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Large Breed Chicken Care Considerations

A large breed rooster looks at the camera outside with another large breed rooster behind them.
Be sure to provide large breed chickens with the specialized care they require! Photo: Triangle Chicken Advocates

This resource has been fully reviewed and updated by a member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff as of October 29, 2021

Before we get started, check out this lovely video made on the topic of some of the basics of Large Breed Chicken Care from our friends at P.E.A.C.E. Canada!

Now, onto the details!

Check Out Our Large Breed Chicken Care Courses!
If you’re looking to learn more about how to care for large breed chickens, head on over to our Compassionate Care Classroom! Basic Large Breed Chicken Care Part 1 and Part 2 cover the information below in addition to much, much more!

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 made it possible to raise chickens 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 foot 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 their flesh, 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 domesticated chicken!

Large Breed Chicks Have Their Own Care Needs
Be aware that large breed chicks have different care needs than adults, especially when it comes to diet and housing. Check out Care Recommendations For Younger Chickens And Chicks for more information regarding their care.

Feeding Large Breed Chickens

Large breed chickens have been bred to grow very large, very quickly, to the detriment of their health. Unfortunately, when it comes to large breed chicken nutrition, almost all of the available scientific information is focused on “productivity” and not what large breed chickens need to live long, healthy lives. Luckily, compassionate caregivers have been taking care of large breed chickens for many years. These caregivers have found that diet and weight management are integral to compassionate large breed chicken care.

Types Of Food

Food labeled for “Broilers” is designed to promote rapid growth and weight gain and absolutely should not be fed to companion large breed chickens. Sanctuaries typically choose between a maintenance or “layer” formula.

Pellets, Crumbles, or Mash?
Because of how quickly they eat, a pelleted and/or soaked food tends to be better for large breed chickens than dry crumbles or dry mash food which contains small particles they can inhale. Going forward we will use the term “primary food” to describe any complete diet chicken/ bird food, including pellets, crumbles, or mash.

Maintenance Diets– Maintenance diets are intended for individuals who are considered “non-producing” and can be a good option for sanctuary large breed chicken residents, especially males or females who are not currently laying eggs. These diets have lower amounts of calcium than “layer” diets, and while different brands and formulations have different protein contents, they typically have less protein than “layer” formulas. Some recommended brands include Roudybush Low Fat Maintenance and Purina Game Bird Maintenance Chow. Roudybush comes highly recommended by some in the mircosanctuary community but may not be feasible for those caring for a large number of birds as it is significantly more expensive than most game bird maintenance foods. 

“Layer” Diets– Hens who are actively laying might benefit from a “layer” food during the laying season, but typically do not need the additional calcium during the times of the year when they are not laying. While some sanctuaries choose to feed a “layer” food all year, others feel that the additional calcium may be detrimental when hens are not actively laying. You might choose to feed a maintenance food, such as those listed above, during the non-laying season and a “layer” pellet during the laying season to accommodate for the differences in nutritional needs. There are many high-quality “layer” foods available, including organic varieties. One popular brand is Layena, but there are many comparable options available.

Transition To New Formulas Gradually
If you plan to alternate between a maintenance and “layer” food, be sure to transition them gradually over to the new food and closely watch them to ensure they do not suffer adverse health reactions from the new food formula. We recommend starting by offering a mix of 25% new food and 75% old for one week, followed by a 50/50 mix for one week, followed by 75% new food and 25% old for a week, and then solely offering the new food.

How Much To Feed Large Breed Chickens

While what you feed large breed chickens is undoubtedly important, how much you feed is equally, if not more, important. Unlike other breeds of chickens, large breed chickens must have their diet restricted. Allowing large breeds chickens to free feed (have unlimited food throughout the day) will lead to severe obesity and obesity-related health issues such as foot, joint, and heart issues and will greatly reduce the length of their life. Additionally, large breed chickens are ravenous eaters and are not good at self-regulating. If left to their own devices, they will often eat until the food runs out or until they physically cannot eat more. Unrestricted access to food, even temporarily, can lead to crop issues such as an impacted crop and or a damaged crop that can no longer empty properly. 

We recommend feeding their primary food along with a handful of greens (such as kale) twice daily. A good starting point is offering roosters 1/3 cup primary food per feeding and offering hens 1/4 cup primary food per feeding. Some people have found it helpful to soak food in hot water for a few minutes before feeding and feel the additional water helps the birds to feel more satiated.  Be sure to sufficiently space out meals- if you feed the afternoon meal too close to the morning meal, it will mean that the chickens are going a long time between their last feeding of one day and the first feeding of the next. Chickens do well with a routine, so it may be helpful to feed them at set times of the day- both for their primary food and any treats.

