There are two categories of chickens: layers and broilers. The layers lay eggs. The broilers are raised for meat. The layers are known for making lots of wonderful eggs. The broilers specialize in getting really large really fast.
A layer hen can take more than seven months to reach maturity and usually begins to lay small eggs around 6 months old. A broiler goes from a tiny chick to the size of a basketball in less than two months. Now that's fast!
If you would like to begin producing some of your own meat, broiler chickens are a great place to start. It's relatively easy. They don't require fancy equipment, pastures or knowledge. And it's over in six to eight weeks. Bonus!
Broiler chickens need food, water and a safe place to live. The hardest part about raising meat chickens is keeping them alive. I live on a 24-acre farm with a lot of woods. Unfortunately, those wooded areas are home to many chicken-enjoying critters. We have raised meat chickens a few times and it's always a gamble to see who will get to enjoy the beautiful hens: the local wildlife or us.
Here are a couple of tips to getting started (and finished) raising meat chickens.
TIP No. 1: Safe and Sound
Yes, I want my broiler chickens to eat grass, bugs and enjoy sunshine. I also want them to be alive in six weeks so that I can eat them. Here is where the challenge lies.
A predator proof fence is the best way to keep your broiler chickens safe. We have used a rabbit hutch, a dog kennel and a homemade chicken yard from woven wire fencing. All of these can be good options. Being flexible and using what you have is a huge part of homesteading. If you happen to have an empty dog kennel, it can be easily converted into a chicken yard with some chicken wire. If you have a large rabbit habitat without any rabbits in it – that will work! If you don't have anything but a roll of left-over, woven-wire fencing and some wooden tomato stakes. Perfect!
This year we started with 22 meat chickens.
DH (Dear Husband) set up a nice yard for them where they can enjoy the sunshine during the day and be closed in the barn at night. He used a piece of fencing and some stakes. The entire set up took 15 minutes and didn't cost anything.
Our chicks came to the homestead during a hot steamy summer month so they did not need a brooder for warmth. If the weather is cool be sure to provide a brooder fully equipped with a heat lamp for small chicks. Once they get their wing feathers they'll no longer need the lamp.
TIP No. 2: Don't Step on the Chicks
I had my sweet little meat chicks for one day before I stepped on one. Accidentally, of course. I was spreading fresh hay for their scratching and pecking pleasure when one scurried underneath the hay. I did not know he was under there. As I carefully tip-toed my way out of the pen I felt a lump under my foot. Sure enough, under my foot, beneath the fresh hay I found a chick.
At first I was relieved to see he was still alive. Then I noticed that he was not well. Its neck was broken. It was awful. I didn't know what to do, so I walked in circles and panicked. Walking in circles is what I do when I don't know what to do.
My oldest son was with me. I asked him if he thought my broken-necked chick might be able to recover. After seeing it hopping around with its head laying limply to one side my son said, "No." So, he put it out of its misery ....
To say that I was freaking out is the understatement of the universe. Arg! What?! Sadness! Horror!
"YOU JUST KILLED MY CUTE, BABY, INJURED CHICKEN!"
"Mom, it wasn't going to live. Its neck was broken. Its head was on the ground."
"Give me a minute to start breathing again and I'll be OK."
TIP No. 3: Close the Barn Door
Whatever you are using to protect your broiler chicks, be sure it is closed, locked and secure before bed. Night is when all the critters from the woods come out in search of food.
DH had been working behind the barn. He accidentally left the back barn door open. From the house, the garden and the rest of the farm, no one could see that the back barn door was wide open. My baby meat chicks were in the barn. Baby chicks (that are not under a broody mama hen) will peep almost constantly. I think all the cheeping was beckoning to any predator in the woods that the buffet was open. Apparently, an opossum heard the call. And answered. He helped himself to 12 of my broiler chicks. Ugh.
We went from 21 chickens to nine chickens overnight.
I suppose you could get technical and say I had more than nine chickens if you count the dead ones the opossum killed, shredded and threw all over the barn for me to find. Every time I went out to the barn to get something: buckets, pliers, hay, etc., I was finding heads, feet, bodies and random chicken parts. Keep in mind that this is happening over a five-day period – every day I feel like I'm stumbling upon another massacre. With me, the squeaks, squeals and running don't stop just because it's the fourth head I've stumbled upon this week. I still panic, drop things and run.
I hate opossums. And raccoons. And coyotes.
TIP No. 4: Call the Local Authorities Before Extermination
The only good side to this story is that I got to shoot the numskull who shredded my chickens and threw their parts all over the barn for me to find.
I spoke with our local Animal Control Office as well as the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. They both confirmed that if the wildlife (opossum in this case) is causing document-able problems it is fine to exterminate the animal. I'm going to say chicken parts everywhere is a problem and the fact that he ended up in the animal trap next to my dead meat chickens is definitely document-able.
No more Mr. Opossum.
TIP No. 5: Don't Stay Out Late
With nine meat chickens left, I was still optimistic about the chicken dinners I would be eating.
It was a Saturday night when we went to a friend's house for dinner. We had a nice time visiting and stayed out past dark.
Staying out past dark is considered a no-no when chickens are concerned. Generally, you want to get your chickens secured for the evening before it gets dark outside. I was hopeful that since they were in the barn they would be fine until I could get home and lock them in the coop.
You know what happens to chickens who aren't locked in the coop by dark don't you? Varmint food. I'm not sure what got it, but the next day I had eight chickens. Isn't this fun?
This story has a happy ending. My friend with the CSA, who gave me the original 22 chicks, still had a couple hundred to spare. He was happy to give me eight more. To learn how he ended up with 300 chicks for 5 cents each go here.
This put me back up to 16 meat chickens. I am pleased to report that all 16 meat chicks grew up to be fat, healthy chickens and have been relocated to the freezer.
If you have tried meat chickens and felt like all you did was feed the varmints, be encouraged. If you've never raised meat chickens and would like to try, don't be discouraged.
Meat chickens can be raised successfully without feeding the local wildlife by following a few tips:
1. Provide safe and secure living quarters
2. Don't step on them
3. Close the door
4. Call the authorities for proper methods for nuisance removal
5. Don't stay out too late
The great news is that although we lost a few, we put 16 in the freezer. We also eliminated one chicken-eating nuisance from the homestead, which is always something to celebrate.
I'll call that a success.
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