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!

Chicks for Cheap

Chickens don’t have to be expensive!

Unfortunately, it took us many years to learn this lesson. When we first moved to the country, we routinely ordered batches of baby birds directly from the hatchery. There are several good suppliers out there, and their catalogs (now websites) are fun to browse. We were able to try out various breeds, and arrange for delivery on specific dates all the way into August or September. If there’s a very particular, obscure poultry breed that you’d like to try out, a special order from a hatchery may be the only way to go. And the highly reputable hatcheries, like Murray McMurray, would even provide a refund if any birds arrived dead or died within a certain number of days of arrival.

The hatchery route isn’t a bad way to go, but it can get pricey. Do you want 25 pullet chicks from a good egg laying breed like Barred Rock? At McMurray, those will cost you $2.89 each, plus shipping. From the hatchery nearest us (a couple of hours away), the price is $2.75 each for a box of 25. Then add $15 for shipping. If you want a smaller order, you’ll pay significantly more per bird.

Each spring, our local feed store / grain elevator puts together a large group buy from that hatchery, with orders arriving on specific days. That saves on shipping, and the price per bird is a little less.

Also in the spring, for several weeks the big farm stores like Tractor Supply will put out large tubs with baby chicks and other poultry, under heat lamps. It’s actually a lot of fun to visit the stores during “chick days,” and to be able to browse all the various birds that are available. You can mix and match whatever you want, and there’s no shipping. Prices are similar to what you’d pay from the hatchery ($2.99 for a Barred Rock pullet chick, for example). The downside is, you’re limited to what they have on hand. If you want something unusual, you’re out of luck.

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When we first started doing this, we were big on trying unusual and different breeds of birds. Over time, we came to settle on some favorites — which, fortunately, are the favorites of a lot of other people … which means they are widely available. When it comes to layers, we like Barred Rocks and Buff Orpingtons, but aren’t averse to New Hampshire Reds, Rhode Island Reds, and some of the others like ISA Browns. During spring chick days, farm stores have plenty of birds from these common and popular breeds.

Hens are reliable layers for about two years; after that, their egg production slows — so, we like to butcher our hens in the fall of their second year. How do you know how old a hen is? It’s tough to tell by looking. We solved this problem by getting a very different looking breed each year. In 2015, we had Barred Rocks. We butchered them last fall. In 2016, we got Buff Orpingtons. They’re still going strong. In fact, we got too many, so we didn’t get pullet chicks last year. We will butcher them this fall.

So, as you might guess, it’s now a Barred Rock year. We need about twenty to provide the eggs our family needs. However, given how long the cold weather had been lingering in Michigan this “Spring,” I’d been holding off on actually buying the chicks. Cold and rainy weather means the babies need to be brooded under heat lamps for a longer time, until they’re fully feathered and strong enough to withstand the elements.

With the arrival of nicer weather, I’d begun browsing the local farm supply stores. Yesterday, I hit the jackpot: Family Farm & Home in Mason had a large tub of “senior” Barred Rock pullet chicks, marked down to just one dollar each. They were mostly feathered, and the sales clerk estimated them to be about a week and a half old. That means we’ll only need to keep them in the brooder over the weekend, and we’ll be able to get them out into a pasture pen on Monday.

I bought twenty. And, lest you fear that the store was losing money on me … while I was there, I also bought a new chick feeder and a new waterer (our old ones had definitely seen better days).

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Getting chicks this way is hit or miss, but when you get a hit … the payoff is big. This score is right up there with last fall’s post-Halloween pumpkins, (though not quite as good a deal as the absolutely free December 26th Walmart Christmas trees.) Not only did I save around $40 compared to full retail, but I also saved the cost of running a 250 watt heat lamp around the clock for about ten days. Plus the cost of feeding the chicks a high protein ration for about ten days. We also saved ourselves ten days’ worth of the hassle of checking on the brooder a few times a day. Not to mention the fact that chicks are most fragile, and therefore most likely to die, in their first days of life. The twenty I got yesterday are well established and have proven themselves strong.

Here’s looking forward to lots of wonderful eggs in the fall, at a price that can’t be beat!

Single Day Difference

Yes, I know it’s a cliche. But I’m going to say it anyhow: What a difference a single day can make.

About seven miles up the road from us, a big operation called Pregitzer Farm Market sells all kinds of wonderful produce. It’s the kind of place where you can take the kids to a corn maze, let them pet some sheep and goats, and come home with a bundle of fresh vegetables and eggs.

