Wednesday, August 3, 2011


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.


Mrs. J said...

I think it's really cool that you're giving raising chickens for meat a try. I'm a vegetarian, so I wouldn't do it myself, but I admire people who raise their own meat animals. It's SOOO much better than buying the discount meat at the store and not thinking about where it came from.

I got laying chicks about 3 months ago, so I'm excited that eggs are only a few months away! :)

Hazel said...

Hi Kate,

I didn't comment on your last post because I've been away, but I'm glad you're back- I've missed you. I had wondered if something more than the usual summer mayhem had happened- I'm sorry you've had such a rough time recently.

We're down to 8 hens, and are being cautious about introducing more because our delightful neighbours are still complaining about everything. I'd like to think I could raise meat chickens, but in the mean time I'm considering quail, which are meant to be quiet. Quiet enough for our friends over the fence? I'd better do some more research...

Good to catch up on your blog; take care.

Rick said...

Kate thank god you have returned ! Missed reading your posts, kept checking every day or so and hoping all was well.

Broiler raising is well underway here in Northern MI. We started with 45 which is now down to 35, more than the normal attrition we ususually see.

They are due for processing right around Sept 1 so their outdoor pen (next to the layers run) is getting very smelly. But the taste of the home-raised birds over the winter makes it all worth while.


Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I'll be following your meat chicken experience with interest. It's something we've considered, but the idea of chickens that are so overbred that they can't move around properly has put us off. We've gone with ducks and turkeys instead. But if your program seems to give them a decent life, we may very well follow your lead.

There's something to be said for raising half your year's meat quota in two fell swoops.

Kate said...

Mrs. J, I admire people who live their convictions as well. I'm glad to hear you've got some layer chicks and homegrown eggs in your future.

Hazel, glad to be back; thanks for the kind words. Troublesome neighbors must be so very trying. I'd thought about quail at one point for under the radar poultry production. I'd love to hear about it in detail if you go this route. It's still a possibility for us, but there are a few issues I haven't quite worked out in my mind.

Rick, how very kind of you. It's nice to be missed. That does sound like a high attrition rate. Predators? My farming friend assured me that with the attention I'm able to give the six chicks I've got, I'm likely to bring all of them to slaughter successfully. I had asked her whether I shouldn't start with more, but she suggested otherwise.

Tamar, yeah, it put me off for a while too. But the reality is that the chicken I buy from local farmers who pasture their animals is CX. So I wouldn't really be doing any worse to raise a few myself. I do believe that giving them reasons and space to move around, not lighting them overnight, and putting them on pasture alleviates some of their worst genetic weaknesses. I can say at 2 1/2 weeks I see no problems at all with their mobility. But I'll certainly be honest with you about any problems I see with them over the next six weeks or so.

Wendy said...

I love that you're raising your own chickens, and I can't wait to hear about some of your recipes ;).

We've been raising cornish x for three years. They spend up to four weeks (in the early spring) in the house in a brooder, and then, they go outside into the tractor, and I guess, technically, they'd be considered "pasture-raised." We usually raise them in "batches" of ten to twelve at a time.

This is the best breed for us (if we wish to raise our own chickens), because we have such a small space and a very short growing season, and in order to have enough chicken for my family, they need to grow fast. At eight weeks, these guys are our best option. If I had more land, I might make a different choice.

Lana from Farm Life Lessons said...

Your blog is so encouraging for me to keep looking forward to moving to our acreage so I can get out of the city and into the country where I can raise and produce more of our own food via the land. I'm a backyard farmer with our first flock of chickens right now---they are laying eggs; it is incredible. Once we move, I'll raise some chickens for processing, but having "farm-fresh" eggs is absolutely divine.