Is raising meat chickens a money-saver? There are so many opinions out there! The truth is, like nearly everything to do with farming, it depends. There are lots of ways and reasons for raising chickens for meat, and the economics of doing so vary just as widely. Let’s take a look at the cost of raising meat chickens.
What is the Cost of Raising Meat Chickens
Growing meat on your homestead is practically a necessity for food independence. Human beings need high-quality proteins to live, grow, and be healthy, and meat animals are the best and most complete source.
Grass-eating meat animals, especially ruminants like cows, sheep, and goats, are the first and most effective ways to grow protein since they eat pasture -the volunteer plant life that is already present on the farm – but meat birds like broiler chickens can add a lot of pleasure and variety to your homestead’s homemade meals. So let’s see how the numbers work out by digging into the factors that affect the cost of raising meat chickens.
Choosing Meat Chicken Breeds
First of all, what kind of meat chicken breed are we talking about? It could be white double-breasted broilers like Cornish-Rock crosses (CRXs), or one of the hybrids also intended for producing meat, like the Freedom Ranger. Or there are cockerels – young males – of any of the large-bodied laying breeds, birds that can be raised to a decent size in about three months.
To add a complication, remember that the various meat birds are raised differently, and produce different sorts of carcasses, ranging from the junk-food-and-couch-potato chicken (CRX) to the hunter-gatherer bird that gets lots of exercise scrounging for a good bit of its diet.
And then there’s your intention for the poultry you are raising. Are we producing birds for our own consumption or birds to sell? How many? For whom? Organic or conventional? The answer to each of these questions will affect the economics of raising meat chickens.
When it comes to poultry profitability, a lot depends on the type of bird you are raising. Not all chickens are the same, of course. Here are some popular meat birds:
Cornish Rock Cross
These are a special hybrid, a cross between a Red Cornish chicken and a White Plymouth Rock. They’re the meat bird extraordinaire, with double breast muscles, a voracious appetite, and an incredibly fast growth rate. They convert feed into live weight at a ratio of about 2:1, the highest of any meat chicken. They’re the standard industry bird, and you can raise them at home with reasonably good results – usually.
Not surprisingly, the wildly accelerated growth rate of the Cornish Rock Cross comes with less desirable effects as well: Leg problems: These are not very active birds; often they are so fat so fast that they only walk a few steps at a time. It’s not unusual to have a CRX with bowed leg bones (curvy drumsticks).
They’re subject to a condition known as ‘green muscle disease’ (bright pine-needle green muscle and/or intramuscular fluids) which according to all our research is necrosis (like gangrene) from being muscle-bound… very unpleasant. They also grow so fast and so fat that they are subject to heart attack, so as they get older it’s not uncommon for a few birds to die in the last week or so before slaughter. Our own experience is that the longer you keep a group of CRXs, the more you lose; your goal is to butcher them before they die.
Other meat hybrids, like the Freedom Ranger, won’t get as bulky as the CRX, and they grow about half as fast – that is, they take about twice as long to reach slaughter weight. In addition, their feed-to-flesh conversion rate is less than half that of the CRX, so you have to feed them more than twice as much for the same gain.
The shorthand version: A Ranger takes twice as long, and twice as much feed, to produce a carcass. Other differences between Rangers and CRXs: Rangers are more active than CRXs; hence, muscle tissue is firmer. You might prefer a mushy bird, or you might not. Rangers are more robust birds; they’re not going to die quite as easily as a CRX, but as with their fatter cousins the cost of fast growth is early mortality.
Heavy Layer Breeds
Heavy layer breed cockerels, like Rhode Island Reds or Plymouth Rocks: The males of any large layer breed can be raised out as meat birds with satisfactory results. They’ll be like Rangers but take longer to finish, and their meat will probably be a little less tender.
How much feed they consume is largely a factor of how they are kept: they’re viable birds that can scratch for a good deal of their living, so the economics of growing them is largely up to you.
Other notes: If you order your layer chicks ‘straight-run’ (not sexed, therefore roughly half male, half female) you’ll have meat birds of this kind automatically when you cull your laying flock. Assorted layer cockerel chicks are the cheapest of the cheap. Often hatcheries will sell assorted-breed (their choice) rooster chicks for half or even less what they charge for meat birds – and while the cost of the chick is only a small part of the price tag for raising meat birds, this is still a savings.
Given all these facts, it’s obvious that the kind of chicken you choose to raise is going to have a lot to do with how economical you find meat bird production.
Cost of Feed
Even though the price of chicks varies a lot (as of November 2022 Meyer hatchery sells CRX chicks for $3.28 a piece, Rangers for $3.69, and assorted layer cockerels for $1.50), chick price is the least of your expenses. The majority of the cost of raising meat chickens is in the feed, and various broilers and fryers differ widely in feed requirements.
