The commercial meat chicken (i.e., Cornish crosses) that is found in the supermarket is a result of careful breeding. They have bred these birds for their rapid growth and feed-utilization efficiency. This results in a bird ready for the freezer in about seven weeks. The alternative to commercial meat birds are dual purpose (i.e., Rhode Island Red, Barred Rock ) chickens.
They start all meat birds as chicks. Careful management of the chicks is the best strategy for a successful batch of meat birds. The new chicks will require adequate warmth, food, water and bedding. Most people start chicks in a small pen. I have started twenty-five to fifty in an area about three feet by three feet. On large homesteads, they use a circular pen about one foot high made of solid material. The small pen has waterers, feeders and heat lamps inside. The goal is to keep the chicks warm and free of drafts (the first week about 90 to 95 degrees F.) and close to the water and food. Chicks given too much room will get lost and cannot find the water, food or warmth. If the chicks bunch up, it is too cold; and if they avoid staying under the heat source it is too hot. Ideally, the right conditions will scatter the chicks throughout the brooding area. I have also found it is helpful if the birds are shown where the food/water is by placing the chicks' beaks in the water or food.
Homesteaders use a variety of materials as bedding for chickens. In my area, wood shavings are common. The bedding should be thick enough to keep the birds warm from the chill of the floor and not too dusty or made up of small particles. Dust will make it hard for the birds to breathe, and they can ingest small particles.
As the chicks get older reduce the temperature about five degrees F per week until it reaches about 70 degrees F. The birds will also need more room as they grow. Eventually, you can remove the small pen and put them in a larger pen. The birds will need about one square foot per bird. It can take a lot of space on your homestead, but your chickens will grow and produce much better.
Your local feed supply store will carry many commercial feeds for chickens. The options are usually between feeds for chickens that medicate (i.e., contain antibiotics) and non-medicated. I have found medicated feed improves the chicks' health. However, it is not a necessity. Starter feed that is higher in protein and is in very tiny pieces is best for new chicks. After a few weeks, many homesteaders gradually switch them to a grower feed. They then feed a finisher feed to the birds a couple of weeks before slaughter. I would not suggest using a homemade diet, as they are usually deficient in nutrients required by the birds.
Once the birds have reached the desired size it will be necessary to slaughter them. If you are lucky, a local firm will slaughter them for you. However, in most areas the small numbers of birds will mean slaughtering yourself. The hardest part of this job is killing the bird properly and removing the feathers. Home Processing of Poultry describes several methods of killing a bird (Note: it is a .pdf file). My experience has found that beheading and holding the bird upside down works well. Removing the feathers can be a difficult and time-consuming job. Proper temperature is critical for feather removal. A mechanical plucker is well worth the investment if you do many birds.
Meat birds are harder to raise than layers. Their rapid growth-rate causes them to be more likely to develop health problems. Bad feet and hearts are common. Commercial birds from different hatcheries may also do differently.
Raising meat birds can provide an alternative to the purchase of supermarket chicken. Chickens are very food-efficient and they can become a well-sized bird within two months. Growing several batches of chickens per year in the same barn is also possible.
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