Meat Chickens at Five Weeks ... and Counting

9/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Robin Follette Maine Correspondent

Raising meat chickens isn’t very exciting or interesting after the newness wears off. They’re cute at first, then not as cute as their feathers fill in. By the time they’re feathered out, which has happened with the 5-week-old birds, cute is out the window.

They’ve been demoted to something on my daily to-do list. This is how I make the separation between the chickens here temporarily, being raised as food, and the laying hens that are here for several years.

These are not birds to get attached to. I treat them respectfully and take good care of them, but they won’t see me often in the next four or five weeks.

The birds are 5 weeks old and average three pounds each. I’m happy with their growth. It’s not so fast that they’re going to have leg problems and not so slow that I’ll have to keep them into November.

There isn’t any chance of skipping a day of moving the chicken tractor. These birds, Cornish x Rock, are poop machines. As soon as the grass dries in the morning the tractor is moved sideways to fresh grass. I move the front, the back and then the front again. It takes about a minute.

The chickens are in and out of the tractor during the day. I put their food in the tractor but their water outside to help keep them moving.

A tarp is zip tied to the tractor. It covers about two-thirds of the tractor to provide shade and protection from the rain. At night, we add another tarp to cover most of the tractor to help them stay warm and safer. There’s enough open area to allow air flow.

The base of the tractor is made of 2-by-6s. Ten-foot PVC pipes are attached to both long sides of the base with U brackets and form a Quonset-shaped frame. The frame is covered with coated wire to add support and stability, and keeps the tarp from sagging. It’s tall enough for chickens and turkeys.

Something interesting but unfortunate happened when the chicks were 4 weeks old.

I told our dog Ava to put the chickens in the high tunnel. We were going to have three days of rain; the tunnel is the best place for them in bad weather. The birds are used to her being with them and will follow her around.

She moved the first 20 in a few minutes, while I cleaned and filled chicken, duck and turkey waterers. I didn’t see chickens out but a head count in the tunnel showed only 20 birds inside.

“Ava, bring me the chickens.”

She went to an old chicken tractor off to the side, waiting to be dismantled. I don’t know if Ava put the birds in there or if they went in on their own. Ava refused to go in and herd them out. She’s stubborn but she enjoys working. It’s not like her to refuse to move the birds.

I leaned in to pick one up and heard the distinct hum of an angry yellow jacket. I put the dogs in the house, safely away from the nest, to avoid making the situation worse.

One of the chickens had been stung and was trembling in the far corner. It gasped for breath. I was sure it was going to die. I sprayed the flying yellow jackets and as much of the nest as I could see.

When the four loose birds were safe and sound in the tunnel, I returned to the tunnel to retrieve the dying, or by then, dead bird. It was not only alive, it ran away from me. I caught it, took it to the tunnel and put it down. It fell over, gasping again, and looking like it was on the verge of dying.

I checked on it several times before the rain started. It alternated between gasping and dust baths. I’ve never seen a bird as dirty as this one. I don’t know the significance of the dirt bath or that it helped the bird in any way. I wouldn’t have been able to tell it apart from the rest of the chickens if it hadn’t still been dirty. It made a full recovery.

We’re planning to butcher the chickens on Oct. 28, before we get busy with deer hunting. It seems like a long time, but the first five weeks passed quickly; these five weeks will, too.

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

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