Tag Archives: brooder

stretching their wings

I was always perplexed by the way a bitch (as in, female dog) will eventually turn on her pups — snarling as the little ones (who are, by then, not so little, with not so little teeth) try to continue nursing from her. Some dogs, it seems, will simply run away to leak milk in private somewhere the pups can’t find them. Other mothers growl and snap at the pups, sending a crystal-clear ‘it ain’t gonna happen, sweetheart’ signal.

It seems cruel — after all, what could be cuter than a puppy? — but it makes sense. Eventually young creatures outgrow the need for coddling, and past a certain point, coddling actually hinders them.

So it was with the chicks. Since we picked them up from the USPS that fateful August day, they’ve been kept in the garage in boxes. At first, thirty chicks fit handily in one 90-quart Rubbermaid container. (At this stage, for a sense of scale, three chicks also fit handily in the palm of my hand.) But after a week, they needed two boxes. And after two weeks, they let their dissatisfaction with their two-box living quarters be known by pecking one another. More space was needed: I started putting chicks in cardboard boxes, Jasper’s cat carrier, whatever I could get my hands on. And let me tell you, thirty chicks in six different containers is a heck of a lot more work than thirty chicks in one container.

That’s twelve dishes constantly in need of refilling — because as the chicks have quadrupled (maybe quintupled!) in size, they’ve developed the klutzy-teenager habit of knocking over anything that contains something useful. Water dishes are a particular favorite, and knocking them over can create a serious chicken health hazard.

People talk about toxic mold growing in wet litter, but I didn’t find any visible mold. No, my biggest problem with constantly upended water dishes: Wet chicken litter smells not like manure, but like ammonia — a component of their excretions, and a known lung irritant. Given birds’ sky-high rates of respiration, they’re especially susceptible to lung irritants. (In fact, pet parrots can die just from being exposed to a hot non-stick pan, which releases toxic gases during cooking. Word to Polly: don’t cook the cracker in Teflon.)

The chicks’ propensity to knock things over meant that I spent a good portion of the last two weeks scooping out wet, ammonia-rich litter, drying it in the sun, replacing it, and then watching the chicks — the moment they had fresh litter — knock over another water dish and wet the litter again.

So, the point is, I can empathize with mama mutt. I promise: I didn’t growl at the chicks, bite them, or even run away from them, exactly — but it was quite gratifying to drop twenty-five of my not-so-little brood off at the coop this morning. And even more gratifying to watch their delight and terror at suddenly finding themselves in so relatively vast a space. We started them out in the top level of our two-level coop condo, and it was hilarious to watch the first pioneer — a bold little Leghorn — press into the undiscovered territory of the ground floor. (She alternated between curiosity, bravado, and abject terror at suddenly finding herself alone, without any of the protection afforded by her flock.) Eventually she was joined by an Araucana. After an hour or so, I tossed a few ears of sweet corn onto the ramp between the levels; about half the flock took the plunge and followed the corn onto the ground floor.

Also gratifying: the chicks’ waterer is now a large five-gallon bucket. (Good luck knocking that one over, guys! Er, knock on wood.) Their feeder is also a five-gallon bucket. This means I have just two vessels to refill for twenty-five chicks — and hopefully I won’t be refilling these large containers that often.

Okay, so I mentioned that I only moved 25 chicks this morning. The other five are still here, but they have the run of the brooder: one large box houses just two birds, the other just three. They’re still under mama-watch until their peer-inflicted scabs heal — at which point they, too, will get the boot. And I’m trying to keep them outside as much as possible, where they seem to revel in the sun, spreading out their wings to luxuriate in it, dust-bathing in the pine shavings, and eying the yard’s greenery with considerable curiosity.

It’s 5 p.m. Now, the only question is: can I resist the urge to drive over to the field and check on the little ones just one more time before morning?

Ducky, the biggest Araucana (named after the uber-happy character in The Land Before Time who says “Yupyupyup!”) surveys the brooder box.  You can see she’s almost as tall as the box itself.

Ducky surveys her new home — and, presumably, deems it quite satisfactory.

A pioneering White Leghorn is the first to explore the coop’s lower level.

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chicks taking off

They grow up so fast! Just a few days ago, they were in eggs that would have fit neatly into this box. (Now they’re really free-range.) Only six days old, the chicks are already stretching their wings. The brooder has become a runway: the girls take turns racing up and down the box lengthwise, seeing how many of their sisters they can clear in one fast-flapping leap.

