Friday, 27 April 2012

Chicks on the Coffee Table

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
We keep a small flock of 12-15 chickens. We like the fresh eggs, and usually have enough extra to sell or barter. I have a chicken bucket in my kitchen instead of a garbage disposal, and their manure heats up my garden compost pile. The girls are pets, really, so we keep even those too old to lay until they die of old age.

We keep our egg supply going by buying a few baby girls almost every Spring from the local Feed Store. Since we're only raising a few babies annually, we don't have the need for a big expensive brooding set-up. Our chicken coop is unheated, and the floor has big gaps the babies would fall through, so we can't put the babies outside. An upside-down dog crate, on top of the coffee table in front of the wood stove, works for us.

Chicks are shipped, either to you or to the Feed Stores, the same day they're hatched. The hatcheries will only ship in large groups so they'll keep each other warm in transit, but once you get the chicks keeping them warm is the most important. They survive without food for a couple of days after hatching (if a hen is hatching out a clutch of eggs this allows her to set on the late-hatching eggs a couple more days without having to get up and find food for the first-hatched) because they're still nourished by the remains of their yolk sacs.

My feed store sells chick feed by the pound, so depending on how many chicks we get I'll buy 2-5 pounds - aiming for enough to last for 10 - 12 weeks. I line the crate with paper for bedding (chopped hay or wood shavings could also be used, but that would be too messy in the house. You want to use bedding material too big for them to eat, especially at first, so sawdust isn't a good idea). For their first week, newspaper is too slick for the babies to stand on and could lead to leg problems, so if I've got day-old chicks I'll use paper towels for the first week to 10 days. You also have to check their butts for the first week - cleaning them off with a damp towel if they get pasted up with dried poo.

I put a few more layers of newspaper down each evening, making sure they have a clean and dry place to sleep. A couple of times a week I'll roll up the old layers, put them into the compost bin, and put down a fresh layer. By the time they're about 6 weeks old, they start using their perch. I found a little feeder designed to be used with a canning jar in a second-hand store, but before I got that I'd use a clay plant saucer. The main thing is to use something low enough that they can eat out of and heavy enough that they can't tip it over. The feeder is great! It keeps them from getting inside their feed dish, and scratching food out all over the place.

This year, I'm using a heavy-bottomed water dish designed for a reptile terrarium. In the past, I made a waterer they couldn't stand in from of a soup can with a couple of holes punched near the rim, filled with water, and then flipped into a glazed plant saucer, a pointy tippy rock on top of the can to keep them from trying to perch on it. Once they go outside, I make a bigger one using the same method, out of a coffee can flipped into a cake pan.

Day-old chicks need 90F temperatures for the first week, and then can handle 5º less each week. For their first few weeks, I rig up a red Christmas bulb to hang down close to the floor of the crate. By 3-4 weeks of age, they're ok with temperatures in the middle-70's. By loading up the wood stove each night before bedtime, it stays warm enough for them through the night. They'll be huddled together for warmth in the morning, but quiet. As soon as I start a fire and open the shade to let in the sun, they're up and scrabbling about, happy little cheepers.

Chicks will let you know if something is wrong - they let out a loud, sharp alarm call. When they're content, they make a soft twittering noise. Having the dog crate upside-down puts the windows down at their level, and gives me a place to wedge a perching stick down close. They can be a bit messy scratching about, so I have a big sheet of plastic underneath, wrapped up over the top on the couch side of the crate to catch any bits of food or paper they may toss out. I have to vacuum underneath the table every day, as I leave the room side open. I like watching them watching me when I'm sitting in my chair, listening to them twitter.

This afternoon it was sunny and almost 60º outside so I loaded them into the cat carrier and put them out in the dog run for a couple of hours. They got a chance to sun themselves, scratch about, and dust-bathe. The rest of the flock got the chance to check them out, and I got the chance to give the crate a good cleaning (can't have the house smelling like a chicken coop). It'll be at least another month before they're feathered out enough to go out in the dog run full-time. By mid-July, they'll be big enough to join the rest of the flock in the coop.