Clif Notes

Raising Chickens Nature’s Way

Originally Posted by Efrain Barragan on Friday, May 17, 2013

Blog post by Drew Erickson, Assistant Farm Manager

There are two ways to raise a chicken. The modern method involves collecting fertile eggs and placing them in an incubator that maintains a proper temperature and humidity. The more advanced incubators even tilt the eggs back and forth to replicate a mother hen turning her eggs. Today’s chicken farms have entire rooms dedicated to incubating eggs. Once hatched the chicks are sent down a conveyer belt where workers check their sex and box them up for shipping. The box of young chicks has a two day window to make it to its destination where the farmer unpacks the chicks and places them in an artificial brooder that can be as simple as a cardboard box with a heat lamp. The chicks are fed starter feed and have free access to water. Eventually the chicks grow to adults and at eighteen weeks are ready for introduction to the rest of the flock. This is a great way to get started with poultry; it’s how we got our first few flocks of pullets (baby chickens). It’s how we got our ducks, and it’s still how we get our turkeys. This modern method is the easiest way to produce lots of birds, but it does have some drawbacks. Mainly, it is energy dependent, and a short power outage could result in the loss of hundreds of fertile eggs. It also requires petroleum for shipping. The cost of shipping live animals long distances in a short time frame is also very high. So how else do you produce chicks?

In our constant effort to reduce petroleum inputs we decided to breed our own chickens this year. Here’s how.

To insure the fertility of our eggs we isolated one of our roosters with four large hens. For a few weeks we continued to collect the eggs for eating. Once we were confident that the rooster had fertilized the hens we began collecting the eggs and storing them in a cool cellar. At this point it is important to turn the eggs once a day to keep the yokes from settling in the shell. As long as the eggs stay cool they will remain fertile but will not begin to develop. They remain viable for up to ten days.

Now that we had a few eggs we needed to heat them up to a precise temperature and humidity for twenty one days. As the days grow longer this is the time of year when hens, “ go broody,” meaning that they will stop lying and sit on a pile of eggs. So the simplest design, we created a nest in a quiet area, away from other birds, and put a broody hen on our collection of eggs.

On day 20 I went to check on Delaney, our broody hen, to clean her stall and refill her food. To my surprise, I could hear a faint peep-peep. Within 24 hours five of the seven had broken free of their shell and were safe and sound under her wings. Typically when you get your chicks in the mail or incubate your eggs under a heat lamp they are also brooded under a heat lamp away from other birds. In our case we are relying on Delaney to be our heat lamp. The chicks spent most of their first two days of life directly under her. On day three they set out on their own for water and their first meal. After snack time it wasright back to mom’s side. We will continue to monitor the situation closely. In a few days they will be allowed to go outside for the first time. While this may not be as efficient for a breeding operation trying to hatch hundreds of chicks at a time it does have its advantages. Our Pullets are gaining immunity from their mother. There is less hands on work for the farmer. Delaney isn’t afraid of the dark so power outages would not kill off our developing pullets. One bird can sit on up to a dozen eggs, which for most small holders this would mean being able to sustain a healthy size flock of layers while avoiding shipping costs (shipping live animals is not cheap). And if she is a good mother Delaney will teach the birds how to forage in our pasture. Over the life of a bird this will save our feed costs. Stay tuned to find out how our birds grow and for other fun Clif Family Farm adventures.

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