Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.
Getting the Chicks
Whether you are getting into chickens for the first time or just getting into the meat side of the business you'll need to figure out where to get your chicks. Many people start out with a laying flock, buying sexed pullets, and then only later decide that maybe the cheaper "straight run" option would allow for some meat birds on the side. It's a good option for some. Chickens normally hatch out at about a 50-50% ratio meaning straight runs will normally give you half male and half female chicks. Sometimes you'll get lucky with extra pullets, or be unlucky and get a whole ton of roosters. If they're unsexed from the get-go this will always be a gamble. Getting the chicks can be a process, most people these days opt to buy them online at large hatcheries and have them sent to their local post office. Others choose to buy them from their local feed store and still others will decide to buy them locally or hatch them out themselves from eggs they've already produced with a currant flock. Hatcheries have the added bonus of allowing for the possibility of inoculations, while buying local gives the option of going through a hopefully reputable breeder who may have a closed flock (and therefore a much smaller chance of disease to begin with.) Raising chicks for meat is the same as raising chicks for laying hens. The only difference is that you won't be putting them on layer pellets - layer pellets are made with extra calcium so the hens can make eggs. Excess calcium will do more harm than good in roosters (giving their kidneys a run for their money) and keeping them on grower feed until slaughter is probably better for everyone.
Choosing a Breed - Cornish Rocks vs Heritage Breeds
Not all chickens are made the same so some of them make for fairly terrible options when it comes to meat. For instance bantams are the smaller breeds of chickens and will produce a lot less meat so they're usually avoided for this purpose. Meanwhile the Cornish Crosses (sometimes called CornRocks) are the super stars of the meat world. They are what makes up nearly 100% of the chicken meat industry in the US because of two reasons. For one they produce an ungodly amount of meat, particularly breast meat, and secondly they grow at an equally ungodly rate which makes their feed conversion ratio really quite staggeringly small. These are usually slaughtered at eight weeks of age and if you get attached to them you can't keep them much longer than this as they will eat themselves into oblivion pretty soon after dying of heart attacks and suffering broken legs from their own ghastly weight gain. Another reason some people do not like Cornish Crosses is because they are not self sustaining. In other words you cannot breed more in your back yard, they will not live long enough (unless you starve them - quite literally.) This means every time you want to raise more meat you will have to buy more chicks from the hatchery.
Other breeds of chickens can be used for meat. In fact in response to the criticism about Cornish Crosses hatcheries have produced several breeds like the Freedom Ranger who are supposed to produce very decent carcasses (not quite as much!) while still looking and acting like a chicken. Yet another option is heritage breeds, ones who have been around forever and were probably cooked by your great grand parents. Some of these breeds have garnered a reputation for their meat like Cornish, White Plymouth Rocks, Dorkings, LaFleche, LaBresse, and even the Jersey Giant. Some of these breeds are known for their breast meat, others for their dark meat, others for their free ranging abilities, others for their tenderness or growth rate. Sometimes they're even crossed to make faster growing birds.
Finally, and this is the option most people take, there are the "dual purpose" breeds. All the above breeds (save for the Cornish Crosses) can be used to lay eggs as well but some breeds are better at doing both - that is providing a fairly decent carcass and good egg layers. Popular dual purpose breeds might be Barred Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Australorps, Buff Orpingtons, Brahmas, Cochins, Wyandottes, and a number of others. Most dual purpose breeds lay brown eggs. These breeds are favored for keeping the hens for laying and eating the roosters. It's been a long held tradition on many homesteading farms. Let it however be noted that most of these breeds produce a pretty small amount of breast meat. So if that's what you're looking for you may need to chose a specifically meat breed.
A final thing that some people consider is how the skin and meat will look. it's not a coincidence many meat breeds are all white - this allows them to have yellow skin which most find usually more appealing than some other breeds who will have black spots where the feathers were plucked. Some Asian breeds of chicken, like the Silkie, can shock people with their meat which is blue-black in color. This includes their skin, meat, and bones, and it is why they are sometimes considered a delicacy. Many Westerners however find this too much to stomach.
