Fast growing commercial ‘broiler' type chickens are becoming more popular with the smallholder and poultry keeper, with more and more people buying chicks to rear at home, specifically for the table. In this article, we look at how we can raise these fast growing ‘meat' breeds in the ‘kindest' way before they are dispatched for the table.
We will assume that you are not a complete novice in rearing chickens but this sort of project is not for the feint hearted. We will focus more on the differences between raising fast growing broilers to the slower growing pure breeds we are used to rather than the basics of rearing.
Fast growing breeds of course put on weight (too) quickly. That is, you can expect to get a weight of around 2Kg in as little as 6 weeks in a commercial set-up. The big problem is these poor guys are bred to be inherently obese. Reaching this weight in six weeks is totally unnatural when it usually takes around 20 weeks for a normal pure breed to reach this weight. With such massive weight gain they are more prone to getting leg problems amongst other things, that is, unless a little bit of extra care and most importantly a little more t-i-m-e is taken in their rearing and feeding!
Commercially there is always an amount of daily culling taking place to remove dead or unhealthy birds... these poor things usually die from stress-induced heart attacks, and acceptable mortality rates are between 5 and 10 per cent in the commercial industry. By the end of the 6 weeks, each bird has less floor space than a piece of paper takes up and the wood shavings (that aren't changed by the way) are so full of ammonia that ‘hock burns' are common on their legs.
The aim of the game here is not to rear a commercial chicken under the same appalling intensive conditions, but to rear them at a slower pace with space to exercise outdoors on fresh grass and enough room to behave like real chickens. We do need to try and slow down the growth to a more natural level to prevent the problems associated with such rapid growth.
You should of course start off by cleaning and sterilising all housing and equipment before your chicks arrive. Hygiene is of course of paramount importance in order to remove the risk of disease. The chicks should be placed into a brooder on a bed of wood shavings. Feeders and water containers should be raised so they do not get faeces or wood shavings in them and sufficient heat lamps should be hung above the chicks. Remember the right height can be achieved by observing the chicks - if they are huddled under the lamp, they are too cold, if they are staying out of the lamps glare or hiding in the shadows behind feeders, they are too hot. Adequate ventilation must be given to them at all times.
Expect to pay about 50p each for day old chicks. The supplier we have come across is Simon Skinner at Poulet Anglais in Old Bolinbroke in Lincolnshire. Whilst he mainly supplies Hubbard's slow growing strains, JA757, 787, Coloryield and Mastergris, he also has some Ross chicks.
Whilst he supplies chicks by the thousands, he's actually really approachable and often can arrange for a driver to meet you somewhere locally when they are delivering birds. The best arrangement is usually for a few people to club together, otherwise he will soon get fed up of people phoning him up wanting to buy 3 or 4 chickens! His number is: 01790 763066 and his mobile is 07787 533325.
Start your chicks off with chick crumbs for 4 weeks then gradually change them over to growers pellets. Don't feed them too much too quickly though. Try to let the feeder run out for a short while between top-ups (which I would do twice per day). A good quality feed is essential and extra vitamins in their water is also a good idea to help them grow correctly. A weak solution of Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) should also be added (a rate of 0.5% is about the right dilution). This should help to keep them healthy. A week before they are culled, they should be changed over to finisher pellets.
The birds should be given as much space as you can give them to exercise throughout their growth. Adding small objects for them to hop onto also helps, as does hanging sweet corn / cabbages etc that they have to reach up. Basically, we want to keep them interested, moving and working a little in between meals.
Ross Cobbs (left and right) and Mastergris (middle) raised slowly on an allotment here have reached their intended weight without the health problems found in commercial production.
OK so this is the bit that none of us particularly like. Killing an animal is never pleasant, but it helps to know that it has had the best life possible, so rather than thinking about the way these birds have to die, think of the way they have actually lived! If you have looked after them and given them room to run around in a grassy field, scratching, strutting, pecking and picking up tasty morsels, along with their mixed corn treats every now and then, they have lived a good natural life and will be enjoyed.