black cochin meat chickens

How to Raise Meat Chickens

Last Updated on December 18, 2022 by Ellyn Eddy

By Kristen.

Chicken is an extremely popular, versatile meat. Chickens are easy to raise and fit into homesteads of all sizes. So whether you are working with rolling acres or a small urban backyard, you can raise your own meat chickens!

Having raised chickens for both meat and eggs, I can tell you there is a lot more to it than just plopping some chicks in the backyard. You’ll need to choose your type of chicken, create a good grow-out setup, then give proper care to make sure your chicks make it to butchering time.

Raising Chickens for Meat Step-by-Step

  1. Choose Your Breeds
  2. Decide How Many Chicks to Raise
  3. Calculate Your Costs
  4. Feeding
  5. Heating
  6. Shelter
  7. Water
  8. Health
  9. Know When To Slaughter
  10. Butcher Properly

Choose Your Chickens

You can eat any type of chicken. However, commercial or “meat breeds” are bred specifically to grow large very quickly. Heritage breeds, while slower to grow out to butchering size, can also produce eggs and can breed successfully on their own. So which should you choose?

If you are only looking for chicken meat or don’t want to devote every day each year to caring for chickens, meat chickens are the way to go. If you are looking for protein and don’t mind committing to caring for a flock long-term, heritage chickens are your best bet because they produce eggs, have fewer health problems, and replenish their numbers naturally.

Commercial Chickens vs. Heritage breed Chickens

Commercial Meat Chickens

 If you are only looking for chicken meat or don’t want to devote every day each year to caring for chickens, meat chickens are the way to go. Under ideal circumstances they can be ready to butcher at eight weeks old, meaning after just two months you can have a full freezer and an empty pen. At eight weeks, meat hybrid broilers can dress out can be between 5-8 pounds.

Heritage Chickens

If you are looking for protein and don’t mind committing to caring for a flock long-term, heritage chickens are your best bet. They produce eggs (also a versatile protein) and repopulate their numbers naturally, making them a great choice for homesteads. Heritage breeds take longer, with your broilers being ready around 12 weeks of age, with a dressed weight of 2- 2/12 pounds (depending on breed). 

How many meat chickens do you need?

Consider the following things to determine how many meat chicks you need to get for your family:

1. Which type of chicken do you choose?

If you plan to go with meat chicken breeds or hybrids that dress out larger than heritage breeds, you’ll need fewer chicks! If you prefer the heritage chickens, be prepared to purchase more chicks or maintain a larger flock for consistent meat.

2. How big is your household?

A household of seven will have larger meat needs than a household of two. Keep in mind how children grow as well. It seemed overnight that my daughter went from sharing a portion of our meat to needing her own full-size portion.

3. How often do you eat chicken?

Do you want to eat meat chicken three times a week? Four? Try to figure out how often you’re eating chicken now.  This will help you estimate your meat chicken needs.

4. How much storage do you have?

If you have a dedicated meat freezer with plenty of room, you can butcher and store much more meat.  If you have a small freezer, you will have to do smaller batches of meat chicks.  The USDA recommends storing raw chicken in the fridge for no longer than two days.  Frozen chicken can last up to one year.

5. How often do you want to raise baby chicks?

If you have the room and you only want to deal with broilers for a short period, you could raise your year’s worth of chicks in a single batch, then be free to travel or relax as you wish!  

6. Will you eat all parts of the bird?

You can eat chicken hearts, livers, gizzards, necks, and feet. Eating these bits stretches what you get per chicken, but if they aren’t your cup of tea that’s ok too. Know what parts you will not eat so you can more accurately guess how many you will need.

7. How much room do you have?

Broilers aren’t here for a long time, but they deserve a good quality of life. Smaller spaces require a smaller number of baby chicks to prevent disease and overcrowding. Airflow is important to keep your meat birds healthy.

Calculating The Costs of Raising Chickens for Meat

If you’re like me, you’re going to be curious about what it will cost to raise your chickens. Here is an easy way to ballpark what your costs are going to be. This does not include your equipment costs (coop, heat lamp, etc) as those expenses will drop the more you use the items

In my example, I have chosen 25 jumbo Cornish cross meat chicks from Cackle Hatchery. 

  • 25 Chicks puts us into a higher discounted price tier. The Cornish crosses will be $81.25 before tax and shipping. With those two items included, it will be around $4.79/chick. Note: If you can do larger orders at once, you will save on your chick prices, as 20 chicks are around $5.31/ chick.
  • Feed: You will require 14 lbs of high protein feed (recommended 21%+) per chick for an average of 6.5lb live weight by 8 weeks. Using broiler feed in my area, the price per chick is $8.58 ($24.50 divided by 40 pounds is $0.6125. Multiply by 14 lbs for your feed price). 
  • After the 8 weeks of growing out, your cost is $13.37 per live bird (price per chick + price for 14 lbs of food)
  • Predict 70% of live weight for your meat haul, in this example that’s 4.5 lbs of chicken meat.
  • Final Cost: $2.97 per pound of chicken ($13.37 divided by 4.5 lbs, dressed chicken weight).