Flock Arrangements
Because large breed chickens should not be free-fed, it can be challenging to house them with other breeds of chickens who require access to food throughout the day. When possible, it may be best to care for large breed and non-large breed individuals in separate flocks. Otherwise, you’ll need to find a way to ensure your large breed residents do not have access to more food than they should while also meeting the needs of other members of the flock.

It’s a good idea to weigh your large breed chicken residents monthly, and pay attention to their body condition. A healthy adult male large breed chicken typically weighs 10-18 lbs and a healthy adult female typically weighs 8-12 lbs, but of course, you may have outliers who are naturally bigger or smaller, which is why it’s important to also consider their body condition. A healthy large breed chicken will have significant muscle mass on either side of their keel bone. The keel will not be prominent at all and will likely be slightly recessed in relation to the breast muscle. If a large breed chicken has so much muscle on either side of their keel that the bone is significantly recessed, or if they begin to develop a wider stance than normal (see photo below on right), they are too heavy.

Two photos side by side of the same large breed rooster. On the left he is quite big with legs set apart wide, on the right, he looks much more comfortable and is smaller.
Before and after- Bobby Roo weighed 19lbs when he was rescued (left). After losing 5lbs on a healthy diet, Bobby Roo (right) looks much healthier and more comfortable!  Photo: Rooster Haus Rescue

If you find that your residents are gaining or losing weight, adjust their food as needed, but keep in mind that small fluctuations in weight are normal. Don’t automatically adjust their food every time their weight changes. Instead, track weight trends and make adjustments slowly. Just like in humans, yo-yo dieting is not healthy for large breed chickens. Also, consider that individuals eating in a group setting may be gaining/ losing because they are not eating their intended portion. Separating them to eat may be necessary.

Make Sure There Is Room For Everyone To Eat!
Since everyone in the flock will be eating at the same time (versus having food available throughout the day and eating at their leisure), you’ll need to make sure that there is plenty of room for everyone to eat.

Insoluble Grit

Chickens do not have teeth to chew and break down their food; instead, food is broken down in the gizzard, and insoluble grit assists in this process. Chickens naturally eat small pebbles and stones which then stay in the gizzard for some time and help break down food but depending on their housing arrangement, you may need to offer insoluble grit, which can be purchased at most feed stores. Chickens who are solely fed a complete diet primary food (vs. a mix of whole grains) technically do not need grit as this is able to be broken down without it. However, if you are feeding fresh produce or your residents are eating grass and other vegetation in their outdoor space, these types of food do require pebbles or grit to break them down in the gizzard. 

Be aware that 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. Most recommendations about insoluble grit pertain to non-large breed chickens and, therefore, recommend free-choice access. In speaking to some experienced large breed chicken caregivers, it seems that if the birds have access to an outdoor space containing small pebbles, even for only limited periods of time, they will likely find enough natural grit to ensure proper digestion year-round. If you feel your large breed chicken residents need supplemental insoluble grit but have found you cannot offer it free-choice, you may want to discuss how to safely supplement with your veterinarian. Based on anecdotal information from the sanctuary community, we suspect you likely only need to supplement with a small amount and can offer it rather infrequently.

If They Don’t Want To Eat
Large breed chickens tend to continue eating even with they are unwell, so not wanting to eat is a serious concern. A large breed chicken who is less enthusiastic about eating than usual, or who refuses to eat all together, should be evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Housing Needs For Large Breed Chickens

Be Sure To Read More On How To Provide The Best Home For Chickens
The following are additional considerations for creating a home for large breed chickens. Our resource Creating A Good Home For Chickens covers other important considerations such as temperature and ventilation considerations and predator-proofing. If you plan to care for large breed chickens in your home, check out Sharing Your Home With Chickens.

Space

Because of their larger size and the fact that they tend to live lower in their living space, 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, and a flock of roosters will typically require more space than a flock of hens. 

