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From Field to Feeder

Meat Chickens

Healthy feed leads to healthy chickens. Although, the comparatively low protein levels result in slightly slower growth rates compared to conventional flocks, this is compensated by the reduction in leg problems and chick mortality. The meat is tasty with a golden yellow fat.

Choosing the breed

Raising chickens for meat can be done in a number of ways. On the small scale, homestead flocks of dual-purpose heritage breeds (e.g. Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Australorps) can provide both meat and eggs. These breeds produce flavourful meat, but compared to special meat breeds, the chickens grow slowly. At maturity, they are smaller than other meat chickens and don’t develop the high percentage of white meat that many customers expect. However, these breeds forage well. If allowed to range free or in runs, they will supplement their diet with vegetation and insects. Also, the hens can be raised for egg production.

Often, the most economical way to raise meat birds is to use the special meat breeds, known as Meat Kings or White Cornish Crosses. These breeds are commonly used for meat production because they gain weight faster than other breeds; they are often marketed as broilers at 8-10 weeks of age. The meat birds can be kept longer and sold as roasters when they are 3-5 months old. Another option is to raise capons (castrated males) that can be marketed as light roasters at 3 months of age, or as ten-pound roasters at 6-7 months of age.

Growth rates

Rates of feed consumption and growth are affected by many factors, such as the breed, the management system, and even the weather. For example, free-ranging Rhode Island Reds will likely eat far less and gain weight more slowly than a confined flock of White Cornish Crosses. Even with the same breed and management system, the rates of feed consumption and weight gain will vary. In uninsulated barns, cool weather will cause birds to eat more and grow slowly, whereas excessive heat will make them sluggish, reducing their appetite and growth rates. With free-ranging birds, their growth rates will also depend on the amount of available forage.

Joel Salatin, author of Pastured Poultry Profits, raises Cornish Cross meat birds in portable chicken houses called chicken tractors. The broilers are slaughtered at 8 weeks, with an average carcass weight of 1.8 kg (4 lb.) with a live weight of 2.4 kg (5.3 lb.).

Establishing a feeding plan

The feeding schedule for broilers is quite flexible. Although some producers feed chicken grower from hatch to slaughter, most use a two- or three-stage feeding program, changing the feed as chicks mature. Young chicks grow rapidly and need high levels of protein. As they mature, the rate of growth slows down and their protein needs are lower. Consequently, the feed program involves a reduction in protein levels from chicken starter to chicken grower and then to chicken finisher. Providing additional kelp meal free choice will help to reduce leg problems. Grit is necessary if the birds are not ranging on soil.

Feeding program for meat chickens

The following table provides an estimate of peak rates of feed consumption and weight gain. The data were obtained from White Cornish Crosses under conventional management (without additional forage).

Age (weeks)

Type of feed

Feed consumption (weekly per bird)

Live body weight

 

 

kg

lb.

kg

lb.

1

Chicken starter

0.13

0.29

0.15

0.33

2

Chicken starter

0.28

0.62

0.36

0.79

3

 Chicken starter

0.47

1.02

0.65

1.43

4

Chicken grower

0.67

1.48

1.03

2.26

5

Chicken grower

0.85

1.87

1.46

3.21

6

Chicken grower

1.07

2.36

1.91

4.21

7

Chicken finisher

1.18

2.60

2.36

5.20

8

Chicken finisher

1.30

2.86

2.79

6.14

9

Chicken finisher

1.41

3.11

3.20

7.03

Total

 

7.36

16.20

 

 

Based on data from Nutrient Requirements of Poultry. 9th Ed. USA National Academy of Sciences. 1994. Note that free-ranging organically fed birds will have both lower rates of feed consumption and slower rates of growth

When is finisher feed needed?

Compared to grower and starter feeds, finisher feed is lower in protein and higher in energy. It can be used to increase the fat content of the meat. If you like the taste of fat and you like the way fat keeps the meat moist during roasting, use finisher feed from seven weeks to maturity. If you want a leaner bird, just keep the chicks on grower feed from three weeks of age until slaughter.

 

Copyright © 2003 by Homestead Organics Ltd

All rights reserved. Printed in Canada. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.