Chicken Graduation Day

There were no caps. No gowns. No strains of Pomp and Circumstance. No long, boring speeches. But it was graduation day all the same … for our chickens.

Two months ago, we scored a fantastic deal on twenty Barred Rock pullet chicks. After several days in the brooder, they no longer needed to be kept inside with artificial lights — but neither were they ready to be simply turned loose in the barn. They would’ve been trampled, and they never would’ve been able to hold their own.

Instead, we moved the chicks out to a four-foot-by-eight-foot pasture pen in an unused section of the garden. The weeds in that part of the garden have been going crazy, and the chicks were happy to munch on them for us (and drop some fertilizer, for next year’s garden). We also gave them a high protein (23%) grain supplement, because weeds alone aren’t enough to get them up to their full adult size.

At first, while the chicks were still very small, we only had to move the pen to fresh weeds every few days. As they grew, however, so did their appetite and destructiveness. We were soon moving the pen daily, and the chicks were leaving obvious evidence of their path.

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Every time we returned to the local farm supply store, I kept my eyes open for a deal on unsold “senior” Cornish Cross chicks as good as what we’d scored on the Barred Rock pullets. Alas, deals like that are hit-or-miss. It soon became clear that if we wanted to raise a batch of birds for meat this summer, we would need to order them at retail.

Fortunately, our town’s local grain mill was putting together a group order for chicks. We got 25 of them, which came in a couple of weeks ago. The weather has been so nice, a single 75-watt incandescent bulb has provided plenty of heat for them — that’s the big advantage of waiting for June to raise baby birds. (The big disadvantage, of course, is that we won’t have fresh chicken on the grill until mid-August.)

With constant feed in front of them, the Cornish Cross chicks spent the last two weeks growing like weeds; no matter how many years we do this, it always astonishes me how quickly they grow up and feather out. Fourteen days is plenty old enough for them to go out to a pasture pen — especially in summer weather. And two months is plenty old enough for Barred Rock pullet chicks to hold their own in the barn.

Graduation Day had arrived.

I pulled the feeder and waterer, and moved the pen to a relatively fresh set of weeds. Then came the real fun: trying to catch juvenile Barred Rock pullets while keeping them from flying out of the pen. I would grab several pullets at a time, then put them in a plastic tub with a good lid. My eight-year-old son was of course eager to help, especially when it came to chasing down escapees.

Once I had ten pullets secured in the tub, I replaced the lid on the pasture pen. I hauled the tub to a spot deep inside the barn, near where we feed the adult laying hens, and emptied the pullets out. It’s always hilarious when they first look around at the completely foreign setting, and try to get their bearings. (The suspicious looks from the adult birds are always pretty amusing as well.)

By the time I returned with the other ten pullets, the first ten had begun exploring their new surroundings. Some had even begun pecking at the layer ration, or scratching at the straw on the barn floor.

My son and I now turned our attention to the Cornish Cross chicks. It took several minutes, but we managed to catch and secure all 25 of them in the plastic tub for the trip out to the garden.

The meat chicks were even more stunned at their new surroundings than the pullets had been in the barn. Think about it: your whole life, you’ve been in a 4×4 box with nothing but straw, a feeder, and a waterer. Next thing you know, you’re plunked down in the middle of this:

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I suppose it’s like Dorothy emerging from her black-and-white Kansas farmhouse, into the technicolor brilliance of Oz.

My son and I made sure the plywood lid was in place and sufficiently weighted down — but we weren’t finished. The garden terrain was just uneven enough to make me concerned about little chicks trying to wiggle out — or predators trying to wiggle in. Before going inside, we gathered up some scrap materials and laid them around the outside perimeter of the pen.

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Late last night, I took a flashlight to the garden for a quick inspection. The chicks had all settled in, and were twittering softly to each other. None had escaped. Good.

Out in the barn, the pullets had settled in as well. Virtually all of them had found places to roost. It always amazes me how deeply the instincts are rooted in these animals. Nobody needs to tell them it’s a good idea to spend the night someplace up in the air — or teach them how to do it. Some of them certainly looked like they were getting the hang of it more quickly than others, but all of them were figuring it out. This morning, when I went out to the barn, plenty of them were still happily roosting on the goat fence:

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As soon as I put feed down, they all came running. They’re certainly not stupid.

And back out in the garden? The Cornish Cross chicks had all had a good night, too. I gave them some feed, and enjoyed a quiet moment or two just watching them continue to explore their “Oz.”

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So, another successful chicken graduation day is in the books. It’ll be fun watching the pullets continue integrating themselves into the existing laying flock, and watching the meat chicks continue growing like weeds (as they mow down weeds for us).

And the most fun of all will be feasting on fresh grilled chicken later this summer!