Slowing down fast growing chicken to improve bird health and get better flavor

We raised two very different flocks of chicken this year. Both were raised on pasture in our chicken tractors, both were given organic feed to supplement that lush pasture, and both were the same breed from the same hatchery, the famously fast-growing Jumbo Cornish rock breed that makes the news a lot these days.  Everything we did was the same for each flock except for one thing: how much time they had access to food every day.  

pasture raised broiler on lush grass

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The three major feeding practices for raising broiler chickens

Before we get into the comparison of our two flocks from this year, let’s go over the basics of feeding broilers.  Generally speaking, there are three options:

Full time access to food 24 hours a day

First-time farmers might naively feed their broilers like this. It is how most people feed hens.  But hens are often heritage (or close to heritage) breeds that are resilient and were not bred to be eating machines.  Unlike a broiler, a hen will hold back, and many breeds actually prefer to forage.

But listen, you cannot go with instinct when it comes to these intense, high growth breeds.

They are not like hens, and will positively stuff themselves with food, and come back for more after a short break. This can lead to health issues and higher rates of mortality.

12 hours on, 12 hours off

This easy alternative to 24 hours of access is probably the most popular feed solution folks use with these fast-growth breeds.  And this is because, as we’ve seen in our experience, fewer birds have health issues when they have their feed taken away for those 12 hours.  So you have less loss.

And on top of that, the yield of meat per bird remains close to the yield from birds with 24 hours of access.

It’s surprising this works so well, since you’d think most of those 12 hours would be at night anyway, when the birds can’t possibly be stuffing themselves, but there are a few hours as the sun rises and sets that they are left to forage and relax, which makes all the difference.  This is the economical solution that business-minded farmers can exploit for the most profit while reducing the cost that comes with wasted feed and dead birds.

Two restricted feeding windows of about 30 minutes

This feeding practice goes beyond the 12 hours method above with two goals in mind:

Further reduce risk of health issues while promoting foraging of plants and bugs for healthier, tastier meat.

In the morning, you bring the food out, then 30 minutes later you take it back.  The birds take a break from eating, and then get to work on the plants and bugs in the vicinity.  We raise our birds on what is essentially an overgrown lawn, so there is a lot for them to browse.  And in our experience, birds raised like this not only stay healthier and are generally more active and lively, they also taste much, much better.  And according to some research, the meat (and fats) of a properly pastured chicken are actually better for you.

Cornish rock cornish cross broiler on grassy lush pasture

The Numbers: How do these broiler feeding methods compare in practice?

This year we raised one flock on the 12 hours on, 12 hours off practice, and the other flock was given 30 minutes of access 2x a day.  And we collected data!

And lucky for you, we’ve been collecting data for all of our flocks!  In the past few years, we’ve tried all three of the feeding practices and are quite intrigued by the results.

The key numbers we’ll pay attention to are:

  • Mortality rates
  • Average processed weight (after slaughter, plucking, and evisceration)
  • Feed conversion (lbs feed to produce 1 lb of processed weight)

Please note that these numbers are based on our experience and our farming practices, and are not necessarily the same as what you’d experience and certainly not the same as what commercial farms experience.   Other factors are at play, including weather, predators, and level of experience.  But we think the differences between the feeding methods are clear and would likely carry over to other farms.

So without much further ado, here are the averages across all of our broilers raised to date:

Effects of Different Broiler Feeding practices
(averaged across several flocks)

Feeding Practice Mortality rate Avg processed weight Feed conversion
24 hours access 20% 6.21 4.3
12 hours on,
12 hours off
7% 6.08 2.5
2x 30 min feedings 0% 4.99 2.1

Hey look at that! We had no loss in our flocks with the two separate feeding windows, that feels very, very good!

But oof, tables are boring. Here’s a chart!  With… colors? YOU BET!

Effects Of Different Broiler Feeding Practices on mortality, weight yielded, and feed conversion rates

Clearly, the mortality rate in our experience has dropped right along with a reduction in time allowed to access feed.  This is great.  Lower mortality means healthier birds. We can tell you first hand that they were more active, loved to forage, and were generally more enjoyable to watch. And we think a happy farmer is a better farmer, and better farmers raise better food.

You’ll also notice that the average processed weight has gone down too.  In our experience, you lose about 1 lb of processed weight per bird when you feed for about 30 minutes twice a day a day vs. 12 or 24 hours of access every day.  Also note that this reduced yield is slightly counteracted by better feed conversion ratios, so the effect on yields may not hurt as much when you consider feed costs as well.

So which do you choose? Profit? Or better tasting, humane, and healthy?

pasture raised organic fed cornish game hens roasted to perfection for banner

What it all comes to is this:

Are you in it to make money or are you trying to improve the quality of the path that food takes to get to the plate?

If you are in it for profit, you should probably go for the 12 hours on, 12 hours off method of feeding your broilers. You may experience some loss to health issues, but it will easily be made up for by increased meat yields.

If you want to have healthier birds that we think taste much, much better, the 2 feeding windows are the way to go.

I can tell you now that we’re never going back to 12 on, 12 off.  It’s just not worth it when animals day to day lives are affected by difficulty walking, general inactivity, and having little interest in foraging–an instinct that can be completely erased by feeding practices!

And if you are really interested in this stuff, definitely check out our book, “Dinner From Scratch: How To Raise Meat Chickens”. Click here!