Meat chickens are an ideal project for beginning homesteaders who want to raise high quality protein. The housing requirements are modest, the project can be done in more favorable weather, and raising chickens for meat will give you confidence to then move into egg layers. Meat chickens can take as little as two months of your time. It's a good opportunity to see how you like taking care of a non-pet animal.
Getting Started with Meat Chickens
Let’s think of this like a recipe. Start with your ingredients:
Most of these basics, such as warm safe shelter and clean water, apply for any type of chicken or poultry. Feed mixes will vary for different breeds. Some of the photos feature different breeds of chicks, as this year's round of meat chickens has not yet arrived.
Prepare Your Chick Housing
Establish where you will brood your chicks. This refers to the fact that your chicks need a warm, draft free pen with adequate lighting and supplemental heat. For the first week or more, depending on the room you have, these can be started in something as simple as a sturdy cardboard box, often set up in your basement or laundry room. You want the sides to be high enough so that drafts are eliminated with room for your waterer, the feed dish, an area under the heat lamp. There should be enough room for the chicks to scamper away from the light and each other, when they so desire.
Provide Heat for Your Chicks Safely
You will need a heat source. The simplest method is to buy a metal reflector base and use a heat lamp. The size of the bulb you need will depend upon the ambient temperature of your brooding area. Do not use a Teflon coated bulb such as the GE Rough Service Worklight. These can give off a gas that is toxic to chicks.
Your little babies will need to have a temperature zone of 90 to 95 degrees in which they all fit. The temperature should be measured at the back level of a chick. This can be done by using a thermometer hanging just outside the reflector area. I simply place the thermometer on the floor of the pen. Since that is lower than the back level, it may need to be just a little cooler than 95 degrees. This temperature can be reduced by 5 degrees per week of age. This can be achieved by changing the wattage of the bulb or raising the reflector.
The feed and water can be placed in a slightly cooler zone, and the chicks need to be able to move away from the heated zone. They will regulate themselves into their comfort zone. Depending on the number of chicks you buy, you may need a second heat lamp—just make sure that the box is big enough to safely accommodate an additional lamp and that they still have their cool zones.
Figure Out What to Use for Your Chick Bedding
There are a couple of bedding options. The most common is pine shavings, available at most pet and feed stores, laid down in a layer about an inch thick. I lay an old sheet or paper toweling over the shavings for the first few days only. Some people use Rubbermaid shelf liners that they can wash and re-use. This prevents them from eating the bedding in the first few days when they are ravenously pecking everything in sight. Do NOT use newspaper. It is too slippery and can cause leg slippage and disability. Any covering that you use over the bedding can be removed within a week. Another recommended bedding option is sand. The sand should be at least a half-inch thick.
Choose a Chick Feeder and Waterer and Food for Your Chicks
Feeders can be as simple as the bottom of an egg carton. You need about an inch of feeder space per bird. Therefore one egg carton can provide feeder space for a dozen chicks at the beginning. I like the paper egg cartons because they are readily available and are truly disposable. You can even compost them when you are done!
Your best bet for a waterer is a commercial waterer with a quart or gallon reservoir and a screw on lid. When tipped, the lid/ base provides a little water trough for your new birds. Nipple waterers stay cleaner, and since little chicks learn to use them very early, they may also be utilized. You could go as simple as a shallow bowl of water, but that is not as good of an option. The little chicks end up chilling themselves by going for a swim, and a wet chick is a cold chick is quickly a dead chick. Vitamin supplements such as a product called Vital can be added to give your chicks a boost.
I recommend a good commercial chick starter such as Purina Start and Grow or Flock Raiser crumbles. All feed companies have their own version. If you want to raise them organically, you will have to make sure you find your source of that in a starter form. The protein level for broiler chicks should be a minimum of 20 percent protein to prevent leg problems and give them plenty of nutritional building blocks for growth. Absolutely NO scratch feeds should be given to young chicks. The labels will indicate whether or not a coccidiostat such as amprolium is added. Again, this will be a decision you should make before the chicks come.
