Tag Archives: chickens

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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life (& death?) on the farm

Farming is about to get a whole lot scarier.
Today, I ordered 27 day-old chicks from Belt Hatchery that will arrive on August 21. The group will include 11 Rhode Island Red pullets (females), 1 RIR cockerel (male), 10 Ameraucana pullets, and 4 Pearl White Leghorn pullets. (I wanted to order from McMurray — I was seduced by their great website — but they didn’t have the availability I wanted until September. Belt is in California, so the chicks won’t have to travel as far, which is better for them anyway.)
A bit of info about the breeds (gleaned from hours upon hours of online chicken research): RIRs are supposed to be hardy, friendly, prolific brown egg-layers. They’re sometimes referred to as a “dual purpose” breed, meaning that they lay eggs—and aren’t bad for eating, either. Unlike various brown-egg laying Sex Links, they’ll breed true. [Sex Links are hybrids, just like seeds labeled F-1, and the next generation won’t necessarily share the parents’ traits. Sex Links are particularly convenient for poultry suppliers because the males and females are different colors, allowing them to be sexed easily upon hatching. Sexing non-sex-linked chickens is a tricky business; you have to pay a very trained eye to do it, and apparently even with a good chicken sexer you still sometimes end up with surprise roosters. When Henrietta starts to crow, it’s probably time to shorten the name to Henry.] By contrast, RIRs are essentially an ‘heirloom’ variety—a breed that’s been refined and maintained by farmers over the years.

Next up: Ameraucanas, which are prized for their ability to lay green and blue eggs. Egg-sellers at the farmer’s market have told me that these eggs are extremely popular with customers, and although Ameraucanas are less prolific than some layers, the color may just be worth the effort. (Silly, isn’t it, how the aesthetic becomes so important — it’s not like the eggs have any difference when it comes to nutritional value.) They’re often confused with Araucanas, which also lay blue eggs, but are rumpless and have very dramatic ear tufts. We’ll see what I get from Belt Hatchery — although they say they’re selling Ameraucanas, I might end up with an “Easter Egger,” a layer of blue eggs that doesn’t quite fit either breed standard…

Last but not least, Leghorns: the type of chicken that are most commonly found in big-scale, confinement, battery-type operations. (As such, they’re mostly likely to have produced the eggs in the carton at your corner grocery store while enjoying a space the size of an 8.5 by 11″ piece of paper.) Leghorns are extremely prolific–300 eggs a year. They lay white eggs, and have a great feed-to-egg conversion ratio. In other words, they’re lightweight and produce a lot of eggs for a little feed: a good bang for your buck. Some owners say they’re skittish and people-shy, but others disagree and say that the breed doesn’t matter as much as handling the chicks at an early age. I plan on playing with these little guys a lot! (Note: If you’re interested in other breeds, check out this great chart, which has an awesomely condensed wealth of chicken information.)

So that’s the practical, calculated side of the equation. But then there’s the other side, the emotional side, the part where I admit: I’m simultaneously thrilled and utterly terrified to get these birds. They’re adding an important part to our little farm — a great way to compost kitchen scraps into unbeatable fertilizer, not to mention the opportunity to expand our operation to sell eggs at the farmer’s market. But they’re alive in a way that vegetables aren’t, and when it comes to that kind of alive, I get all mushy inside. The woman from Belt Hatchery on the phone today started talking about how, if one of the chicks dies in transit, I can call and get a refund. And I’m thinking, who cares about the refund? How am I going to deal with a tiny, dead day-old baby bird?! I freak out when I accidentally snap a runner off a bean plant while trying to hook it on the fence. The first time I did it, I seriously felt my heart sink to about knee-height. So right now, I’m just praying that all 27 of my little birds make it safely to the post office.

And that’s when the really scary part begins.

Breaking off the occasional bean runner didn’t slow down the plants too much. The same won’t hold true for chicks!

*Stay tuned for photos of the on-the-cheap brooder I built, and the coop built out of recycled doors that is currently a figment of my imagination…

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