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Raising Better Dual-Purpose Chickens

Did you know that any dual-purpose flock can be made more productive with one simple change in rearing? I didn’t until very recently. I’ve been keeping Light Sussex and other dual-purpose chooks for 40+ years and thinking that their utility quality could only be improved with production breeding — but I didn’t know that ‘production rearing’ was also possible.

Of course, dual-purpose chickens are always going to be a compromise between the best laying and the best meat yield. But you can improve your flock dramatically if you raise the boys and girls separately.

What I used to do is put out full feeders 24/7 and hope that they all would grow fast and well. What I got was fat pullets who could never lay as well as their potential, cockerels who spent their final weeks running around and fighting for status, and a well-fed colony of pasture rats that were dining on the food all night. But everyone thought my birds looked marvelous.

Now that I know more about the effects of diet on fertility and carcass quality, I’m doing things differently. My birds still look marvelous but the hens lay better, the boys dress out more attractively, and the rats have gone to greener pastures.

This is what I do. The chicks are brooded together and fed Starter (22% protein) for 6 weeks. Then they are separated by gender and moved out to tents on pasture. [The pasture rearing part of this is optional, grow pens can be managed the same way.] The feed is switched to Grower (17%). They have automatic waterers, but no feeders.

Pullets – will have 2 weeks on Grower and then be switched to a Pullet Developer feed (15%). We feed by pouring the feed on the ground in a long line, long enough that all the chicks can eat at the same time, with no crowding. However you feed, make sure all the chicks can eat at the same time, and there are no timid ones failing to get their fill. This is very important! When you feed this way, the chicks will grow more uniformly — there will be little difference between the largest and smallest. Consistency is a sign of success.

The daily amount of feed starts off as an estimate of the amount they had been eating in the brooder, but with a little extra to help them deal with colder conditions outside. We start with 4 feedings a day, while they are learning to ‘come & get it’, and to give them a chance to catch up quickly if they miss a feed. Perhaps my birds are a little slow — it takes about a week to get them in the new routine. Then we go to 3 feeds a day, followed by 2, and by 12 weeks old they are getting just one feed, in the morning. The daily amount of feed must be increased gradually, but should not exceed 1/4 lb per bird per day unless the birds are not maintaining good condition (see below). Once they are in the swing of eating up when fed, check them about 20 minutes after feeding — the feed should all be gone, and the birds should all have full crops. You may note that this is probably a lot less than you have fed pullets in the past, and the pullets are not growing as fast as you may be used to.

Every week you should examine a few birds to track their ‘condition’ – meaning the muscle development of their body. They should be growing good muscle on their chests and legs, but not have big bellies. If they are not filling out their musculature adequately, more food should be given; if they are getting tubby, reduce the feed. Grown lean this way, they will reach their size potential (skeletal size) by 20 weeks old, but will weigh less than you are used to — this is a good thing!

Switch to Layer feed at 20 weeks, but don’t increase the amount of feed over what they need to maintain condition. As they come into lay, they will need a little more feed for egg production, but you can continue to feed them just once a day for the rest of their lives.

Cockerels – at 6 weeks old are fed the same way as pullets, with 4 feeds a day of Grower. They can stay on Grower from now on. Wean them down to 2 feeds a day by 10 weeks, making sure that all chicks can eat without crowding, and that all of them are getting full crops. The amount fed will be more generous than for the pullets — boys eat more, and while you don’t want to overfeed them (which would be wasteful) there is no harm in feeding them to fullness. If they clean up their feed in less than 20 minutes, or if some ‘leave the table’ early, put out more feed right away. The bullies in the crowd will chill when their crops are full, and let the others fill up. As with the pullets, consistent growth is success.

If you are going to be keeping some breeding roosters from this group, I recommend making your choices (or at least a short list) by 10 weeks, and putting the winners in with the girls. Even if you want to select for biggest size and fastest growth rate, you put your best boys on the pullet diet because they will become smaller and more agile breeders who do less damage to the hens. The diet doesn’t affect their genes.

About 2 weeks before the planned slaughter date, you can enhance the yield of your meat birds by supplementing them with more or richer foods. Dairy products like whey, clabber and cheese are excellent, and very appetizing for the birds. The French like to soak flatted barley or oats in milk and feed that mash to get a good ‘finish’. If you like your chicken to have yellow skin and yellow fat, this is the time to feed them corn, greens, and pumpkin or squash. If you don’t like the soy flavour that dominates in commercial chicken, make sure you feed a soy-free diet in these last weeks. You can give them a feeder with whole or cracked grain or good quality hen scratch to nibble on during the day (take it away at night). I like to sprout wheat or barley for 24 hours and feed it as an evening snack (at least an hour before dusk).

The day before slaughter, cut out the extras and give them only one feed, in the morning. A toss of whole grain before bed will make them comfortable. And I think you will be very pleased with the size and development of their carcasses. Bon appetit!

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