Flooring

Because of their size and propensity for foot and joint issues, it’s important to ensure that their housing floor is slip-proof to prevent injury. Take into account that your large breed residents may run when they are excited to eat or may move quickly if startled, so you need flooring that gives them adequate traction at all times, not just when they are calmly walking. Even a minor slip could cause serious injury to a large breed chicken, so it is imperative that you find a flooring and bedding combination that protects against this. Like the rest of the structure, the flooring must also be predator-proof. Concrete typically needs to be covered in dirt or textured rubber mats because it is hard on feet and joints. Wood floors can be very slippery, especially when combined with straw bedding. Dirt flooring is easier on their joints but must have some form of predator-proofing underneath to protect against digging threats.

Bedding

You’ll need to provide a lot of fresh bedding materials like clean straw, hemp, or wood shavings. Be aware that cedar shavings should not be used with birds as they can lead to respiratory issues- pine and aspen are safer choices. While some individuals do fine on straw bedding, be aware that the use of straw carries an increased risk of aspergillosis, so may not be appropriate depending on other environmental factors and your residents’ overall health. 

Watch Those Crops!
In some instances, large breed chickens will obsessively eat their bedding. This tends to be more common with younger large breed chickens, and they often grow out of the behavior, but it can lead to serious crop issues (which can have fatal consequences if left untreated), so you must make modifications until the behavior subsides. If you find that large breed chickens in your care are eating their bedding, swap it out for sheets or non-woven blankets for a period of time. This behavior is usually temporary, but be sure to watch closely when they are reintroduced to their regular bedding to ensure that they are no longer eating their bedding. 

Roosts

Most mature large breed chickens cannot safely perch, so it’s very important to give them a solid, slightly elevated sleep structure like a straw bale or shelf with a thick layer of bedding on top. Without ample cushion in their sleep areas, large breed chickens are at an increased risk of developing pressure sores on their hocks and keel.

Nesting Areas

If you care for actively laying large breed chickens, they’ll need safe nesting areas, but the typical nest boxes available at farm supply stores probably won’t work. An easy way to provide nesting areas to large breed chickens is to arrange three straw bales to create a ground-level nook. Place two bales against the wall with about a two-foot gap between them. These can be arranged lengthwise or widthwise depending on your space. Then put the remaining bale on top so that it creates a roof over the opening and overlaps with each bale. Ensure there is enough overlap that the bale is secure. Alternatively, you might build something from scratch or repurpose something you already have to create a safe nesting nook. 

Be sure to fill the nook with ample bedding and to create enough of these spaces so that hens are not fighting over nesting areas- a few hens will likely be able to share one nesting area. Watch for individuals who crush their eggs and get covered in yolk. They will need to be cleaned to prevent issues such as flystrike.

Cleaning

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. In addition to regularly cleaning bedding used on the floor, be sure to change the bedding in their nesting and roosting areas daily.

Temperature Control

Large breed chickens tend to be more sensitive to extreme temperatures than other chickens. Be sure to familiarize yourself with signs a chicken is too hot or too cold and be prepared to offer cooling opportunities in warm weather and a safe heat source (such as a ceramic heat panel) in cold weather. Large breed chickens are more susceptible to heat exhaustion than smaller breeds of chickens. As humidity rises, the temperature at which a chicken is likely to develop heat-related illness lowers. Therefore, the most dangerous times are periods of high humidity and high temperatures.

Three large breed roosters standing in a water tub.
Foot baths with cool water can be a great way for residents to safely cool off on a hot day.  Photo: Triangle Chicken Advocates

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. Additionally, the weight of a non-bantam rooster can put undue strain on their already compromised legs and joints.
  • 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 individuals 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 male turkey with healthy, active large breed hens. This situation can work as long as the large breed 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. 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 individuals you are caring for, observe them closely each day for changes, and are prepared to make necessary changes to their living arrangements as needed. Please note, there have been reports of non-large breed (or “heritage” breed) male turkeys seriously injuring chickens, and therefore we do not recommend housing them with chickens.