How to Spend Less Money on Feed
As we explained earlier Cornish Rocks only take eight weeks to raise to slaughtering weights. This is just not the case with other breeds. Most of the dual purpose and heritage varieties will take 4-6 months to raise to slaughtering weight. That means you will be feeding them a lot more and producing a lot less meat but don't despair! There is an alternative here. For many years the best way to raise these birds has been "pastured" or "free ranged." This means they will be eating more bugs and grass and less grains. You will however need to raise them from the start on these food items so they are used to it by the time you send them out to fatten up. You don't want them only eating grain because that's what they're used to!
Now I know what you're saying. Chickens tend to turn their runs and pastures into dirt mounds within a few weeks even if they do have grass and there is quite a bit of truth to this. It's true mostly of chickens confined to runs. When there are too many chickens on the ground they will trample and eat the grass fast. Even when allowed to free range some chickens prefer to stick closer to the coop and wear down the ground there while not exploring greener areas. This takes a lot of trial and error to see which breeds and individuals will go further. Otherwise a rotational pasture is often the most reliable solution. This is when the chickens are let out into new fresh pasture anywhere from every day to every week. Sometimes people use mobile chicken tractors to accomplish this, other times you can build one coop that sits in between 4-6 pastures that you can open up or close depending upon how much time each pasture needs to recover its plants.
So how much space does a chicken need? Conventional wisdom may say 2 square feet in the coop and four square feet outside for each individual bird. This may be true of factory raised birds but I can guarantee free range birds will develop problems plucking each other and will eat the ground bald in less than a week if given this little space. According to the French, who pride themselves on their free ranged meat birds, they say no less than 27 square feet per bird will do.
When raising roosters there are a few other considerations you must make that just won't be a problem if you've only had hens in the past. For one they are very noisy and if you think one rooster is noisy try having a whole flock of them trying to out compete each other all day! If you live close to your neighbors this might not be a great idea. Also you have to give consideration to your hens. Chickens normally hatch at a 50% male to female ratio and this many roosters is just not needed in a flock dynamic. Besides trying to out compete each other crowing these extra males can cause havoc to the hens trying to breed them. That's just too much attention for those poor ladies! This also encourages "rapist roosters" - that is roosters who skip the whole song and dance and go straight for what they want with force. Your hens deserve better than this! Roosters should serve as a sentry and alarm call when there are predators and threats, they should do a courtship dance to ask permission from a hen before mounting her, and they should relinquish all treats and goodies to their girls. Anything less than this should be eaten!
So what can you do to avoid this gang mentality? The best answer is to build a separate bachelor area to keep your boys away from the hens when puberty hits. This will keep your hens safe and they should learn some manners on their own.
Processing a Rooster
There are lots of different methods for processing roosters and lots of ways to dispatch them. I suggest watching a whole lot of videos and experimenting to find what works for you. The two most common methods for slaughtering a chicken is slitting their throat and letting them bleed out (sometimes using a 'killing cone' to contain them, other people just hang them up by the feet.) Personally I think that takes too long so I opt for the old fashioned stump and a hatchet method, using two nails in the stump to hold the chicken's head as I give it a hard whack. This method requires you not to have any hesitation to go smoothly. No matter the method chickens will thrash about even after death - some for as long as 60 seconds! (Although 15-20 is probably more common.) This means even without a head they can literally get up and run away still. This is probably the most disturbing part of the process for a lot of people so I think it's only fair you're warned now.
Since heritage roosters have less meat on them then the Cornish Crosses you see in the market you may decide on different methods of processing for different ages. If your extra roosters are of a laying breed or they are on the younger side you may decide to forgo plucking and instead just skin them (sometimes called de-jacketing) and take parts - that is their drumsticks, wings if they have any that are worth it, and whatever breast meat they have. This method is often quicker to the backyard chicken owner and you will not be left with feathers everywhere! Plucking should be reserved for larger carcasses you want to roast whole with the skin or if you want to use the bones for soup stock.
