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Extension > Food > Small Farms > Alternative and small-scale livestock systems > Poultry > The small flock for poultry meat

The small flock for poultry meat

Melvin L. Hamre

A well-planned and well-managed flock can be a good source of fresh poultry meat. Large scale commercial broiler production and merchandising techniques often result in market prices difficult to match with a backyard flock. Small flock owners should not plan to produce more birds than the family can use or market, either live or dressed, to friends and neighbors.

The most economical meat production is obtained from the commercial meat strains developed from breeds such as the Cornish, Plymouth Rock, and New Hampshire. These crosses have been bred for the most economical conversion of feed to poultry meat; they feather rapidly and mature early. Some breeds such as White or Barred Plymouth Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, and New Hampshires are used for farm flock meat production, but they generally don't grow as rapidly as the crosses and take more feed per pound of weight gained. Leghorn males do not make good meat birds and are unprofitable even if day-old chicks are sometimes obtained free.

The various classes of chicken meat birds are raised from the same commercial strains. Broilers or fryers are slaughtered at 7-9 weeks of age when they weigh 3-5 pounds and dress a 2 1/2 to 4 pound carcass. The same bird slaughtered at 5 weeks of age provides a Cornish game hen and can be grown out to 12 weeks or longer to make a delicious roaster. The males can be caponized at 3-4 weeks and marketed after 18 weeks as capons. Meat-type chicks are usually purchased on a straight-run (males and females mixed) basis.

Economic considerations

Most small flocks produce only enough meat for home consumption. If any birds are to be marketed, consider the prevailing market prices for the various classes of poultry meat birds and don't try to compete with retail sales at distressed market or special sale prices. Many rural customers prefer fryer-type chickens of the heavier weights rather than the lighter weight ranges common in many stores.

Calculate your production costs and compare to retail market prices. Figure your chick cost with a small allowance (a few extra chicks) for mortality. It will take about 5 pounds of feed to age 6 weeks and 8-9 pounds to 8 weeks for the commercial strains. Roasters and capons require more feed per pound of meat produced than fryers. Since feed efficiency is much poorer as the birds get heavier, for the most economical production don't keep birds beyond the desired weights.

Figure any equipment costs depreciated over a 10-year period and housing costs over a 20-year period if these expenses are incurred. Estimate your expenses for litter, heat for brooding, lights, and miscellany. Allow for any payments made for labor for caring for birds, cleaning out house, etc. Convert your figures to a per pound basis by dividing the total cost per bird by the expected market weight. The ready-to-cook weight will be 70-75 percent of the live bird weight.

Housing and equipment

Housing requirements for raising poultry meat birds can be quite minimal from late spring through fall. More substantial housing and more adequate heating equipment will be needed for winter flocks. Almost any small building that meets the floor space requirements for the size of flock desired can be used. A small number of chicks can even be brooded in a corner of a garage. Space requirements are even less if brooding and growing battery units are used. Most poultry meat birds are raised under total confinement, although some roaster and capon flocks are allowed access to limited amount of fenced range or yard area.

Figure 1. Suggested brooding area arrangement.

Brooding, feeding, and watering equipment can be purchased from local feed and farm supply outfits or from mail-order houses. Much can be home-built equipment. Sizes of feed hoppers should be changed as birds grow so they can easily eat without wasting feed. Hanging tube-type feeders, adjustable in height, can be used as the birds grow. It is desirable to place a platform under water fountains to avoid wet litter. Automatic waterers save labor even with small flocks.

The house and equipment should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before starting chicks. If chickens have been in the house previously, remove all litter and wash the house and equipment with water under pressure. Scrub and scrape all organic matter from building and equipment surfaces. After cleaning, disinfect building and equipment using an approved compound and following manufacturer's directions. Dry and air the building, then place 2-4 inches of wood shavings, straw or other litter material on the floor. Place a cardboard fence around the brooding area to confine the chicks to the heat source for the first week. Figure 1 shows a suggested arrangement of the brooding area.

Brooding methods

Electric brooders are available for brooding small numbers of chicks. Most of the larger brooder units are fired with either gas or oil. Variations of a simple light bulb brooder can be made from the plan shown in poultry fact sheet FS-1191.

When using a brooder, start the chicks at 90-95° F measured 2 inches off the floor under the edge of the hover. Reduce the temperature 5 degrees per week until supplemental heat is no longer needed. Watch the chicks as a guide to their comfort. If the chicks crowd together under the brooder, increase the heat. Lower the temperature if they tend to move away from the heat source. Allow 7 to 10 square inches of space under the brooder for each chick. Provide 1/2 square foot of brooder house space per chick. Start the brooder the day before the chicks arrive and adjust to proper operating temperature.

