A little over a week ago, our first set of 80 Red Labels (our term for our Cornish Cross meat birds) went to pasture after three weeks in the brooder. This set of birds is a test set, designed to help us smooth out the learning curve as we move to full production next year. We did well in the brooder, losing only 3 of 83 completely unmedicated chicks of a breed notorious for keeling over and dying by the bucket-full. I figure it’ll be good karma to share some of the lessons we learned along the way for successfully getting chicks through the brooder phase.
1. They show up, unceremoniously, in the mail
If you’re considering buying birds from a hatchery, you’re probably aware that they come through the mail. But I’d calibrated my expectations quite differently than the reality. For whatever reason, I’d expected the birds to be transported by a special livestock carrier that would drive gently, have a heated truck, maybe put them in boxes that isolate them from one another, give them access to a little feed in case their yolk sacs ran out, and deliver them right to our brooder.
Obviously that’s not what happened. They day before the chicks were to arrive, I found out from a family friend that they’re shipped via USPS, and you have to pick them up right from the post office. It’s a good thing I learned this, as I otherwise would have been sitting around the house waiting in vain for a mail truck while by birds slowly starved to death in a box.
And speaking of boxes, that’s exactly what they arrive in. Our chicks were shipped, from Iowa, in perforated cardboard boxes divided into cells that held four chicks each. Our Rhode Island Red chicks were shipped 12 to a cell, and I’m convinced that’s the reason nearly 10% of them died in the first 24 hours. In any case, they aren’t shipped with “just in case” feed, and they’re certainly not treated to heated trucks or a particularly gentle driver.
Ordering birds via hatchery is a certifiable crap shoot that could be made much more humane with the presence of more local hatcheries serving commercial outfits… but they don’t exist here in Virginia anymore. The hatcheries that remain here specialize almost exclusively in small batches of rare or heritage egg-laying birds designed for homesteaders and hobbyists.
2. They need more room than you’ll think, and so do you
If you look around for advice on brooder space, most people claim that you don’t need very much. Even Joel Salatin’s books on pastured poultry suggested that you need less than 1/4 sqft per chick, and it was precisely this measurement I used to design our first brooder house, which measured in at 50 sqft in order to brood 200 birds.
We put in just 83 birds, and by the end of the first week we were scrambling to keep up with their manure levels. Our chicks were saved only by the 12 inches of bedding we put in the brooder, which we resorted to turning each and every day until that became impossible (the litter was too soiled). The carbon-nitrogen ratio went haywire – we couldn’t smell ammonia, but we could smell the birds just outside the brooder – so we started adding new bedding every day. Doing this let us keep pace with the manure for most of the next two weeks, but by the time we were putting the guys to pasture we were losing the battle.
The last of the broilers went to pasture the same day our hen chicks arrived. By this point the bedding was close to 18 inches deep, so we had to remove some of it. Near the bottom, the smell of ammonia was clear; there simply wasn’t enough carbon to absorb all the waste. Thankfully the bedding had been deep enough to keep it from affecting the chicks.
The final problem with this mid-sized brooder was the toll it took on my back. The brooder wasn’t small enough to just sit over and work with, nor was it big enough for me to walk into. This means servicing the brooder (watering, turning bedding, adding bedding, moving chicks out, filling feeders, adjusting lamps) required constant bending. In three short weeks it took a noticeable toll on my back, especially toward the end of the meat birds’ time in the brooder when I had to go out there twice a day for 15 – 30 minutes.
Needless to say, our new brooder (now under construction) is a.) much larger, with a 2sqft per bird average footprint, and b.) is tall enough for me to walk around in. The original brooder will go to my mother in law to raise a handful of rare breed laying hens. If you’re a commercial outfit, go ahead and create a larger brooder. It’ll save your back, and it’ll probably save your birds.
3. You don’t need vaccinations, hormones, or weird growth formulas
If you’ve never bought chickens before, prepare to be bombarded with offers of extra purchases at the end of the process. Most hatcheries will “STRONGLY RECOMMEND” vaccinations for Marek’s disease and Coccidiosis, as well as growth packs, gels, and other weird supplements. I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting this at all, and the vaccinations part especially scared the socks off me. Marek’s disease and Cocci can absolutely ravage flocks, and chicken-rearing forums are full of horror stories about sick birds turning into zombies and infecting everyone else.
