As families are becoming more aware of the challenges and shortcomings of the commercial food industry, many are looking for a better way to feed their families. With the ability to ship frozen foods, there are options for families to purchase ethically sourced, organic meats, however, it can be cost-prohibitive for many families. Raising your own meat chickens is an excellent way to put quality meat in the freezer that you have raised yourself. Let’s look at the costs of raising chickens for meat to help you determine if it’s right for you.
Start-Up Costs for Housing Meat Chickens
If you have never raised backyard chickens before you will have some basic one-time costs for equipment to get you started. The number of chickens you plan to raise will largely impact your start-up costs. I’m going to break start-up costs into two categories: chicks and chickens. If you have raised chickens before likely you have everything you need on hand.
Minimal Start-Up Cost for Chicks
Day-old chicks require a bit more care when they first arrive. Like any creature, baby chicks, have different needs for shelter and housing components than adolescent or adult birds. Depending on your level of resourcefulness, you may be able to build some of these components yourself.
A brooder is simply a heated house for chicks. Your main goals will be to keep the chicks warm, and dry, and away from drafts and predators. The number of birds you are raising will guide your choices. Chicks need roughly 6 to 7 square inches of space per bird.
In the past, we always raised our chicks and poults in a cattle trough in the house for several weeks. However, meat chickens are a different breed! Our very first experience raising 32 meat chicks in a cattle trough was disastrous! Cornish cross broilers are extremely messy and smelly. After only one day inside they were evicted! At first, we tried keeping them in the two cattle troughs in the garage, but even that was not sufficient. We simply could not keep them clean in the space.
If you are only raising a few meat birds, a cattle trough may still be a good option, keep in mind the minimal space requirements of 6 to 7 square inches per bird. However, with the volume of birds we were raising, we had to think outside the box. That first batch of chicks moved into a puppy play yard that we had on hand. We used sheet metal scraps to provide cover and shelter from the wind. Philip is all about repurposing! The weather was already warm and we were able to shelter them appropriately without a lot of extras.
For bedding in the brooder we use wood shavings. We typically change the bedding between cleanings but some farms use a deep litter method where they just add additional shavings over the top.
A Brooder That Grows
The next year we raised Cornish cross meat chickens, rather than have a separate structure for the brooder, I partitioned off a portion of the chicken coop as a brooder. The coop itself already met most of the requirements, however, it was just too large and breezy for chicks. I used Step In Poly Posts to portion off a small section using chicken wire. I lined the wire and the chicken coop with tarps to keep the wind off of the chicks. Even if you are not experiencing cold weather, chicks will need additional shelter from the elements, they are more fragile until they are feathered out. As the chicks grew, I could make the brooder area larger, still keeping them sheltered from the wind. It took only a few weeks and they were released into the entire space.
Think outside the box. As long as you meet the basic needs of a dry, warm area free from drafts and protected from predators. A large tub, a puppy play yard, a large dog kennel, or a box made from scraps or pallets can all be used.
A Safe Heat Source
Before chicks feather out, they need a reliable, safe heat source. We use a heat lamp for this purpose. The lamp should be a minimum of 12″ from the bedding. It should be close enough that the chicks can be comfortable. The best way to determine the positioning of the light is to watch the chick’s comfort level. Chicks that are cold, will bunch together to keep warm. Chicks that are too hot, will get as far away from the light as possible.
Cornish cross broilers grow extremely fast and are sparsely feathered much of the time. Depending on the weather, I actually offer them a heat lamp at night for much longer than I would “regular” chickens. Depending on the number of birds, more than one heat lamp may be required.
Brooder Sized Feeders
Due to the size of the chicks and the size of the brooder, you will likely need chick-sized feeders and waterers. Cornish cross broilers will quickly outgrow these. If you plan to regularly raise chickens, quality equipment doesn’t go bad, but they will need to be replaced as the birds grow.
A 7-pound, 15 Bird chicken feeder is a good feeder for younger chicks. The number of feeders you need will be based on the number of birds you have. We only free-feed our birds for the first week, after that they are on a feeding regimen. That first feeding of the day will be in high demand. Typically we use two of the 15 bird feeders. Other than that first feeding in the morning, the birds won’t all be eating at once. If the birds are on top of each other, a simple bowl for that first feeding could be added.
Clean water is super important, Cornish cross broiler will go through a lot. For water, we use the 5-quart watering containers when the birds are small, however, they will quickly outgrow that. As long as the chicks can reach the water, the size of the watering vessel is not important. Since we raise so many birds, we have to use the 7-gallon and 5-gallon water containers.
Nipple waterers are a good option for a larger-scale operation. Nipple systems are usually tied to an unlimited water source, such as a water hose or cistern gravity tank. Typically you need one nipple waterer for up to 8 birds depending on the flow rate. Nipple watering systems are appropriate for chicks, however, they do need to be adjustable in height to accommodate growing birds.
