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3 Best Chickens for Eating: Choosing Backyard Meat Birds

Choosing the right breed is so important when picking the best chickens for eating.

With a wide array of breeds available, making the right choice can be hard, especially when many birds are marketed as being suitable for meat and eggs.

The truth is, there are only a few top chicken breeds known for their meat quality. They all offer fast growth, tender meat, and good flavor. Let’s take a look at the popular breeds of chickens that provide both high yield and excellent flavor, as well as some lesser-known types for you rebels out there.

grid image of four brown and white chickens

Why do you need a specific breed for raising meat?

Chickens bred for meat, often referred to as “meat birds,” are specifically designed to grow rapidly and develop a lot of muscle mass in a short period. This means you’ll get a larger meat yield per bird and get it more quickly.

Breeds like the Cornish Cross can reach market weight in as little as 6 to 8 weeks. The meat is also often more tender and succulent because the birds are processed at a younger age.

The efficiency of meat birds also translates to cost savings, as you’ll likely spend less on feed per pound of meat produced.

Why can’t you butcher your laying hens?

On the other hand, laying hens are bred for a completely different purpose: egg production.

While it’s true that you can eat almost any chicken, laying breeds usually don’t provide as much meat, and what meat they do offer can be tougher and less flavorful.

This is especially true for older hens whose primary role has been egg-laying for many months or even years. Additionally, laying hens take much longer to reach a weight that would make them worthwhile for meat production, making them less efficient if meat is your goal.

The Trade-Offs

While some breeds are categorized as “dual-purpose,” meaning they’re decent both for meat and egg production, they usually won’t excel in either category.

These breeds are more of a compromise and may be a good choice for those who want a bit of both worlds but are willing to sacrifice some efficiency and quality.

However, if you’re focused on meat production, choosing a breed specifically designed for that purpose will yield the best results.

1. top choice: The Cornish Cross

The Cornish Cross (a.k.a. Cornish X) is a go-to choice for many backyard farmers and commercial operations alike, mainly because of its exceptional growth rate and meat yield. This breed can weigh up to 10 pounds within just 6 to 8 weeks, making it highly efficient if you’re looking for quick meat production.

Temperament

Cornish Cross chickens are generally docile and easy to manage, which is why they’re popular among novice and experienced poultry keepers. Unlike some other breeds, they aren’t particularly active or curious. Their primary focus is eating, which contributes to their rapid growth. This sedentary nature makes them less suited for free-ranging compared to more active breeds, but it also means they’re relatively low-maintenance.

group of 3 white chickens.
a classic white bird with large breast area

Appearance

The Cornish Cross has a distinctive look that sets it apart from other chicken breeds. These birds usually have a white feather coat and a chunky, robust build, indicative of their meaty yield. Their legs are typically yellow, and they have red combs and wattles. Because they’re bred for meat, they don’t have the elegant appearance of some ornamental or laying breeds. Instead, their physique is all about maximizing meat production.

In summary, the Cornish Cross is an excellent choice, perhaps the best choice, if you’re interested in raising chickens for meat. They grow quickly, have a docile temperament, and require relatively less work compared to some other breeds. Their appearance may not win any beauty contests, but when it comes to meat yield, they are hard to beat.

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Important facts about the Cornish Cross:

  • They are not designed to live long. Eventually, they can become so top-heavy that walking is difficult or they become overweight and have heart problems.
  • Many people state that their birds never reach a state like this and grow up to be “normal” chickens
  • Either way, you’ll want to make sure you have the stomach or butchering before placing your order

2. The Freedom Ranger: a more balanced breed

The Freedom Ranger is another popular option for those interested in raising chickens for meat, but it offers different characteristics than the Cornish Cross.

While not as fast-growing as the Cornish Cross, Freedom Rangers reach a respectable weight within 9 to 11 weeks.

They are often chosen for their ability to free-range while still being quick-growing meat chickens.

Temperament

Freedom Rangers are known for being more active and curious than the Cornish Cross. They love to forage and are well-suited for free-range or pasture-raised systems.

This natural inclination to roam and forage makes them a good option if you’re looking for a more “natural” chicken-raising experience.

Their active lifestyle contributes to the flavor and texture of their meat, which many people find to be superior.

brown chicken foraging
a Red Ranger can forage well!

Appearance

In terms of appearance, Freedom Rangers come in a variety of colors including red, black, and yellow, making them more colorful than the typically white Cornish Cross.

They have a more traditional chicken shape and look less “meaty” or chunky than Cornish Cross birds. Nevertheless, they provide a good meat yield, particularly if allowed to free-range, which contributes to their more muscular build.

In summary, the Freedom Ranger is an excellent alternative to the Cornish Cross, especially if you’re interested in free-ranging your birds or if you prefer meat with a richer flavor.