They also have one of the biggest pumpkin patches I’ve ever seen. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s easily five acres or more. Throughout October, you can go out to that field and pick your own pumpkin; this year, I think they were charging five bucks in the days leading up to Halloween.

But it’s not Halloween anymore. Who wants to spend five bucks for a pumpkin on November 1st? What’s a farm market to do with that many acres of leftover produce?

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Simple: they open it up to anyone who wants to pack their own truckload of pumpkins. Price per truckload? Ten Bucks. In other words, one of the best deals ever. You just need some kind of use for those pumpkins.

And we do. Our sheep and goats love pumpkins. The chickens and turkeys peck at the leftovers all day long, too.

Our truck isn’t currently road worthy, but Pregitzer’s isn’t picky about the type of vehicle you use — or how full you load it. They just want the pumpkins out of there. I decided to take all the back seats out of our minivan, and load it to the gills.

And I do mean to the gills:

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I bet you didn’t think a person could fit that many pumpkins into a Dodge Caravan. Here’s a view from the front:

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I made a total of four trips, sometimes with a kid. The almost-eight-year-old boy thought this was especially great fun. My biggest challenge was convincing him to leave the huge pumpkins alone, and to focus on gathering the smaller ones. (Naturally, he went straight for the ones that probably weigh as much as he does.)

If you’re a kid, how many times do you see the family minivan transformed this way? And get to ride in it? He had an absolute blast. The biggest challenge for me was driving slowly and carefully back to our farm. To say that the van’s handling characteristics were a bit more sloppy than usual, and that increased stopping distance was required, would be gross understatements.

Once home, we tossed several pumpkins to the goats. They came running, and went right to work chowing the things down.

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We also gave several pumpkins to the sheep, out in the pasture. We will continue to feed a few of these to each group of livestock, every day.

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I got every available kid to help unload the van into the upstairs portion of the barn.  This wasn’t nearly as much fun as making the trip to the pumpkin patch, but many hands made light work.

As I said, I made a total of four trips over the last week. Even so, and even with other people getting their own loads, the pumpkin patch looks barely dented. My understanding is that Pregitzer’s people will soon be running a disc over the whole field, plowing the remaining pumpkins under in preparation for next spring. Kind of sad, and I hate seeing a single pumpkin go to waste, but the weather’s turning nasty (and I really don’t have time to get over there again, anyway).

Besides, the supply we do have should last us a good long time:

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I must say: finding these kinds of surplus produce deals, and putting to good use something that would otherwise be wasted, is one of the things I especially enjoy about having livestock. There’s an apple orchard a few miles from us, and every fall our oldest daughter runs over there and gets boxes of damaged windfall fruit that otherwise would’ve ended up in a compost pile. Instead, thanks to our daughter, these apples become a wonderful treat for the sheep and goats.

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And hopefully, in just under seven weeks, we’ll again be loading up the van with unsold fresh Christmas trees!

Graduation Day

Remember those five chicks which the Buff Orpington hen hatched out in mid-June, and which she has been doing such a good job raising free-range? I’ve been swamped with an avalanche of work, (sorry about the mixed metaphors) and haven’t been able to post an update lately, but the chicks continued to thrive and roam the property all summer long. They got to the point where they all roosted together with their mother on the various rungs of a ladder out in the barn at night, which was pretty cute. They were lots of fun to watch during the day as well. They foraged every imaginable place, and would sometimes come past at the most unexpected times. I often heard Mother Hen’s instructive clucks (and the chicks rustling in the weeds of the garden) through my window as I worked, and it never failed to put a smile on my face. It gave an amusing sense of randomness to the summer, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

And then, early this past week, mother hen suddenly decided that she’d done all she could do. Like the parent who releases his hold on the child’s bicycle seat, and watches proudly as the kid continues to pedal down the street, Mother Hen’s job here was finished. One day the whole little family was foraging together. The next day, it was just the five chicks. They looked a little lost, and a little uncertain, but continued doing what they’d always done — and going the places they’d always gone. Just now, Mother Hen was no longer with them. It was admittedly a bit poignant, kind of like watching kindergartners climb on the school bus for the first time. But seven weeks is a long time in the life of a chicken, and they were ready to face the world.

All five of the little ones have continued to roost together at night, in various parts of the barn. They don’t always forage together as a group during the day, however. Sometimes three of them will go one way, and two of them will go another direction. It makes me wonder how long it’ll be until the five of them completely separate from each other. For now, it’s nice seeing them stick together at least some of the time.

