Back in early spring there was an offer of a broody hen from a local farmer I know. I got all excited and built a nesting box for the broody girl and her eggs. When late spring rolled around and we weren't hosting a hen, I put the chances of that project playing out at slim to nil. Farmers get real busy once winter is over, and with that in mind I wasn't willing to nag him about anything. Besides, if he didn't have a broody hen at the moment, he couldn't exactly produce one. In any case, I've got the nesting box all ready to go, so if and when he has a broody hen in a non-frantic part of the year, I'm ready to accept her on a moment's notice.
But having psyched myself up to host some little chicks, I reconsidered my lack of interest in getting chicks from a hatchery. In the end I asked my farming friend if I could buy a few chicks from her the next time she started another batch of broilers. She gets Cornish Cross chicks from a nursery that is fairly local to us, though they're still delivered by mail. So just over two weeks ago when her order of chicks came in, I went to her farm with the WWOOF volunteers we were hosting and picked up six day-old chicks. Our volunteers at the time were vegetarians, but surprisingly accepting of my plan to raise these birds for our table. I encouraged them to handle the chicks as much as possible, wanting the birds to become accustomed to being picked up by humans.
My setup for the brooder was pretty simple. I just covered a large storage plastic bin with garden caging and filled it with a few inches of wood shavings. Our volunteer constructed a little wooden frame with fine mesh across the top to hold the waterer. This serves to catch any spilled water in a limited part of the wood shavings, and to keep the chicks away from the wet bedding. When the chicks are very tiny, they don't tolerate getting even slightly wet as they must stay very warm indeed. I had set up the brooder with an incandescent bulb hanging from the caging, since my chick-rearing guide warned me that they need 95F (35C) temperatures in their brooder the first week. But these chicks arrived in the midst of a summer heat wave, when indoor temperatures were 80+F (27C) during the day. I turned on the bulb for the first few days and left it on overnight. From observing the chicks it was obvious they didn't need the extra heat. The bulb was positioned in the middle of the brooder, and they scattered to the four corners to sleep. So I happily turned the light off and let them bunch up for warmth if they felt the need. The crazy heat has passed, for the moment, but the chicks still don't seem to need any extra warmth.
You may notice in the picture above that I've been providing weeds to the chicks from day one. Every day I hang some purslane (which is rampant in the garden right now) from the caging, and dandelion or other weeds when they come easily to hand. The chicks seem to like the dangling plants. They jump for individual leaves and tear off what they can with their beaks. Anything that encourages exercise in these chicks is a good thing. Cornish Crosses are, in my opinion, overbred. They are noted for a growth rate so rapid that it causes leg problems because they cannot support their own weight. It's also not uncommon for their bodies to outgrow their organs. Heart failure is a feature in this breed which is typically slaughtered at six weeks when raised industrially. Because we're not lighting them at night, our broilers won't eat 24 hours a day. So they'll grow a bit more slowly and have a few more weeks of life. It should also help prevent organ failure and leg problems.
Last week, when the chicks were less than two weeks old, I started moving them for part of each day to "daycamp." This is just a wire mesh enclosure with their food and water. I place it on a fresh, shady patch of grass and let them hang out there whenever the weather is fair and I'm at home. This wouldn't be feasible for two-week old chicks in spring or fall, but it works in the summer. Fortunately our cat shows absolutely zero interest in the chicks. I'm not complaining about this or anything, but it is odd since he's such an accomplished hunter of chipmunks, baby rabbits and smaller rodents of all kinds. Perhaps the chicks smell to him like our hens, and the hens being clearly out of his range so far as hunting goes, the chicks get sorted into a non-prey category in his little feline mind. The broilers grow very fast indeed and this simple pen is going to be a bit crowded for all of them in a very short time.
I'm guessing it'll be slaughter time in another six to seven weeks. So far the broiler chicks have been very little bother at all. If the rest of the process is this easy I may plan to raise two batches of six birds each next year. That would represent a very significant portion of all the meat we eat in a year - probably something like a third to half of our total meat consumption. Knowing that we can do that much for ourselves on less than an acre would be huge.
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