CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — Raising chickens for meat (often referred to as broilers) can be a challenging and rewarding experience. Before beginning it will be important to determine your goals. Is your primary goal to have a backyard flock that will provide eggs as well as meat? Or do you have an agricultural enterprise and want to diversify into broilers to better serve your customers? This is important as it will influence many of the decisions that you make; what breed to use, facility requirements, feed, and marketing. If you are not in an area that is zoned agricultural it will also be important to check local laws and ordnances to ensure that your operation will be compliant.
If your goal is to have a small flock that provides meat and eggs for your family and you are not as concerned about feed efficiency and meat yield you may want to consider a dual-purpose breed. Dual purpose breeds refer to breeds of chickens that, while not as efficient as dedicated broiler breeds, have characteristics that make them useful as both an egg laying bird and a meat bird. Often heritage breeds fill this category, some common examples are Rode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, Orpingtons, Australorps, Cornish, and many others. Spent hens from these breeds are also acceptable meat birds referred to as stewing hens. Birds in this category can take 12 weeks to reach a suitable weight for butchering; exact age and weight will vary depending on breed.
If you want birds that are solely for meat production, then you will likely want so to select a dedicated broiler breed. Broiler breeds primarily fall into two categories. Conventional and Sow-growing. Conventional breeds usually are white feathered and are typically a Cornish cross that has been selectively bred for efficient fast growth and high meat yields. These birds are what you will find in most supermarkets. While conventional broilers are the fastest growing and feed efficient, they also require the most care to utilize those efficiencies. These broilers may be more sensitive to feed quality, temperature, and housing quality. Conventional broilers will be ready to harvest at 4-6 weeks depending on the desired weight.
Your own preference or those of your customers may make a slow-growing broiler breed a good choice. Slow growing broilers are a dedicated meat chicken but share more characteristics with dual purpose breeds than conventional broilers. Most slow-growing broiler breeds are some variation of a cross between conventional broilers and heritage breeds. As the name suggests slow-growing broilers do not grow as quickly and are not as feed efficient as conventional broilers. Although more expensive to produce, slow-growing broilers are preferred by some consumers due to perceived welfare issues associated with the fast growth of conventional broilers.
Bird Health & Biosecurity
It is important to continuously monitor your birds for any sign of parasites or disease. Sick birds may display any of these symptoms: lower feed or water consumption, swelling, wheezing, lethargy, or increased mortality. If birds are sick it is imperative to get an accurate diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible. State laboratories often offer low-cost diagnostic services.
Some medications may be available from local farm supply stores or from a veterinarian. It is important if medicating to ensure that the directions are followed including any withdrawal period that is required. The withdrawal period is necessary to ensure that any meat or eggs that you consume do not have any residual medication in them. If selling meat or eggs not adhering to the withdrawal period could expose you to liability risks.
If possible all-in, all-out production provides best protection against disease. Using this production method, you can schedule to have all birds out for a few days before your next batch of birds arrive. This will allow you to thoroughly dry clean and disinfect buildings and equipment. This helps ensure your new flock gets a healthy start and is not exposed to any underlying diseases or bacteria from previous flocks.
Housing requirements will be dependent on scale and method of production and existing resources. Floor space allowed for each bird should be approximately 2 ft. Ideally any housing should provide protection from inclement weather, predators, and have provisions for biosecurity.
Housing indoors can be as simple as converting an existing structure, making it suitable for housing birds, to new construction. Indoor housing should be able to exclude rodents and predators. If housing birds year-round it should allow some regulation of temperature; insulated for winter to prevent stress and losses from cold, and forced or natural ventilation for summer to cool birds and maintain air quality. If the house is sealed too tightly and litter on the floor is too wet, it can cause excessive ammonia and health issues for your flock. Litter on the floor should be kept dry and the house should be cleaned and, if possible, disinfected between flocks.
If birds are to be raised on pasture it will likely be a seasonal operation. However, pastured systems should also provide some protection from inclement weather and predators. A pastured system can consist of a large building with fenced grass areas around the building or something simple as a small moveable pen.
Feed & Water
Birds should always have access to quality feed and clean water. Ample water and feeder space should be available to ensure birds have unrestricted access. Restrictive feeder and water space will be detrimental to uniformity and overall performance of birds due to competition with dominate birds. Care should be taken to place feeders and waterers so that birds never have to travel far for access to water and feed.
Chicken feed can be found at most farm and garden stores and local feed mills. Broiler feed typically can be separated into three types of rations: starter, grower, and finisher. Starter feed should be between 18-24% protein. If keeping birds longer than four weeks feed should be switched to grower feed. Grit should be made available to birds. Grit is utilized in the gizzard to help grind feed in the gizzard. This is especially important if birds are to be supplementary fed with cracked grains or will be foraging.
If birds are being raised for resale it is important to ensure that your processing plans are following state regulations. It is also important to ensure that you have a market for your birds and know your costs of production so that you are prepared to sell your production at a price that will be profitable. This can be done by keeping a budget and recording costs incurred during production. It is important when raising birds for resale that you check that the local market is willing to pay a price that will cover inputs and pay for your time and investment.
–Russell Phenicie, Penn State Extension