Are you considering diversifying into meat chickens? Zac Williams, Ph.D. presented “Small Meat Chicken Production” as a webinar hosted by Michigan State University, where Williams serves as part of the poultry Extension in the Department of Animal Science.

Williams shared photos of external and internal anatomy, along with the organs related to chicken digestion.

“A lot of times when people call me about problems growing chickens, they try to describe what part or organ they’re looking at,” he said.

Sometimes, they cannot accurately describe what they see; other times, they believe that a healthy part of their chicken is diseased. Williams encouraged attendees to know their chicken’s anatomy better, so they can better understand what’s normal and what’s not.

When people experience bird loss, Williams said that a bird autopsy can help determine what’s going on, but only if the owner knows what they’re looking at inside the bird.

“I might say, open up a bird and take pictures and send them to me,” Williams said. “This can be a good costs savings because you might have to send them to a diagnostic lab otherwise.”

Williams said that the reason for raising the chickens determines the breed: eggs, meat, dual purpose meat and eggs or foraging birds.

“Broilers, free rangers or Peking ducks are fairly cheap,” Williams said.

Breed also affects production capability.

“Do you want to raise a new flock every five to six weeks or go longer and have birds in nine to 11 weeks market ready? Do you have space for them to roam free or do you have space inside?

Health differs among breeds.

“Broilers are kind of fragile,” Williams said. “Dual purpose birds are hardier. Most meat birds are bred for behavior to be docile.

By contrast, egg-laying chickens can be high-strung.

Broiler or Cornish crosses grow fast, maturing to market weight in five to six weeks. But, they’re “fairly poor foragers,” Williams said. “You will have to supplement them.”

They also can’t handle weather changes and prefer living indoors.

Freedom rangers, meat birds, are good at ranging and foraging.

“That does come with a side effect,” Williams said. “They don’t grow as fast, even if they feed well. These are going to take twice as long to hit that five- to six-pound range. But if you want something to turn out with a chicken tractor or mobile unit, they do well.”

Chickens require lots of water — twice as much water as feed. Williams said it’s vital for them to have constant access to clean, cool water to ensure they drink enough.

He also advises growers buy feed from a feed store that’s formulated for that type of chicken.

“Feed cost is about 75 percent the cost of raising a chicken,” Williams said.

Meat birds should have feed available to them at all times.

“They get stressed out if there’s feed not available for them,” Williams said. “They can eat the litter and it can lead to cannibalism.”

He said that feeding in the morning with all the feed they will need for the day is fine.

“When they’re young, they grow fast, so they need more protein,” Williams said. “They should have 25 to 28 percent protein. After two to three weeks, step them down to 20 to 24 percent. In their last week, you can go to around 18 percent. Older birds need less protein. They’ve gained most of their muscle and their last couple weeks, they’re just finishing out.”

When it’s time to sell the birds, operators need to figure in not only the cost of the birds, but feed, depreciation on equipment, labor and processing. Feed costs for a 5 to 6 pound finish weight should be about 12 pounds of feed per bird.

Processing costs about $3 to $5 per bird.

Their place at the bottom of the food chain means birds need protection.

“If you have the land, get a portable chicken yard with a roof,” Williams said. “After chickens are on one spot too long, it becomes muddy. Moveable houses are good.”

A model with a roof can discourage flying. Attempting flight can injure chickens. Chicken housing should keep out the weather, provide shade and deter predators. For layers, they’ll need roosts and places for nests. Game birds need enough room to move around or they can become aggressive.

Chicks need a heat source for their first five to 10 days, when they can’t control their body temperature. Williams said it’s important to put a thermometer near the floor at “chicken height” to ensure it’s 90 degrees F. Chicks huddling near the heat source means it’s too cold. If they are as far from it as possible, they’re too warm. If the chicks fan out evenly and are quiet, the temperature is likely suitable.

“Chickens can shiver, huddle or eat more feed when they’re cold,” Williams said. “When they’re huddling, they huddle over the heater and some will get too hot and smother.”

Beyond bird comfort, the right temperature is important.

“Chickens and other species of birds choose warmth over food or water,” Williams said. “If they’re cold, they’ll try to stay warm and starve to death.”

To improve bird health, buy from a reputable source, a larger hatchery that is cleared by the National Poultry Improvement for certain diseases. Keep outsiders out of the chickens’ area and clean boots and equipment often and wear clean clothing when tending them.

“Use the all in, all out practice,” Williams said. “Get all your birds at once and they all go to the processors at once to avoid mixing the groups.”

Deborah Jeanne Sergeant is a freelance writer in central New York. Email her at deb@skilledquill.net.