Raising meat chickens from brooder to broiler is similar to raising layers, but meat birds have special needs during the rearing process. If your farm’s goal is to raise your own meat for the first time, here’s what you need to know to keep your chickens healthy from the day they hatch until processing time.
1. Provide Room to Grow
Meat-breed chicks need a dry, clean, draft-free location large enough to accommodate their fast-growing bodies. The University of Kentucky Extension recommends 1½ square feet per bird, though for the first week or so, you can get by with 1/2 square foot per bird.
2. Minimize Drafts
Until the chicks are pretty well feathered out, drafts can stress them, which can sometimes lead to death, especially in the colder months. Install a draft barrier 12 to 18 inches tall to block the cold air and help keep brooding temperature constant. This brooder guard, which can be made from cardboard, wood or other durable material, can be removed after the first week or two, depending on the weather and the feathering of your chicks.
3. Get the Right Bedding
Bedding or litter is used in the brooder house to absorb droppings and help the chicks stay warm. Cover the floor of the broiler room with litter 3 to 4 inches deep. Daily, remove any clumped litter and stir the remaining litter so it absorbs moisture better and lasts longer. You may need to change the litter out once a week or so, depending on its cleanliness.
Chicks may mistake small sawdust particles as food, so avoid using it until the chicks mature at least a week. Slick bedding, such as newspapers and shredded paper, shouldn’t be used after two days, as the chicks can’t get proper footing on the slick surface, causing their legs to splay out. This can lead to leg deformities, which fast-growing meat chickens are already at risk for.
4. Keep the Brooder House Warm
A heat source is a non-negotiable piece of equipment that keeps chicks warm just like a mother hen would. Traditionally, this is a heat light or infrared bulb fitted with a shield that reflects warmth down onto the chicks. Make sure your light fixture has a porcelain fitting to screw the bulb into. Other shielded lights, such as those used by painters, have plastic fittings and are rated for 100-watt bulbs, not the heat of 250 watts common for brooders. Rig up two lights, so that if one goes out, the chicks don’t get chilled. Make sure any extension cords are in good shape, not exposed to water or animals, and rated for the proper wattage: No $1 specials here. The lamp should also be well-secured to prevent contact with combustible bedding.
Although 24-hour light increases feeding time and weight gain, and helps broilers feather out faster, it can be a good idea to familiarize them with darkness by giving them 10- to 15-minute periods without light. This can help prevent panic or death by piling up on each other in the event of a power outage.
5. Regulate Brooder House Temperature
Newly hatched chicks need to be kept in a 95-degree-F environment for the first week of their lives, according to the University of Florida ISFA Extension. After that, you can decrease the temperature 5 degrees per week until they’re 4 weeks old.
It is best to set up your brooder box and heat source a day or two before your chicks arrive. Use a thermometer to help figure out the proper temperature. If you’ve adjusted it correctly, chicks will nestle in a ring around the outside reaches of the brooder. If it’s not warm enough, you’ll find them huddling together in the center directly under the heat beam, but if it’s too hot or close to the floor, they’ll scatter out from under the heat. The ideal temperature allows them to move freely about their space, coming back to the edge of the heat to warm up and nap. Raise or lower your brooder light or heater to adjust the temperature: approximately 1 inch per every five degrees.
Don’t be surprised if Cornish Cross chicks look half-naked at several weeks old. It may take a while for their feathers to grow, which is why you’ll want to maintain a heat source until they are fully feathered or the outside temperature reaches 65 to 70 degrees. Here’s a handy table to help you with temperature control:
- Week 1: 95 degrees F
- Week 2: 90 degrees F
- Week 3: 85 degrees F
- Week 4: 80 degrees F
- Week 5: 75 degrees F
- Week 6: 70 degrees
6. Provide Water
For their first two to three days of life, chicks don’t eat or drink much because they’re using nutrients from their yolk sac. However, if you ordered chicks through the mail, they’ll be ready to start eating and drinking by the time they arrive. As you remove them from their carton one by one, dip each chick’s beak in water to help them take that first drink. Make sure water is always available to the chicks. If the chicks appear lethargic, the U of F Extension recommends adding 1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar per gallon of water to boost their energy levels.
And a word here on water pans: Chicks drown easily, and they also climb up and into water pans, so use small troughs that will keep them safe. Some farmers add clean marbles or pebbles to the water pan or ring for the first week or two: The chicks can access the water easily, but danger of drowning is low.
7. Monitor Feeding
Meat chickens are growing machines—Cornish Cross hybrids can double their weight and size in just days—so you’ll need enough feeder space so that all the chicks can eat at the same time. For the first two weeks, allow 2 inches of space per chick—count both sides of a long, straight feeder. Double that amount to 4 inches per bird after two weeks old. To prevent wastage and soiling, the University of Kentucky Extension recommends filling feeders only halfway full and to keep both feeders and waterers level with the height of the chicks’ backs as they grow.
As incredible as it seems, some meat breeds can put on up to a pound of weight for every two pounds of feed they consume! A pre-mixed commercial chick-starter with a 20- to 24-percent protein gives these birds a good start for the first two weeks. If you’re raising Cornish Crosses, start with 20 percent protein. How you feed this breed is important, as well, because they will quite literally grow too fast for their organs and bones to accommodate, resulting in heart and growth issues. For their first five days, offer food free-choice, then remove their feeders for 12 hours each day, keeping the feed available the other 12 hours. Continue this schedule until butchering time.
At two weeks old, transition the feed from chick starter to chick grower, which contains 20 percent protein. You can mix the starter and grower together for a few days to ease the changeover. For Cornish Cross, feed 18-percent protein after five weeks until butchering.
8. Provide Transition Housing
Once feathered, the broilers can be transferred to a predator-free, sheltered grow pen, coop or chicken tractor. Meat breeds finish out at different ages and weights. Cornish Crosses finish at 8 to 9 weeks old with weights of around 10 pounds for males and 8 pounds for females.
Special Considerations For Meat Birds If you’re raising Cornish Crosses, keep in mind that their heavy body conformation makes it difficult for them to walk far, so keep food and water sources close at hand, and don’t expect them to forage. Even in chicken tractors a la Joel Salatin, these birds are not good foragers, nor do they handle heat well. Eliminate roosts, because unlike most other breeds, roosting bars will cause bruising and blistering of their heavy breasts.
Cover the basic needs for warmth and shelter, give a little extra attention to feeding, watering and housing protocols, and you’ll take your chicks from brooder to broiler stage in a matter of weeks.