Note to potential future chick owners: Don’t give the chicks sphegnum moss as bedding. A couple of books I read mentioned moss as an ideal chick litter, but as soon as I put it in the brooder, the little sillies started eating it. I did some lightning-quick Google research, and one website mentioned that moss can expand twentyfold when wet. (Picture this happening in chicks’ stomachs after a drink. BAD news.) I quickly pulled out the moss, put down some interim paper towels, and raced back to the hardware store (where I’d just purchased the moss) to buy some pine shaving bedding. The reason I didn’t buy the pine bedding in the first place: on the label, it clearly states not to use it in an enclosed living situation. But hoards of other online chick-owners swore by it, so I trusted them — sure enough, the chicks are doing just fine. Ah, I love the American fear of litigation that leads every company to overstate potential hazards…

The only real hazard, so far, with the chicks: they take up a ton of my time. Sure, some of this is necessary — I’ve had to pick poop off a few pasty butts, plus they’re constantly filling their waterer with pine shavings, and they’re always on a mission to drench the brooder that’s supposed to stay clean and dry — but some of it is pure pleasure. If you’ve never chick-watched, a word to the wise: it’s like Desperate Housewives, only cuter. They scratch in the bedding, quibble over kibble, fall asleep haphazardly — on the feeding trough, under the feeding trough, or in adorable little chick-carpets, all the sisters intertwined — and beat their tiny little stumpy wings so hard they almost outsmart Bernoulli and fly.

The funniest thing happened when Emmett and I were playing with them this evening. His cell phone rang. All of the chicks simultaneously jumped up, then went silent. The phone rang again. A second jump, higher this time; then they went immediately into a duck-and-cover drill. Three quarters of them went to one end of the brooder, a quarter went to the other.  Moving as one, they dropped to the ground, packed tightly together, and pretended to be asleep. A few happened to end up on Emmett’s hand; he lifted his hand, and like stubborn little opossums feigning death they refused to move. It was the strangest thing — some evolutionary adaptation, I’m guessing. Perhaps the ring happened to be the same note as a hawk’s cry?

Will post more tomorrow. After a long evening spent picking beans, I’m tired. Off to bed…

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the chicks cometh!

Farmflash:

  • American man can keep farm in Saskatchewan, after all — although his children won’t necessarily be able to inherit it.
  • Prince Charles called GM foods the world’s worst environmental disaster; echoes in India agree. (Sad fact of the day: in the past decade, 200,000 Indian farmers have taken their own lives.)

Foggy River News:

At 7:45 a.m., I received a call from the post office: “Lynda?”

“Yes.”

“Your birds are here.”

With that, Emmett and I took off for the post office — which isn’t technically open at 7:45 a.m. Per the postal worker’s instructions we went around back to the loading dock, where dozens of post office trucks lined up, their drivers just beginning to trickle in for the day’s deliveries. I found a friendly truck driver who bustled through the “Authorized Postal Workers Only” doors to locate my chicks. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself holding a rather unusual cardboard box — one festooned with breathing-holes and cheeping loudly.

As Emmett and I smiled over the noisy box, the helpful truck driver asked, “What kinds of chicks did you get?”

I rattled off the names: Rhode Island Reds, White Leghorns, Araucanas.

“Rhode Island Reds will eat you out of house and home,” the woman informed us. “White Leghorns will lay their hearts out for you. And Araucanas will be your friendliest, nicest birds.”

“I take it you’re a chicken fancier,” I said, a bit surprised by the deluge of advice.

“I used to be,” the lady responded. “Now I’m a truck driver.”

With that, we rushed the babies home, anxious and excited. Did they all survive the trip? Would they be healthy? Were there really thirty chicks in this small cardboard box — was the noise, which flowed intermittently from the trunk of my station wagon, really 30 chicks’ worth of peeping? We pulled into the garage for the moment of truth:

We slid the cardboard box out from between the harvesting coolers, gently put it on the garage floor and knifed through the tape.  Ta-da:  we were, indeed, hearing 30 chicks’ worth of peeping. Thanks to Belt Hatchery (a family-owned operation with an extremely friendly and helpful staff), we are now the proud owners of 30 happy little chicks: 12 Rhode Island Reds, 6 White Leghorns, 10 Araucanas, one mystery chick (which we think is a Buff Orpington), and one Rhode Island Red cockerel (helpfully marked with a daub of paint on his noggin.)

One by one, we moved the birds from the cardboard box into the brooder, dipping each chick’s beak into the waterer so it would know where to get a drink. We didn’t have to tell them where to find the food — they immediately starting attacking the miniature trough, pecking like their little lives depended on it. At first, none too shy, a few of them squeezed the greater part of their little bodies into the trough’s feeding holes like little burrowing chick-gophers. We quickly learned to fill the trough up to the very tip-top so they wouldn’t wriggle themselves in and get stuck.

We also checked each chick for pasty butt, a rather rude procedure that was met with more than a few disgruntled cheeps. (Note: if, five years ago, you’d have told me that one day I’d be parting the butt-feathers of baby chicks to see if poop was causing their vents to stick together, I would have laughed in your face. But today there’s irrevocable proof that I have, indeed, inspected chick-butts.)

