How to grow a good roast chicken: Raising poultry for meat
Chicken is the cheapest meat you can buy, but a home-grown roast can be well worth the effort.
Words: Sue Clarke Photos: Ross Nolly
In 2011, we looked at whether it was worth growing your own meat birds. Our conclusions then were:
Lifetime feed costs: $8-$10 per bird
Time: up to 25 weeks
Overall cost per bird: $10-$25
Factors that contributed to the big variation of the final cost included:
• whether you bought purpose-bred meat chicks or used heritage or cross-bred birds
• how fast they grew
• the age of the bird when processed
• feed, eg organic, commercial
• processing time
At the time, organic chicken was available in supermarkets for around $20-$25 for a whole bird.
Things haven’t changed much (2019). If you want cheap chicken, you won’t beat the economies of scale of the 120 million birds grown in NZ every year, that you can buy already plucked, processed, bagged, and often stuffed.
Supermarkets have options from a whole, free-range, organic chicken for around $15-$24, to a barn-raised whole bird at around $8-$12, depending on weight.
But there are other factors that make home-grown chicken a good option. The same principles apply if you’re raising ducks, turkeys, geese or quail, but time periods, weights and feed consumption will be different.
The emphasis in the NZ poultry industry is on the intensive production of early-maturing, feed-efficient, hybrid meat chickens to provide a cheap source of protein. The huge frozen chicken pieces you can buy in a supermarket is from a fully-grown birds which is just 32-42 days old when it’s killed and processed.
If you raise a commercial meat breed (Cobb or Ross) and feed it on a commercial diet, you’ll get something that tastes very similar to the supermarket option, but it will cost you more to produce.
The big difference, if you get the feed and growth rates right, is in the flavour.
Flavour, texture, and fat cover increases with age. Young meat-producing livestock – poultry, veal or lamb – don’t have much fat or time to build up texture. Any animal that has time to grow slowly will lay down more fat, which is where most of the flavour comes from.
If your birds are free-range, they will also be exercising, adding muscle, and eating a wider diet, which helps to develop flavour.
The best option should suit your lifestyle and budget. All have pros and cons.
1. Use surplus cross-bred chicks that you hatch from any poultry you own.
2. Buy, or get free, young surplus roosters.
3. Hatch and raise specific heritage heavy breeds.
4. Buy hybrid, day-old commercial meat chicks (Ross or Cobb) from a supplier/hatchery.
IF YOU WANT MORE FLAVOUR
Best options: 1, 2, 3
Tip: keep the birds until they are six months-plus. If you hatch poultry, you will always have surplus birds.
Once you’ve chosen the birds you want to keep for laying and/or breeding, you can eat the spares. Heritage breeds get to a good eating weight later than commercial hybrids. For most, you’ll be waiting at least six months, or longer, for them to reach a weight that will dress out into a 2kg+ roast.
You may need to experiment to find a breed you consider tasty. Some breeds are meatier and tastier, some can be tougher and not fatten up much. Mature roosters don’t tend to have much fat and will be tougher, requiring long, slow cooking, compared to hens of the same breed and age.
Roosters also tend to have darker meat, especially on the thighs and drumsticks.
TIPS FOR FATTENING UP YOUR ROASTS
Cross-bred or heritage birds:
You will have to wait for the birds to mature – around when the males start crowing – before you attempt to fatten them.
Adding kitchen scraps and garden waste to their normal diet will help to fill them up. However, it will also cost you more in poultry feed as low-quality foods aren’t high in fat, so it will take longer for birds to grow to an edible size.
A heavy breed heritage rooster will reach 2-3kg by the time it’s 6-10 months old. They’ll need careful management during this time.
Separate roosters from the rest of the flock as soon as you can tell them apart from the hens. Give them plenty of space or they will fight and bully each other.
Ideally, process them when they are around six months old to avoid behavioural issues. To help them lay down more fat, feed meat bird crumbs for the last 3-4 weeks.
Cobb or Ross meat chicks are bred to grow incredibly fast, and to pack on large amounts of meat in a short time.
If you keep them warm, contain them in a small area and make sure they always have access to feed, they’ll get to around 3kg in 6-8 weeks. You can:
• feed meat bird crumbs from Day 1 to grow them as fast as possible, or;
• feed Chick Starter for 4-6 weeks, followed by 2-4 weeks of meat bird or game bird crumbs. This mix of feeds means they will grow more slowly.
To slow down their growth even further, you could feed Chick Starter for 2-4 weeks, at a restricted amount per day (see page 74), followed by Grower feed for another four weeks, then 1-2 weeks of meat bird crumbs. This will still give you a heavier, meatier bird in less time than a traditional heavy breed rooster.
You can also slow down growth by feeding a lower energy feed and/or supplement their daily feed with scraps.
Cobb or Ross meat chicks grow incredibly fast, and you need to carefully manage their feed and exercise to keep them healthy. They will require:
• a daily feed allowance, weighed out
• plenty of outdoor exercise
• bulky, no-calorie feed options, eg grass, silverbeet
• minimal extras, eg kitchen scraps
For example, you could feed two weeks of Starter, followed by Grower feed or a wheat/oat grain mix (not layer feed), plenty of vegetation and grass to peck on, and not too many kitchen scraps.
FIVE REASONS TO GROW YOUR OWN ROASTS
1. If you breed your own poultry, you can use up your own roosters (which on average, make up 50 percent of any eggs you incubate or a broody hen hatches);
2. You will know what it ate, eg organic feed, forage etc;
3. You can influence the bird’s flavour, by keeping it longer and/or by choosing heritage birds;
4. You will know what medications a bird has (or hasn’t) had;
5. You will know how it was killed and processed.