Choosing the Right Meat Chicken Chicks
Now you are ready to choose your chicks. For your first venture into meat birds, I recommend the Cornish rock cross. They are readily available, are very efficient at converting chicken feed into meaty chicken, and they grow to maturity quickly. We'll discuss other options in later posts.
The minimum to ship them from a hatchery is usually 25 birds. If you want less, you can advertise that you want to split a shipment of chicks on Craigslist, or if you are fortunate to live close enough to a feed mill, the mill will often have chick days in spring and then you can get as few chicks as you like. Think about the number of birds that you want to put into your freezer. Many people like to start with about 10 chicks—not too many, not so few that you become too attached. Now you wait for your own chick days to arrive!
The Day Before Your Chicks Arrive
On the day before the chicks are ready to come in, turn on your heat lamp(s). Regulate the temperature under the reflector(s) by adjusting the wattage of the bulb or by raising or lowering the light reflector itself. Warning: Do not just use the electrical cord to hang the heat lamp; use the wires provided on the reflector. Every year, people fail to secure the heat lamps, which then fall to the bedding and start a fire.
Getting Your Chicks Settled in Their New Home
When the phone rings that the chicks are in, go to the post office or feed mill to pick them up. Leave them in the original shipping boxes until they are ready to go into the brooder. As you remove chicks from the box, carefully hold them around their little bodies. Tip them down and dip their beaks to show them where the water is. The first water should be slightly warm and can have your vitamin solution and up to 1/4 cup of sugar per gallon added for extra energy the first day only. Let them drink for one hour before giving them feed.
Troubleshooting with Your Chicks – What to Watch For
Happy chicks will make contented peeps. They will be evenly distributed around the box, not huddled under the light (too cold) or pressing themselves against the sides of the box to get away from the heat lamp (too hot). If the chicks peep loudly, that is usually also a sign of distress. Too cold can result on them piling on top of one another and crushing the bottom chicks, and too warm stimulates them excessively so that they may begin to pick on each other. Beyond that, the heat can actually kill them.
One caution on the Cornish rock birds – they will eat like little piggies. In fact, standard practice is to restrict their feed by a week of age by taking away the feed at night for twelve hours each day. The theory is that removal of feed slows their growth so that their inner organs can keep up to their rapidly expanding bodies.
Sifting out the droppings every few days and prevents the buildup of smells and reduces the risk of coccidiosis. Coccidiosis is actually caused by a protozoa which the chicks can pick up from their environment. They re-infect themselves by exposure to their own droppings, so clean bedding, feed, and water are important.
Care as Your Meat Chickens Grow
Your chicks will quickly begin to feather in and look like little dinosaur chickens. The temperature of their box can be dropped by 5 degrees each week until they are fully feathered.
- At about two weeks, you may want to move them to a more permanent pen, still taking care to give them plenty of room and protection from drafts.
- At about four weeks, you can begin to get them outside on the grass.
It is critical for meat chickens to continue to get a high quality feed, so consider the grass as a supplement. Any pen you have them in outside must be secure from predators and provide the chicks shelter from wind and sun. We move ours around the yard in chicken tractors.
Your chicken adventure is well started! See other posts on this site to go more in depth about various aspects of chicken production. If you don’t want to begin with meat birds, you can apply most of this to other kinds of chicks, too. Your comfort level will grow along with your chicks!
This is a guest post by Debra Ahrens, a dear friend of mine who supplies our family with farm fresh eggs and meat. We also support each other's gardening efforts and go in together on seed orders. When someone with a homestead critter runs into trouble that I haven't seen before, I call Deb. She and her family have been a blessing to us.
Debra lives with her family on a five acre hobby farm in northeastern Wisconsin which she often describes as ‘short on hobby, long on farm'. Besides the School of Hard Knocks (Life), she attended UW-River Falls, majoring in Dairy Science. Along with her husband Jerry and their three youngest daughters, they raise every kind of domestic poultry known to man, and maybe a few that shouldn't be known. Their furry animal family includes a flock of Suffolk sheep, dairy goats, a few rabbits, their dog and a lone beef heifer, Thelma. In her spare time, Debra is a poultry and sheep project leader for Kewaunee County 4-H.
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