turkey valve in the bottom of a pail as we do with layer nipples, they leak profusely and don’t work well.
Until I find a better solution, or give up and run water and electricity out to my coop, I’ve surrendered myself to trough watering. Using a three-gallon gravity trough waterer is not ideal, but it does give turkeys the volume of drinking water they need. In later stages, I’ve used open five-gallon pails for water, because they consume large amounts of water. Don’t do this with poults. Otherwise, they may drown, but open buckets of water will work for birds over four weeks old.
I’ve raised turkeys many times, and I love it when everything goes to plan. Sometimes weather, equipment, helping hands and personal circumstances throw a wrench in the plan. For various reasons, I’ve been stuck with a few live turkeys on occasion. In the interest of simplicity and my sanity, I’ve either sold them live or simply tossed a spare turkey or two in with my layer flock.
Raising Turkeys with Chickens
Raising turkeys with chickens has been discouraged for years, but despite that, many homesteaders are going back to a mixed flock approach. There are some excellent benefits to keeping a mixed flock, but there are some serious bird health hazards associated with it as well.
The ultimate question a flock owner needs to answer is, what are the risks and do the benefits outweigh them? Let’s give you the information you’ll need to make that decision, and a few tips in case you decide that raising turkeys with chickens is for you.
Raising Turkeys with Chickens
Many people who wind up raising turkeys with chickens do so accidentally, or coincidently as it may be. I’ve been raising turkeys with chickens for years now, but I never planned on doing so, it just kind of happened that way.
You may have pardoned a turkey from the Thanksgiving processing line, decided you wanted to try turkey eggs, or only wanted a new living yard decoration. Regardless of the reasoning or situation, anyone who plans on raising turkeys with chickens needs to come to terms with the potential health risks.
Unlike when keeping goats with chickens, chickens and turkeys can share diseases. When raising turkeys with chickens, histomoniasis, also known as blackhead disease, is a concern. Blackhead, named after the dark coloring of the face it causes, is a disease that both chickens and turkeys can contract.
Turkeys are highly susceptible to black head, unlike their chicken counterparts. Any turkey infected with the disease is likely to die from it, and little can be done without the guidance of a veterinarian.
Origins of Black Head
Much like coccidiosis, histomoniasis is a disease caused by a protozoan (microscopic) parasite. This parasite, called Histomonas meleagridis, lives in infected earthworms and cecal worms. When a bird ingests one or the other, they become infected. Chickens will usually become reservoirs of infection, spreading the parasite throughout the flock.
Poultry veterinarians and scientists alike will tell people to segregate their turkeys from their chickens. Additionally, you should not range turkeys in areas that have seen contact with chickens within the last three years. If you’re raising turkeys for meat, then by all means, follow these wise words of caution.
For those of us who want to keep a pet turkey with their chickens, be sure you introduce mature turkeys into your chicken flock. Young turkey poults are fragile, and an infection of histomoniasis is usually fatal. If you do have blackhead in your flock, mature turkeys have a better chance of surviving an infection.
Black Head is not necessarily widespread. A good start, if you are considering raising turkeys with chickens, is to call your state veterinarian. Ask your state vet if histomoniasis is prevalent in your area. Blackhead tends to be a regional issue, unlike Coccidiosis and other more common ailments.
I’ve found that raising turkeys with chickens is a socially beneficial proposal. Both turkey hens that I’ve pardoned over the years have melded with my outdoor chicken flock swimmingly, accepting the roles of surrogate mother, predator lookout, and peacekeeper.
Even the most ornery of roosters will bow to a bird four times its size, especially when that bird has the muscle mass to toss them around. My turkey hens have broken up rooster fights, quelled aggression between hens, and even played surrogate mom to young additions to the coop.
Can turkeys and chickens live together? The answer is yes, but with some coop caveats. If you’re going to be raising birds of various sizes and physical abilities together, you’ll want to reconsider the design of your coop.
Turkeys, even the petite varieties, are considerably larger than your average chicken. Your chicken coop was likely not designed with an extra large bird, like a turkey, in mind. Turkeys may not fit through your chicken door, they have a hard time climbing chicken ladders like many ducks, and high doorways are sometimes insurmountable for these birds.
If you are building your coop and want to accommodate a turkey-sized bird, be sure the bird door is close to the ground, no more than six inches above grade, and does not include a kick plate to hold in your bedding. Turkeys, especially the larger breeds, can’t jump or fly well. Plan accordingly.
Turkeys are an unusual bird. Both birds I’ve kept as pets have had distinct individual personalities, been entertaining at best and incredibly obstinate at their worst. They add an interesting dynamic to the experience of keeping poultry at home, and the eggs are fantastic! I’m quite partial to turkey egg omelets, to be honest.
Food on the Table
If you’re raising birds for meat, eggs or both, you’re putting food on the table, which is great! Keeping a productive flock, be it of meat birds, laying hens, or a mixed flock of oddities will always be a challenge. Perhaps it’s a challenge you’ve sought yourself or one that has simply presented itself. In either case, I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors and encourage anyone who may be undecided, to give meat birds a try.
Plan Ahead for Processing Day
Learning how to raise broiler chickens and turkeys is the easy part, turning them into dinner is another story. If you plan to do it yourself, which I recommend you try, be sure to research it first. If you’re processing more than ten birds at a time, it’s good to enlist helping hands.
Don’t assume there’s a poultry processor nearby that will slaughter your birds for you. Ask around, call prospective processors and be sure you have a way to transport them. You can imagine just how much of a fiasco it would be to have a hundred broilers ready for processing, just to find out that no one within a hundred miles will do the deed for you.
|EQUIPMENT FOR PROCESSING|
|Cleaver or Saw|
|Bags for Packaging|