So, nearly two months ago, I ordered meat birds for delivery the last week of April. Then my hard disk crashed, and Hubby accidentally changed my user name, which has caused bizarre problems in recovering all my data ever since. Sorry for the delay in this exciting adventure.
The first installment of my chicken adventure ended with me pressing the Order button on the hatchery website, and I took the time to mention a few things about the breed and go over the cost analysis of this move. More on that later.
Today is about what growing chicks need to survive and how I planned to meet both their needs, and those of the neighbors who like to keep up appearances in our little slice of San Francisco Bay Area suburbia.
Day-old chicks are fragile. The fuzzy down they’re born wearing offers zero protection from moisture, and does little to keep them warm, which is a problem since their internal body temperature is around 103 degrees Fahrenheit/39.4 Celsius. They are also highly vulnerable to slipping and bending their young cartilage legs, which can leave them permanently lame and unable to feed. A “chick herder” should also be checking that waste doesn’t stick to their little rear ends and block elimination, a condition that goes by the technical term “pasty butt.” That first day or so, chicks don’t yet know what food is, so they’ll sample anything; one should be careful when choosing bedding for them. Furthermore, said bedding should not be too aromatic or dusty, because their little lungs can’t take it. Got all that?
With all this in mind, what at first looks cruel makes a lot of sense. The hatchery in Iowa shipped all fifty chicks in a cardboard box measuring no more than twenty inches (divided into two sections) by one foot by seven inches high. The bedding was a rough webbing of natural fibers and no food or drink was included. The crowding kept them warm and upright. The lack of sustenance kept them dry, and the bedding couldn’t be mistaken for food. Naturally, the fastest possible shipping ensured that the babes wouldn’t endure this imprisonment for very long. They did, after all, just come from an even more cramped egg and their tummies were still full of yolk, so it wasn’t so bad.
At 9:45 a.m. the day after the chicks shipped from the middle of flyover country, the doorbell rang, followed immediately by a strong knock. The post office, obviously anxious to be rid of a package that cheeps, made a special delivery. With a bright smile meeting the postman’s suspicions, I accepted the box and bade him a hasty goodbye before he could ask if I was aware of the Municipal Code sections on allowable house pets and quantities thereof.
So, what to do with these newborns? And what to keep doing for the next six weeks and three days until our schedule dictates we’ll have to slaughter and process these birds? I took the box to the backyard, where Phase One was ready and waiting in the garden shed: the brooder.
What does a brooder look like? As long as the essential elements are available, it can look like anything. I’ve made brooders out of cardboard boxes, a guinea pig cage and, this time, wire shelving that I zip-tied together and lined with hardware cloth. Covering the floor was a dollar store plastic table cloth under an old twin bed sheet. For bedding litter I used this stuff made from corn cobs because the feed store recommended it – $15 for a bag that covered the 4′ x 6′ area to a depth of about an inch and a half. Three heat lamps warmed one side; on the other I placed a chick feeder and two waterers. Everything was in place before delivery.
Snapping on the heat lamps as I walked into the shed, I knelt down and carefully removed the top of the box. Fifty pairs of innocent eyes regarded me warily. Putting my hand into one fluffy pile, I carefully extracted one screaming baby and gently dipped his little head into the waterer. It’s important to teach them where the essentials are. Sounding quite foolish, I instructed the bird, “This is water (dip)….and this is food (dip),” before placing the unhappy fowl under the nearest heat lamp. This ceremony I repeated 49 times until dozens of mussed, baleful infants blinked at me from under the red light.
I stopped moving, observing. Forgetting about me, the more adventurous took their own turns at the water and food, and stretched their tiny legs. Soon herds of fluffy yellow peeps roamed back and forth across their new domain. Smiling, I stood up to leave, putting them all in a tizzy again. “Oh! Where did she come from?”
Three days later, my sister-in-law came to claim her twenty-five birds, and not a single one had died. The planning of Phase One had been a major success! The birds were healthy, happy and had plenty of room.
But the brooder wouldn’t hold even half the birds it had at the beginning for all six-and-a-half weeks. Phase Two requires a farm – a relative’s farm in fact, where I have the beginnings of a good coop arrangement at the juncture of two fences, surrounding the back of a shed. With a little more fencing, roofing and automatic food and water, this will be a perfect place for the birds to get some fresh air and grow, grow, grow.
So, how does the financing look so far? Well, it turned out that the feed was almost $22 per 50 pound bag, not the projected $15. And nowhere had I planned to make the impulse purchase of corn cob bedding, adding another $15. Along with the supplies already purchased, I’m looking at paying about a third more for these birds than if I’d bought them from a grocery store, but still less than if I bought humanely-raised, antibiotic-free, hormone-free fare at some specialty market.
But there’s another problem: the feed. I didn’t think about it; just picked up the name-brand stuff, which turns out to have genetically-modified ingredients. So, these birds aren’t going to be organic. Not this time, anyway. I fully intend to rectify the situation by making my own feed next time. In fact, once I do the proper research, expect a column or two about this very subject!
Elise Cooke is the author of “Strategic Eating, The Econovore’s Essential Guide,” for having the best nutrition for the lowest price.