What Should I Do?

Six Lessons from an Expanding Flock

Monday, February 27, 2012, 3:32 PM

My family has been raising a small backyard chicken flock for about seven years now, and we have had our ups and downs during this time.  From learning about predation and having to protect against it, to dealing with frozen chicken waterers in the winter, to lack of eggs from molting and light conditions, raising chickens is always an adventure. Through this adventure we have increased our awareness of where our food comes from and what it means to have quality meat. So this winter we decided to take the next step and move from a small backyard flock of six birds to raising all of our own meat birds for processing this spring and summer. 

(If you are just starting off with chickens or are thinking setting up your own backyard flock, please read the article Raising Your Own Chickens as a starting point.)

This new adventure has provided me a whole new knowledge set, and I would like to share just a few of the new insights I have learned over the last few months.

  • US Postal Service Is Amazing  

    We ordered our first set of meat birds online through McMurray Hatchery and got a mix of 25 heritage breed chicks.  We were a little unsure about having birds shipped in the mail, as we are a bit remote in Northern California and the chickens were coming from Minneapolis during the first part of February.  Would they survive? Having always purchased chicks from our local feed store, we did not know what to expect. Turns out to be a flawless system. 



    The chicks where shipped on a Saturday, we got a automated call from the hatchery on Sunday that they were arriving on Monday morning, and the post office called at 7:30 am Monday morning to say they had arrived. All 27 arrived safely and alive (2 free extras brought our numbers up), and the box was much smaller than expected.  It is really an amazing service that moves our letters and packages of all kinds around for so little money.  USPS will be greatly missed as things change for them over time.

     

  • Vaccination vs. Medicated Feed

    When we ordered our chicks from the hatchery, we had the option of choosing to have the chicks vaccinated against coccidia.  Coccidia is a disease caused by an internal parasite.  The parasites are prevalent in most areas, and can cause bloody poop, dehydration, and death in your flock.  With Coccidia you have two management choices: Either get the vaccine at 1-3 days of age, or use medicated feed.  We try to avoid medicated feed whenever possible, so we opted for the vaccine.  The vaccine is also compliant with USDA organic standards, while medicated feed is not.  Coccidia can also be prevented by keeping your chicks area clean and dry, and not overcrowding your flock.  We do live in an area of Northern California that can get quite a bit of spring rain, which can make outdoor conditions ideal for coccidia to expand to unhealthy levels. 

  • Heritage vs. Hybrids

    Once we decided to try our hand at raising our own meat birds, one of the first things we had to decide was which breeds to raise.  We did a lot of research and ultimately decided to go with two breeds of Heritage Chickens: Delaware and Turkens (aka Naked Necks).  The breeds raised by industry for meat chickens are a hybrid bird, with such an extreme rate of growth that problems can and do arise.  After talking to other local homesteaders, we heard stories of chickens growing so fast they could no longer walk. Their legs would break from the enormous amount of weight they were carrying around, and many died because they couldn't walk to find water or food.  We heard stories of "emergency processing" having to be done because of breasts splitting open due to such rapid growth.  And since these breeds are hybrids, they cannot be bred to continue future generations.  They grow so fast that by the time they are of sexually maturity, they cannot breed successfully anyway.  We were looking for dual-purpose breeds that were good foragers, could potentially breed so we could sustainably keep a flock going, had the potential to become broody (the characteristic of a female bird sitting on her owns eggs and hatching them), and all while still producing a decent size meat bird.  And let's not forget about taste!  If you have never tasted a heritage breed of chicken, you are missing out. 

  • Pasty Bottoms



    Another new issue we had to deal with is poopy bird butts.  Baby chicks can develop dried and blocked bottoms from lack of water and confined transport when being shipped, so you needs to monitor this and remove any build up as it occurs.  If it becomes too much of an issue it can cause slow initial growth and possibly death.  The dried excess can be removed with a warm damp towel. There is nothing quite like spending a Friday night cleaning chicken bottoms.  Let's just say that I am far more resilient now. 

