Picking up Chicks

Our baby chicks continue to do well in the brooder, and if the weather is nice we should be able to get them outside into pasture pens early next week (when they are about two weeks old). They grow very fast, and are already beginning to feather out. With temps in the 60s, and even warmer than that in the barn, I’m not sure they even need the supplemental heat from the heat lamp at this point. But I like to make sure they stay as comfortable as possible. Happy chicks eat a lot, and grow a lot. Chicks that shiver and huddle together don’t. And they burn a lot of energy just keeping themselves warm.

I mentioned in the previous post that we got our chicks from the “local feed store.” I should probably elaborate on that, and preface this whole post by saying: there are lots of great sources for chicks. Even though chicks are among the easiest livestock to raise, we’re still learning things and refining our technique after 15 years. So, whether you’re planning on raising your first batch, or your twentieth, I wanted to share a quick thought or two about sourcing your birds.

The first several years we raised baby poultry, we always ordered directly from the hatchery. They would give us an availability date, so we could be ready. The chicks would be shipped via US mail, and we would get a call from the local post office the morning they arrived. We would then jump in the car, drive into town, and get them. A big, nationally-known hatchery like Murray McMurray has a dizzying selection of poultry, waterfowl and game birds; if they don’t have a particular breed, you’re probably only going to be able to get it from a highly-specialized breeder. Just browsing the McMurray print catalog was lots of fun for new farmers like us. We could dream about trying every imaginable kind of bird.

McMurray’s biggest problem was cost; their stuff isn’t overpriced, but it isn’t cheap either. The more other farmers we got to know, the more we heard about lower-frills hatcheries like Cackle, which tended to have better prices. (And their website has now gotten very good.) We still had a wide variety of birds to choose from, but now we knew a lot more about what we wanted. Cackle also tended to offer more special deals on things like assorted heritage-breed turkeys, etc.

In recent years, I’ve gotten less adventurous about trying exotic breeds. We’ve settled on a couple of basic breeds of egg layers (Barred Rocks and Buff Orpingtons) which have worked well for us. We alternate breeds each year, so we can easily keep track of how old the birds are. And for meat chickens, nothing beats the Cornish cross (and variants). We haven’t bought ducks in a long time, because our flock has reached critical mass and hatches their own replacements.

We also got tired of paying the steep shipping costs to have a custom order of birds shipped directly to us. The birds must go airmail, and the rates have gotten expensive. We’ve settled on a good local alternative: our local feed store at the town’s grain elevator. Starting in the winter, they put out catalogs from a hatchery in the Grand Rapids area, a couple of hours away. We place our order with the feed store. They aggregate all the orders into a single big order, and all the birds arrive on the same day. We’re guaranteed to get exactly what we want, on a day we can plan for, at a bulk discount rate,with no shipping. A lot of local grain elevators do this kind of thing, so it’s worth keeping your eyes open.

That same hatchery supplies chicks to lots of big farm stores (the ones in larger towns, with a huge selection of everything you might need on your rural property) across the region. If you walk in to a Farm & Fleet, Tractor Supply, or Family Farm & Home, at this time of year you’re likely to see lots of big tubs with live baby poultry for sale (under heat lamps, of course). The prices are alright, and you can take them home that day — but if they’re sold out of what you want, you’re out of luck. Maybe they’ll get more the next week. Maybe they won’t. For this reason, we’ve tended not to rely on big farm stores for our chicks.

But this year, a friend alerted me to an interesting aspect of farm store chicks: when a fresh shipment is about to come in, the farm stores really want to clear out the unsold birds from the previous batch. You don’t want week-old birds running with the newly hatched ones. So, the older birds get marked down — sometimes significantly. This friend says he’s begun collecting bargain chicks like this from multiple farm stores. This approach not only saves money. It also saves having to feed the birds for a week!

I was driving past a Family Farm & Home yesterday, and thought I’d check it out. Sure enough, they had about 20 nice meat breed chicks that were a week old. Seems the big regional hatchery had delivered to them the same day they’d delivered to our local grain elevator. Sure enough, the chicks were marked down from $2.49 to two-for-three-dollars ($1.50), because a new delivery was about to come. I bought about a dozen of them, and took them home to add to our brooder. We’d had a few of our original order die in the brooder, and I was already thinking we hadn’t ordered enough birds in the first place. This was a perfect way to get our new little flock up to full strength, at very little cost. Maybe we’ll get even more of our chicks this way next year.

chicks 2016

As I said…fifteen years of doing this, and we’re still learning new little tricks.

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