On being a hen
We got our first batch of chicks last week. The weather isn’t ideal, but there are ways to work around it. We used to raise these birds through the winter. We’ve worked toward being strictly seasonal for many reasons, so now we start them sometime in March and end sometime in October. This year we’ve held off a bit, but now we’re rolling.
Here are a few brooding principles we use:
1) Heat. Heat lamps work good–the standard shield and high amp variety. You have to monitor these because they can create hot and cold areas in the brooder and can start fires (that’s really exciting!) with the bedding. They are effective to do the job, though, for brooding small groups of chicks once or twice a year. We use a gas brooder now. They are bigger and more efficient for brooding large numbers of chicks. They also help maintain a healthy moisture level and heat more evenly. We have some friends who have an outdoor boiler for their house heat and have the same radiant heat for their brooder. That works wonderfully on all counts (even heating, dry bedding, safety) but is a higher input if you don’t already have the set-up. The bottom line, though, is simply heat. The ideal temperature for the first week is 90 degrees, tapering off to “room” temperature by the end of week two in July, week three in March and April.
2) Container. The first few days the chicks like to be in a small area–like all newborns who are used to the cramped space pre-birth. Then broiler chicks grow at an almost exponential rate. Layer breeds grow slower, but like more space under any circumstance. Folks start chicks in all sorts of containers: Rubbermaid boxes, kiddie pools, cow hay bale feeders, plywood boxes, etc.
One of the considerations in your container is to round out any square corners. Chicks like to pile on each other when stressed in any way (hot, cold, damp, thunderstorm, crowded, too much space, bad mood) and corners are their place of choice. If there isn’t a corner they are less likely to pile and the collateral damage is less. We’ve actually stopped piling simply by rounding the corners, which had the net effect of changing the stressor, which was too much space.
The other consideration with your container is flexibility. Because they like to be tight at first and need more space exponentially, you need to be able to expand the initial space. Dividers that can be removed as they grow is an easy way to do that. We have expandable brooders and have panels that allow the chicks to eventually come and go out of the heated area. We place their food and water in the cooler area to encourage them to go in those areas.
3) Feeders and waterers. Most chick feeders and waterers have small edges and are red. You want to be sure the little ones can get their sustenance without having to climb into the container. Pans of water are a bad idea as a wet chick (and they will get in it!) is a potentially dead chick. We’ve learned the hard way that if they can climb into a feeder they may get stuck in it and that’s not a nice discovery at chore time. The red color helps them figure the process out quicker. Chickens peck at red anyway, so it’s a natural step to play the hen’s part and teach them to eat and drink with the coloration. The chick feeders and waterers are a worthwhile investment.
That’s today’s wisdom. We’re taking applications for the April Pastured Poultry class, where you can learn all about chickens from start to finish.