Raising Meat Chickens
If you decide that you want to raise chickens for meat, there are a couple of options. You can buy hybrid chicks and raise chickens that are specifically bred to grow rapidly and produce a high volume of meat in a short couple of months. Or you can raise dual-purpose heritage chickens that grow much more slowly (reaching full growth in about six months), but can also provide eggs.
Meat Chicken Breeds
The white Cornish Crosses are a mix between a Cornish rooster and a White Plymouth Rock hen, and are known as Meat Kings. They are the most popular choice because they are the most efficient at converting their feed to muscle weight. By the time they are between eight and ten weeks old, they are ready to be sold as broilers. They can also be kept longer to be sold as roasters. Some colored hybrids are also available, although they grow a little more slowly, maturing in 11 weeks. They are also difficult to pluck cleanly, but sometimes people find the meat more flavorful than the white hybrids.
Some of the heritage breeds that are great dual-purpose egg and meat chickens are Plymouth Rock, Delaware, Wyandotte, and New Hampshire. They have a slower growth rate than the meat breeds. These birds reach target weight around 16 weeks, and their meat is firmer with a lower fat content due to the fact that they are such good foragers. Also, in general, the chicken flavor of the meat is more intense because of the fact that they are slaughtered at an older age.
How to Raise Chickens for Meat
The brooder should give warmth, ventilation, and protection from predators. They will only be in it for about three weeks, so think simply. Chicks require a minimum of 0.75 sq.ft. each in a brooder, so make sure you plan accordingly when you order your chicks. The floor needs about four inches of litter, whether you use wood shavings or newspaper.
Use a small waterer to prevent drowning, but keep it filled because they will go through a lot of water to wash down the feed. Scatter the feed on a plate with a thin layer of chick grit on top of the feed. When the chicks come, dip their beaks in the water as you gently put them into the brooder. They will instinctively find the food.
Use a heat lamp to keep the area warm. Then keep an eye on them. If they scatter away from the lamp, they are too hot; if they huddle together under the lamp, it isn't warm enough. You should adjust the temperature on the thermostat as necessary based on their behavior. As a general rule, you can use the following temperature guidelines: The first week, the temperature should be 95°F. Every week after that, reduce the temperature by 5°F until it's down to 70°F.
Keep an eye out for pasty butt.
Around three weeks of age, you should move them to a bigger coop because they now need two sq.ft. of space per bird. You should change their feed from starter/grower to grower/finisher and put it into a feeder (instead of on a plate). You can continue to keep them in an enclosed space, but make sure that you clean it thoroughly and change the litter every day. It is a good idea, as an alternative, to use a chicken tractor instead. This allows you to move them to a different area of pasture each day, and reduces the maintenance work.
When they are four to five weeks old, if the weather permits, you can replace the heat bulb with a normal light bulb. Their feathers will keep them warm enough, but the light encourages them to keep eating through the night. If you are raising them during hot weather, meat hybrids in particular overheat easily because of the extra weight. One grower suggests freezing water in gallon jugs and putting them into the coop with the chickens.
Around six to eight weeks, if you are growing hybrids and you just want broilers, check to see if their weight is big enough (at least 5-6 pounds). At that point, you can begin slaughtering and cleaning them. If you want roasters, you will need to let them grow a few more weeks. Heritage breeds need to grow for a much longer period before they'll reach a weight suitable for harvesting meat. Keep in mind that the edible portion of live weight differs by breed: about 75% for white hybrids, about 70% for colored hybrids, and about 65% for heritage breeds. This excludes fat, intestines, blood, head, feet, and feathers.