Feeding

You will need to feed a high protein feed of at least 21%. While cost varies, a  40lb bag of Broiler Feed at Tractor Supply runs $24.50 per 40lbs. Dual breeds need different foods as they mature because they also produce eggs. The Livestock Conservancy has heritage guidelines here

baby chick

Heating

When you start with chicks, they will need a heat lamp. Make sure the brooder box isn’t so large that the chicks can get “lost” too far from the heat, but there will need to be enough room that any chick that gets too hot can move to a cooler part of the brooder. A heat lamp will run you around $13.  If growing meat chickens in cold weather, they will continue to need heat lamps as they grow, especially cornish hybrids.

Shelter

Chickens need at least 1.5 sq ft of space per chicken. In addition to this, they need a draft-free shelter. Commercial meat hybrids don’t tend to move around much. They have such heavy bodies that you may even notice them lying down to eat and drink. The chickens still need space for airflow. This will help keep them healthy and reduce the stress that can impact their growth weight (or lead to death).

Water

 Chickens must always have access to fresh, clean water. Penn State University recommends at least 6 gallons per 100 birds per day. From there you can “math down” to find the need for your smaller flock, though keep in mind that the weather and age of the birds can play an important part in determining how much water your birds will drink. Large adult chickens may drink up to 1 liter a day in hot weather.

Health

Cornish Cross, the most common commercial meat hybrid, grow very quickly. It’s only fair to warn you that with this amazingly fast growth rate come health problems.  

  • Cornish Cross meat birds can develop leg problems, leaving them unable to walk. Reducing their feed can slow their growth rate and help with leg problems. 
  • They are more prone to heart problems because they grow so quickly, leading to heart attacks. Again, the reduction of feed to slow growth can help lessen this problem.
  • Water Belly: Their lungs and heart can’t get enough oxygen to other organs and muscles. Their bodies simply outgrow their muscle development. This typically happens at 6-8 weeks and is a higher risk at high altitudes.
  • Flip over disease: They just drop dead. No one knows exactly why this happens and it is more common in males. You can reduce feed to slow their growth rate and help reduce instances of flip-over disease.
  • They are more prone to overheating because they are big, muscular chickens. Be sure to provide them with plenty of shade and fresh cool water. You can even add ice cubes to the waterers to help lower their temperatures.
  • They don’t do well with cold weather either, because they tend to grow feathers much more slowly than other chickens. If the temperature doesn’t get them, them piling up together for warmth will. 

It has been suggested that the birds are unlikely to live much past 12 weeks even if they aren’t slaughtered, though I do know of people that have birds over a year old.

Heritage chickens with their slower growth rate tend to avoid these types of health problems.  

chicken breast meat ready to cook

When to Slaughter

You’ll want to consider the live weight of the bird when making your decision on when to butcher.

  • Cornish cross may reach 6.5 lbs live weight by 8 weeks old. You can butcher them as early as 4 weeks old, depending on what amount of meat you hope to get. They are recommended to be butchered by 10 weeks of age. 
  • Heritage birds need at least 12 weeks for smaller carcasses but may not be ready until at least 16-20 weeks of age.

In short, let weight be your guide. If you process chickens that are well past maturity, they can be stringy and tough. Mark those appropriately and use the meat for your soups or your slow cooker meals!

How to Butcher Meat Chickens

To kill your meat birds, you will need to hang them upside down or put them in a killing cone. Gently but firmly hold the head with one hand. Use a sharp knife to cut their throat. You may want to hold on to the chicken’s head as it flops to keep blood from splattering all over.

If you would like to keep the chicken skin, you will scald the carcasses. After scalding, you have to remove the feathers by hand, unless you happen to have a plucking machine. In the name of laziness, I always skinned my butchered chickens. 

FAQ

 Are there other benefits to having chickens?

  • Chicken manure is excellent for the garden! It is hot manure, so it will need to be composted or aged before you can use it on your plants.
  • Heritage breeds produce eggs. Take advantage of this extra resource when your hens aren’t incubating your future meat birds.
  • If you have chickens, you won’t have many bugs! This is especially true for heritage breeds that are more active than your lazy, fast-growing meat hybrids.

Can I make money with meat chickens?

Maybe? It depends on the demand in your area for locally grown meat. Each state has different guidelines for what you need to do to be able to sell chicken meat.  You may be able to get around this by selling live meat chickens at their ready-to-butcher size. If you can sell butchered chickens with your setup, also consider selling gizzards, liver, etc., especially if you don’t keep them for your household. 

Can meat chickens live with other animals?

Chickens and rabbits can make good companion animals, though each needs its own shelter, and they must have plenty of space to keep both groups healthy and happy.


Raising Meat Chickens is Rewarding – But Carries a Learning Curve

Meat chickens are rewarding to grow, but it is important to choose the right breed for your needs and your space. No matter which breed you choose, once you get a taste of that delicious meat and the satisfaction of raising your own meat chickens, it’s hard to go back to grocery store poultry.  

A rooster can help guard your meat chickens