Whether you want to be more self-sufficient or you just want to eat healthier meat from a happier animal, raising chickens for meat is a great way to get started. One of the most popular varieties of chicken to raise for this purpose is the Cornish X (also known as Cornish Cross or CX), but there are other excellent choices if you don’t mind waiting longer to harvest your chickens.
Raising Heritage vs Hybrid Meat Chickens
What breed of chicken should you raise for meat? Answer these 3 questions to find out:
- Do you want a mild flavor or a strong chicken flavor?
- Do you want a softer meat or a firmer meat?
- White meat or dark?
If you chose the first option for 2 or more of the questions you should probably raise Cornish X or another broiler type. These birds have been bred for fast, feed efficient weight gain; have softer, mostly white meat; and have a mild flavor.
If you chose the second option for 2 or more than you should consider raising a heritage breed. These birds take longer to raise to a good size resulting in firmer meat with a strong chicken flavor. They have smaller breasts and larger drumsticks than broiler breeds.
Please be aware that a heritage bird does NOT come from a hatchery or a feed store. Those birds have been selected for egg production and are smaller than they should be. When sourcing heritage birds you’ll need to locate a breeder that has large birds bred towards meat production goals. Otherwise, you’ll be very disappointed when it’s time to butcher a bunch of scrawny.
You’ll want to brood your meaties much the same as any layer chickens. Keep the brooder temp around 95F for the first week and drop the temp by 5 degrees every week after. As usual, I recommend moving birds out of the brooder at 3 weeks as long as you can still provide a heat source for them in their new quarters.
If you’re raising Cornish X, you should only feed twice daily after the first week or so. Limiting feed will slow growth and reduce or eliminate most health problems. Any other breed can be fed free-choice if you so desire.
By 3 weeks your chicks should be ready to enjoy some time outside foraging for grass and bugs. Make sure they are safe from predators and can get to a heat source when needed. I also recommend tossing their feed out on the ground or somewhere where they will have to scratch around to find it.
Improperly raised, Cornish X can suffer from health problems due to their rapid growth. The 2 most common issues are leg failure and ascites.
Leg failure is caused by the chicken’s mass growing faster than the legs can support. This is easily prevented by limiting feed and encouraging exercise by tossing feed on the ground away from the coop.
Ascites is caused by a heart that isn’t able to pump effectively to the abdomen due to rapid growth. Symptoms include a bluish comb, panting (no matter the temperature), and a yellowish fluid in the abdomen when butchering. Again, ascites is prevented simply by limiting feed and encouraging exercise.
Cornish X are typically ready to butcher between 8 and 10 weeks. Other broilers are ready around 12 to 14 weeks.
Heritage breeds were traditionally raised to be ready to butcher at a certain age, depending on the breed. These ages were:
- Squab Broiler/Broiler – between 7 and 12 weeks; any heritage breed, but especially ideal for small, fast-growing breeds like Leghorns.
- Fryer – between 14 and 20 weeks; Plymouth Rocks, New Hampshire, Delaware, etc.
- Roaster – between 5 to 12 months; Brahma, Sussex, etc.
- Fowl/Stewing Fowl – anything older than 1 year; any heritage breed.
One of the reasons why it’s important to select heritage stock from a breeder and not a hatchery is so that they will be at the peak of their growth curve at the ideal time and at the proper weight. If you get your stock from a hatchery than you’ll be looking at 6+ months for your Barred Rocks (or what have you) to reach their peak growth for butchering and they will still be smaller than they should be!