With the recent concerns around food supplies nationwide, there has been an increased interest in homesteading, sustainable living and local food sourcing. Commonly, meat chickens are the first attempt at raising one’s own meat source. The most popular choice is usually Cornish cross broilers, which grow quickly and can weigh a whopping 6 pounds in six weeks.
However, these birds are prone to serious health issues. Chicks can be lost in shipping, and older birds are often found dead before their slaughter date. And the birds themselves are often dirty and sickly by the time their butcher date rolls around.
Breeding for fast growth rather than health means that there is no surefire method to raising healthy birds. However, there are a few steps that can be taken to improve their health and their quality of life as they develop.
Ordering & Receiving
One of the most important steps to healthier chicks is to not order too early. When hearing about food and chick shortages, there is a temptation to order early. But cold weather during shipping can cause the death of chicks and weaken others.
Travel is one of the more stressful times for most poultry and livestock. Cold weather with young birds only makes the issue worse.
Similar concerns can come from shipping in weather that is too hot, so pay attention to the weather where your chicks come from, as well as your local temperatures.
Consider your available space before the chicks arrive. Since they grow so quickly, they require more brooder space than most egg-laying breeds. Rather than feathering out, they often grow faster than their feathers. This results in naked-looking chicks that continue to require heat for several weeks.
However, this incredible growth also produces a tremendous amount of body heat. So keep an eye on your temperature.
Avoid red heat lamps. While the cheapest and most commonly used method of keeping animals warm, the bulbs in heat lamps can burst and are a serious fire hazard. Broiler chicks may be killed by the initial burst and others may peck at the glass.
Aside from physical hazards, the continuous light source encourages food intake around the clock. While broilers should eat more than most chickens in order to speed their growth, eating all the time can increase the likelihood of premature death, due to choking, poor joints and cardiac issues.
Instead, look into heat sources that provide warmth without light. They all have pros and cons, and which one works well will vary according to the set up.
Brooder plates are gaining popularity but can be pricey for large numbers of birds. Brooder plates consist of a warmed, plastic plate on legs that plugs in for chicks to hide underneath. The largest one claims to have space for 50 chicks, but this usually means day-old chicks. Broiler chicks will likely outgrow them while still needing a heat source.
They are also a tempting surface for chicks to perch on. This means they will either need to be cleaned frequently, or you’ll need an extra dome piece to prevent this.
Ceramic light bulbs give off heat, but no light and pose little fire risk. Reptile enthusiasts usually use these, and the bulbs can be expensive.
However, they are reported to last for up to five years. This makes them a good, longer-term investment. Be careful to follow directions on the proper equipment, installation and cleaning of your bulbs.
Towel warmers and heating pads are also options used by some. Heating pads can get messy quickly, and towel warmers need to be checked to verify that they don’t get too hot and burn chicks. Like the brooder plates, they become an attractive place to sit and can burn delicate feet if they are at too high a temperature.
As They Grow
As your chicks get bigger, consider removing food at night, especially if you still use a light source for heat. While less food may slow their growth slightly, it will also minimize damage to joints, early heart failure and choking hazards. As mentioned before, these can all be causes of early death in broilers.
When considering their housing, continue to provide good ventilation. In part, this is because of the body heat they will create. However, they also produce a huge amount of waste as they grow, and fresh air will help to keep them healthy.
They will need new bedding much more frequently than egg-laying breeds. Expect to clean floors far more often than with your egg-layers, especially if you plan to keep them inside all the time.
While raising broilers in indoor spaces is the normal practice—to prevent predator attacks and get a more tender meat—your birds can have a higher quality of life by letting them free-range with your other chickens. This will allow them to develop stronger legs, hearts and lungs.
They will have better mobility to keep themselves clean and with less chance of mites. They’ll be able to forage for a more varied diet. And as a result the end product will be a more flavorful bird.
Birds allowed exercise will also be less fatty upon processing.
