Chick Days

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Our latest animal project at Adventure Farm involved moving 19 chicks from a brooding crate in our basement to their more permanent home in the large chicken coop. It’s a transitional step that required some thought, because at 7 weeks old they’re not big enough to fully integrate with the 3-year-old birds that eat and roost in there. The youngsters no longer need a heat lamp, but until they start laying eggs at 16 to 20 weeks, they must be kept separate from our older flock.

For one thing, they shouldn’t eat adult layer feed because it contains too much calcium for their systems. Another reason to go slowly when integrating birds of different ages is the size difference; the older birds would probably brutalize the little ones at this stage of the game. With all this in mind, we decided to move the brooding crate, which is actually a large wire dog crate, into the coop. We positioned the open door of the crate flush with the entrance/exit hole that goes out to the front chicken run. This way the young birds can come and go from this run into the relative safety of their crate.

The older birds use a different hole to access the back chicken run and woods/pasture area for their daily free-ranging activities, yet they can still access their nesting boxes, food and roosts.

The 19 chicks we moved are a mixed flock of Australorps, “Easter Eggers” (the ones that lay blue-green eggs), Silver Spangled Hamburgs (new to us this year), and Dark Brahmas, also new to us, who have eye-catching feathered legs and are reportedly quick to go broody. I’m glad for broody hens, because I’d rather have a mama hen do all the work of raising babies, while I do other things!

We ordered our first batch of chicks three years ago after carefully researching various breeds. We made their first home by taping together two large cardboard boxes. We scattered pine shavings over the bottom, set up the feeder and waterer, and arranged the heat lamp so that the temperature was near 95 at the floor level of the box. Like new parents, we fretted over the temperature and fussed with the whole set-up, not sure we were getting it right.

The next morning as I went down the basement stairs to check on my new babies, I heard no peeping coming from the brooding box. I thought for sure they had all died overnight, killed by our inexperience. Then I peeked over the top of the box, and saw all 25 chicks fast asleep. They were passed out like drunks in the gutter, but I thought it was the cutest thing I’d ever seen!

With that first chick experience under our belts, we have been a lot more relaxed about the whole thing this year. Rather than worry about the exact temperature from the heat lamp, we adjusted it according to the chicks’ behavior; were they huddled under the lamp (too cold), or cowering away from it in the corners of the box (too warm)?

We brought in weed clumps from the garden for them to peck; we checked their little bottoms for signs of “pasty butt” and cleaned any problem areas; and, of course, we have kept them fed and watered at all times, but we haven’t obsessed about them like we did the first time around.

NOTE: We have chosen to have our chicks vaccinated at the hatchery for Marek’s disease and for coccidiosis; if you choose to do the latter vaccine, it’s important to feed only non-medicated chick starter so the vaccine isn’t cancelled out by any meds in the feed.

We are hoping the Dark Brahmas will live up to their billing as easy brooders. You know a hen is broody when she almost never leaves the nest box; she is in a zen-type state, laying a “clutch” of eggs and then incubating them for a three-week gestation.

In a community nest box area, in which all the hens can access all the boxes, problems can happen when a brooder makes her rare outings for food and water; another hen who needs to lay an egg almost always hops in the egg-filled box, then the would-be mother is ousted and ends up in the wrong place. It just causes all sorts of musical chair (or box)-type issues that result in spoiled eggs, dirty and cracked eggs, and no chicks.

The trick is to re-settle the hen in a separate “broody box” where she can do her thing without being displaced by the other girls. It’s easier said than done; broody hens dislike being disturbed and sometimes are very hard to get re-settled. I would love to know your tips for accomplishing that!

Next time around, I hope to set up the brooding box somewhere in the barn, as growing chicks create lots of dirt and dust that even my old basement can do without. If you have ideas for how to do that while keeping the chicks safe from curious barn cats and other possible predators, I’m open to suggestions!

Until my next post, take time to admire the Zen-like attitude of the broody hen!