     
  • Water Precautions

    Keeping your chicks warm and dry at the initial stages of life is important.   With the new watering container we purchased for this new set of chickens came instructions and warnings of baby chicks getting wet and getting sick from the water exposure.  Until their down (fuzz) is replaced by feathers, it is recommended that you place pebbles or rocks in the bottom of the water tray to help keep them out of it and stay dry.  We did take this step, and it worked as intended.  The only issue is that is does make cleaning the waterer a bit more difficult.  You only have to do this for the first 2-3 weeks. 





     

  • Space Issues

    When we first started raising chickens seven years ago, we started off with four little chicks -- tiny cute balls of fluff.  The size of the brooder was not a big issue with only four chickens, since most containers could handle their size and growth.  A bathtub would even work.  I was originally thinking that I could use the guest bathtub for the 25 new arrivals.  Then after doing some calculations and measurements, I realized I needed a bigger space.  Much bigger!



    The recommended minimum space for new chicks is a 1/2 sq ft per bird for the first 2 weeks.  Then it goes up to 3/4 sq ft per bird after the first 2 weeks.  So our first problem was to find a space indoors that could accommodate 12 sq ft of brooder space until we could build an outdoor space larger enough and warm enough to move them after the first 2 weeks.  Some 2x4s and a tarp did the trick for a temporary brooder.  The next challenge is build a secure outdoor mobile brooder large enough for the long haul that allows for pasture access.  We will be building a mobile cattle panel chicken tractor with brooder area as our first setup.  Raising livestock is always an adventure.

So I hope these lessons learned from my experiences help give you some insight and additional foundational knowledge to raising larger numbers of birds or expanding a flock. Additional articles will be coming soon on other CM.com members' experiences with raising large flocks and processing chickens for consumption.  I invite you to share your experiences and thoughts in the comments section below and look forward to sharing more updates as our little project progresses. 

- Jason

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10 Comments

Doug's picture
Doug
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 1 2008
Posts: 2771
pebbles

Instead of pebbles in the drinking water, we suspended the water tray an inch or two off the floor.  Low enough the birds could drink from it, but if they tried to hop onto the edge of the feeder it would move and they would fall off.  Seemed to work for us.

We dealt with the poopy butt thing with one of our chicks.  We discovered you really can't be too gingerly about it.  Soak it down good and work it out until its all gone.  The chick had a red butt and missed a little down for a few days, but survived just fine.

We built a tractor big enough that it would have accomodated your flock through two weeks, but not much beyond.  We got ours the end of April, which in our neighborhood is still a pretty iffy as far as temps go.  We kept them (only six) in the tractor in the barn with a heat lamp until they were old enough to start venturing out and then moved the tractor to the garden, where we fenced off a section for the chickens to run.  The bottom of the tractor is fenced in with a ramp up to the enclosed area so that they got outdoor exposure without being too exposed.  We moved the tractor around as they grew and weeded each patch.  Then we opened the door and let them run throughout the larger section during the day.  

That worked out until fall when we moved them into a coop we built in part of an old shed.  Since then they have been 'free range' in that we let them out after the hens lay their eggs in the morning and they wander around our and our very willing neighors' places.  Luckily, we have never had a problem with predation which surprised me because we live in a rural area with coyote, fox, skunk, raccoon and neighborhood cats.

We didn't realize it at the time, but we got chicks that had not been 'sexed.'  We wound up with three hens and three roosters.  When they 'came of age' the roosters pecked the crap out of the hens to the point they had bald spots on their backs.  We finally took care of that problem yesterday with some friends who came up to show us how to butcher and clean them.  As we write, my wife is roasting one of them.  Looking forward to dinner.

Jason, how old were yours when you slaughtered them?

Doug

CrismoZ's picture
CrismoZ
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 28 2008
Posts: 8
slaughtering them

I watched the videos on how to slaughter them and I have to say that this is the showstopper for me.  I'm really horrified just watching the videos and wouldn't make it through my first kill.  I went to engineering school instead of medical school because I can deal with getting sprayed with oil and gunk, but just can't do the blood thing.