WARNING: Contains graphic images of slaughter and processing
Cooking a Heritage Rooster
A heritage rooster will be older than a market bird at slaughter so it will have tougher meat and likely more dark meat than white. Most breeds also will not have much breast meat to speak of and in the end you'll find yourself with a dish that doesn't look familiar and you have no idea how to prepare! Few people appreciate a chicken dinner that is the texture of boot leather so it helps to know how to prepare it.
First let's get to know our terminology.
- Cornish Game Hen - Traditionally a female Cornish breed pullet slaughtered at 5 weeks of age and cooked as a whole carcass. Now-a-days these are more often Cornish Crosses, of either gender, but the age and cooking method remains the same.
- Broiler - A bird under 4 months old (usually a Corish Cross)
- Fryer - A bird 4-6 months in age, usually heritage.
- Roaster - A whole carcass that was 6-12 months at slaughter
- Stewing Fowl - A bird who is over a year old at slaughter. These are most often spent hens and the meat is so tough it is generally reserved for making soup stock and stew meat with.
No matter if you have parts or a whole carcass you are going to want to use brine. Soaking chicken meat in brine is how you can get tender meat from a rooster or older fowl. It is a very important part of the process unless you prefer very chewy meat (as some people do.) Remember these chickens were not raised in tiny spaces and fattened up without exercise like grocery meat - they were out running around, working those muscles, which will make them tough!
Don't worry, brine is super easy, it just takes a little planning. Some people like to add spices to their brine to make a sort of marinade. You can find these recipes pretty readily but for now we'll stick to the old tried and true base recipe. It consists of is a gallon of ordinary water and a half a cup of Kosher salt. Make sure all your meat is completely covered by the solution and let sit for 12-48 hours in your fridge. The amount of hours will depend on how tender you want it and how old the bird was. Some people prefer to pressure cook their meat instead of using brine - but this method will still take 8-12 hours.
After being set in brine or thrown into a crock pot this chicken can be marinated and cooked as you would normally do market chicken.
Breeding for Sustainability
If you've decided this process works well for you and you want to raise another generation of meat birds you should keep back your fastest growing and/or largest roosters to breed for the next generation as these are the characteristics you want to pass on. Although many roosters can go on for many years it's probably advisable to switch out your breeding roosters with the cream of the crop at least once every two years if not sooner. This ensures your meat birds will continue to get larger by the generation and that eggs will remain fertile. Also many homesteaders prefer to cross breeds for vigor and to add positive attributes. This results in a more varied gene pool and birds who are usually not consistent in looks but who over time could evolve through the generations to be your ideal meat bird. For instance if you have very large birds who do not have a good amount of breast meat you may opt to cross them with a breed that does and continue crossing them each generation to get the desired effect. You will find many meat breeds are white or at least uniform in color. This is partly due to the fact people have a harder time getting attached to animals that they cannot tell apart. It's a psychological trick to keep the slaughtering process easy. This will likely not be possible with crosses who will all grow to look different. Please don't underestimate how easy it is to get attached to a rooster! They may be here for meat but they are full of personality, often times more so than the hens, which is probably the biggest reason some people opt to only do this once!
More from this Author:
Catching Marbles - A New England based travel blog
Tales from the Birdello - For all homesteading and farming matters
Deranged Thoughts from a Cluttered Mind - For funny personal anecdotes
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on August 07, 2015:
Great hub Theopanes. So very useful and informative on raising roosters for meats. Voted up!
FlourishAnyway from USA on July 26, 2015:
This was a very interesting hub. I'd have the whole flock named and trained to do tricks and would have to get a bigger plot of land to spread out more. Wow, I am not a farmer, but my brother is.