Start-Up Costs for Chickens
If you are raising Cornish cross broilers, the chicks will quickly outgrow their brooder. Be prepared to house them in a larger chicken coop at just a few weeks of age. As with chicks, the number of birds you have will largely determine your housing options.
We have always raised our meat birds in a chicken coop due to our limited space in our suburban neighborhood. Our last batch of chickens had access to a yard as well, however, due to aerial predators, we had to put up bird netting to protect the birds. Once we get to the homestead full-time, we plan to build chicken tractors. A chicken tractor is a movable chicken coop. They are typically smaller in size, but the chicken tractor is moved at least daily, sometimes more often. This gives the birds access to a clean area with fresh grass with a minimal amount of work.
Space Requirements for Meat Chickens
In general meat, birds need 2 to 4 square feet per bird. Depending on the type of chicken coop you choose will determine if you can use the minimum space or if you need more.
In a chicken tractor, the space is movable, so the minimum amounts are sufficient. An 8’X8′ chicken tractor can house 32 chickens. A 10’X10′ chicken tractor can handle 50 birds. If you are keeping meat birds in a chicken coop, that is not movable, it’s best to choose the higher maximums or larger. A larger space is easier to keep clean. While it’s more space to clean, the birds can spread out.
You can free range broiler chickens if you have the means to protect them from predators. RuthAnn Zimmerman on Instagram has a nice setup with an electric fence and a covered canopy that I have always admired. The covered canopy is fenced with chicken wire. It is light enough to move somewhat regularly. She uses an electric fence that gives the birds plenty of space outside the canopy as well. She has had minimal problems with predators and this has worked well for their family.
Additional Consideration for Chickens
As the chickens grow, larger feeding and watering equipment will be needed to properly care for the meat birds. For feed, we use 30-pound hanging feeders. These are nice because they hold enough feed to satisfy the chickens all day without the need to refill. This last year we have 50 chickens with three feeders and this was not enough for the morning rush. We feed our broilers on a feeding regimen, 12 hours on, 12 hours off. By morning, the broilers will be hungry and act like they are starving. The three feeders we had held enough feed but did not allow all the birds to eat all at once, we really needed at least one more.
Annual Expenses for Raising Meat Chickens
Once you have your basic chicken set up, you will be set for many years of raising your own backyard chicken. When calculating the cost of raising meat chickens, I don’t personally include the expenses related to infrastructure. We consider this an investment in our farm.
Type of Meat Chickens
Purchasing the chicks will be one of the biggest expenses you can expect on an annual basis. Chicks can be purchased locally from farm supply stores. They can also be purchased from hatcheries that will arrive in the mail! Choosing the type of meat chickens you want to raise has several factors to consider. Finished size of birds, weeks required to reach butcher weight, and self-sustainable farm practices.
Cornish Cross Broilers are one of the most popular chicken breeds raised for meat. Freedom Rangers are another example of hybrid meat chickens. Production breeds of chickens can not be bred at home. Meaning you can’t have adult breeding stock on your small farm and hatch the eggs on-site. Production breeds of chickens are hybrid crossbreeds that have been carefully bred for decades to produce the chickens we purchase today. They must be purchased from a hatchery. Production breeds of chickens grow fast! Cornish cross broiler can be butchered in as little as 6 weeks, though we allow ours to grow to 8 to 10 weeks.
Another option is dual-purpose breeds. Jersey Giants, Plymouth Rock, and Rhode Island Red (non-industrial breed) are examples of dual-purpose chickens that are considered heritage breeds. These birds can be bred and raised completely on the farm. They take longer to grow to the size and most will never become as large as a production breed chicken. However, as a self-sustainable chicken operation, many prefer these chicken breeds. Heritage birds have to meet four standards:
- Recognized by the American Poultry Association
- Naturally mating
- Long productive life span
- Slow Growth rate
Though not a heritage breed, American Bresse chickens are quickly becoming popular among homesteaders. These dual-purpose birds are sustainable to grow on the farm. They grow quickly and have marbled meat that is flavorful. Once we get settled on the homestead, I want to give this breed a try.
Cost Comparison Of Breeds
This is the average growth rate, expected size of birds, and cost per bird. Birds are in order based on the length of time required to reach harvest size. All prices of birds were based on straight run prices. Many companies require a minimum-size order. Some offer discounts based on bulk orders. We’ve used Myers Poultry for our meat bird purchases.
|Chicken Breed||Weeks to Butcher||Average Weight Male||Average Weight Female||Low Cost Per Bird||High Cost Per Bird|
|Cornish Cross Broilers||6 to 10 weeks||4.5 to 10 pounds||not specified||$2.50||$3.80|
|Freedom Rangers||14 weeks||8 to 9 pounds||not specified||$2.90||$3.60|
|Plymouth Rock||15 to 20 weeks||8 to 9 pounds||6 to 7 pounds||$3.48||$4.42|
|American Bresse||16 weeks||6 to 7 pound||4 to 5 pounds||$6.78||$9.99|
|Rhode Island Reds||16 to 20 weeks||4 to 6 pounds||not specified||$3.48||$3.78|
|Jersey Giants||32 to 36 weeks||11 to 13 pounds||8 to 10 pounds||$3.78||$4.42|
Note: I tried to price compare two major hatcheries, but none of the ones I reviewed offered all the breeds. The average cost of chicks was pulled from a variety of hatcheries’ websites at the time of this post’s publish date.
