Has anyone got any experience with growing free range meat chickens? Do they need to stay inside with heat for 5 weeks, or can they go out earlier? Do you limit their meat bird crumbles so they also forage? Thanks
When a farmer has free-range chickens but is not raising them commercially, the mother hen takes the chickens out of the nest very soon after hatching. I presume that your chicks do not have a mother, so you will have to teach them where their coop is by keeping them in and feeding them in it for a few days. In the longer term they will need to be regularly fed in the coop, and have their wings (one side only) trimmed. If you don't do this they will roost in trees so you will only be able to catch them with a gun.
I've just put mine out in a coop which catches the sun and is sheltered. They are 4-5 weeks, not all fully feathered but there are 16 of them so if they can't snuggle together for warmth then there is something wrong with them. I will keep them in the coop for some time however as there are hawks around here in quite big numbers and they would be easy picking for a hawk. They won't be allowed to forage until they are considerably bigger.
Long wet grass would be an issue for 5 week old chicks and they'd quickly chill. I have been turning off the heat pad for about a week now during the day, so tonight will be the first time without it at all.
Yes meat bird chicks need heat just like any chicks of the same age, but as they feather up they can range further away from the heat source, as long as there is somewhere they can go back to, especially at night.
You can start weaning them off day time heat from 3 or 4 weeks old and if they have access to outside after this, provided it is a dry warmish day they will be fine. Five to 6 weeks, depending on night time temperatures they can be weaned off heat. Ideally their environmental temperature needs to be at least 15 to 20C so that they do not use up too much feed just keeping warm!
As regards feed- remember that meat bird crumbs do not have medication for coccidiosis, so after 4 weeks you should watch out for cocci-which is a parasite which is everywhere and they tend to pick up in warm, moist patches e.g. around drinkers. Make sure you have treatment on hand-like Coxiprol, as it can strike very quickly.
If they are commercial meat chicks and you want them to forage and be more mobile it is a good idea to cut down the amount you feed each day- or they will pig out and sit around in between. I'm just calculating a feeding programme for feeding meat chicks at the moment for an article in a certain magazine!
To slow down their growth it is an idea to feed Chick Starter, then Grower and then Meat crumbs just for the last few weeks but it depends what weight you want to grow to, how much you spend on feed and what age you plan to process them. As yours seem to be about 5 weeks old now it is probably not suitable to change them now though!
Our experience with meat chicks was horrifying, bought day old Ross cobb chicks and kept them under heat lamps as prescribed but losses were about third from them standing on each other etc. Then had to deal with the weight gain that left some unable to walk. We tried managing but struggled and ended up with some good size birds for the table but decided is not for us. Moved to slower growing old style meat n egg birds less fuss, less loss and good flavour and can be raised by mums not us!
Farmersden, it sounds like you had a bad run! We had the occasional leg issue over several batches of Cobbs, and one instance of them piling up on a wet night and losing the one that ended up in the damp. However, I have never raised them inside, always under hens. It seems easier to me to have put them under a broody than have to worry about heating etc. I always waited till summer though as they grow too big to fit under the hen very quickly so it needs to be warm enough that snuggling into her feathers is warm enough after a couple of weeks. The mums do a good job of keeping them out of trouble, and puddles etc,. as they seem to have lost some survival smarts in their development!
Sounds like your chicks were too cold Farmersden if they piled on top of one another and suffocated. When rearing any chicks without a mother hen you have to be aware of where they might get stuck, get drowned, get too hot, get too cold and be one step ahead!
With regards feeding they are bred to eat and grow, so for the home grower to slow them down you need to feed them differently to just giving Meat bird or game bird crumbs ad lib from day one.
My long term/full time poultry job was to rear the parents-to-be of those fat little meat chickens and they had the potential to grow even more quickly-so to get them to breeding age and beyond was an art!
Lameness can be a problem with heavy birds whose weight gains faster than the cartiledge in their legs can harden to bone. Less feed and more excercise is the key. Don't have a brooder lamp or lights on 24 hours at the start. They need a dark period to be able to digest their food and rest-and then wake up and walk around and eat. Just snacking by the feeder with the lights on 24/7 does not do them any favours!
Rearing them under a hen, as others have said, can be the simplest way to rear meat chicks-and do not overfeed!
By the way-no such thing as Ross Cobb! They are two separate breeding companies that have their own strain of meat chicks, both sold in NZ-but by opposition companies. They are slightly different in some ways-but not to look at!
Here are their on line handbooks!
If anyone wants some tips on growing meat chicks, plus their target weight for age and feed consumption I suggest you read these- but remember they are written for large scale intensive growing conditions, however there are plenty of good points which can be applied to the lifestyle meat chicken rearer.
We have raised a few lots now, and the current batch is almost 8 weeks and we'll commence processing them tomorrow. We have 31 this time and have had no losses.
They are inside for the first 3-4 weeks under ceramic heat lambs in an ever increasing sized area. We observe their actions to guide us as to how they’re feeling. If bunching, they’re too cold, if spread out, too hot etc. we have the lamps at one end and food and water the other end. Seems to work well for us.
From a month, they get outside in a sheltered area during warm sunny days. By 6-7 weeks they often get to stay outside all the time, but we will bring them in if the weather closes in cold and wet.
We get them trained on a grandpa's feeder fairly early on so that we can use that once they go outside... the first time we didn’t and the sparrows gorged on our expensive feed.
Excellent report John M. Have you done costings on feed used etc? I would love to get some first hand data, and the weights when you process them too. Could you message me with details?
I'm writing an article and have some theoretical figures but would love some actuals. I can give you a prompt list as to what I'm looking for if needed.
LongRidge wrote: What do you do with 31 meat chickens that are ready to be killed, because you cannot sell them dead, and a buyer should keep them alive for 28 days before they a turned into meat?
I'm trying to include all the options in my article, including the use of home bred roosters, or getting someone elses roosters-for free!
You can contain the older roosters and feed them meat bird crumbles or a high protein and fat diet, and try to get them to gain weight. Roosters that have reached crowing age will always be dark meat and scrawny with little fat!
OK for soup and very slow cooking. You could always skin them rather than pluck and cut them up into portions, Thighs, and drumsticks and wings plus breast muscle such as it is- leaving you with the backbone and rib cage to boil for soup- or feed raw to the dogs!
I raised a batch of 30 Cobbs, and lost only 3. The downside is that it puts you off buying chickens from the supermarket as you realise that they are only about 4-6 weeks old with barely any feathers!
I let some go to 8 weeks and they were still tasty. Currently planning my next batch and will use a large wooden box with newspaper in the bottom to start with. Now is a good time to start as nights are warmer. I use and old waterbed heater as warmth is critical.
I never free ranged mine but kept them in a large run as they were not inclined to move about much anyway.
Once you have all the gear, it's relatively straightforward. We killed about 10 at a time and got them in the freezer smartly. A killing cone is great, shove their heads in and cut their throats.
The meat is superior to shop bought as they are not pumped up with water. I am not sure about the economics of the exercise, but we sold a few to cover costs, everyone liked them!
Thanks for your in put Tony, every little helps with putting together my article.
Those of you rearing chickens here is the commercial management guide. There may be some interesting statistics for you reagarding ideal brooding temperatures and expected weight for age.