The dream is sustainability.
And as an urban farmer, raising meat chickens is one of the most sustainable things you could do, but also one of the most intimidating.
7 years ago when we decided to grow our own food, that meant we’d dive into gardening, goat milking, egg gathering, and yes, even chicken butchering. Gulp.
I’ll admit, I was pretty naive when we started. I figured raising meat chickens meant I’d raise some egg-laying hens and snatch one up ever once in a while for dinner.
Turns out that wasn’t exactly how it worked. Nope, not at all.
In my video below, I explain how we were able to raise a year’s supply of meat chickens right in our backyard and take you through the entire process, so be sure to watch!
For those of you itchin’ to get started with raising meat chickens (and for those of you a little queasy at the idea), let me share a bit of my wisdom with you. After years of raising our own meat chickens, we’ve learned quite a few lessons.
The first thing you need to know is that raising meat chickens is actually a seasonal thing. Most people will purchase a large order of 20-100 chicks from online hatcheries (yes, they actually get shipped to your post office), and raise them on their property anywhere from 9-16 weeks until they reach butchering weight.
You’ll really want to think about the best time of year to raise them is because when baby chicks are young, they aren’t that great at maintaining their temperature. If you purchase during the winter, it will be a lot more work for you to keep them warm. Most people will purchase meat chicks when the day temps are in the 90’s, then as the chicks grow and the weather gets cooler, the temperature is perfect for them. By the time it’s butchering day, the colder temps will make sure you don’t have lots of flies buzzing around during the job. Raising meat chickens is doable for any climate, you just need to plan for the best time.
Choosing a meat chicken breed
If you want to raise meat chickens, you’ll definitely want to choose a breed of chicken meant for meat because they grow faster than a laying hen and their energy production goes towards larger muscles instead of reproduction. The two main meat chicken breeds are the Cornish Cross and the Freedom Rangers. Red Rangers are very similar to Freedom Rangers and another less popular, but good meat breed is the Mistral Gris.
We’ve raised both the Cornish Cross and the Freedom Rangers, and in my video above you’ll see which I prefer.
Raising Meat Chickens
It’s really as simple as providing quality food & water, then making sure they stay healthy throughout their growing season. The cost of raising meat chickens is definitely on your side, especially if you’re trying to raise organic chicken. A whole organic chicken at the store might cost you $25, but you can do it yourself for $9 a chicken, which comes out to about $1.75/lb.
Finding the Best Feed
You’ll find that most people recommend you feed meat chicks a starter feed (about 22% protein), then move to a chick grower feed (about 20% protein), and finally finish with a chick finisher feed (about 18% protein). The problem with that scenario is that in order to feed a 22% protein, you’ll need to feed them soy. The last thing we want in our diets (or our chickens) is soy, so we purchase a feed that doesn’t have any, which means we feed an 20% protein for the first month, then move to an 18% protein feed for the rest of their lives. We purchase a non-GMO, no soy, no corn, with fishmeal, organic feed that we purchase from my local co-op here in Phoenix. There are a lot more options, so head on down to your feed store and see what you can find.
Baby chicks aren’t very good at regulating their temperature so you’ll need to provide a clamp & heat lamp to make sure they’re warm enough. They’ll need 95 degrees for the first week, 90 degrees for the 2nd week, and 85 degrees for the 3rd week. After that, they should be able to handle more variation in temperature. Just watch your chicks and if they’re cold, they’ll be huddling together.
Even if you live in the city, predators are a real threat. Owls & hawks are the biggest concern. In my video above, I explain the different types of protection and at which age you don’t have to worry about it anymore.
Preventing Health Issues
When you’re raising meat chickens, keeping their immune systems healthy is the key to preventing sickness. We do a few things to give their immune systems a boost.
- 1-2 TBS. of apple cider vinegar in their water.
- Oregano oil. (I mix 10 drops of oregano oil with 1 cup of water in a 2 oz. spray bottle, and then shake & spray on their food before feeding)
- Garlic cloves thrown in their pens weekly for them to peck at.
This year we had a few health problems pop up that could have definitely been prevented.
At week 5, we put our chickens on pasture that was too overgrown, and a few of our chickens got sour crop, which is where long pieces of grass gets stuck in their crop and ferments & causes digestive upset. We’ve never had this happen before and I’m sure it was due to the overgrown grass. Next time I’m going to make sure we put them on shorter grass.
In the video below, we got lucky and were able to help these 2 chicks recover naturally from sour crop.
At week 7, we had a few chickens develop bumblefoot, which is a condition where they get a store on their foot from getting an abrasion & walking over their droppings throughout the day. I’m positive the cause of this was from our wood chips we laid down in the feeding area. They were large and abrasive, and we should have put something softer like pine shavings down instead. I think this is why using a chicken tractor works so well. It forces the chickens on to a new area each day which greatly reduces the chances of bumblefoot. Even though we let them explore our entire pasture, they liked to stay around the food, which was over the wood chips.
When you have a lot of chickens to butcher, you can either invite people over to help and make a day of it, or you can do a little at a time, like we did. This year, it was much easier for us to butcher ten in the morning, and do that for a week or so until they were done!
After you butcher, you’ll need to age the fresh birds in loosely wrapped bags in your fridge for 2-5 days. It might sound weird, but this tenderizes the meat and is a necessary step before you freeze them. When you have a lot of chickens to butcher, this is another reason why you should space out the butchering over a couple weeks so you have enough room in the fridge to store them.
Storing a Year’s Supply of Chicken in your Freezer
After we aged the chicken for 2-5 days in the fridge, they were ready to vacuum pack and freeze. We love vacuum packing our chicken, because this way we’ve had it last us for 2 years in the freezer! We used a food saver and it’s totally worth the cost in our opinion.
We also cut off the wings before we vaccum packed the whole chickens so we could have bags of wings for an easy dinner of bbq or hot wings:)
It’s so rewarding to know you’ve got chicken stored up for an entire year, and it’s honestly doable for anybody. As long as you can commit to 10 minutes a day for feeding & watering, you can have the dream of becoming self-sustainable with a year’s supply of meat. All it takes is some planning & commitment to be successful in raising meat chickens!