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What’s most striking, though, is the reminder of how different the animal kingdom is from us humans. Our family ties are, of course, lifelong. Even those of us who’ve moved far from home tend to keep in touch with our families, and think about our parents every day. But with birds … when the mother hen’s job is done, it’s done. That’s it. She turns her back and moves on. As incredibly dedicated as she was to her chicks, and as fiercely protective as she was of them (even putting herself in physical jeopardy when the dogs or we humans came too close), she was motivated by instinct — not the self-sacrificial love of a human parent for a child.

This isn’t a criticism, and isn’t meant to take anything away from the job the hen did. She was magnificent, a true joy to watch, and didn’t lose a single one of her chicks.  It’s simply to say that this week’s “graduation ceremony” got me thinking about just how special we humans are, and what a blessing it is that we have the opportunity to share the bonds of family love for our entire lifetimes.

Birds, Birds, Everywhere!

Summer is now in full swing, and it’s prime season for baby birds.

Mother Hen continues to be a lean, mean, foraging machine. She’s made a nice nest for her brood in the barn, in the stacks of hay bales, where they sleep each night. They’re up with the dawn every morning, working the property. We’ve been sleeping with the windows open at night; early in the morning, I can hear her clucking and calling to the chicks as they pass by the house. It’s amazing how much territory they cover over the course of each day; seems every time I look out, they’re someplace new. She leads the way, like the fleet flagship, and the five little chicks scamper right along. I try to give them a little bowl of high protein feed each evening, once they settle into their spot in the barn, but otherwise all their food has been from forage.

Now nearly three weeks old, they’re starting to feather out nicely. Of course, she keeps me from getting close enough to the to get a good picture of those feathers. Here they are, on bug patrol in the garden:

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Meanwhile, Mother Duck’s little brood continues to thrive in the garden pen. This is turning out to be a good solution. They are able to stick close to her, and forage on all the weeds in the pen, and have easy access to high-protein feed (and water). All eight are growing nicely. They’re so high-strung, it’s hard to get a good picture of them, but here’s my best try:

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BTW, while I was out checking on the ducks, I was struck by just how thoroughly the meat chickens had cleared the weeds (and fertilized) the section of the garden we’d given them:

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Of course, we can’t rely on our own birds to produce enough replacements for us to eat. We still need to order baby birds from the hatchery, and brood them ourselves. About a week ago, we got a fresh batch in from a hatchery on the other side of the state: 25 cornish cross meat chicks, 25 Buff Orpington pullet chicks, and 5 turkey poults. All 55 birds are thriving in the brooder, under lights; because the weather has been so warm, we haven’t had to use the really intense heat lights – after just a few days, this incandescent has been plenty. We should be moving them out to a garden pen by the end of the week.

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I should note that we wouldn’t normally brood turkeys with chicks; there are diseases that turkeys can catch when you do that. However, in this instance, we didn’t really have a choice. We only have one brooder, and this was our last shot at getting turkey poults. It was either try it this way, or definitely be buying our turkey at the grocery store this Thanksgiving.

While we’re talking about broods, I should mention that not every hatchling in the barn belongs to a domesticated bird. Homeschooled Farm Girl recently discovered a barn swallow nest — with some hatchlings. The nest is on a big support beam, in the goat area. (It looks like Mother Barn  Swallow used some chicken and duck feathers to help line her nest.) The babies are waiting for Mom to return with something for them.

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We started looking, and discovered a nearly identical nest a few beams over, in the sheep area.

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The wild birds are of no value to us, but watching them in action is still wonderful entertainment. It’s a nature documentary, right there in the barn. No television required.

Chicks on the Move

A few hours after putting up yesterday’s post about the newly-hatched chicks, I heard a distinct sound coming from the barn: “Cheep! Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!” It continued for a long time, very loud, echoing across the yard. I knew it could be only one thing: a chick. The only question was whether it was one of the original four, or if there were a fifth chick that had gotten stranded on the way out.

I made a quick check of Mother Hen, and she still had four. The “cheep!” was still coming from the barn. Must be another.

I headed up to the barn, to try to catch the chick. It was standing in the entryway, making its noise through a crack in the bottom of the barn door. As soon as I reached the barn, however, it scurried back toward the hay bales. It scooted between two bales, into a place I could never reach it, just ahead of me. Don’t you know I’m trying to help? I thought.

