If you've decided to start a small farm business raising chickens for meat, you're probably wondering where to begin. To be profitable, most farmers suggest you need to have at least 200 birds in your flock. Costs to get started and annual running expenses might seem prohibitive for some, but you can start small and gradually ramp up. You can start a small broiler farm annually for around $5,000.
It sounds easy to get some chicks, raise them to slaughter age, then get them processed and sold. And, for the most part, it is easy once you're up and running, but it requires upkeep and time management. You also need basic knowledge, training on animal husbandry, and be savvy enough to identify the signs of chicken disease and treat your birds. You also need to factor in what it takes to get set up, buy stock, food, and supplies, veterinarian care, housing, hired help, and allocate land. It would help to establish relationships to build your supply chain, including processing and buyers.
What Are Broiler Chickens?
There are over 100 breeds of chickens. Some chicken breeds are best suited for meat, and others are raised for egg-laying. Chickens that are raised for meat are called "broilers." These chickens are typically white and ready for slaughter after about eight weeks of age. Broilers have a faster growth rate and need more protein-rich food with sufficient fat. Layers need fewer proteins and fats. And, as a result, broiler feed is costlier.
Some of the top breeds for broilers are Cornish cross birds, big red broilers, Bresse, turken, Jersey giant, Orpington, and freedom ranger (free-range/pasture-raised).
Broiler chickens are raised in houses, which are large, open structures where they can roam, explore, eat, and hang out with other chickens. They don't need a roost since meat chickens don't usually roost. Some (including free-range chickens) have varying access to the outdoors, based on farmer preference, and may even have a movable coop (also called chicken tractor).
The most significant returns are from selling broilers over eggs or raising turkeys if raising poultry for profit.
A supply list for a broiler chicken farm is exhaustive. You can divide a chicken farm into several categories for the sake of organization: stock, coop, land, feed, and health care.
- Chicks: Purchase quality chicks of good breeds from dependable breeders. On average, the cost is about $1 to $2 per chick.
- Chicken coop or house: A broiler needs 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 square feet of indoor spaces per bird. Pine shavings are recommended for floor litter, and many farms use a deep litter method. A bale of pine shavings can cover a coop that is 8 feet by 8 feet. As time goes on, you will need to add to the litter. You also need feeders, waterers, a ventilation system, isolation cages, lighting, a waste disposal system, and brooder heaters.
- Land: Factor in your rent, property taxes, and insurance. Look up how many birds per acre would be appropriate. Sources vary widely, but keeping too many birds per acre can become a muddy, unsanitary mess.
- Feed: About 70 percent of broiler farm costs come from feed. For the first two weeks, your chicks should be on starter feed. Each bird will require about 1 ounce per day or approximately 1 pound for the first 14 days. Until slaughter, at about seven weeks of age, you need about 9 to 14 pounds of feed per bird. The birds will need a fresh supply of water daily.
- Health care: You can expect to pay to treat any mite infestations or colds, or for medications and vaccinations. Inspect birds' health regularly; disease can wipe out an entire flock if not caught early. Vaccinations are required to keep the flock from catching diseases.
- Cost of processing and storage locker fees: You can expect butchering costs to be about 20 cents to 50 cents per pound; it depends on whether you sell chickens or cut them up. Chickens sold in parts will usually bring you more money per pound. Also, expect storage locker costs for processed meat that is not picked up right away.
- Labor: Depending on the size of your operation, you will need to hire farm hands to assist if you have a flock of more than 10,000 birds. Two adults can run a flock of 10,000 or less, but it will require at least three hours a day, every day of the week.
- Other expenses: Factor in utility costs to run lights and heaters, fresh water, fencing, waste disposal, transportation, marketing, and maintenance.
Know the Laws
Investigate your state and local laws around keeping poultry on your land, poultry processing, and sales. Biosecurity is the No. 1 reason for poultry regulations to keep diseases—viruses, bacteria, funguses, parasites, and other microorganisms that cause disease—away from birds, property, and people. Twenty-five states have meat processing regulations, and the other half follow the USDA guidelines and have adopted exemptions relevant to small-scale producers and processors who sell their poultry.
Many states require that meat chickens be processed in a USDA-approved facility to sell to the public legally. However, in some states, you can sell whole chickens directly to restaurants if your poultry operation is small enough in scale. You may also be allowed to sell whole chickens to the public as long as you sell them directly from your farm.
Research the state laws that apply to you because knowing where you'll get the chickens processed and how much that will cost will affect your business plan.
Know Your Market
Consider whether you will sell conventional Cornish rocks, the fast-growing cross that is the large-scale poultry industry standard, or go for an heirloom breed or hybrid specially designed to forage on pasture, like freedom rangers. Your market will determine this; are you selling to people who know the difference and care? Will the market support the price per pound you'll need to charge to be profitable? Birds raised on pasture may take longer to reach market weight, ultimately costing you more money.
In many states, farmers can sell directly to restaurants if the supply is between 1,000 to 20,000 birds per year (depending on the state). They are exempt from an inspector being present when slaughtering and processing are taking place but not from regulations. For example, farmers under the 1,000-bird exemption can slaughter and process on their premises for distribution as human food.
Figuring out your market is the next step for your new chicken business. Who are your local buyers? Will you sell to consumers directly from your farm, and if so, how will they know where to find you? Will you sell to restaurants?