Now some of the babies are sleeping, others are clambering on top of the sleeping ones, still others are eating or drinking or exploring the farthest reaches of the brooder. Already I can tell that the different breeds have slightly different personalities. The leghorn chicks (yellow) are pretty laid back. The Rhode Island Reds (ruddy) are feisty, sassy little things, prone to climbing right over the other chicks and/or trying to eat their sisters’ wingfeathers. (Within fifteen minutes, the chicks had managed to upset the waterer, forming a paper towel swamp and forcing me to transfer all the chicks to our back-up plastic tub. I blame the RIRs.) The Araucanas (black & brown beauties) are somewhere in the middle, and seem particularly content to be hand-held.

The little ones seemed a bit chilled after their journey from Fresno and huddled under the heat lamp for a while before spreading out across the brooder:

I’ll keep you updated on their progress over the next few weeks, and offer any tips or lessons learned in case you find yourself ordering some baby fuzzy butts in the near future. (Warning: they’re addictive. Watching chicks is kind of like watching TV, only better.) For now, I just hope they get big enough, soon enough to eat our surplus crop of chard and beans while the plants are still producing!

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the che(e)p brooder

I made the decision to buy day-old chicks instead of older pullets or laying hens. Why? Simple math: day-old chicks are about $2 each (for females), whereas a laying hen will set you back anywhere from $15-30.

30 chicks times $2 = $60. Pretty manageable on a farming budget, if I can keep the other costs down.

But 30 hens times $20 each = ouch. No thanks!

And while there are some additional expenses associated with day-old chicks — they require a brooder, plus more feed to get to the laying stage — in my estimation, the little guys will still save me a bundle. (Also, I’ll get the experience of hand-rearing a flock from day one, which I’m pretty excited about.)

So how about those other expenses? A commercial brooder will set you back $200. Fortunately, the internet can make a brooder a whole lot more cheaply. (Ah, I love the internet.)

I stumbled across this brilliant site, and on the advice of the author, headed straight to Wal-Mart. I really only ended up buying the 90 qt. tubs at Wal-Mart — the rest of the materials were easier to find (and equally cheap) at our local Ace Hardware or feed store. (By the way, the tubs are now $11. Inflation, I guess.) And now, onto my slightly revised cheep brooder design…

Quick revised list of required materials:

  • 90 qt. tub (one or two, depending on flock size)
  • clip-on flood lamp
  • red 100-watt bulb for lamp
  • hardware cloth
  • heavy-duty stapler
  • 2 pieces of wood (at least 3′ long, whatever sort you have lying around will probably do the trick)
  • chick feeder
  • chick waterer
  • paper towels to line tub (not pictured)

And here are a few slight modifications to the original design that, in my mind, make the brooder just a tad easier to build (as well as reusable for the future):

(1) For those of us who aren’t planning on raising chicks 24/7/365, why wreck a perfectly good storage tub lid? (After the chicks are grown, these tubs will–with a little bleach–make great harvesting tubs for bringing produce to market.) So instead of cutting into the plastic lid and ruining its usefulness as a storage container, just take two pieces of wood (here I used some extra wood flooring material, but two by fours or two by twos would also work), staple the hardware cloth to the wood, and voila, you’ve saved the tub lid for future use. (Note: the hardware cloth takes a bit of bending, as it’s curved from being in a roll. You can see I don’t quite have it straight yet in the photo, but I eventually wiggled it into flat submission.)

(2) Don’t mess around with mounting a lamp on the hardware cloth. Instead, get a flood lamp that clips on to the side of the tub. The whole lamp — including the reflector, clamp, and guard — was a tad under $10, and the red 100-watt bulb was $7. (Red, incidentally, reduces the instances of the chicks pecking one another.) This type of lamp also seems more useful for future purposes — it could easily be clipped inside a coop, or wherever else you might need a bit of light for that matter. The clip is quite strong, so I’m not too worried about it falling off (knock on wood).

(3) I don’t know how much hardware cloth the other folks used, but get 1 foot of 3-foot wide hardware cloth, which will cover 2 side-by-side tubs quite nicely and cheaply.

Note: I bought 2 tubs, since I’m thinking that 27 chicks will pretty quickly outgrow one. (I haven’t gotten a second feeder & waterer yet, but they’re only $3 each, so I think I can spring for another set soon!) I’d imagine that if you were only raising 10 or so chicks, they’d be fine with one tub. In that case, if you wanted to save the plastic lid, you could use a half-plywood, half-hardware-cloth combo for the top.

Anyway, there you have it. For a grand total of $40, you too can build a brooder with mostly reuseable parts! I’ll let you know how well it works once I get the chicks and test it out. Until then, you can rest assured that the design has the official tail’s-up seal of approval from Jasper the Cat.

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