I went back to work, giving the chick time to re-emerge. Sure enough, within a few minutes, I could hear the forlorn call. I approached the barn more stealthily this time, but the chick still beat me into the hiding place. These things sure are fast for being so little and so young!

Homeschooled Farm Girl joined me a moment later, and I explained what was going on. We sat down on various hay bales to wait. It didn’t take long. As soon as the chick emerged, the two of us managed to disorient it enough so we could drive it into a place where we could catch it. I carried it down to where Mother Hen was foraging with her brood, set it down gently, and it ran to her. It began following her, and the other chicks, as if it’d been with them all day. To my great relief, Mother Hen welcomed the chick (sometimes they peck at and reject a newcomer). It never again strayed from the brood.

It’s really amazing, watching the way a mother hen teaches her little ones to forage. She scratches something up, calls the chicks, and then points out to them what they’re supposed to peck at. I managed to shoot this video yesterday evening:

Later in the evening, we had a hundred new bales of hay to stack in the barn. Unfortunately, no one checked to see if Mother Hen had brought her brood back to the old nest first. After piling up quite a wall of hay, which almost sealed off the nest from the rest of the barn, I finally remembered to look to see if she was there. Yes, indeed. She had settled in with the chicks under her, clucking reassuringly to the brood.

Homeschooled Farm Girl and I cleared the best path we could for her, with a little tunnel through the hay bales. We weren’t sure she’d be able to get out, but we hoped it would be enough.

When I came out to the barn early this morning to start on chores, the hen was still back on the nest. Then, about an hour later, HFG came to my office with good news: the hen was out, with all the chicks. They were already behind my office again.

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We went watched them forage for several minutes. It really is fun. I could watch them all day.

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Hatching Time

One of the most-fun things about having a small farm, with free-ranging livestock, is that the animals get to be themselves. For the poultry, that includes making a nest, collecting some eggs, and hatching a brood. Because we tend to collect all the eggs we can find each day, that means the mother bird has to pick an out-of-the-way spot we won’t easily discover.

This duck, for example, has been on a nest for weeks. She built it high on a stack of hay bales, where we had also piled a few bags of unprocessed wool. I didn’t discover her until she’d been there for a while. You can tell from the large number of feathers that this is definitely a nest she’s constructed and prepared for hatching. When birds just lay eggs, without intention of hatching, they don’t go to this much trouble.

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She’s been so quiet, and so motionless, you wouldn’t even know she’s there. (And that’s the idea — she certainly doesn’t want predators coming in for an easy kill.) But try to approach any closer than I did for this shot, and she will puff herself up and start hissing like  a goose.

I don’t know if her eggs are even fertile (we do have several drakes running with the flock, but you never know for certain). She may just sit there for weeks, with nothing to show for her efforts. Given how long she’s been there already, I’d have expected ducklings by now. But we’ll see.

The chickens tend to be more reliable setters and mothers. A few weeks ago, one of our Buff Orpington hens built a nest between the hay bales and the barn wall. Unlike last year’s crazy hen, who built a nest so deeply back in the hay that her chicks weren’t even able to get out, this one planned an exit strategy. And this weekend, she hatched the chicks. Homeschooled Farm Girl, who had recently discovered the nest, noticed the development and let me know. (HFG also confirmed that the hen had a way for the chicks to get out of the nest).

This morning, Mother Hen emerged from the barn with her brood. She’s been taking them all over our back yard, away from the other animals. Just a few minutes ago, she was behind my office building. I wanted a picture, but she saw me coming — and took cover. It’s amazing the way she uses various clucks, with differing tones and cadences, to give orders to the hatchlings. Even at just a few days old, they seem to know what they’re supposed to do. When Mother Hen sounded the alarm, they all scrambled after her into the burdock. I got as close as I could, with her clucking protests the whole time about my nearness, and managed to get this picture:

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Note that there are three orange chicks that look just like her. There’s also one black chick, hidden in the shadows. She was either bred by multiple roosters (we have a number of them, of different breeds), or a Barred Rock hen found the nest and deposited an egg in it before Mother Hen went broody.

Doesn’t matter to her. They’re all her chicks, and she’s doing a great job with them so far. With just four for her to take care of, I’m inclined to let her free-range with them for now. When hens get too big of a brood, we find it works best to isolate all of them in a garden pen. But my preference is always to let them continue to range free. After all, that’s what makes small-farm life so much fun.