Updated July 20, 2020
The Plight Of Large Breed Chickens
Cornish Cross and other large breed chickens (referred to as “broilers” by the meat industry) have been selectively bred by humans exclusively for the purpose of increasing both their body mass and growth rates to make them more efficient to raise and slaughter in vast numbers while increasing overall profitability to large scale farming operations.
Since the 1950’s, when chicken food was fortified with antibiotics and vitamins that could keep them indoors, Cornish crosses have been selectively bred in staggering numbers to almost double the size of their mid-century counterpart, with 80% larger breasts. They now reach industry “slaughter weight” after only 42 days. The industry is actively trying to speed up this growth rate, which will only create more health challenges for them in the future. This genetic propensity towards rapid growth as it stands contributes to a variety of devastating health challenges, especially leg and joint problems and heart failure. A 2008 study of over 50,000 chickens discovered that, by 40 days of age, over 27% of the chickens had impaired walking capability and 3.3% were nearly unable to walk.
In addition to Cornish crosses, we use the term “large breed” to refer to other chickens who have been bred to grow quickly- not as quickly as Cornish crosses, but quicker than other breeds- and are typically marketed as “free-range broilers.” As a group they are often called “colored hybrid broilers” but include many different Trade names such as Freedom Ranger, Red Ranger, and Kosher King. Though other breeds of chickens, such as Orpingtons and Jersey Giants, are sometimes raised for meat, they do not face the same inherent challenges as Cornish crosses and chickens who fall into the category of “free-range broilers,” and are not who we are referring to when we say “large breed.”
In order to best care for these birds, it’s important to know their unique needs compared to other breeds of domestic chicken!
Feeding Large Breed Chickens
It’s very important that you closely monitor the amount of food you’re providing for them as they have been selectively bred to grow very rapidly to the detriment of their health. You should plan on weighing a large breed chicken each month to ensure that they maintain a healthy weight.
They must not be fed “free choice” as they will eat everything in sight. As a result, you may need to keep them in a separate living space from other breeds of chicken. Large breed chickens are highly prone to arthritis, obesity, gout, and heart attacks. Be sure to monitor their health and weight closely as little is known about what they require nutritionally for long term care. On a managed diet, a mature male large breed chicken typically weighs 10-18 pounds, and a mature female large breed chicken typically weighs 8-12 pounds, though some may be naturally bigger or smaller. Because each individual will have their own healthy weight range, paying attention to body condition is very helpful. A healthy large breed chicken will have significant muscle mass on either side of their keel bone. The keel will not be prominent and may even be slightly recessed in relation to the breast muscle.
You may need to modify their food amounts throughout the year. If the birds are laying, you can feed them a “layer” pellet (like Layena) in managed portions, or if not laying, they can be fed a low protein and low calcium food such as Roudybush Maintenance or Purina Game Bird Maintenance feed. If you plan to change their feed when seasonal egg production begins or ends, closely watch them to ensure they do not suffer adverse health reactions from the new food formula. Large breed chickens should receive pellets twice daily and can also receive supplemental greens. A good starting point is to offer roosters 1/3 cup of food and hens 1/4 cup of food per feeding along with a handful of greens. While overfeeding will result in obesity-related health challenges, feeding them too little is also dangerous for their health and nutrition, so try to find the ideal weight maintaining amount of food for each of your large breed birds.
In springtime, when large breed chickens might have more pasture to graze on, bugs, and foliage, be mindful that you may need to cut back on their food to make up for their increased access to calories.
Some sanctuaries have noted that the large breed birds in their care cannot have free choice grit as they ate all of the grit immediately, and thus have to manage grit portions for their residents.
Ensure that there are enough spaces with the feeders you use for every bird to get their fair share of food. If anyone is being left out, you must provide more space so that nobody suffers from malnutrition or complications from overeating.
Housing Needs For Large Breed Chickens
Due to their decreased mobility and increased size, large breed chickens require a bit more mindful housing care than other domestic chickens. Because of their larger size and the fact that they tend to live lower in the coop, large breed chickens typically need more indoor space than smaller breeds of chickens. There are many factors that contribute to how much space each bird needs including activity level, individual personalities, health issues, and flock dynamics, as well as the physical features of the space. For example, a flock of elderly birds with mobility issues will likely need less outdoor space than a younger more active flock. In colder climates, a smaller (but still well ventilated) space will be easier to maintain at a comfortable temperature than a larger space but may be too warm for that same number of birds in a warmer climate. You’ll need to pay attention to the flock- if birds are being picked on, or it seems they don’t have enough room to get away from each other, they likely need more space.
It’s important to ensure that their housing floor is slip-proof to prevent injury. This could be in the form of roughed up concrete, though concrete can eventually hurt their joints. Wood floors require regularly-cleaned slip-proof rubber mats on top, and may eventually rot due to excess moisture in the living space. Dirt flooring is best for their bodies but must have some form of predator-proofing underneath to prevent digging threats. Their living space will likely require a bit more cleaning and maintenance because large breed birds are a bit messier than their smaller relatives and they tend to live lower in their coop.
You’ll need to provide a lot of fresh bedding materials like clean straw and wood shavings. Be aware that cedar wood shavings should not be used with chickens as they can lead to respiratory issues. Pine and aspen are safer choices. Many older large breed birds cannot safely perch at night, so it’s very important to give them a solid elevated sleep structure like a straw bale with daily-replaced bedding on top. Without this special attention to their care, large breed chickens can suffer from terrible pressure sores on their keels, legs, and feet due to their size.
If you have actively laying large breed chickens, you should provide ground-level nesting areas for them to feel safe in. This can be accomplished with two parallel straw bales against a wall with a third on top serving as cover, with the area beneath well-padded for comfort.