Another option is to contract with a major chicken producer like Tyson or Purdue. Depending on the contract, those major chicken producers will often provide the chicks, vaccinations, and feed—maintaining ownership of the birds—while farmers keep the day-to-day husbandry and growing environment. The major producers will assume risks due to market volatility.
Write a Business Plan
Identifying your market is part of your business plan, but you'll need more information than just how to create a guide for your business as you move along toward its creation. You'll have to measure how viable and sustainable your business will be and need to make specific, measurable goals. Consider your capital. What is the market size? How many broilers will you raise for your first run? What equipment will you need for them: fencing, housing, waterers, and feeders?
In a business plan, you will need to outline each of these factors:
- Industry and local market analysis
- Your offering, your vision, strategy, differentiating factors
- Analyze operational needs, supplies, finances, measurable goals (cash flow projections, break-even analysis, start-up costs, loans, etc.)
- Your operational strategy, including roles and technical day-to-day operating plan
- SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats)
- Sales and marketing strategy
Although you might not include it in your business plan, can you find additional value in raising chickens that may not be included in the bottom line? For example, chickens will happily eat kitchen scraps with their feed, saving you waste and feed costs. Also, if using the deep litter method for keeping your coop or chicken house clean, litter transforms into compost over time, saving you in fertilizer costs for your garden and landscaping. Chickens will happily eat insects and pests in your yard. Also, raising chickens can be a valuable lesson for teaching responsibility to growing children.
Learn How to Raise Chickens for Meat
There will be set up costs, feed requirements, supplies, medical care, and so much more. We've established that raising chickens for meat is more than raising chicks for seven weeks. For your broiler farm to be successful, you will need to keep the farm sanitary, including litter management, monitoring the flock's health daily, feeding and changing the water at least twice a day. Factor in that a coop or house will need at least 2 1/2 feet per bird.
When thinking about how you want to set up the farm, consider whether you're going to keep a chicken house or pasture-raise your chicken. If pastured, you have to think about the fencing to pen them in and account for some loss due to predators. Farmers often use a movable coop, so the litter bed changes over time. You do not want too much chicken manure to build up in one area; it can lead to unsanitary conditions and potential illnesses.
Raise Your Chicks
Once you have your chicks, you can get started. Baby chicks need special care—the temperature must constantly be kept warm with heaters, just as if the mother hen was there to keep them warm. You'll also need to prevent early problems like pasting up and monitoring for illnesses such as coccidiosis.
Evaluate the health of your chicks, particularly look out for lice, mites, pasty butt (blocked vent), stuffy nostrils, runny eyes, or scaly legs. Most chicks that come from a reputable breeder should be disease-free upon arrival. However, if you mix chicks from flocks or different breeders, quarantine them separately for at least 7 to 30 days.
After seven weeks, your chick enters adolescence before reaching sexual maturity. Between 5 to 7 weeks, you should visually be able to tell males from females. Females are called pullets, and males are called cockerels. The combs and wattles of cockerels often develop earlier and are usually larger.
Some broiler farms also breed broilers too. This process is long and laborious. Usually, broiler breeder farms are operated by broiler hatching egg farmers to raise female (hens) and male (roosters) birds to breed broiler chicks. These hens and roosters mate to produce fertilized eggs, then sold to broiler hatcheries for incubation. Farmers keep separate barns called pullet barns, where the chicks are raised until they are transferred to the breeding barns. Males and females are raised separately because of their different growth rates and nutritional requirements. Once sexually mature, the two mix in a breeding barn.
Hens begin laying eggs at approximately 26 weeks of age. After 10 to 12 weeks, one hen will lay between 60 and 72 eggs. Broiler breeder farms have automated egg gathering systems where the eggs gently roll from the nest box onto a conveyor belt to an egg gathering station. Broiler hatching eggs are collected and sent to a hatchery. At a hatchery, eggs are placed in incubators. They are kept warm and automatically turned gently at regular intervals until they hatch around the 21-day mark, are vaccinated, and shipped to broiler farms.
Process the Birds
Depending on the laws, your markets, and your comfort level, you may decide to slaughter and process the chickens on the farm. While the slaughterhouse is far more manageable, it's also costly and adds a lot to the cost of each bird.
There are also mobile slaughterhouses in some areas. A trailer or "mobile poultry processing unit" comes to your farm and processes the birds on-farm for you. Some of these have a minimum number of birds, so be sure to consider that when making your business plan.
Sell the Chickens
Your birds are processed, packaged, and in the freezer—so now it's time to put that marketing plan into action and sell them. Whether you're bringing them to the farmer's market, selling to restaurants, or going direct to consumers, you'll need to refer back to your business plan to sell the chickens you've so carefully raised.
What's consistent about broilers is that poultry remains in high demand and value rises year after year. If you're in the broiler chicken business, then you need to be flexible. If a farmer realizes that selling directly to consumers is more profitable than farmer’s markets, then adapt your selling strategy. Do not remain rigid and stick to a business plan that doesn’t work that season. What works one year may not work the next.
Reassess and Reevaluate
Like any business, you should regularly reassess and reevaluate to see if things are still working. Did your marketing plan work, or does it need to be retooled? Do you want to raise more or fewer birds next time? Did on-farm processing work for you, or will you hire out that job next time?
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