image of chicken tractor

Best time of year to raise broiler chickens for meat

image of chicken tractor

It’s time to start planning for the spring garden, place your chick order(s) and dream about summer days! While it may seem common sense to some, raising your own meat chickens actually has a prime time to raise chickens to have a successful batch of meat in your freezer! Most people who are interested in raising their own birds are wanting to raise them as free range, which means the season is rather short, and the conditions/weather matter a lot to a successful bath of meat chickens!  

Not ready to raise your own birds, yet? Shop our farm!

If you are brand new to chicken raising, be sure to read our Essential Guide to raising chickens! The guide covers brooding, using a heat lamp, choosing a breed, and how to care for baby chicks. After you feel comfortable with those steps, you are ready to order yourself some meat birds and get your chicken tractor ready for the meat bird season! 

If you haven’t realized it yet, we aren’t talking about an egg laying chicken, like Rhode island reds, New Hampshire red or any other egg production chicken. All of those are great birds if you are looking for a dual purpose chicken. However, in this post, we are talking about the cornish cross meat chicken. We’ve trailed many meat chicken breeds or dual purpose breeds and the cornish cross is the best source of delicious, hardy meat in a short period of time. Cornish Crosses are literally a cross between a White Cornish hen and a While Plymouth Rock male.

Old laying hens have a place in the kitchen, too– but if you are wanting a roaster chicken, the cornish cross broiler is going to put 6 pounds of meat on your table at only 8 weeks of age. While this fast growth may seem surprising or even unhealthy, it’s totally achievable due to the cross breeding to produce cornish cross chickens in a short period of time. 

To cut things short, University of Nebraska’s broiler presentation suggests raising meat birds in September. However, there are a few things to keep in mind, as this presentation is specific to Nebraska’s temperature and climate. 

So let’s lay out some important factors of raising meat birds for your own food that are affected by the time of year: 

The life cycle of a cornish cross chicken

Unlike an egg layer, which takes 22 weeks to even give you an egg, the cornish cross will go from being a cute little newly hatched chick the first week to an ugly full grown and ready to process chicken in just 8 weeks. The two birds in this photo are literally three weeks apart. In our operation, we raise the birds “slowly” and they still grow this quickly. While some call them a “GMO-chicken” this is not the case, but selective breeding has made for an efficient animal. 

A meat bird has one purpose, to grow. If left to their own will, they will stand in front of the feeder all day long and do nothing but eat. A chicken tractor is helpful but it very well could be the only exercise a meat bird gets.  

In our personal rotation of raising batches of pastured meat birds, the birds spend the first three weeks in the brooder with a heat source. Each week, the heat source temperature is lowered until the temperature matches the outside temperature. By the end of the third week, the birds are fully feathered and ready to move into the chicken tractor. The rest of the birds life is spent outside within the protected range of the chicken tractor, where they are free to forage and moved daily to promote exercise, soil fertility, and keep the birds clean and sanitary. By the end of week eight, they are hefty birds and ready for processing as whole chickens or into your favorite cuts of chicken.

Space Requirements by weeks of age

Meat birds do not roost like a egg layer, but they do need space in order to grow and flourish. Below is an ideal amount of square feet per bird by age. Keep in mind meat birds do not move very much, and providing too much space in the brooder can cause the area to not be heated adequately. While this is the recommended space per bird, each bird needs access to feed and water on a nearly full-time basis. 

0-4 weeks: .5 square feet per bird

4-8 weeks: 1 square foot per bird*

* provide show birds up to 2 feet to improve feather quality

Especially since birds are typically raised in a chicken tractor, they are laying on fresh grass daily. 

Efficiency of a cornish cross meat bird

Broliers are extremely good at converting feed to muscle/meat. While beef have a feed to gain ratio of 8 to 1, meat birds are 2 to 1! This means you get a large bang for your buck on your feed bill for the number of pounds that will go into your freezer. In our experience, it takes about 15 pounds of feed for a 6.5 pound processed bird, giving a total cost of roughly $6 if feed costs were the only expense! 

Temps not too hot, Not too cold, but just right!

We want all of our animals to be in their prime growth period when the temperatures are just right. We don’t want them under stress from hot or cold weather. This will stunt their eating habits and prohibit them from growing well. We are also looking for a period of time that there is good material to forage and bugs to eat. Keep in mind that while cornish cross birds are not the ideal foragers, but they will forage! 

Tips for quickly getting from day-old chicks to table:

1. Meat Chickens do not tolerate cold or inconsistent weather. They will not grow well, and will easily catch pneumonia if the weather varies a lot. 

 2. The longer the daytime hours, the more the birds will eat. This will yield you a faster rate of gain for your chickens. 

3. What you feed your birds matters. Never feed a meat chicken less than 18% protein content as it will cause health problems and stunt their growth. We provide 20% the entire time.  

4. Meet their basic needs by providing green grass for bedding and forage, clean water in their water container and fresh feed from your local feed store and you’ll be well on the way to a chicken that’s butchering size in 8-9 weeks! 

Things that sound ideal, but really aren’t:

  1. Mixing your own feed. There’s too much guess work when it comes to raising meat chickens to attempt to create your own feed rations. 
  2. feeding non-soy, non-corn mix. We’d love to hear others feedback on this, and in the new year we plan to trail one more feed option, but the minerals and nutrients required for chickens are just not available from other organic feed options. 
  3. Red ranger meat chickens. In our experience, we’ve kept them on full feed until they are 22 weeks of age and we did not expect them to be fast-growing birds, but they laid eggs and only had 3.5 pound processed weight. Since they were older birds by this age, the meat was not as tender and delicious as the Cornish cross meat birds. 

Curious in learning about the butchering process? Contact us as we often offer classes on farm! Also, feel free to visit our post about where to have chickens processed if you don’t want to attempt processing at home.

Depending on when you are reading this post, we will likely have farm orders for our small farm. If you are looking to raise your own meat birds, feel free to contact us to tack onto our chick order. We order large quantities to ship to the post office, so the price is typically lower than the feed stores and you can avoid the stress of the post office early pick up!  

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