Continued from Part 1:
Chickens: chicks, meat birds, and layers:
- We try to get our chickens as young as possible. This year, and years ago when I ordered many chicks at a time for retail, I have used Murray McMurray the most, and have been pleased with them. I do this so I can start them right. I have acquired a number of older birds from people, most of which have crooked toes, severe frostbite, or some other type of issue which could have been prevented, but is now a permanent defect.
- Chicks are housed in a high-sided container, using a deep bedding system of pine shavings, that allows plenty of space for them to move around. My favorite container is a livestock water trough. Weather permitting (day time temps above 60*), I prefer to move them outside by the time they are about 8 weeks old. The higher the temp, the sooner they can move out. It was too cold this year here in CO at that age, but it used to work well. I put them in a large fenced area, with pasture if possible, and a good 3-sided shelter well-bedded with straw. As they age, meat birds and turkeys will remain in this type of set-up, while future layers will be moved in with the laying hens when they are large enough. I try to make any chicken pen large enough to be considered “free-range” (my current layers are in an acre-and-a-half pasture), so they get plenty of exercise foraging during the day. At night, we close up the coop or holding pen being used at the time, to protect from predators.
- I feed a balanced, commercial, organic diet from Azure Standard, that is appropriate to their age. I supplement with occasional scratch grains, veggie scraps, egg shells, excess dairy products, etc. In addition to the free-ranging, all my birds just seem healthy and happy. So far, I have never had one grow up to have crooked toes, deformed legs, chickens that peck at each other, problems from mites and external parasites, compacted croups, egg-bound, etc. I am a big advocate for free-ranging whenever possible–even if you only have 1/4 acre! You can literally see the difference in the meat, eggs, and overall health and demeanor of the bird.
- Occasionally, I will add diatomaceous earth (DE) to some treat I offer them or sprinkle it over their feed, which helps with internal parasites or issues. If I notice a rare bird with a bout of diarrhea or bloody stool, since it is usually caused by something they ate while free-ranging, I will give them all a dose of Kefir milk, raw goat milk, or homemade yogurt, which often helps clear it up within 24 hours. I also occasionally sprinkle DE liberally over the birds, into their coop, and in the nest boxes, to prevent mites and other external parasites. It seems to have worked so far!
- We cull aggressive birds, troublesome birds, and older layers that aren’t earning their keep anymore. We put a price on the value of our meat and eggs, based on what it would cost us to buy them, and what it costs us in feed and maintenance of the bird flock. For the most part, we expect the birds to be producing at least that value, or more. We have a rooster now who is overly aggressive towards the children. He will be Athena’s dinner, as soon as S has time to do the job. I won’t tolerate any mean animal on the farm, and would rarely sell one. We will also cull based on overall thriftiness. I don’t like high-maintenance animals.
- We don’t use any type of preventative antibiotics, and while I won’t say I never would use meds on a bird, I can say I’ve never had a need to.
- We harvest meat birds when we feel the size is right for our preference at the time. We prefer using the killling-cone method of slaughter, since it is so quick and humane for the bird.
- If we ever have to leave the birds cooped up for some reason (like on snow days, when they refuse to come out), then I try to stimulate them somehow. Usually, I throw a large scoop of scratch over the straw bedding of their coop, which keeps them busy for several hours as they look for the grains. I prevents fighting and pecking each other.
That’s pretty much it for the birds. Second only to the rabbits, they are the easiest animal on the farm to tend to. We love watching them act like chickens, foraging around the yard, and knowing all that they are providing in return–meat, eggs, lessons for the children, fertilizer for the pasture, etc.