Again according to Meyer Hatchery specs, it should take 5.5# of feed to produce a CRX carcass that dresses out at 3.5#, while a Ranger bird that dresses out at the same weight will require almost 15# of feed. With organic feed at $0.75/# at least, it’s obvious that what makes raising Rangers more expensive than CRXs isn’t the additional $.41 in the price of the chick, but the cost of feed, which is almost tripled.
Add to that the time it takes to raise Rangers – they grow only half as fast as the CRX – and you realize right away why industrial producers raise the latter. If the cost is the most important variable, given a five or six-week bird that costs $10 to raise and a ten-week bird that costs almost $19, there’s no contest – the CRXs win every time.
The Work Involved
One difference between meat birds is simply the work it takes to raise them. Fast-growing birds have an advantage in one sense – the time to raise a CRX (six weeks to finish) is about one-third that for a layer cockerel (four months to finishing weight). Obviously, if you are raising CRXs, you can have the whole project done and in the freezer in less than two months.
On the other hand, if you are raising birds on pasture or on green manures in the garden, there is value in the work they are doing as weeders, de-buggers, and manure spreaders. This value alone may outweigh the cost of raising meat chickens. If you are penning chickens in the compost pile they’ll provide aeration and decomposition services. In either case, the labor involved in the longer grow-out time is offset by the services rendered. Much of the feed your birds consume ends up on your land in the form of high-nitrogen manure, valuable as fertilizer. With chicken impact and poo as valuable inputs to your soil, you can see that speed is only a relative advantage.
So why, when Cornish Rock Crosses are so cheap to grow, would anyone raise Rangers – slow and expensive – or mixed heavy cockerels?
For most of the folks who care about what they eat enough to raise their own chickens, quality matters – and there’s more to quality than a tender, juicy carcass. In fact, the very growing conditions that produce that extreme tenderness (some non-fans would call it ‘mushiness’) found in CRXs may raise the eyebrows of the more health-conscious.
Fast-growing animals that rely on processed commercial feed and live a completely sedentary life may pack on the pounds quickly, but are they healthy pounds? Given that CRXs will begin dying of heart attacks and metabolic problems starting before two months of age, this hybrid might not impress the seeker of superfoods as the healthiest choice around. If our goal is great food for great health, we may have second thoughts about eating a junk-food-gorging chubster.
Difference in Taste
Taste is important, too, and for this diet and age are both considerations. The varied diet of a free-ranging or truly pastured bird produces a better flavor than does a commercial grain-based diet. Moreover, older animals really do produce tastier – albeit less tender – meat, and you can tell the difference. If bone stock is an important item in your cuisine, you probably know already that any old laying hen or tough, rangy rooster makes a broth that is far richer and more delicious than the fattest and juiciest broiler. Fast birds aren’t tastier, they’re just faster.
Is it worth it to raise meat chickens?
So when is it economical to grow your own meat chickens? Well, if a $3.28 CRX chick will grow to broiler size on less than 6 lb. of feed (organic, for, say, $0.75/lb.), you could have it in the freezer for around $8. On the other hand, a Freedom Ranger raised to the same size will take twice the time and eat almost three times the feed, costing you over $15. That puts the per-pound price of the two birds at $2.29 and $4.43 respectively.
Today (Nov. 15, 2022) Wegmans shows organic chicken at $4.39 a pound, so even the Freedom Ranger is competitive. Of course, you have your work in the bird, but you also have the guarantee that it was raised to your standards, something you would not want to take for granted with a store-bought chicken. And with a home-raised chicken, you’ve got the manure as well, a thing of high value on the homestead.
Finally, don’t forget those layer cockerels. At $1.50/chick, these boys are the cheapest on the block, as well as some of the most robust. Raised in summer and moved onto pasture as soon as they begin to feather out, mixed heavies can rustle a good proportion of their grub. Fenced into a future garden site, they can rip out all the weeds and drop a sizable dose of fertilizer for just about no work for you; and when they’re done you’ve got some tasty meat from healthy, active birds – something you can’t be sure of in-store birds at any price.
So, do home-raised birds pay?
Is home-raised chicken a budget saver?
It really depends on the alternatives. Chicken from the store might come at a competitive price, but for real quality, your home-grown birds are going to be way ahead. Throw in the work your flock can do for you before you eat them and the value of their manure and the advantage is even more on the side of the homestead birds. Of course, for really cheap meat, nothing beats home-raised grass-fed beef, lamb, or goat – it’s hard to get cheaper than free.
Home-raised chicken is one of the great privileges of homesteading, and raising broilers can provide you with some first-class meat for a comparatively reasonable price tag. Integrating chickens into your homestead ecology will make them even more economical.