Raising Chickens: Out With the Old, In With the New

Reader Contribution by Becky And Andy
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Our first batch of 18 chicks is over a month old now. They have most of their baby fuzz gone and were very ready for a larger home. Besides that, we were expecting 95 new babies from McMurray Hatchery.

Since we are raising the birds for our friends Dick and Tracy, we wanted to be sure they had enough hens for a good laying flock. With our less than 50 percent hatch ratio the first time around, we encouraged them to order day old chicks for us to raise.

When Tracy’s friend heard about a farmer willing to raise “day-olds” up to a few months old, they wanted in on that deal. On top of that, Andy and I really wanted to take the opportunity to get our hands on a breed of laying hen that we’d been researching for more than a year. More on that later.

Finally, there were 42 Americauna eggs approaching day 21 in the incubator and we needed to get the kiddy pool ready once again for a host of tiny fluff balls.

So, out with the old chicks and in with the new.

Andy spent a couple days working in our brooder house to get it up to temperature. He arranged some bales of straw as walls and used some old plywood to make a ceiling. He drilled holes in the plywood to allow for two heat lamps to drop in and provide the crucial heat the birds needed. Finally, he covered the floor with cedar wood shavings and placed in a larger feeder and waterer. Once the area was up to about 80 degrees we moved the month old chicks to their new home.

They are doing well!

The next day we got an excited call from Tracy that she was on her way to the Post Office in Oshkosh to pick up the chicks. We finalized the kiddie pool in anticipation of 95 new babies and awaited her arrival. We knew she was at the door before she even knocked; we could hear the chicks from inside the house!

Andy and Tracy sat down and proceeded to hydrate the babies one by one. This involves “introducing” the chick to the waterer by dipping their beak into it. They usually get a bit of water in their mouths and swallow it down. Then they work on that phenomenon because it’s the first time they’ve drank anything before!

It’s important, though, for the chick’s survival as they come straight from the hatchery without any food or water. We start them on plain newspaper instead of bedding so that they can scratch and find their first meal much easier.

The chicks looked good. We had 36 Rhode Island Reds (RIR), 36 Black Australorps (BA) and 25 Delawares, all baby hens. The RIRs are for Tracy, the BAs for her friend and Delawares are for us. We wanted to get Delawares last summer, you might recall. McMurray was out of them, and most breeds, until August, and that would have been too late to raise chicks. So we got our Sunnyside Blacks instead (a hatchery hybrid). We are certainly happy with them! They are laying well and excellent foragers, even in winter.

But we are very excited for the Delaware breed. You can learn more about them on ALBC’s website: www.albc-usa.org.

Okay … where was I? So the next morning I checked on them and saw a dead chick. Very sad, but common with the stress of shipping. A few hours later, there was another. Now I was getting concerned. I checked out the thermometer hanging in pool and it said 90 degrees. The optimal temp should be 95 degrees for the first week, so I turned on a second heat lamp and put the thermometer on the floor of the pool for a more accurate read. About ten minutes later I checked again and the thermometer read 120 degrees! Ok, WAY too much heat. And another chick looked pretty lethargic. All the chicks had been Black Australorps so far. I turned off the second lamp and checked again in 20 minutes. It read over 100 degrees.

Now I was confused. When the thermometer was hanging from the ceiling cover on the kiddie pool, it read only 90 degrees, but on the floor it surpassed 100 degrees. Ahhh, yes! The heating pad we’d placed below the pool. I turned that completely off and removed it. After about an hour, the temp was down to 95 degrees, but the chicks were still visibly overheated. And we lost a RIR in that time.

Then Tracy called me saying McMurray had been trying to get a hold of her for about 12 hours. They wanted to know what the status of the chicks were and if we’d had any issues. At that time, we had already lost 4 chicks:1 RIR and 3 BAs. She said she’d call them and then call me back.

About midday, she called with the news that across the board, McMurray had had a “bad hatch” with the BAs. They didn’t know why, but were calling everyone who ordered them to see how the babies were doing. They wanted a follow up call the next morning and then would credit Tracy’s account accordingly. It was good customer service, despite the fact that crediting her account wouldn’t replace the lives of the chicks.

In the meantime, I still needed to figure out the heat issue. How had we calculated so poorly for these babies? The last time, we had to use the heating pad on high, two heat lamps and surround the kiddie pool with blankets to insulate the heat loss. Then it occurred to me: the first time we had 18 chicks sitting in that kiddie pool. This time we had roughly 95. I switched the heat lamp to a lower watt and opened up the optional hole in the metal ceiling. Suddenly we had happy chicks, covering the pool floor (instead of hiding along the edges) and acting much more energetic. Whew, heat puzzle solved!

Unfortunately, the chicks had had to endure 48 hours of a very stressful environment (between hatching, shipping and a too hot new home) and we lost two more before the next morning. Another BA and a single yellow Delaware. Andy told me not to berate myself, but I couldn’t help but feel directly responsible for their deaths. I realize we are learning as we go, but when that involves losing a living thing just so that I can “do better next time,” I don’t believe the end justifies the means. Still, how do we save more chicks’ lives in the future? Learn now.

We have not lost any more hatchery chicks since the first 48 hours here in the house. 🙂

Now, as if all that wasn’t enough, the very day that we got the hatchery chicks, our Americaunas began emerging from their eggs in our incubator. The first one didn’t crack all the way through until late that night, but over the course of the following day and into the next, we got 27 chicks to hatch successfully! As a group would dry off and begin looking thirsty, I’d move them into the kiddie pool with the rest. One chick was born with deformed legs and couldn’t walk. He did not survive. That was hard to see happen, too. Like, the little thing worked so hard to get out of that egg and then for what? Sigh. Part of farming … or caring for anything … is learning that life can be very unfair.

But, on a much lighter note, the Americauna chicks are amazingly beautiful! They have a variety of colors and stripes. No two are the same. I’ll be sure to post photos of them specifically soon. As I spent the better part of three days with these chicks, I became very familiar with the different breeds’ personalities.

The Rhode Island Reds are boisterous, energetic and assertive red chicks. They are unafraid to explore something new and are often seen racing each other back and forth in the limited space of the pool.

The Black Australorps are shy and deliberate in their movements. They are spry but tend to huddle with their own kind. Besides the obvious weakness we discovered earlier, the surviving Blacks are steady little chicks. I think they will be a great laying flock for Tracy’s friend.

The Delawares are very curious chicks. Whenever I introduced the freshly hatched Americaunas into the pool, the Delawares were the first chicks to investigate the newcomers. They also like hopping on top of each other. No idea why, but it’s pretty silly looking!

The Americaunas are shy little birds. They stick together and hate being singled out. What this means as adult chickens, I don’t know. Visually, they have fuzzier cheeks than the rest of the breeds. Must be a part of the Aracauna heritage in the Americauna. They are born with a gene that gives them feathered tufts on their cheeks. Like I said, photos forth coming!

Well, it’s super late and I gotta head to bed. Thanks for bearing with me on the status of the chicks. This week we are going to move half of the new chicks into another section of the brooder house. With so many in the kiddie pool, there really isn’t enough room for them to stay in for longer than a week anyway.

*UPDATE: We moved the entire flock of chicks out to the brooder house yesterday morning. They are all doing well in their much expanded new home!

Rebekah Sell lives on a small plot of land with her husband, Andy, on which they are hoping to build a sustainable homestead. With a small business and four kids, life is always interesting as Becky and Andy live fully the idea that the journey is the reward. Find her on .

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