Every spring, the most frustrating battle we fight is with raccoons. They’re coming out after a long winter, many have litters of young to feed, and they’re all hungry. And our young birds make the perfect prey: small, utterly helpless, and delicious.
For the last two weeks, we’ve had 56 baby birds in a secure brooder in the barn. It’s a 4×4 foot plywood box, two feet tall, with half the roof also of solid plywood. The other half is chicken wire, to allow fresh air, but even that wire is securely tied down most of the time to keep it cat-proof. (Think Sylvester and Tweety Bird; the barn cats love to hover on top of the brooder and gaze longingly at the young chicks inside.) Inside the brooder is a heat lamp, high protein (21%) poultry starter feed, and a two gallon watering fount.
Most of the birds themselves (40) are cornish cross chickens, the most common commercial meat breed. They’ll be ready to butcher at 8 weeks. The other 16 are a light-colored egg laying breed; with the light-colored feathers, they’ll be easy to distinguish from the black-and-white Barred Rocks we raised last year. If we didn’t alternate colors, and always raised the same egg-laying breed, we’d never be able to tell how old the mature hens are. After two years, their productivity drops dramatically and they need to go in the soup pot. By staggering the breeds, we always know which batch of hens is due for butchering.
Anyway, we tend to move the chicks out to pasture pens at 10-14 days of age, when they’re feathered well enough to do without the the supplemental heat. We make the call as to the exact day based on the weather. If it’s sunny and warm, and no rain is forecast, they can go out as early as 9 or 10 days. (Birds we raise in the summer go out very early.) But if it’s in the mid 40s or 50s and dreary, as it is this week, we give them a few extra days to feather up.
Yesterday was moving day. Our pasture pens are 4-foot by 8-foot, two feet high, with solid plywood running the length of each long side. The frames are 2x2s or 2x4s, but we tend to use the former a lot more than the latter; 2x4s are overkill, and make the pens too heavy. I used to cover the short ends of the pens with chicken wire, but the raccoons (remember the raccoons?) would simply rip the wire open. I’ve since covered all those short ends with an additional layer of small-mesh wire material. The smaller holes do unfortunately keep more insects out, but that’s a tradeoff we’re willing to make for raccoon protection. The tops of the pens consist of a full sheet of plywood, ripped in half. One half is screwed down to the frame; the other half just lays in place, weighed down by a couple of large rocks and/or by a bucket of chicken feed, until I need to open the pen to tend to the birds.
Note also the raccoon trap, baited with ground corn, set just in front of the pens. (We used to bait the traps with chicken or other meat, but we ended up catching barn cats every time. Corn is ideal because raccoons like it, but cats don’t.)
The Yeoman Farm Children helped me haul two pens from one garden area, where the birds had been last year, to the area where Mrs. Yeoman Farmer wants them this year. She identified a substantial swath of ground, currently covered in weeds, that won’t be needed for planting until late in spring. That will give the chicks several weeks to clear the weeds, all the while getting fresh greens in their diet as a supplement to their high-protein grain — and dropping lots of nice fertilizer onto the garden beds. It’s the perfect “tractor” system. We let the chicks mow down everything growing under the pen, then move the pen one length onto a new patch. And so forth. When they’re really little, it takes the birds several days to clear everything; later, they’ll easily clear the 4×8 area to bare ground in a single day. We would ideally let the chicken manure break down for a longer time, but MYF intends to use this area for squashes this year; squash goes in late, and isn’t as sensitive to “hot” manure as — say — tomatoes are.
Last year, with MYF pregnant and largely out of commission, we reduced our garden planting substantially. We had a large, 24 foot-by-50 foot patch where pens could be moved all spring and summer. The pens with various batches of birds went around and around that area, wiping out every new little clump of weeds almost as soon as it appeared.
When MYF was finally able to inspect the area last fall, she was blown away by how completely the birds had devastated it. And by how much manure the birds had provided. After a winter of sitting and breaking down, it’s going to be an excellent garden bed this year — once we clear out the weeds that are already coming up thickly in that nice, fertile soil.
Back to this year’s birds. Each pen is twice the size of the brooder, so all 56 chicks could have easily fit in a single pen with plenty of room left over. However, they grow so fast, that pen would’ve become crowded quite quickly. Instead of catching half the birds and moving them in a couple of weeks, it was much easier to simply divide the birds while I already had them caught now. We put 20 Cornish cross and 8 layer pullets into each pen, and they should have plenty of space for the next eight weeks. (Once we butcher the meat chickens, we’ll turn the pullets loose in the barn with the other layers, and then move these pens to some other vacant garden plot and use them for turkeys.)
But then, learning from experience, I added some additional fortifications against raccoons. Last year, we lost more than two full pens worth of baby birds to multiple raccoon strikes; the most frustrating was the night when a raccoon wiped out a pen of very expensive baby turkeys — and only THEN turned to the grain in the trap and got caught. After the first couple of strikes, I’d added the steel mesh. So, the next raccoon simply dug his way UNDER the side of the pen, came in, and massacred everything he could find. What to do about soft garden soil? Feeling like I was back in a Cold War arms race, I hit upon the ultimate defense: a foot-wide strip of plywood, laid flat along every edge of every pen, and weighed down with large rocks. (One sheet of plywood, ripped into four equal strips, sufficed for each pen.) At last, success! Moving each pen was now a bigger production, but we didn’t lose a single bird to predators the whole rest of the year.
I was tired yesterday, and thought about saving some of the plywood strips for today. Especially since all the big rocks also needed to be moved. But as evening approached, I thought better of it. I’d simply seen way too many dead birds, and had invested way too much time and effort into the current batch. So, I put in the extra 15 minutes of toil and made sure every pen was fully fortified against the enemy. (Yes, this really does feel like war sometimes.)
Over the course of the evening, all the way up to midnight, I made a number of trips out to the garden to check on the birds. All were fine. No sign of any predators. But still, this morning, I held my breath as I went out to make my first inspection. To my great relief, everything was exactly as I’d left it the night before. Every bird was alive and active. And while it would’ve been nice to have caught a raccoon, even the trap was undisturbed.
And so it goes. I’m just happy that another season of poultry production is off and running, and that we’re just six weeks away from our first backyard barbeque feast.