I'm not sure how to overcome this because I'm hopelessly addicted to meat, but I do believe we're going to have a vastly different society within the next 30 years.

Any thoughts?

efarmer.ny's picture
efarmer.ny
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 7 2012
Posts: 23
Our Neck of the Woods

We raise a hybrid - Red Cornish from ClearView Hatchery (no website...no toll free number...717-365-3234) - which has been a good forager for us and does not grow so fast as to have problems. We raise them for 10 or 11 weeks before processing them. Remember that your heritage birds won't think about laying eggs until they are 6 months old, so you won't know if they are going to go broody until they are well past the normal slaughter date.

We've had some chicks drown in our waterers (we don't use pebbles) but it has been rather rare. We built a brooder based on these plans: http://www.plamondon.com/brooder.shtml and it has worked well for us. Maybe it can be scaled down for smaller flocks. My feeling is that if the chick gets wet and cold it will run over to the heat lamp and warm up.

As you increase your number of chicks you run into the possibility of chicks getting suffocated as they crowd into the heat circle. The brooder above helped lessen but did not eliminate this problem for us.

We've never had our chicks vaccinated and never had problems with coccidia, We're in central NY and it can be wet here too. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure...but we have just not seen the need for the vaccine here yet.

We've chosen to use a dog to deter predators rather than have to keep moving a tractor around. But when we have had multiple batches of chickens and the dog was rotated between them, we have had significant losses to predators. We've revised our system this year so that the dog will not be limited to guarding one batch at a time. When our chicks move out of the brooder they go to one of several old truck caps we have been given for free. We lock them in at night for extra security (we use hardware cloth so they have lots of ventilation) and let them out in the morning.

I hope you have thought through the slaughter process. We raise enough chickens (400 last year) that building a Whiz-Bang tub style plucker (http://www.whizbangbooks.com/) made sense for us. We rent it out to a couple other homesteaders...maybe you can find someone in your area who does the same thing. It sure beats hand-plucking!

I look forward to future installments.

Ron

shudock's picture
shudock
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Mar 14 2010
Posts: 37
Ah yes, cleaning chick

Ah yes, cleaning chick bottoms. Good times. At least they are still reallyreallycute at that stage!

I use one of those big oblong livestock troughs (black rubber or something) when I raise purchased chicks  - it's a pretty good size for 25 baby chicks (the minimum order from many hatcheries) and the sides are high enough that they stay warm from the hanging heat lamp easily and they also can't hop out. It's very easy to clean, too. After two or three weeks I can put them out in their own cordoned-off area of the coop, with the heat lamp down low.

I have been raising Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, and Orpingtons (black and white) - I butchered all my Rocks (at about six months old) last October since they were mostly roosters (they are delicious btw) and this June I am going to try adding a few Jersey Giants (black ones) to the flock. I have never seen one before and I'm really looking forward to watching them grow!
I will raise them alongside my meat bird chicks - trying some regular Cornish (NOT Cornish X) this year  - and by the end of summer the Giants will be big enough to add them all together to the existing flock. Hopefully by then they will be used to seeing each other through the fence and it won't create too much pecking-order drama. =)

Note to Crizmo:   Butchering doesn't have to be that bad. We use a "killing cone" that greatly smooths out the process. Holding the bird upside down to keep it calm, you put it head first down into the cone and his neck sticks out the bottom, where you slice his neck with a VERY sharp knife and then just let it bleed out. If the knife is SHARP and you don't hack at it, the bird will die quickly and will only struggle/react for a few seconds. The cone makes it very easy to keep control of this (just hold their feet) and then it's over. Blood isn't "sprayed everywhere" and the bird doesn't even see it coming. I really strive hard to make sure that my birds have only one bad day in their lives.

You can see a demonstration of these cones being used in the excellent movie Food Inc. Joel Salatin demonstrates his butchering using them. I believe you can find videos on YouTube as well. We pounded in two tall T stakes with a short piece of 2x8 bolted to the top, and then mounted the cone on that. Use a plastic bucket underneath to catch the blood (dog loves it) and then just hose it off when you are done.

