Chickens are the first livestock of the small farm.
It is a fact of life that chicks come from an incubator. Yes, I know the Good Lord told all the animals to produce offspring after their own kind, but the Industrial Establishment has since ordered them to the convenience of mass production, and the result is that broodiness has been bred out of most of our common breeds — just look at the details of your hatchery catalogue descriptions — and our chickens, although they lay more eggs than ever, don’t really know what to do with them after that, unless they get cannibalsistic (not an uncommon occurrence), and then they eat them. The mothering instinct has been bred out of them.
Your one-cow revolutionary has an advantage over his cow-less kin in the raising of chicks. Baby chickens are apt to get an intestinal bug called coccidiosis, to which many little birds succumb; the usual defense among organic farmers is to put some cider vinegar in their water. Maybe it helps, but not, in our experience, as much as you might like it to. One of the signs of coccidiosis is blood in the chicks’ droppings, and the addition of cider vinegar to our birds’ water hasn’t had a noteable effect on that symptom.
The remedy par excellence is raw milk. The lactobaccili in raw milk seem to be just what the babies’ little systems need to combat the coccidio-bacteria. Since we began feeding raw milk to our baby birds several years ago, we have had no trouble with coccidiosis; not, we admit, a scientific survey complete with control, but evidence sufficient for the farmer to go on as he is going.
The new chicks, when they arrive, are put into a half-barrel on about two inches of hay or wood shavings, and given water with electrolytes (see your feed store; one package lasts approximately six hundred years), unmedicated chick starter, and a small waterer half-full of raw milk. A shop light or heat lamp is hung over the barrel, and a thermometer is set on one side of the lamp so we can monitor the temperature, which should stay between ninety and one hundred degrees. A drop cloth, usually one of the split sheets we use around here for a number of purposes (frost-covers, shade cloths, and drying herbs on the picnic table), is clipped to the light cord and to the edges of the barrel to exclude drafts. Done. They are checked every few hours for the first several days.
Here are our new turkey poults, five sex-undetermined Bourbon Reds of eight days or so; the foundation of what we hope will be a largely self-sustaining flock. If you know anything to the contrary, leave us in our blissful ignorance; what’s done is done.
Our flock of Rhode Island Reds is just the present incarnation of many similar flocks which have eaten our corn and produced our eggs over the last fifteen years. Chickens were absolutely the first livestock we acquired when we moved to the Sow’s Ear. We kept chickens even when we lived in an apartment in Texas, erecting a small shed on land owned by the university where Shawn was employed, and raising a flock of layers from tiny chicks to fat, happy chickens. These provided us with eggs, and some enterprising and handy local poacher with chicken dinners, until the last hen was gone. Padlocks impeded this nightstalker not at all; he just wrenched the hasps out of the shed door and left the lock hanging. One by one our girls went missing, and the egg-count dropped. Our sense of being robbed was somehow tempered by an admiring respect for whatever denizen of Irving, Texas, was so variously skilled in larceny, butchery, and haute-cuisine as to visit our henhouse night after night for another fresh, fat fowl.
Those hens were necessarily confined, but our Ohio birds have always been free-ranged; that is to say, they can come and go in the henhouse as they please, drink from the creeks and eat in the pasture and the eaves of the woods as seems best to them, hopefully returning to the henhouse to lay their eggs and to sleep. Mostly this works, and it is the odd summer that finds us without surlplus eggs to sell. Last year’s flock of scrawny, scanty, stingy chickens was a new experience for us; with this exception, we have found RI Reds a satisfactory breed.
Usually we order the chicks for our replacement flock in the fall, and they come into lay just now, as the spring days lengthen and trigger their natural laying cycle. The young flock in the henhouse now are also RI Reds, added to the flock last October; but in April will arrive thirty Speckled Sussex chicks, mostly pullets, to start a new flock, one which will, hopefully, be self-replacing. Sussex are supposed to lay well, go broody reliably, flesh out sufficiently for broilers, and continue laying over the winter.
Additionally, in May we will receive a shipment of thirty Cornish Rock Crosses, the broiler chicken that is not a ‘breed’, but only found as a cross. This is because the offspring of Cornish and White Rock chickens are fast-growing, obese, slow-moving to an extreme, and severely heart-attack prone due to their rate of frame growth outdistancing that of their vital parts. These crosses are the standard broiler bird on the northamerican market.
All but one of the turkey poults have survived, and there are now in the small tractor one young male and three females. They are growing fast and thriving on the clean grass pasture. The Speckled Sussex pullets, and, we hope, a couple of rooster chicks, are about four weeks old, and will move out of the shed and into a tractor, tomorrow, if the dry weather holds. They should be fine without heat now, and need to get out in the sun and onto clean grass. They will stay in the tractor, moving every day to clean pasture, until they are too big to go through the holes in the polywire fencing that will be their summer pen. This will travel through the pasture about three days after the cows, so the chickens can scrap out the cow piles.
The Cornish Rock crosses are about eleven days old and are already HUGE. Their skin shows pink through their feathers, they grow so fast. They eat and drink much faster than the other chickens, but, like them, they love clabbered milk and raw minced liver, foods good for preventing coccidiosis and leg problems. They will move out to the shed just as soon as the Sussex chicks can go out to the tractor. When the CRX’s are three weeks old, they will go out into tractors, too, until nine or ten weeks; then they will go into the freezer.