It’s finally spring here in Maine, and many homesteaders are purchasing their chickens for the season. Some homesteaders will be purchasing egg layers, but some homesteaders will be purchasing chickens for meat as well. If you’ve been considering meat birds for your homestead, I hope the following post will help you make a good decision and help you weigh the pros and cons of raising your own chickens for meat.
How We Decided to Raise Meat Birds
I’m a huge animal lover, but I am not a vegetarian. When we got our first chickens as layers, I fell madly in love with them. They are sweet, funny, interesting, and so smart. They are truly magnificent animals. I soon began to realize some big internal struggles I was having: First, how could I eat chicken at all, and second, if I was going to eat chicken, how I could I eat chickens that were being treated very poorly during their lives?
Since I have tried and failed too many times to become a vegetarian, for me the issue became this: If was going to eat chicken, I wanted to make sure I was eating chickens that were treated well and given a respectful death.
Let me tell you. Buying organic, humanely raised chicken is quite expensive, and since my husband and I both wanted to be able to eat good quality meat that was raised respectfully, we decided to raise our own chickens for meat. You can read more about our family’s decision to do this and what it feels like for our family to process our own chickens here.
If you think this is something you want for you or your family, read on.
Choosing the Right Meat Bird
When it comes time to choose what breed of chicken to get for a meat bird, you have three basic choices:
- Cornish Crosses. These are the big white chickens, also referred to as broilers. They grow very quickly and can be ready to process in as little as 7 to 8 weeks. We decided not to go with these because they are sometimes so big they can’t even walk. We just decided that we wanted chickens who could live a normal chicken life while they’re here. Plus, because they can’t walk, they can’t free range for bugs very well, which impacts the taste. We prefer the taste of chickens who can eat the wild stuff too.
- Freedom Rangers. These are big chickens who look pretty much like regular chickens, only kind of on steroids. They grow more quickly than regular breeds but will not be ready to process for about 15 weeks. We have raised this breed for our meat for three years. They can free range and are also really sweet; of course, that’s kind of problematic when it’s time for that “one bad day.” Still, they get big and taste wonderful. I honestly had forgotten that chicken has a real flavor until I ate one of ours. This chicken tastes like frog legs. The chicken I get in the store tastes like nothing. On the downside, it’s apparently some kind of trade secret what these chickens are crossed with to become Freedom Rangers, so you can’t breed them on your own. You never know what you’re going to get. Moreover, they are so sweet that you may want to keep some as layers. They are great layers, but they are not bred for long life. You may get lucky, or you may not. We kept two of our girls from last year’s meat bird group to be layers. One of ours, Mary Jane, is already exhibiting a few health problems that the rest of our flock is not.
- Dual-purpose breeds. You can also just choose to raise some of the larger traditional breeds, such as Rhode Island Reds or Wyandottes, though there are many farmers who can offer good advice about good breeds. I’ve found that everyone has a different favorite. But these dual-purpose birds are great because they are larger and can work for meat but also make great laying hens. It’s also nice that you can continue to breed your own, if you have a rooster and the space. You can keep the hens as layers and raise the roosters for meat. This is where our family hopes to go in the future with our meat-bird raising efforts, but there are some cons. The are not quite as big, and they will take longer to be big enough to process.
Of course, there are some basic things you should know, no matter what breed you choose, and you’ll want to do thorough research. As with all chickens, your meat birds need clean water every single day (and the water needs to be available 24-7), proper food, and good shelter. And, if you choose options 2 or 3, giving them a place to free range will make your chickens happy and will help you in terms of food saving costs. There are lots of bugs in Maine. I’m sure you know this.
You’ll also feed meat birds higher protein feed. There are feeds specially formulated for meat birds that you can buy at local feed stores. Also, many people recommend (and we practice this as well) keeping your meat birds on a 12 hours on and 12 hours off feeding schedule. They really, really like to eat. We do more of a 14 hours on and 10 hours off with our Freedom Rangers, but I can see the 12/12 thing being especially important with the Cornish Crosses.
You’ll also need to think about processing. We process our own (my husband does the heavy lifting, and I assist), but this is not for everyone. You can find local people who will process your meat birds for you for a fee, of course. Feather plucking is no cake walk, and if you do it yourself, I highly recommend a contraption to help. We got an affordable one that attaches to a drill.
There’s so much to research, of course, but this should help you get your thinking going. If you’re going to eat chicken and you’ve been thinking about how you would like to know more about where your food comes from and would like to ensure the animals you eat are given a respectful life and death, then meat birds just may be the right thing for your homestead.