Backyard Chicks Keep Everyone on the Move

9/15/2012 7:00 AM
By Robin Follette Maine Correspondent

Ava’s charges, also known as the meat chicks, have been here for three weeks. They’ve grown from tiny yellow puffballs weighing in the neighborhood of two ounces to an average of 15 ounces.

Yes, I weighed a few. I was curious. They’re 20 days old as I write this and are growing well.

The chick starter I’m feeding the meat birds is powdery. I dislike it a lot, but it’s the only starter available locally. By locally, I mean within 50 miles. The dust floats through the air and creates a film on everything in spite of the air purifier a few feet from the chicks’ bin.

And, they stink. Before I had all of the newspapers under them changed they’d already pooped on the fresh papers. It was too cool at night to leave them outside. I’ve shuffled my poultry around to avoid a chicken and duck-killing skunk until I can catch it. Having the chicks in the barn wasn’t an option. I moved them to the enclosed sun porch.

Two days after moving them to the sun porch, I moved them to the small high tunnel. They’re outside all day every day with the exception of one rainy day. We got 4.5 inches of rain in 18 hours.

During the day the chicks are on grass. They’re closed into the tunnel in late afternoon. The sun warms the tunnel. At sunset, I move them into the plastic bin, place the cover upside (so it can’t clip on and suffocate them) on top of the bin, and they’re toasty warm in the morning.

This is a lot of extra work. I probably should have ordered them a month earlier. I’ll remember this next year and avoid the constant chick shuffle.

At this point, extra work excluded, the chicks are still very easy to care for. I started with 26 and still have 25. The chick with black spots didn’t look good one morning and was dead a few hours later. It happens.

During the day I feed and water them, count them to be sure none have squeezed out, and walk away. These are meat birds. They’ll always be well cared for, but they’re not pets.

It’s important to be very clear about the difference between the barnyard hen that lays eggs and stays a few years, or maybe her entire life, and the birds that are here approximately eight weeks.

If you’re familiar with raising Cornish rock crosses or similar breeds in backyards, you’ve probably heard how gross, dirty, disgusting, fill-in-the-blank they are.

I raised them that way the first year. I kept food and water in front of them all the time. They had room to roam, but with unlimited food they had no need to get up and move. They really were repulsive.

The following year was better. I took their food away from them in the evening, leaving only their water. They were less disgusting. I made more changes the third year. I put up a portable fence around the tractor, opened the door and let them roam during the day. And roam they did because they were hungry.

I fed them in the morning to help with morning chill. They were fed again in early evening to get them to go back into the tractor without having to be herded in by one of the farm dogs. They spent the day chasing grasshoppers, beetles and other insects. Just like “normal” chickens, they took dust baths. They behaved like the laying hens.

I let them into the portions of the garden not being used. It’s a great set up. They scratched up grubs, ate weed seeds and deposited manure. As soon as they’re full feathered out, the tractor is moved to the garden when the soil is dry enough. They’re moved back to grass before rainy days.

The 25 chicks have eaten 50 pounds of food in three weeks, plus whatever they’re finding on their own in the grass. They’re still too small to manage grasshoppers alone, but a few chicks competing for the same one can catch it and pull it apart by fighting over it. It takes effort on their part, but eventually the grasshoppers they catch become a meal.

Ava helps me in the evening by herding the chicks. She brings them to me to move into the bin for transfer to the high tunnel. She stays nearby and checks on them often during the day. When they’re old enough to be turned loose into a large area, she’ll spend several hours inside the fence with them. The rest of the day, she’ll be outside the fence to chase away hawks, eagles, late-migrating turkey vultures and anything else she thinks is a threat to her birds.

I’ve corrected her twice for picking up uncooperative chicks to bring to me. She used to drag a mean rooster around by a leg when he didn’t cooperate. I stopped that habit but could see she was still tempted. He was mean so ... well ... off with his head. Problem solved then. I’ll probably have to remind her to “let it be” a few more times. She’s stubborn.

I’ll show you the tractor next time, and explain how simple it is to build one, along with an update on the birds’ average weight.

Robin Follette and her husband, Steve, operate Seasons Eatings Farm in Talmadge, Maine.

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