If small-scale animal-raising were university-accredited classes, keeping egg-laying hens in your backyard might be called Chickens 101. Keeping meat chickens in your backyard would then be Chickens 201. A chicken is a chicken, technically, but raising broilers in the backyard is a slightly different game. It’s still easier than, say, raising cattle for meat, but you’ll find there’s a lot involved in the few weeks that it takes to raise a broiler from chick to processing.
Before Raising Backyard Meat Chickens …
Raising broiler chickens is different than raising egg-laying hens for a number of reasons. The top reason is that the whole purpose of raising meat chickens in your backyard is so you can have meat—meaning you’re going to have to end this bird’s life. This idea is something you need to seriously consider. Some meat-chicken breeds are fast-growing, and their bodies are not designed to live the life of a pet if you decide you can’t go through with the slaughter process. Once you take on a flock of meat chickens, you are signing on for the whole lifecycle.
If you’re sure you can commit to processing the meat chickens that you bring into your backyard, also ask yourself these questions:
What Are Your Personal Goals?
Raising broilers in the backyard is not an inexpensive or easy endeavor. Are these chickens only for your family to eat? Do you want to raise enough for friends and family? Do you intend to make this a part-time or full-time income stream?
Can You Make The Time Commitment?
How much time do you have to invest in backyard chicken keeping? Raising meat birds is not an activity that you can put on hold while you go on vacation or want to sleep in. Broilers require feed and water every day, and if you’re using a chicken-tractor system, they need to be moved every day.
Do You Have The Space You Need?
Backyard meat chickens can be kept in chicken tractors or in a coop. If outdoor access for your meat chickens is important to you, a chicken tractor will provide that, and you can put up a movable electric-net fence to allow coop-kept chickens to range outside during the day while still being protected from predators.
After processing, you need enough freezer space to keep your chickens until you eat or sell them. If you’re processing more than a few chickens at a time, your regular refrigerator/freezer might not be large enough to store your meat, and you should look into purchasing a chest freezer.
What Are The Zoning Regulations In Your Area?
Does your neighborhood association, city or county allow backyard chicken keeping? There may be restrictions to the number of birds you can have or the number of adult male birds you can have. There also may be a mandatory distance that chickens must be kept from property lines and homes. You might not be able to process your chickens on your property under various laws. Research the zoning regulations before getting your flock.
What Are Your Butchering Options?
Do you want to process your own birds, or do you want to send them to a processor? If you are sending them to a processor, establish a relationship with one in your area, and be sure he has time to process your birds before you even bring home chicks.
If you aren’t raising too many broilers and your zoning regulations allow home processing, watch a few videos and talk with other small-scale chicken keepers who process their own birds. You’ll want to fully understand what you’re getting yourself into.
As long as you’re not selling your chicken meat, home processing can be the more economical way to go. Depending on your state laws, you might be able to sell your home-processed chicken meat with certain restrictions. Check with your department of agriculture and be sure you understand the rules.
Is Your Family On Board?
Keeping animals of any kind poses a safety risk to people. Before you bring meat birds to your backyard, everyone in your household should know how to handle these fast-growing chickens. The largest human-health issue here is created by diseases that can be spread by chicken feces. Everyone needs to wash their hands after handling chickens and chicken-keeping equipment.
The Best Broiler Breeds To Raise
Like all farm-animal species, meat chickens are available in heritage breeds and hybrid breeds.
Hybrid Meat Chickens
Hybrid breeds of meat chickens are economical to raise because they grow quickly and develop large muscles, but they also eat a lot of grain and produce a lot of waste. Commercial breeds have been developed for large breast muscling and for feed efficiency.
Hybrid broiler breeds you might consider for backyard meat chickens include:
- Cornish Cross
- Freedom Ranger
- Label Rouge
- Red Ranger
Heritage Meat Chickens
Heritage breeds of meat chickens are defined by The Livestock Conservancy as having come from parent and grandparent breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association since before the mid-20th century. They are able to naturally mate, have a long and productive outdoor lifespan, and have a slow growth rate. Heritage-breed chicken meat has a richer, more distinct taste and darker color than breeds that have been developed for commercial use. Their muscling develops differently than commercial breeds, too, with less breast meat. These breeds have been in use since the time when everyone had a small homestead with chickens in the backyard, so they’re dual-purpose breeds, useful for meat production as well as eggs.