Large breed chickens are extra sensitive to extreme temperatures. In the winter, it’s important to provide their housing with a safe heating source (such as ceramic heating panels) if it gets below freezing. In the summer, large breed chickens can experience heat stroke at temperatures of 80 degrees Fahrenheit and higher. In cases like this, make sure that your chickens have an area where they can cool down comfortably and provide fans and ventilation wherever possible.
If you are keeping a large breed chicken in a house, you must keep their living space free of small objects, as they have been known to enthusiastically eat anything they can find in a house.
Flock Safety For Large Breed Chickens
Due to their large size and the way they’ve been intensively bred, there are a few general rules for large breed chicken flock configurations:
- Female large breed chickens should not be kept with males of any bird species, with the exception of small bantam roosters or similarly sized-males, as any attempt at mating can easily tear open their thin skin, causing a potential health emergency
- Male large breed chickens should not be kept with any female chickens as their sheer size can easily cause injuries during attempted mating
- Male large breed chickens generally should not be kept with non-large breed roosters who will likely be quicker and more agile in a fight. Additionally, a large breed rooster will often tire out or become overly stressed from a fight long before his non-large breed opponent, making for a potentially dangerous situation.
As with most rules, there are exceptions but it is imperative that you understand the reasoning behind the rules before deviating from them. It is also crucial that you know the birds involved very well in terms of temperament, health, activity level, etc. before attempting to introduce males and females. When determining housing arrangements for newer animals (after following proper quarantine procedures), you should always adhere to the general rules listed above. However, there have been instances of successfully housing an older, subdued large breed tom turkey with healthy, active Cornish hens. This situation can work as long as the tom does not show any interest in mounting the hens. It requires a significant amount of observation when the tom is first introduced to ensure there are no warning signs of him wanting to mount someone, and it also requires ongoing observation. A living arrangement can work one day but not the next; just because something has worked for a long period of time doesn’t mean it will always work. You should pay close attention to any changes in the tom’s behavior or if he appears more interested in the females, especially in the Spring. You should also pay close attention to the hens- looking for any signs of feather damage, changes in behavior such as hiding, or changes in mobility. You will need to be prepared to alter the living arrangement if the tom shows any interest in mounting the females or if any of the hens develop health or mobility issues, regardless of if they are related to the presence of the tom or not. The tom may realize that a health compromised hen is vulnerable and therefore easier to mount. Even the most mild-mannered, arthritic tom, who you swore would never mount anyone, may take advantage of a hen in a vulnerable state! As with everything else, it is important that you know the animals you are caring for, observe them closely each day for changes, and are prepared to make necessary changes to their living arrangements as needed.
Health Notes For Large Breed Chickens
Due to their physiology, there are differences between large breed chickens and other breeds when it comes to their health and propensity for illnesses:
- Because of their size and propensity for lying down, large breed chickens commonly have a large red area from vent to chest that is feather-free year round.
- Large breed chickens are much more susceptible to foot, hock, and keel sores. It’s important to treat these early to prevent infections such as osteomyelitis.
- Because of their extra weight, large breed chickens are much more prone to bumblefoot, typically manifesting as a pressure sore on their foot pad. Their size can mean that bumblefoot is much more painful than in other birds, requiring pain medication.
- Large breed chickens are especially prone to overheating, so always monitor them on hotter days and take them inside immediately if they show signs of heat exhaustion such as panting, drooping, and collapse. Contact your veterinarian immediately if intervention does not help!
- Because of their near-infinite appetite, large breed chickens are much more prone to an impacted crop, so stay vigilant in monitoring their food intake and crop health.
- Large breed chickens seem to be especially susceptible to joint infections. If a bird seems to have difficulty walking or warm and swollen, red joints, or an open wound or scab on a joint, this could indicate a serious issue that requires a veterinarian to diagnose and treat.
- If a large breed bird stops walking and sits on their hocks, or walks strangely, it might be symptomatic of a damaged ligament. Have your veterinarian look over the bird immediately in this case to rule out other conditions. Unfortunately there is little treatment for this problem.
- All treatments for large breed chickens should be considered on a basis on the amount of stress it will create and how it will impact their overall quality of life.
- If a laying large breed chicken crushes an egg they were nesting on, you must clean the egg remnants out of both their nesting area and thoroughly clean off their body, as the yolk can quickly attract parasites and rodents.
Special Handling Requirements For Large Breed Chickens
Large breed birds require extremely delicate care to ensure their health and safety when handling. Unsafe handling can easily cause them broken bones and heart attacks if they strain against the handler. Follow our Chicken Handling Guide while keeping the following in mind:
- DO NOT chase a large breed bird as it can cause a heart attack. Carefully corral them into a corner first.
- Large breed chickens have much smaller wings, which are harder to control.
- Older large breed birds can die when held or restrained, so stay low to the ground and keep the bird in your lap or on the ground if possible.
- Never flip them onto their side or back as it can cause heart attack and respiratory problems.
- Be very mindful of how calm they are; a panicked bird cannot breathe and large breed birds already have stressed cardiovascular systems- if you need to let them go to calm down, err on the side of extreme caution!
- Do not assume that anyone, even veterinarians, know how to safely handle large breed chickens. Always supervise their handling if not handling them yourself.
To handle a large breed chicken, first corral them into a corner to not cause them extra stress. Carefully place your hand on their back, then move your other hand underneath their keel and use your fingers to gently stabilize their legs. Put their wing against your chest and move your hand on their back onto their other wing to fully secure them. You should stay low to the ground as they would not be able to safely land if they struggled free from a high height! When setting them down, use extra time to ensure their comfort and safety.
Although they are less easy to safely handle, it’s still crucial that you perform regular health examinations on large breed birds as they are especially susceptible to illnesses but are less likely to show symptoms until the illness reaches a harder to treat advanced stage.