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 strip from vent to chest that is feather-free year round.
  • Large breed chickens are much more susceptible to pressure sore on their hocks and/ or keel. Once they develop, pressure sores can be difficult to resolve, especially if they are the result of a chronic mobility issue, so prevention and early intervention is key.
  • Because of their extra weight, large breed chickens are much more prone to bumblefoot than other chickens. It’s important to pay close attention to the bottom of their feet so you can catch and respond to early signs of bumblefoot.
  • Large breed chickens are especially prone to overheating, so always monitor them on hot and/ or humid days and move them to a cooler space immediately if they show signs of heat exhaustion such as panting, drooping, and collapse. Call your veterinarian immediately if one of your residents appears to be suffering from heat exhaustion.
  • 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 are especially prone to both osteoarthritis and septic arthritis. Be sure to contact your veterinarian if one of your residents is showing signs of mobility issues and to talk about the possibility of septic arthritis, even if the individual is not showing obvious signs of infection. Evaluation by a veterinarian is key because there are a variety of causes for mobility issues besides arthritis including soft tissue damage, neurological issues, or weakness from an underlying health issue.
  • The combination of their large size and likelihood of being handled roughly (or even just incorrectly) by humans outside of compassionate settings makes it not uncommon for newly rescued large breed chickens to arrive with a fractured wing. In some cases, individuals will arrive with compound (or open) fractures- this means that some of the bone is exposed. It is imperative that individuals with compound fractures receive urgent veterinary care. While some veterinarians may express reluctance about performing a wing amputation, especially due to concern about the infection spreading to the air sacs and lungs (because of connection between the respiratory and skeletal systems), compassionate caregivers have seen many individuals go on to live happy and mostly normal lives following a wing amputation (or even a double wing amputation), though these individuals may have balance issues, and without their wing(s) they may be more sensitive to the cold.
  • Large breed chickens more prone to heart failure than other breeds, with Cornish crosses typically being more at risk than other large breed chickens. However, the evidence shows that you can greatly reduce this risk by maintaining your residents at a healthy weight.
  • Large breed chickens are notorious for eating things they shouldn’t. Therefore, it’s imperative to keep their living space free of any items they could ingest. If one of your residents ingests a foregin body, be sure to contact your veterinarian immediately. In the event that they ingested something sharp, made of heavy metals, or something else potentially toxic, the chicken will need immediate attention to retrieve the object before it causes toxicity or perforation of the GI tract.

Challenges With Veterinary Care
Not all avian veterinarians have had the opportunity to work with large breed chickens. Unfortunately, some veterinarians may even subscribe to the myth that it is “cruel to allow” large breed chickens to live past the age at which they are typically killed. Be sure to find a veterinarian who is willing to treat your large breed chicken residents with the same care and compassion as any other companion bird. If you feel they are recommending euthanasia prematurely, be sure to seek a second opinion.

Special Handling Requirements For Large Breed Chickens

A caregiver holding a large breed hen.
Large breed chickens like Helga need to stay close to the ground if at all possible!

While all chickens should be handled carefully, large breed chickens require additional consideration. Improper handling can easily cause injury and even respiratory distress or heart attack. When handing a large breed chicken keep the following in mind:

  • DO NOT chase a large breed bird as it can cause stress that could trigger a heart attack or could cause them to overexert themselves and overheat. Instead, carefully corral them into a corner or other tight space so you can safely pick them up.
  • Due to their size, large breed chickens are very prone to becoming stressed during restraint. It is imperative to watch them closely for any signs of stress and to be prepared to set them down if they becomes too stressed. Keeping them closer to the ground while being restrained will make setting them down quickly easier!
  • If the chicken’s comb or wattles start turning purple and/ or they are severely open-mouth breathing, you should put them down immediately. Minor open-mouth breathing is not uncommon, but be sure to pay close attention to the chicken’s color, and watch for progression to more severe open-mouth breathing.
  • It can be harder to keep a large breed chicken’s wing safely against their body. If they get a wing free, be sure to set them down to avoid injury to their wing.
  • Large breed chickens should never be flipped on their back– doing so could result in respiratory distress or even heart attack. Instead, we recommend that you gently tip them slightly onto their side and keep them in your lap. For some individuals, even being only slightly tipped onto their side might be too much, in which case you will need to keep them upright.
  • Never drop or toss a large breed chicken from any height- doing so could result in serious injury.
  • Do not assume that anyone, even veterinarians, know how to safely handle large breed chickens. Always supervise their handling if not handling them yourself. If this is not possible, such as during certain procedures, be sure to have a conversation about safe restraint for large breed chickens.
  • Although large breed chickens can be more difficult to restrain, regular health examination are still imperative! If someone has a hard time with restraint, it may be easier to have one person restrain while another performs the examination. You may also need to break up the examination in order to cut down on the amount of time they are restrained.

SOURCES:

Basic Large Breed Chicken Care Part 1 and Part 2

Large Breed Chicken Care | Farm Sanctuary

The Genetically Modified Chicken | One Green Planet

How The Chicken Conquered The World | Smithsonian Magazine

Updated on March 22, 2022

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