How to Raise Chickens for Meat

Free range chickens outdoors in early morning light on an organic farm.
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If you're interested in raising chickens for meat, not eggs, you'll need to learn a few things and prepare your chicken raising a little bit differently. There are some additional steps to consider, including the slaughtering, processing, or butchering the birds when they are fully grown to market size. Chickens raised for meat are commonly called "meat birds" and are usually a different breed from laying hens.

Should You Raise Meat Birds?

Before you get the chicks, consider whether you want to raise meat birds. They're very different from laying hens. You'll have a lot (usually 50 or more, although you could just raise a few) of fast-growing birds. This also means you'll have a lot of poop. It's important to ask yourself (and your family) if you can handle saying goodbye in six to eight short weeks. Whether you slaughter them on-farm or take them to be processed, you will need to face this reality. Also note, it's cruel to meat birds to let them live longer than a few months as they are heavy-breasted and can die of heart failure if they grow too big.

Close up of free-range Cornish chickens.

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How to Choose a Meat Bird Breed

Meat birds are a separate breed from laying hens. Although a hundred years ago laying hens were truly dual-purpose, meaning most people kept a flock of hens and roosters and killed older birds as needed for meat, older chickens tend to be tough and stringy, better for stew or soup than a roast chicken like you eat today.

Cornish Rocks, which are a cross between a Cornish and a White Rock, are the typical meat bird breed and used in factory farms all over the United States and on many small family farm operations as well (both pastured and conventional). They are extremely efficient converters of feed to muscle. Other breeds more suited to pasture are also becoming available.

Chickens feeding

Lauren Ware

How to Choose a Coop for Meat Birds

You will need a coop for your chickens, just like for your laying hens. Coops for meat birds are often larger so that you can raise 50, 100, or more birds at a time. Many people raise meat birds just during the summer season. This way they can often be in more temporary shelters such as hoop houses or tarps. You will need to make sure your birds have protection from the rain and the wind. They don't need roosts because meat birds don't like to roost. If you're pasturing your chickens, you will want to have a movable coop or use a day ranging method.

How to Start From Day-Old Chicks

Most likely, you will buy your chickens as day-old chicks from a hatchery or feed store. Baby chicks require a bit of specialized care. They need a brooder area and a heat lamp to keep them warm. They need their brooder temperature monitored closely and they need to be prevented from developing issues like pasting up.

A brooder area made of cardboard boxes and duct tape.

Lauren Ware

Raising Meat Birds on Pasture

You can keep your chickens in a coop with just a small run attached, but meat birds raised on pasture tend to produce meat that is higher in omega-3s and the birds are just happier.

Processing Chickens on the Farm

When your birds have grown to full size, typically 5–7 pounds depending on whether you're raising broilers or roasters, it's time to process them into chickens for the freezer. You can do this on-farm or you can find a poultry processor and transport the birds to the site to be slaughtered and processed. If you plan to sell your birds at a store or farmers market, you will need to have them slaughtered at a USDA-approved facility. Some states have mobile facilities, making the location more flexible.