P.S. Incidentally, I also wanted to share that if one or more of your baby chicks arrives with it's feet all wonky like, it can't walk properly because they are bent under, it is an EASY fix with bandaids. You have to hold onto the little terrified, squirmy thing with one hand while holding his foot/feet in the proper position with the other, while with your third hand (!) wrap a bandaid around it to hold his foot in the proper position. It actually works really well, and you only have to leave the bandaid on for a couple of days while he gets used to walking properly. There is a video for this on YouTube too!

Woodman's picture
Woodman
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 26 2008
Posts: 1027
Expanding Flock

Thanks for sharing Jason.

I need to get some new laying hens this year to replace my aging ones. I'm debating whether to place an order with McMurray or try hatching some again.  The batch I hatched last year ended up mostly RI Red cockerals, and the 4 hens were all buff/ RI Red crosses.  All but one of the cockerals I processed for meat at 18-20 weeks old.  The nice thing about dual purpose birds for meat is you are more flexible with butchering time and you get mostly dark meat which I prefer.  Butchering was not really unpleasant at all but actually very rewarding, even for an engineer like me.   Sounds good on your choice of heritage meat birds.

What kind of non medicated feed are you using?  All that's here locally is Blue Seal Chick Starter, which includes a coccidiastat.  Did you pick the option to vaccinate for Marek's disease from McMurray?   DId you get the Quick Chik or Gro Gel to help start them off nutrionally?    My home hatched chicks just had chick starter and did fine, though they didn't have the stress of shipment.

I made a 2' wide x 2' high by 8' long plywood boox for a brooder which was a nice size to prevent overcrowding. As they got bigger, I put an old screen door on top so they wouldn't fly out.  

Tom

Rector's picture
Rector
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Feb 7 2010
Posts: 353
Don't Worry About It. . .

Hunger will fix that for you.  I have seen it first hand.  You'll lose that aversion to blood if you get even a little bit hungry. 

BSV's picture
BSV
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 26 2009
Posts: 168
Thanks for the interesting

Thanks for the interesting post, Jason. Here on our ranch (more of a farm, actually)  along with beef cattle we have about 90 laying hens and we are averaging about five dozen eggs a day. Our "girls" do not get "processed" and are allowed to live a normal lifespan. We let them free range as much as is practical given the large population of predators here in our Central Texas location. But someone with a .22 rifle must be nearby when they free range, in order to deal with predators. It's a matter of letting them out of the (very spacious, air conditioned and heated) coop so they can hunt and peck. They are fascinating creatures to watch. The two roosters are protective of their girls and they are fearless. The surplus eggs are sold for (currently) $4.00 a dozen at the local farmers' market. The proceeds cover the cost of scratch grains and feed for when we cannot let them free range due to predators.

By the way, Dr. Seuss was on to something when he wrote "Green Eggs and Ham". Our "foo-foo" chickens lay eggs with green (and sometimes blueish) shells. Mostly, though,we get brown eggs. No matter what color, they are delicious and maybe it is just me but they seem to taste so much better than store-bought eggs. We have noticed that the green eggs sell out quickly at the farmers' market.

I have mastered the art of cooking a three egg cheese omelette and also poaching eggs free-form in simmering water (just add a bit of vinegar to the water, bring it to a simmer but not a full boil, and do NOT add salt until the egg is done and removed from the water). You crack the egg into a small ladle and gently lower it into the simmering water, removing the ladle with a deft twist of the wrist. In about four minutes your egg is poached to perfection.

We like to eat chicken as much as anyone. But instead of processing our laying hens, we occasionally raise a batch of Rock Cornish birds for the table. They grow very rapidly and are ready for the table in a matter of a few weeks.

Now, to the point: The processing part isn't pleasant, even for the non-squeamish. A killing cone is defintely an improvement on the old fashioned method of dispatching the birds. But even in a killing cone the bird still flops around a bit before becoming still. We dispatch the birds with a very sharp knife, and then we dip each bird in simmering hot water for about a minute. Then we pluck the bird in an ingenious device that consists of a vertical stationary drum with soft rubber projections on the insides and bottom. The bottom rotates at high speed, causing the bird to flop around inside the drum, where it contacts the rubber projections. Voila! In less than 45 seconds, a bird is plucked clean. No more of that hand plucking! It is fast and effective. You can buy these devices but a family friend custom made ours out of really sturdy parts.

