Saturday, June 11, 2011

Raising Chicks

If you've dreamed of raising your own chickens, you have probably read the long list of things you must do to keep them alive- keeping them an exact temperature, feeding them only chick starter, giving no scraps, etc. You may have decided not to handle them too much because they might get dropped. Maybe you've designed the perfect brooder.

I'm going to share with you a bit of advice the lady at the feed store gave me- "They're chickens!"

Many moons ago my friend got chickens, and within the first twenty-four hours she had offered them apple. It did not take long to assess that this would not kill day old chicks. When ours arrived the other day, we gave them their initial beak dip, a tray of chicken mash, and then a few seed heads from the garden.

I do use the chicken electrolyte stuff for the first couple of days because I figure being shipped is not that easy on a chicken's system. However, we are not using special chick food this time. Maybe they will not grow as fast, but I'm not too worried about that. And the seed heads lead to another way in which I officially disregard some of what I've read about raising chicks.

Those chicks were SO excited by the seed heads that I let the kids take the "pet" chickens outside to see what they would do. The thing that should NOT have been a surprise is that these precocial birds began foraging immediately. They love being in the grass and when given the opportunity, lay on their sides to try their hands at dust bathing. Also, they enjoy feasting on bugs; the children bring them crickets and grasshoppers, but they like looking for them.

They liked it so much that I began questioning the whole brooding them thing. We brood chicks in great big plastic tubs with modified lids. We put pine bedding in the bottom. The fact is, even with pretty rigorous attention, they smell. I have accepted a bit of odor as a given. However, seeing them in the grass made me think that even if they spent only part of the day in the grass the odor in the house would be less.

The next question was keeping them that perfect 90 degrees they supposedly require. I already do not use a thermometer. It is much easier to monitor the chicks. If they are all clustered together or peeping loudly, they are cold and need the light on or closer. If they are all avoiding the light, they are too hot. We were not keeping the light on at all within the first two hours because no amount of moving the light away seemed to bring them into a fluidly moving cluster. Once the light was off, they happily moved throughout the tub doing their chicken business. They still definitely want the light at night, and they want it pretty close to the top of the tubs.

Since they did not seem to want a light during the day, I decided to build a small chick "tractor". The idea was for it to be small enough that Ezra and Phaedra could carry it, but big enough for all the chicks to be in it comfortably. With ample help in figuring out how to do an a-frame, we now have a 3 x 5 grazer. It is about 3 feet tall. It is not predator proof and it has no nest box, but it means the chicks can spend part of each day on grass. There are, of course, problems.

The chicks are so small that it must be completely flush with the ground or they can pop out. You might think, "Big deal!" unless you have tried to put a stiff frame completely flush against the ground. Even very smooth ground has slight variations that would allow a chick to get out. The solution has been to put rolled up beach towels outside the edge to cover any gaps. And within a week or two, they will be big enough that this will be less of a problem.

I wish I has made it narrower because it is pretty hard to fish those little bits of fluff from the far edges. I did put in two doors, but that isn't that much help. I wish I had incorporated handles into the pieces that are about halfway up each side so it would be still easier to carry. I wish I had framed out the door area to give it a bit more security and rigidity.I'm wondering if a couple of squares would work better than a rectangle. And so on.

Still, I'm glad they can be on the grass some. I figure they will be better foragers, which is part of their work. We have been baffled in the past by how long it takes chickens to start foraging when we finally move them from the brooder to outside. Maybe this will solve that problem.

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