Infrared lamps provide a convenient heat source for rearing chicks. Use porcelain sockets approved for these lamps and suspend the lamps with a chain or wire (not the electric cord) so the lamp gets no closer than 15 inches to the litter. If the average brooder house temperature is 50° F, one 250-watt infrared lamp is generally sufficient for heating 80 chicks. One chick can be added to this estimate for every degree over 50° F; one chick should be subtracted for every degree below 50° F. The use of more than one lamp is recommended so chicks will not be without heat if a lamp burns out. Supply more heat by lowering the lamps to not less than 15 inches above the litter or use more or higher wattage lamps. To reduce heat turn off some lamps, use smaller lamps or raise the lamps to 24 inches above the litter. You are heating the chicks only and not the air so air temperature measurements can't be used as a guide to chick comfort when using infrared lamps.

Place feed on chick box lids or trays from cut down cardboard boxes for the first few days. Feed and water should be available to the chicks as soon as they arrive. Chicks need 1 lineal inch of feeding space for the first 2 weeks, 2 lineal inches for 2-6 weeks, and 3 lineal inches after 6 weeks. Feed waste is minimized by filling hoppers half full and adjusting feeder height or size to birds' size.

Provide a 1 gallon water fountain for 50 chicks the first 2 weeks. Increase the number of size of waterers from 2-10 weeks to provide 40 inches of watering space per 100 birds or 1 gallon capacity for 15 chicks. Provide 1 gallon capacity per 10 birds for older birds if using fountains or 1 inch of trough space.

Management recommendations

Space

Floor space per bird should be increased to 1 square foot from 6-10 weeks. From 10 weeks on they will need additional space – at least 2 to 3 square feet if they do not have access to a yard or range. Butchering some of the birds at various ages increases floor space for remaining birds.

Maintain litter in good condition, removing wet spots and caked litter as necessary to keep the floor dry and birds comfortable. Some producers reuse litter for 2-3 broods of broilers if no disease or parasite problems have been encountered.

Feeding

For the small poultry flock a complete feed is most convenient. Farms that have mixing facilities for other live stock operations can use local grains mixed with the appropriate concentrate following the directions of the supplier. A 22-24 percent protein starter mash is usually fed to poultry meat birds for the first 4 weeks. Many feeding programs then switch to a 20 percent protein finisher feed until broiler market time. Meat birds grown on chick starter and developer feeds with lower protein and energy content will not gain as rapidly as those on a broiler feeding program. A small amount of grit can be fed once or twice a week.

Roasters and capons fed on high energy broiler feeding programs are more prone to leg problems and breast blister development. Birds to be raised to heavier weights can be fed a developer feed with lower protein and energy content following the broiler starter until 2 to 3 weeks before processing. This developer minimizes early fat deposition and provides more adequate skeletal and muscle development during the growing period. A high energy finisher feed is then fed for the final 2 to 3 weeks.

Disease

Breast blisters result from an irritation of the tissue in the keel bone area. Maintaining good litter condition, preventing overcrowding, using equipment without sharp edges, and feeding programs that develop good body structure before heavy weights are reached are all factors that can help reduce incidence of breast blisters.

Cannibalism and feather picking are other problems that may develop with poultry meat birds. Debeaking at the hatchery will eliminate these problems. Various factors such as crowding, nutrient deficiencies, inadequate ventilation, too little drinking and eating space, too much light, idleness, and the appearance of blood on an injured bird contribute to picking. Good management can frequently ward off cannibalism. In small flocks a pick-paste remedy can be used with much success if the problem is not out of hand.

Isolation from other birds is a first means of preventing disease. Restrict unnecessary traffic of people and pets to the poultry flock. If different ages of chickens are present, physically separate the flocks as much as possible and care for the younger birds first. It is easier to control diseases and parasites if birds are kept confined. Obtain chicks that are from pullorum-typhoid clean stock. Coccidiosis can usually be prevented by good sanitation and a low level coccidiostat drug in the feed. Rotate range areas so that birds are not on the same ground year after year. Adjust ventilation to avoid moisture and ammonia build-up in the house. Clean waterers daily and periodically wash them with a sanitizing solution. A local veterinarian, county extension agent, or commercial field serviceman can assist with flock health and other management problems or direct you to competent help.

Proper processing can provide good quality poultry meat that can be eaten immediately or placed in frozen storage with adequate packaging for later consumption. See publication FO-0701 for home processing procedures.



WW-01188 Reviewed 2008

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