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!

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.

 

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.

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

Chicks and Ducklings: Mission Accomplished

Back in August, we had a couple of fun surprises. First, a mother duck hatched out eleven ducklings. Shortly thereafter, a mother hen hatched out nine chicks. Given the propensity with which baby birds get picked off — even when being raised by the most-attentive mothers — we decided to move both broods into a portable 4×8 garden pen. They weren’t happy about sharing the space, but it was our only option. They did manage to co-exist, and both broods thrived.

The pen turned out to be a great choice, for several reasons:

  • We were able to get lots of high-protein feed into these little birds. Had they been running around the barnyard, they would’ve been limited to forage and would not have grown nearly so large nearly so quickly. With autumn approaching fast, we’re glad they’re in good shape.
  • They cleared out TONS of overgrown weeds from a fallow swath of the garden, that we would otherwise have had to deal with. They got all that green stuff in their diet.
  • They eliminated lots of crickets, beetles, and other bugs from the garden area.
  • They converted all those weeds and bugs into a wonderful layer of rich fertilizer. This portion of the garden will be exploding with growth after next Spring’s planting.

Here’s a good picture of what they managed to accomplish (in tandem with a second pen, home to nine layer pullets we’ve been raising since April):

And here’s a good shot of what things looked like inside the pen:

With cooler weather and shorter days, we decided it was time to transition the birds and their mothers into the broader flocks. Plus, ducks go through an unbelievable amount of water. I was having to fill their five-gallon waterer at least once per day. (For the nine pullets in the other pen, the interval is more like once per week.) Time for them to go splash around in the swamp with their brethren.

The toughest part was getting the mother hen, and all nine chicks, into the barn last night. We’d turned them loose in the area behind the barn, hoping they’d follow the other birds inside as darkness fell. Unfortunately, they kept trying to get back into the garden; after all, that was the only “home” they remembered, and even Mother Hen had trouble convincing them there was any better place. The two oldest Yeoman Farm Children helped me catch the nine chicks and physically deposit them deep inside the barn. Once Mother Hen joined them, they settled in for the night. They were still piled up in the same nest when I came out this morning.

So far, so good. Next task is to move the Barred Rock pullets. Problem is, they’re now so big they’re indistinguishable from our two-plus-year-old Barred Rocks which need to be culled. I don’t have the time or freezer space to cull them right now, so it’s looking like I’ll need to put an orange zip tie around a leg on each of the old ones.

Never a dull moment on the farm.