Feeding Meat Chickens
The biggest expense that you can expect on an annual basis is the cost of grain. While the chickens can be raised on pasture, they will require more nutrients than foraging can provide. Production breeds of chickens may take less time to raise, however, they make up for it with their immense appetites. Cornish cross broilers are not great foragers, so even though they may be on pasture, they typically highly focus on the feed bin rather than searching for bugs. Heritage breeds will be more interested in foraging when given the opportunity, but will still eat grain as their main diet.
Per a national grain supplier, on average a broiler chicken will eat 10 pounds of grain per bird for the first 6 weeks. After 6 weeks they will eat 3 to 4 pounds of feed a week. That comes to about 26 pounds of grain per bird.
In our personal experience raising Cornish Cross broilers, our birds averaged between 16 and 23 pounds of grain per bird. This last year we used a whopping 1160 pounds of grain in just 10 weeks!
Types of Grain
Myers Poultry suggests a 23 to 25% chick starter grain for two weeks and then switching to a 20% to 22% protein grower feed for Cornish cross broilers. When purchasing grain for chickens, read the feed analysis carefully, popular all-flock or layer feed is not high enough in protein for meat chickens.
We feed our meat chickens 30% game bird grain the entire time we have them. Some hatcheries recommend lower protein grain, however, we have had such success with the higher protein grain, that we continue that practice.
You will need to decide if you want to feed organic chicken feed. Due to cost, we have not fed organic grain. Last year we feed 1160 pounds of 30% grain at a total cost of $590.72. If we had fed that same amount of organic grain, our feed costs would have more than doubled to $1205.93. Some backyard farmers choose to feed a lower protein grain to offset the cost of the organic feed. If you have access to a feed mill and can source organic grain in bulk, it’s certainly worth exploring if that is a priority for you.
|Feed Description and Link||Percent Protein||Size of Bag||Price Per Bag||Price Per Pound|
|DuMour Chick Starter||20%||50 pounds||$19.99||$0.40|
|Nature’s Best Organic Chick Starter/ Grower||20%||40 pounds||$29.99||$0.75|
|Purina GameBird Protein Starter||30%||40 pounds||$23.99||$0.60|
|Nature’s Best Organic Game Bird Crumbles||30%||25 pounds||$25.99||$1.04|
|Nature’s Best Organic All Flock||20%||40 pounds||$33.49||$0.83|
Processing costs will vary based on if you outsource this or if you do it yourself. While some people pay for poultry processing, it’s quite easy to do at home. Here at Kowalski Mountain, we process all of our own meat. We often recruit help for the butchering day. Thankfully our family is happy with a good lunch and a free chicken for their own freezer.
Over the years we have slowly purchased equipment that makes the job a lot easier. I’ve written a complete post on Practical Butchering Supplies for Processing Poultry. It’s broken down into two parts, minimal necessary equipment, and optional equipment. This post also includes a video to bring you along for butchering day.
On an annual basis, poultry shrink bags are the best and easiest way to package broiler chickens for the freezer. I’ve been so impressed with the quality of the bags and how well they hold up in the freezer. If you use propane to heat your scald water, that is an additional expense you will need to incorporate.
Benefits of Self-Sufficiency
Raising our own meat chickens at home is an extremely rewarding experience. In just 8 to 10 weeks, we will grow enough chicken to last us more than a year! While our chickens are not fed organic grain, they are ethically raised, compassionately cared for, and butchered with as much dignity and respect as we can offer to our animals.
What Does It Cost?
Here’s a look at the expense breakdown of annual expenses for our last batch of broiler chickens. Please note this does not include the cost of infrastructure or equipment.
|Cornish Cross Broilers||50||$129.00|
|30% Grain ($20.49 each)||11||$225.39|
|30% Grain (21.49 each)||18||$365.33|
|50’X50′ Bird Netting (predator protection)||1||$32.00|
|Shrink Wrap Poultry Bags||50||$25.50|
For $799, we raised a total of 358.98 pounds in just 9 weeks’ time. Our final price per pound is $2.23 per pound for fresh home-grown chicken.
Is it worth it? Absolutely! Raising Cornish Cross broilers is one of my favorite projects on the homestead. Even without Philip, I could do this! I could feed myself on my own.
Once we make the move to Kowalski Mountain, I am hoping to experiment with American Bresse Chickens as a sustainable dual-purpose chicken to raise on the farm, however, I love the quality of the broiler we raise. I plan to keep broilers as our primary meat chickens as long as we can!
About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.