Next the plucked bird is placed on a stainless steel table that has been sanitized. The neck and feet are removed along with the entrails (the latter step requires a bit of instruction to get it right) and the bird is washed and put into a shrink wrapper type freezer bag. We then freeze the bird and it is ready for cooking. To cook a bird, we place a sliced lemon or lime in the cavity along with an orange slice and a bit of onion. We rub olive oil on the skin along with some seasoning, put the bird in a roasting pan surrounded by carrots, onions and potatoes, and roast an average weight bird for about 1-1/2 hours at 350 F. It helps to put some chicken broth or stock in the roasting pan beforehand, but some plain water will do. Yum!

It is sad but most people do not realize where meat comes from. I've heard tales of people thinking that meat is manufactured in factories for sale in grocery stores. Maybe some people just don't want to know the truth.

doorwarrior's picture
doorwarrior
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 13 2009
Posts: 166
Handy Dandy Chicken Chart

I ran across this while I was trying to figure out which breed to get. It give the details like hen weight, brooder or not and productivity.

http://www.ithaca.edu/staff/jhenderson/chooks/chooks.html#j

Rich

shudock's picture
shudock
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Mar 14 2010
Posts: 37
BSV,   I have found that

BSV,

 I have found that the killing cone helps tremendously in keeping the bird from "flopping" around! In fact it is like having a third hand, and the sharp knife is critical anyway.

I do not process as many birds as you do, no more than 15 or so a year, but just so folks know, hand plucking isn't hard at all and can easily be done by a first-timer.  I also dip the freshly-killed bird into simmering water just as you do, but it really takes only a few seconds to pull the feathers out by hand. The first few will take a couple of minutes until the person get used to it. I tried using different kinds of gloves, but in the end found that my bare hands worked better and are actually easier to wash afterwards. =)

The best way I have found to mitigate the predator problem (we mostly have coyotes, fox and fishercat) is to suck it up and buy the materials and build a big permanent fenced in area. (And we have a dog too, which helps keep them away.) We usually have no more than 30 birds in summer, so we built a roughly 40 x 20 "inside" yard for when I want to keep them contained - its mostly dirt now but it includes the cinderblock-defined compost piles, which they love to turn over for me. The coop itself is about 7 x 20 and built up on cinderblocks with tight doors and hardware cloth across the windows - fort knox for them to roost at night. The windows also have glass to close, since it can get well below zero here in winter, and there's usually a good 8-10 inches of hay on the floor too.

That smaller pen opens with a gate into a much larger ranging yard that extends into the woods - roughly 200 x 50 feet.  It is all large T stakes, heavier-guage wire (not chicken wire), roughly five feet high, and I extend the wire down flat two feet or so on the ground around the perimter with rocks/cinder blocks holding it down so that nothing can dig under.  (Our soil is very rocky and difficult to dig - with shovels anyway - animals are much better at it!) It's not elegant or beautiful, but it's solid. So far, this has seemed to work very well. This gives them plenty of natural habitat and free range bugs/grass/leaves etc and keeps most predators out (except for hawks, which I cannot legally shoot anyway.) I add to their diet all kinds of leftovers: meat scraps, egg shells, etc. plus a few mealworms sometimes (I need to get better at raising those) and in winter I add suet blocks, sprouted lentils and mung beans, and occasionally some warm oatmeal.

So far, they lay all year long with no heat and no lighting. I do use electricity for one thing: a lightbulb captured under the waterer very similar to what this guy did for his, only I use a 40 watt bulb:

Woodman's picture
Woodman
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 26 2008
Posts: 1027
Chick Order

I'm getting an order of chicks from McMurrary next month, and plan to sell half the pullets eventually as the 25 minimum order is more than I need!  If you are in southern Maine/NH and interested let me know! Tom

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