Placing chicks with our Cochin rooster and at least one broody hen for company had helped us to grow healthier broilers. We use Cochins because they’ll adopt nearly any chick we give them, even when there are a hundred!
Having adoptive parents provides the chicks with another source of warmth and a defender against possible rodent invasions. If you decide to allow your broilers outside, an older chicken can teach them how to get in and out of the coop, as well as continuing to provide protection against predators.
Unlike egg-laying or dual-purpose breeds, broilers chicks—even when small—can’t notice or run from overhead predators easily.
Having an egg-layer breed also allows the chicks to learn how to be chickens. Aside from not always being able to recognize and react to danger, broilers seem to lack a number of normal chicken instincts. They don’t always scratch at the ground without prompting, lack social skills, don’t dust bathe and often fail to groom themselves at all.
This results in a chicken that can end up quite filthy by processing time.
While your broilers may have more tender meat if they go without exercise, they’re also likely to develop all the problems that lead to an earlier death. With a broody hen around, chicks can learn behaviors that improve their long-term hygiene and health. A broody hen will also introduce them to the rest of the flock, should you decide to keep them together.
When the Time Comes
Whatever other choices you make, not waiting too long to butcher is the greatest kindness you can do for your birds. The longer they live, the more they’ll struggle to eat, walk or even breathe. Even with many of the suggestions made here, life grows increasingly difficult for them, and postponing even a week can cause unnecessary suffering.
Begin thinking about when and how you will butcher long before the day arrives. This way, if you discover you don’t have the ability to do it yourself, or discover that other plans will get in the way of the due date, you can find other options such as finding a local butcher or neighbor to process the birds for you.
One can simply decide on a specific date between six to eight weeks, if that works best. This way, when the birds hit a certain age, they’ll be butchered no matter their weight or condition.
Some may end up smaller than hoped. Others may be lame, depending on the date chosen and how quickly the birds are growing. Obviously, if one is sending the birds out for processing, choosing a date ahead is necessary. In that case, much of the rest of this section can be skipped.
Process When Ready
An alternative is to look for signs the chickens are ready, rather than choosing a date in advance. A starting point is how clean the birds are. If they have been raised with other chickens and are capable of dust-bathing, broilers will remain reasonably white throughout their development.
However, as they get heavier and lose mobility, even the most determined of chickens will lack the flexibility to roll around in the dirt. This isn’t a good marker for broilers raised on their own. They often lack the basic instincts to avoid laying in their own waste.
Observing the birds for leg issues is another important marker. As the birds begin to develop joint issues, they’ll lay down frequently. Eventually, they’ll be unable to take even a few steps without resting.
In very late stages of lameness, the birds may lay next to the feeders, not even getting up to eat or drink, though one hopes they’ll have already been processed before they become this uncomfortable.
Redness and swelling can be observed in the knees and ankles of chickens developing leg pain as well. Even birds that continue walking may develop an odd gait.
As the bird gets larger, the more noticeable the damage to the joint will get. This isn’t observable in the hips, due to the feathers covering them. In cases where deterioration is severe, though, the hip joints have been observed to partially dislocate with each step.
This is a definite sign the bird should be dispatched immediately.
Other Signs of Failing Health
Other signs of failing health include difficulty breathing, reduced social interactions and lethargy. Any of these signs means that the birds are coming to the end of their quality of life, and should be processed as soon as possible.
Caring for meat birds results in more birds surviving to slaughter and improves quality of life for them while they are alive. Raising healthier broilers means a better return on investment and less suffering for the animals. With a little planning—and very little extra effort—it can represent a win/win for everyone.
Most Cornish cross chickens are primarily fed grower crumble or pellets. Pellets create less waste but present more risk of choking. Additional calcium with layer pellets or oyster shells helps to develop stronger legs so the birds can keep a higher quality of life until butchering.
As with most chickens, extra treats of kitchen scraps and mealworms makes life more enjoyable. However, they don’t always seem to understand that vegetables are food unless shown by an older chicken!
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.