Raising meat chickens in your backyard is an achievable way to maintain a self-sufficient supply of protein for your family.
…and if you have kept laying chickens before, raising meat chickens is just as easy!
What is the difference between commercial and dual purpose chickens?
Meat chickens are the second most efficient animal that you can raise in your backyard for converting feed to meat, it takes between 1.6 – 2lb of feed to produce 1lb of chicken.
How efficient the chicken is at converting feed to protein varies from breed to breed and will depend on the feed given and the amount of exercise the bird does.
Commercial meat chickens are more efficient than dual purpose breeds, however, dual purpose breeds will also lay eggs and reproduce for you, ultimately saving you money.
Raising commercial meat chickens relies on the supply of day-old chicks from a supplier rather than being able to breed them yourself.
In my experience, this is because when they are left to their own devices these chickens will constantly eat, and often break their own legs under their weight and seldom reach maturity to be able to breed.
However raising dual purpose chickens will give you plenty of meat and eggs, and the mothers will go broody and raise their own chicks. Generally, the young males are raised to 4-6 months of age and then slaughtered for meat and the pullets (females) are kept to lay eggs or sell on, though you can eat them too of course.
Breeds that are ideal for raising meat chickens
Commercial meat chicken breeds are excellent, fast growing broilers. Harvest time for a 4-pound broiler is normally 6 to 8 weeks.
Breeds include Cornish (also know elsewhere as the Indian Game), Cornish Cross, Cobb and Ross. These need to be purchased from a chicken supplier.
Dual Purpose Breeds
Dual-purpose breeds are also called heritage breeds. Generally, you keep a group of pullets for laying and a rooster for the protection of the flock.
The chicks that that hen raises are then grown on for both meat, selling and as replacement layers. To get a good sized roasting bird, they will be ready at 4-6 months.
Popular Heritage Breeds include the Dorking, Jersey Giant, Leghorn and the Iowa Blue as well as dozens more.
My Top Four Breeds for Raising Meat Chickens
Not surprisingly, I would prefer and recommend dual purpose breeds over the commercial breeds. Largely this choice is based on two factors:
1- Buying in new commercial chicks from an external source is not maintainable nor economical.
2- While dual purpose birds reach their weights slower, the meat is tastier and I feel that the birds are more healthy, rather than ones that grow heavy so fast that their own bones cannot cope.
The breeds that I recommend for raising meat chickens are fairly common, so should be easy for you to get a breeding trio.
They are generally friendly and gentle mannered enough to have your backyard. They are also old breeds that have proved their abilities and they will do well in a range of climates.
The Orpington come in a range of colors. Buff (light brown) are most commonly kept as meat chickens as their feathers aren’t as obvious as the black ones are once they are plucked.
Buff Orpingtons are also a little prettier and more readily available than the White Orpingtons.
Size: Buff Orpingtons grow to 7-8lb
Cold Tolerance: Hardy
Reproduction: You can expect 6-7 eggs per week and they make good mothers.
The Rhode Island come in two colors, the white and the red.
Size: Rhode Island Birds can grow up to 8lb
Cold Tolerance: Extremely hardy
Temperament: Generally easy going and friendly
Reproduction: You can expect 6 eggs per week. They are not as inclined to go broody (a good trait for laying hens), but when they do hatch a clutch of eggs, they make great mothers.
The Sussex are available in several varieties, but my favorites are the Light Sussex and the lighter (but less productive) variety, the Coronation Sussex.
Light Sussex used to be the commercial meat breed in the UK before the development of the newer hybrids.
The Sussex also comes in Red and Speckled varieties.
Size: The Sussex grow to 7-8lb
Cold Tolerance: Relatively hardy
Reproduction: You can expect 4-6 eggs per week. They will reproduce readily and make happy mothers.
One of the most common chickens on homesteads today is the Barred Plymouth Rock, or simply the Barred Rock. They also come in White, Buff, Silver-Penciled, Partridge, Columbian, Blue and Black.
Size: Plymouth Rocks grow to 7-8lb
Cold Tolerance: They’re slightly less cold hardy than the previous 3 breeds listed but are still fairly cold tolerant.
Temperament: Docile. They prefer to free range but will do well in a large coop as well.
Reproduction: You can expect 4-5 eggs per week and they will go broody and raise baby chicks happily.
If you would like to look into breeds further, My Pet Chicken has a good chart to compare these different chicken breeds.
Buying Meat Chickens
It is worth having a quick internet search for chicken breeders in your area. Ask around other people in your area, they may know of some of the smaller local breeders.
The upside to buying directly from a breeder is that many raise several breeds, so you have the opportunity to look at them as adults and compare them directly. You can also buy day-old commercial chicks from some farm supply stores, or some places let you order chicks to be delivered right to your door.
Before you Bring Your Chickens Home
If you are bringing home baby chicks, you will need a chicken brooder. Here is a how-to tutorial on building a tried and true expandable chicken brooder.
Once the chicks have all their feathers at around 8 weeks of age, they can go into a coop. If you are getting adult birds, you will just need a coop. You can buy a pre-made chicken coop or you can make your own but some things you will need are:
- 4 square feet per bird minimum.
- 1 foot of perch space per bird.
- 1 nesting box for each 3 birds, plus one spare. 3 birds = 2 boxes, 6 birds = 3 boxes, 9 birds = 4 boxes.
- Indoor space that is easy to clean, that can house their food and you can access the birds easily.
- Outdoor space that is safe from predators and has some shade.
- Some of the food that the chickens are currently eating, so you can wean them onto what you want to be feeding them.
For more ideas about what you need in your chicken house, have a look at this article on setting up a coop from Oak Hill Homestead.
Caring for Meat Chickens
Raising meat chickens is fairly straight forward if you have healthy stock. Feed them twice a day with either a formulated mix or look into making your own chicken feed. I recommend fermenting grain for chicken feed.
Give them a continuous supply of fresh water. I like these chicken waterers – they cannot get into them to foul the water.
If you do let your chickens out to free range, lock them up securely at night. Clean out the house as often as needed and keep an eye out for lice, mites and fleas. If you do get any of these you can
Clean out the house as often as needed and keep an eye out for lice, mites and fleas. If you do get any of these you can treat them naturally, or use a formulated spray from your local farm supply store.
Harvesting Your Chickens
This is an entire topic on its own. Once your birds have got the desired weight, you need to select which ones you will keep for breeding, and which ones you will ‘send to freezer camp’. Then you can dispatch and butcher your excess birds.
Once you have your chickens processed, you can freeze them whole, or in packets of portions like you would buy in the store. I would recommend you get yourself a quality meat cleaver and some kitchen shears for this job.
To ensure you meat stores well in the freezer, I would recommend vacuum bags.
The other option is to can your chicken in a pressure canner. Canned meat does take a bit more effort and equipment initially however it means you can store it for a very long time without a freezer.
If you would like to know more about raising meat chickens, I recommend you get yourself a copy of Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens to read.
Have you raised meat chickens?
Have you ever tried raising meat chickens? If so, what breeds did you prefer? Let me know in the comments below!