Even scarier, birds vaccinated for Marek’s and Cocci can still be labeled organic, giving the impression that your birds are all but guaranteed to die without being treated.
I had to swallow hard, remember that I’d committed to 100% drug-free birds, and skip the vaccinations. And so far, I’m very glad I did. No diseases have yet ravaged our meat or egg flocks, and it really does seem that proper nutrition plus ample sunshine, ventilation, and decomposition are doing their part to keep pathogens under control.
With that said, I will recommend purchasing a vitamin pack. They cost next to nothing and will ensure your birds don’t wind up with nutritional deficiencies that could facilitate a disease outbreak.
4. They don’t need chick starter
“Chicken people” love going on and on about specialized feed for each stage of a chicken’s life. The argument boils down to just how much protein a bird needs when it’s starting out in life. I’ve heard people argue for percentages as high as 28% and as low as 18%. Hobbyists and homesteaders are particularly prone to overmanaging their flocks. With just a few birds to take care of, it’s easy for them to succumb to tweaking the fat and protein content every single week and otherwise obsessing over minor details of the feed ration.
For us, it turned out that the physical demands of a commercial flock prohibit overmanagement. With just 80+ broilers, we had our hands full staying ahead of manure, keeping the birds fed and watered, and staving off stress and death during a punishing September heat wave. Next year at our full production capacity (400 – 500 birds of varying ages and breeds), obsessing over 1 or 2% of protein in the ration would drive us insane. This is why our broilers are on an 18% protein ration from hatch to slaughter. The layers, too, spend their first 16 weeks on the broiler ration before they’re switched to a mix of laying mash and oyster shell, which they eat until the day they become stewers.
Believe it or not, it works. Our Cornish X’s are gaining beautifully and the Rhode Island Reds are growing like weeds on the broiler ration. So when you get your own flock, remember not to overcomplicate things. If you’re raising a hobby flock and looking for a way to enhance their performance, then start a worm and bug farm in a compost pile, and try seeing how much of your bagged feed you can replace with non-grain forage. This will net you much greater results and enjoyment than selecting a new feed bag.
5. They die
Invariably, no matter what you do, some of your chicks just aren’t going to make it. This is especially true if you’re dealing with larger numbers of birds. Some will sprout from the hatchery that would have never hatched in nature, so they’re doomed to begin with. Others will succumb to transport stress, or mishandling at the hatchery or post office, or some other neglect that causes peeps to die on the first day. You can reduce these risks by buying from the closest hatchery possible and camping out at the Post Office to make sure the birds don’t wind up sitting out on a loading dock.
During the first few days, some peeps will just up and die. They weren’t diseased, they weren’t mismanaged… they just didn’t make it. This is nature’s way of culling the flock. Your temptation will be to freak out and send the dead peep to a lab for a bunch of expensive testing; don’t. Your desire will be to pump your next birds full of drugs and vaccines; don’t. Accept the fact that when you don’t turn your birds into drug addicts, a few just don’t make it. That’s why we call ourselves natural farmers; sad as it may be, culling is a very necessary component of nature.
The birds’ first few days are volatile and unpredictable. Our meat birds arrived in great shape and we only lost two in the first week, losing just one more in week three. None were lost to transport stress. Our hens, on the other hand, arrived in terrible shape. Out of the 145+ total, four were DOA and another four were gone by the end of the day. When it was all said and done, we lost 14 birds to transport stress within the first 72 hours, and another 2 to unexplained sudden death the next day.
Our birds’ strength and durability took a quantum leap after the first week. This was true of both our meat and egg birds. They became much more hardy to temperature fluctuations and minor errors in husbandry. Were it not for the manure/carbon issue stemming from the brooder being too small, the birds would have been able to take care of themselves with hardly any input from us besides feed and water.
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Despite a few deaths, a sore back, and some near misses, it’s been a lot of fun learning to rear chickens. Our advice: get them from somewhere close, skip the medications, err on the side of a bigger brooder, and be prepared for a few not to make it.