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Growing and raising as much of our own as possible is really important to us. The more research we do on food bought in the grocery store, the less we find ourselves purchasing. From being fed GMO food, hormones, injected with antibiotics, and cruel living conditions, we have a hard time buying our meat from the store. We already raise our own grass fed beef and have a small flock of laying hens.
But raising chickens for meat? That's one area we hadn't ventured. Until… now.
Let me tell you, meat chickens are quite a different experience than our hens. We purchased ours from a local farming store as chicks. There are two camps when it comes to meat chickens. Some swear by a heritage breed and others raise the Cornish X or White Cornish broilers.
Heritage breed chickens take longer to raise, resulting in a higher cost on feed, and an older bird by the time they're ready to butcher. This isn't all bad, as they're easier to come by, can be used as a dual purpose chicken, for both eggs and meat.
White Cornish broilers are a hybrid chicken, meaning they've been raised specifically for meat. They are ready to be butchered at just eight to ten weeks of age.
We decided to go with the White Cornish broilers due to their short raising period. You can either mail order chicks or purchase them from a store in the spring. We purchased ours from a local feed store.
1. Inspect before you buy. I like purchasing the chicks from a local store so you can look them over before you bring them home. Be sure you see the chicks up and walking before loading them. One of the chicks in our dozen had a broken leg. It was lying down when we purchased it and we didn't know until we got home its leg was broken. It died within a day of coming home.
2. Have a heat lamp ready. When chicks only have their down, they need a heat lamp to keep warm. It's also important to have them in a pen or area without corners. Chicks can be come trapped in corners and trampled by the other birds. They'll need the heat lamp until their feathers come in, usually about 2 to 3 weeks.
3. Be prepared to feed a lot. If you're used to raising regular laying hens, be prepared to feed much more often and a lot more feed. Our hens will go through their feed in about four days. The meat chickens went through the same amount in a day. Granted, we had about twice as many meat chickens, but they were young and not full grown.
4. Keep the water full. Just like their feed, they go through a lot more water. Be sure they have plenty of fresh water in their pen.
5. They're lazy. There's no nice way to put this. Meat chickens don't move around like our hens. Their feed and water need to be close by. They lay around a lot. Their bodies are larger and as they grow, they can't stay standing for long periods of time. Be sure they have shade, their feathers are slower to come in and they have light skin. If you let them out into a run or pasture, keep food and water in the coop and where they're ranging.
6. Don't back out. Once you have the meat chickens, do not change your mind about butchering them. They're bred to be raised to a maximum of ten weeks. If you go over this, their legs will break and give out due to the weight of their bodies. Or they'll have heart failure. The whole point of raising your own meat is to be humane, don't let them suffer because you got cold feet.
7. Mark the calendar. Count out from when you purchased the chickens to their full maturity date of eight to ten weeks. Many county extension offices have chicken butchering equipment for rent, but you have to reserve it in advance. Be sure you book it in advance for your set time frame. It only costs $25 to rent the equipment and we get to keep it for 48 hours.
8. Only dish up healthy feed. Be sure and only purchase unmedicated feed for your chickens. We purchased organic feed to be sure they weren't getting GMO products in their food. Remember, you're going to be eating what they're eating, m-kay?
9. Keep their pens clean. Don't stuff your birds into a tiny living area. Be sure they have room to move about. If they can run around on pasture, that is best. If not, be sure there's enough space for them to spread out and you keep it clean.
10. Don't become attached. Anytime we're raising animals for food, we don't think of them as pets. We don't name them. We do make sure they're cared for and treated humanely. Our children know upfront the animals are for food. We don't lie, fib, or try to hide the fact. Our children are very well adjusted with the fact we raise our own food and they know what that entails.
For those of you who don't eat meat, I respect your decision, please respect my decision to raise livestock for meat.
We'll share on the actual butchering and meat processing details in Part 2 next week.
Do you raise any of your own meat?
This post is featured on The Prairie Homestead Barn Hop.
Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.