Whenever the subject of keeping chickens comes up, the accompanying visuals usually feature a yard with a bevy of birds happily scratching away in their run or a mama hen with a passel of peeping chicks beside her.
It’s not too often that the mental imagery portrays plump poultry, penned or in a pasture, awaiting processing. An increasing number of small-flock keepers, however, are choosing to raise meat birds for personal consumption, for profit, or both. If you’re mulling over adding meat birds to your agricultural endeavors, be sure to include these factors in your deliberation.
No Need for a Coop
Due to the way birds bred to provide meat develop—accelerated muscle and flesh gain paired with slow-growing bones—a coop is not the optimal type of housing.
Ramps, pop-doors, perches and nest boxes become impediments as the chickens approach market weight; their skeletons simply have difficulty supporting their poundage. Instead, all the housing you’ll need for your flock is a pen that can be easily moved around your barn. This will provide your birds with fresh bedding on a frequent basis.
Even better: Once they are old enough (usually around four weeks), shelter your birds in a movable tractor or pen on fresh grass or pasture to ensure they get plenty of fresh air, fresh greens and fresh bugs. Want to raise more than a dozen meat birds? Adding another tractor—or expanding the one you have—is much less costly than building an additional coop.
No Need for Apologies
If you range your birds, you know full well what it’s like to apologize to your neighbors for the chicken poop on their doorstep, the hidden nest under their shrubbery, or the hens seeking out scraps at their kitchen doors.
You may also be accustomed to asking your family members to hunt for missing chickens in the woods, fields or neighborhood surrounding your home. You may even have unfortunately discovered why chickens shouldn’t cross roads. When you raise meat birds, however, you can cast these worries aside, as your flock will be safe in its pen or tractor and not wandering the areas around your house.
Time Is on Your Side
Raising meat birds is far less time intensive than caring for cooped chickens. While feeders and waterers need to be cleaned and refilled the same for broilers as they do layers, there is no need to hunt for and collect eggs, shake out nest pads, clean out nest boxes, dump droppings trays and do minor repairs to perches and other coop features.
“Our meat birds on pasture only need to be chored once a day,” notes Katy Stone, co-owner of Laetus Pullus Farm in Perry, Michigan. “We move the chicken tractors, then feed and water.”
If you like having a couple of extra hours a day of spare time, how does having a few months sound?
Depending on the type of meat bird you are raising—broilers or roasters—your chickens can be ready for processing in six to nine weeks (broilers) or 12 to 20 weeks (roasters). Even if you raise two rounds of birds per year, that leaves you with half a year or longer free from poultry farming.
If you live in a snowy part of the country, this is especially beneficial as you won’t have to worry about thawing waterers or working outside during blizzards. “Our meat-bird season goes from April to October normally,” noted Stone.
You Know Where Your Food Comes From
Growing your own meat instead of buying it at the market is a wholesome way to feed your family. As the one responsible for their rearing, you fully know what your flock has consumed as it grew to market weight.
Unless you provided it, you know that there are no added hormones, fillers or other chemicals in your poultry. You also know when and how your birds were processed, something that can only be assumed with store-bought chicken. “There’s just nothing like farm-fresh chicken!” states Stone.
Not All Sunshine and Roses
As with any venture, there are some cons to consider when deciding to raise meat birds:
- For starters, their abbreviated lives make it difficult for a bond of affection to develop in the way that one develops with an egg-production flock.
- Because their housing is typically open to the elements, pastured meat birds tend to be susceptible to inclement weather and changes in temperature.
- They are also more open to predation by raccoons and opossums, who reach their prey by grabbing them through wide-mesh panels on pens and tractors. The ensuing panic within can also cause loss through suffocation as birds pile up on top of each other in an attempt to escape.
- Also bear in mind that many municipalities have strict rules regarding the processing of meat birds within their jurisdiction. States also have detailed guidelines as well as knowledge of USDA regulations. Check with your state’s Department of Agriculture and with your town’s ordinance director before you make plans to process poultry on your property.
Still interested? Great! You can get meat bird breeds from many of the same hatcheries that sell laying hens. Once you’ve determined how and where you’ll house them, you can order chicks for spring delivery and start raising your meat your way.