Their active temperament and adaptability to different rearing methods make them a versatile choice for any backyard farmer.

3. Big Red Broilers: An Overview

Big Red Broilers are another solid option if you’re considering raising chickens specifically for meat. These chickens strike a balance between fast growth and natural foraging behavior.

Typically, they reach market weight at around 12 to 16 weeks, making them a bit slower to mature compared to the Cornish Cross but faster than many heritage breeds.

Temperament

Big Red Broilers are known for their docile and friendly temperament, making them easy to manage. They’re more active than Cornish Cross chickens but less so than Freedom Rangers.

This moderate activity level means they can adapt to various living conditions, whether confined spaces or free-ranging. Their calm demeanor makes them a good choice for families or anyone new to raising chickens.

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Appearance

Big Red Broilers have a reddish-brown feather coat, giving them their “Big Red” name. Their body shape is more streamlined compared to the bulky Cornish Cross but still robust enough to yield a good amount of meat.

They also have yellow legs and beaks, and their combs and wattles are usually a vibrant red. While not as flashy as some ornamental breeds, their appearance is generally pleasing and indicative of their dual-purpose nature.

In summary, Big Red Broilers offer a balanced option for those looking for a meat chicken that’s relatively easy to care for, good-natured, and adaptable to various living conditions.

Their moderate growth rate and good meat yield make them a dependable choice for anyone interested in raising chickens for meat

  • Buckeye: This American breed is good for meat but tends to grow slower than more popular meat breeds. Its meat is flavorful, but the yield is generally lower.
  • Delaware: While a dual-purpose breed that can lay eggs, the Delaware does offer a decent amount of meat. However, it doesn’t match up to specialized meat breeds in terms of growth speed or meat yield.
  • Chantecler: This Canadian breed is hardy and adaptable but grows more slowly than other meat-focused breeds. Its meat is tasty but less abundant.
  • Orpington: Known primarily as a good layer and a family-friendly pet, Orpingtons can provide meat but take a long time to reach a good size for slaughter.
  • Plymouth Rock (Barred Rock): Another dual-purpose breed, good for both eggs and meat. However, it takes longer to mature, and the meat yield is moderate at best.
  • Wyandotte: This breed is more commonly raised for its decorative feathers and egg-laying abilities. While it can be eaten, its meat yield is not as high as specialized meat breeds.
  • Sussex: While Sussex chickens are often kept for their good laying abilities, they also offer a reasonable amount of meat. However, they mature more slowly than dedicated meat breeds.
  • Naked Neck: Known for its unique appearance with a featherless neck, this breed does produce meat but not as efficiently as other meat-specific breeds.
  • New Hampshire Red: This breed can be raised for meat but tends to produce less meat than other more specialized breeds. They are more often used for egg production.
  • Australorp: Known for setting an egg-laying world record, this breed can be used for meat but is not as efficient in terms of growth rate and meat yield.

Each of these breeds has its own set of pros and cons, but if you’re looking specifically for meat production, they generally won’t be as efficient or yield as much meat as more specialized meat breeds.

What to know about raising meat chickens

wrapped butchered chickens in home freezer

Cost Considerations

Raising chickens for meat isn’t too expensive, but there are costs you need to plan for. The price of chicks, food, and housing materials can add up. Meat breeds like Cornish Cross might eat a lot but grow fast, so you’ll spend less time feeding them overall. It’s a good idea to make a budget before you start. That way, you’ll know how much you’ll likely spend from the time the chicks are born until they’re ready for processing.

Housing

The type of housing you’ll need for your meat chickens depends on the breed. For example, Cornish Cross chickens are usually okay in a smaller space since they don’t move around much. Breeds like Freedom Rangers will need more space to roam. A safe, dry, and clean coop is important for all breeds. Make sure it’s protected from predators and has good ventilation. If you can, include a space for free-ranging; it’s better for the birds and can make the meat taste better.

Feeding

What you feed your meat chickens matters a lot for how fast they grow and how good the meat will taste. Special meat bird feed is available that’s packed with the nutrients they need to grow big and healthy. Cornish Cross birds will eat a lot but grow fast, while Freedom Rangers will benefit from being allowed to forage for some of their food. Always provide fresh water and make sure they have enough food to grow at a healthy rate.

Processing Information

When it’s time to turn your chickens into meat, you have a few options. Some people do this at home, but it requires some know-how and equipment. You’ll need to know how to humanely kill the bird, pluck its feathers, and remove its insides. If that’s not something you’re comfortable with, many places will process the birds for you for a fee. Either way, you’ll want to learn about and follow food safety rules to make sure the meat is good to eat.

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