Heritage meat birds you might consider for raising in the backyard include:
- New Hampshire
- Russian Orloff
Supplies You’ll Need
Because you’re starting with chicks and keeping these birds until they grow to their full weight, you need a full range of chicken-keeping equipment.
- Brooder: This must be a warm, dry, draft-free space with water and feed that is secured from predators. The brooder floor should be bedded several inches deep with wood shavings, rice hulls or chopped straw. You’ll also need a heat source, such as a heat lamp.
- Chicken Tractor/Coop: When chicks graduate from the brooder—at about 2 or 3 weeks of age—they can go outdoors, either in a chicken tractor or in a stationary coop. Each chicken needs 2 to 2½ square feet of space.
- Feeder: As meat chickens grow, their water and feed requirements increase. Broiler chicks should be fed their grain in a feeder—not on the floor—to reduce feed waste and prevent them from eating the bedding. Meat birds live to eat, and you need enough feeder space so every bird can eat at the same time. Allow for 2 inches of feeder space per broiler chick in the brooder and 4 inches per broiler bird after that.
Getting & Raising Broiler Chicks
When raising meat chickens in your backyard, you’ll most likely start with chicks, as these birds are usually ready for processing in six to 12 weeks. You might get your chicks from a hatchery, feed store, breeder or other source. Whatever source you use, be sure it’s National Poultry Improvement Program-certified to guarantees the chicks are free from certain diseases, including avian influenza. Your source should also be close to your home, as you don’t want to stress your chicks with too much travel.
You can decide whether you want all males (cockerels), all females (pullets) or a mix of the two. It’s difficult to tell the difference between cockerels and pullets when they first hatch, so breeders might not be able to give you one or the other, but hatcheries are able to reliably sex chicks.
Start off with a clean, disinfected brooder room. Bring the brooder up to temperature—90 to 95 degrees F at floor level—at least 24 hours before the chicks arrive so that their water, feed, bedding and surroundings all have time to warm up.
Introduce the chicks to their water source by dipping their beaks into the water. As soon as one chick learns where to find water, the others will see the chick drinking and will learn, too. Water is essential because it helps to regulate body temperature, and broiler chickens will not eat if they do not have access to water.
As the chicks grow, reduce the brooder temperature by 5 degrees F each week until the chicks are ready to move out of the brooder. Use a thermometer at floor level in the brooder to be sure it’s the right temperature. The chicks will tell you if they’re too hot or too cold, also: too cold, and the chicks will huddle together around the heat source; too hot, and the chicks will be far away from the heat source and could even start panting.
Dealing With Neighbors
It’s an unfortunate fact that neighbors don’t always agree with what you’re doing in your backyard. Even if you’re following all of the zoning rules and good backyard-chicken-keeping practices, neighbors will complain if they want to complain. To keep everyone happy, follow some common-sense small-scale poultry-keeping ideas:
- Follow your zoning regulations to a T. This includes the number of adult male chickens in your flock and the distance between your chickens and your property line.
- Keep the chicken manure cleaned up regularly. If you’re using a deep-litter system, add bedding as needed to control odors. If you’re removing waste from a coop and composting it, keep your compost turned and maintain the right carbon-to-nitrogen ratio so the pile decomposes and odors are kept to a minimum.
- Reduce your chickens’ stress so they do not have a reason to make noise. Calm chickens are quiet chickens—particularly meat birds.
- Talk to your neighbors ahead of time. Let them know your intention for keeping chickens and what they can expect in terms of noise and odor levels.
Considering all it takes to raise meat chickens in your backyard, if you think you are ready to enroll in Chickens 201, visit with others who have done the same. Any backyard chicken keeper should be willing to share what he’s learned and help you get started in small-scale broiler raising.