Raising your own meat-in your own backyard!
I have been raising broilers for three years, and I wanted to share some things I have learned along the way. I and my family started our journey into raising our own meat with chickens, wanting meat that we could eat without having to treat our food as a biohazard. I believe you can do the same, and I hope this article will help you to do so.
A five week old Freedom Ranger broiler cockerel
Common breeds used for meat production:
Cornish Cross general overview:
Photo credit @abbevilleoz
Cornish Cross chicks are pale yellow, and as they feather out they will be pure white, as you can see in the picture above. For the first two or three weeks ours were active, and then they slowly became less and less active to the point where they hardly moved all day. Many people refer to them as Franken-Chickens, and I understand why they have been dubbed such a nickname. In our experience, as they neared eight weeks, they began suffering many heart attacks. I walked out one morning to find 3 very large roosters dead, and upon further investigation, they had suffered heart attacks just three days before processing day, what a loss! We started with twenty chicks, one day old, for our first time raising broilers and in the end we only butchered eleven. They will take less time from chick to adult ready for processing than other breeds, and grow a few ounces larger, but the amount that die in the process just aren’t worth it for us. Everybody has different preferences, and I know there are many people that have had amazing experiences with them, so I am just telling you my experiences and I hope you have better luck with them than I did!
Freedom Ranger general overview:
We tried this breed the second time we got broilers and didn’t have too many complaints. These have the most color variation, ranging from red to brown and some have very light barring. Their personality is docile and friendly. If you spend too much time with them, you might find yourself taking a liking to a few birds. I had a sweet little hen that would jump on my shoulder every time I fed them; slaughtering day was not a happy one. I think you could let these birds go long past slaughtering time with no ill effects. I have heard of some people using them as laying hens, though I imagine they don’t make great ones. Our birds have always done a great job foraging, and they are quite active compared to the Cornish crosses. We usually let these birds get to be about 9-10 weeks before we slaughter them, and they dress out anywhere from four to six pounds.
Heritage Breeds general overview:
This is a Silver Laced Wyandotte, this breed makes a great dual purpose breed
These birds will not grow out to be as great weight, or meat quality, but they are the meat your grandmother ate; back then, spent hens were dinner, and nobody knew different. Some good breeds for eating include Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, Wyandottes, Black Australorps, and Speckled Sussex. I recently processed to Silver Laced Wyandotte roosters that were thirty five weeks old; together the two of them dressed out at about five pounds. They certainly will not be as large as other breeds, but you will always have extra roosters that nobody wants, and it is a good way to get rid of them.
Cornish Cross chickens are generally easy to obtain from a feed store in the springtime, but there are many hatcheries you can order them from. I do not recommend ordering them online; Cornish Crosses are not a very hardy breed and they run a risk of many perishing during shipment.
Freedom Rangers are a bit more difficult to find in feed stores, as they are not as popular as Cornish Crosses. Luckily, since they are a bit hardier, they will fare much better in shipment. I like to order my chicks from this hatchery; you can get non GMO chicks, something I care about as I want to have the best quality meat possible. http://www.freedomrangerhatchery.com/products.asp
When you bring your chicks home:[/SIZE=4]
Here are some Freedom Ranger chicks enjoying their new home:
Some Cornish Cross chicks:
Photo credit @JessicaThistle
Brooding broiler chicks are not much different than brooding layer chicks; however, there are some differences. Layers chicks usually need heat for about 6 weeks of their lives; whereas broilers only need heat for about 2-3 weeks. I often start brooder temperatures around 95 degrees, and make sure the brooder is large enough for them to get away from the heat, and let them be as close or far away as they want to be.
If I am brooding chicks in the summer, I put them outside the day I get them home, and leave the light on them, though you may want to check your weather to make sure it will not be too windy or rainy for the first 10 days. If I am brooding chicks in the spring, they go outside once they are feathered out and the temperatures are not below 50 degrees at night, and gradually turn the light off during the day, and leave it on at night until they are big enough to do without it all together. While layer chicks often start out eating chick starter, I start my broilers on broiler feed the day I bring them home.
Photo credit @abbevilleoz
Watch out for Pasty Butt in young chicks, especially shipped chicks which will literally look like its name; poop covering the butt so that the chick can no longer excrete. I soak Q-tips in some olive oil and gently moisten and swab if off. Keep the chicks as calm as possible and you can give them some Cayenne Pepper sprinkled on their food to help prevent it. However, it will not treat it, so if you have a chick with the problem you need to get if off and not expect Cayenne pepper to treat it.
Photo credit @abbevilleoz
As I stated above, I feed my broilers broiler feed from day one instead of starting them out on chick starter. Here is a little comparison between layer mash and broiler feed:
Layer feed--Broiler feed
16% | 18%
7% | 3%
6% | 7%
Now that is just my feed, everybody uses different brands and formulations, but that just gives you the approximate difference. I feed my broilers free choice until they are about seven weeks old, which is approximately two weeks from slaughter date. After that, I start taking away their feed every night, so they eat ON 12 hours and OFF 12 hours. This keeps them from eating too much, and growing too rapidly, and dying from heart attacks. This step is especially crucial for Cornish Crosses. Freedom Rangers and Heritage breeds are hardier, and will not die so easily, but even so, I do it for my Freedom Rangers. ALWAYS provide your birds with clean and fresh water to drink.
This pen has a wire skirt around the bottom of it for predator protection.
Photo credit @abbevilleoz
Many commercial farms raise their birds in large houses, and the poor birds never see outside, or know what sunshine, bugs, and grass are like. That is one reason we raise our own meat, we want to eat supper, confident knowing the animal had a happy life, and a humane ending.
We raise our birds in chicken tractors. Chicken tractors can be pulled across land to fresh grass, a few kids can stand in there and shoo the birds to the front to the pen, while a few adults pull it to fresh grass. In my opinion, this is the most humane way to raise them. The pens are moved daily, part of the pens is covered for shade, and the other part is left open so they can enjoy sunshine.
You can have permanent runs for them. Your meat will not be as tasty though, because they will not have spent 9-11 weeks grazing on grass and enjoying bugs. One thing I strongly recommend is to have the coop they sleep in very close to the ground. They will develop leg problems jumping down from the coop, and for the same reasons, do not provide roosts for them either, they can sleep on the ground. Here is a link from one of our members on building a chicken tractor very similar to what I use: https://www.backyardchickens.com/a/pastured-poultry-shelter-8x8
Common problems seen in broilers:[/SIZE=4]
The green muscle disease is found in breast meat of the bird, it was first found in broad-breasted turkeys. It is especially common to find this problem in Cornish Crosses, particularly in heavier cockerels, as opposed to pullets. It affects the small tender bit of meat that easily separates from the rest of the breast, commonly called the tenderloin.
The deep pectoral muscle is the muscle a chicken uses to raise its wing. When a broiler becomes frightened, it flaps its wings, and the problem is caused by depriving the tender of oxygen. This problem occurs when the wings are flapped for long periods of time, and the muscle will bruise and die. Depending on how long before slaughter this problem occurs, it will appear bloody or yellowish or the green color where the name is derived from.
So it really helps keeping them calm; everybody has their methods, but here is ours:
other prevention methods include not giving them roosts to perch on, so they do not flap their wings getting up and down, not allowing children or pets to chase them, and keeping their pens away from areas with large amounts of traffic, etc, etc, I think you get the idea. Since Green Muscle disease shows no outwardly visible signs, there is no way to treat this problem.
The latest meat quality problem to occur on the poultry raising scene is wooden breast. Wooden breast is a separate problem from white striping, though the two can be seen together. Wooden breast is a stiffening of the breast muscle and will appear as hard, pale, bulging fibers that are extremely difficult to chew. Meat with this condition will not as readily accept marinades, and will lose more moisture compared to other meats during cooking compared to breast meat not suffering this condition. As with many other meat quality issues, this problem is commonly associated with rapid growth and prevention is the same as White Striping.
So far, striped breast has done a thorough job of confusing the poultry raising industry. Like Green Muscle disease, striped breast more commonly affects industrial strain broilers grown to heavier weights. The white lines running through the breast consist of fat tissue and run parallel to the breasts muscle fibers. The white striping can also commonly be seen in thighs. It is most commonly seen in turkeys, but it is also not uncommon to see in Cornish Crosses.
Striped breast is higher in fat, and lower in protein than normal breast meat, and does not absorb marinades as easily, and loses moisture when cooked more so than typical breast meat.
Striped breast is seen more commonly seen in birds that have experienced rapid growth weight, particularly in broilers fed higher calorie diet for faster growth. White striping can be prevented by not feeding them 24/7 as I mentioned earlier, yet another reason to feed 12 hours ON and 12 hours OFF.
One day I might get around to writing an article on the evisceration process, but for now here’s my method on raising them in as a humane way possible ensuring that they have happy lives. Always take food away 12 hours before you intend to slaughter the chickens to insure clean digestive tracts, otherwise gutting will not be exactly be pretty.
Well, I think that about wraps it up! I hope this has been informational to you, enjoy that yummy, pasture raised meat!