It was a week, to be sure. I write with my feet in a Conair Foot Spa, tending as I have been to the plantar fasciitis in my left foot. The chicks chirp in and around their brooder, growing each day. They’ve doubled in size since their arrival on the morning of the 15th of November, 2017. Blue Andalusians and Rhode Island Reds I’ve got, and their differences in personality are starting to show. The Andalusians are trail-blazers, the first to explore the outermost limits of the brooder. The Reds follow suit, but are never the first to push the boundaries. They’re all a delight, inquisitive and social, their culture is fascinating and I am incredibly eager to learn more about their ways as they come into their full chickenhoods out on pasture.
I’ve struggled to decide in what manner to contain them. I’m leaning more and more toward a minimalist approach, suspecting that the more freedom they have, the tastier their eggs will be… and for that matter, the tastier they themselves will be, come that time. I’m thinking solar powered electric poultry netting and a portable, light-weight coop for their egg-laying needs. Chicken tractors don’t interest me, I’ve seen them used mainly for broiler hens. Tractors do provide the birds earth contact and protection, but little more than that. Still too industrial for my taste. With the combined protection of the poultry netting and Ove (pronounced Ooveh), the guardian dog, I anticipate the chickens’ll fare quite well. I’m curious to try involving our local crows as a third line of defense, but I hear them rarely, and see them even less. Crows are known to chase off birds of prey, and would serve as a wonderfully unique asset to the farm.
I mention that, along with our chickens’ eggs tasting better, their meat will as well. On most commercial farms, factory and small-local, poultry producers raise what is referred to as ‘broilers.’ These chickens reach slaughter weight in approximately 8 weeks. Their accelerated rate of growth has left them susceptible to a slew of health issues, including skeletal malformation and skin and eye lesions. I’ve worked with these birds. These are not happy, healthy birds. By the time they reach slaughter weight, they can barely walk. These broilers are what the majority of the US population consumes daily. As a sustainable farm concerned with improving the health of my local community AND upholding the highest animal welfare standards, these broilers are absolutely not an option. I selected my Rhode Island Reds and Blue Andalusians because of their dual-purpose nature. They lay delicious eggs and make fantastic meat birds. Unlike your typical broiler, our chickens take fourteen weeks to reach slaughter age (worth noting that we will not be offering poultry this season as our current focus is on building our flock).
There are a few more reasons for why I chose the birds I did. My main interest in livestock is growing and promoting heritage breeds, meaning livestock that were raised by our forefathers, before industrial agriculture was developed. To quote the Livestock Conservancy, “these breeds were carefully selected and bred over time to develop traits that made them well-adapted to the local environment and they thrived under farming practices and cultural conditions that are very different from those found in modern agriculture.” My first choice of chicken was the majestic Blue Andalusian, a threatened livestock bird from Spain, which is known to excel in free-range conditions, is an excellent forager, and is both heat and cold tolerant. Since I intend to keep my birds on pasture year-round, the Blue Andalusian was an obvious (and exciting) choice. My second choice of bird was the Rhode Island Red. The Rhode Island Red was the staple of many American tables prior to the industrialization of agriculture. It is also know to produce a prolific amount of eggs, approximately 250/bird/year. Since I’d decided eggs would be my way into my commercial enterprise, I wanted birds I could count on for year-round egg production (year-round egg laying is also a trait of the Blue Andalusian). They too have a place on The Livestock Conservancy’s list of heritage breeds, and are fortunate enough to be listed as a recovering heritage breed.
Keeping up with these chicks has been a blast (collectively, a group of chicks is called a brood). Their growth is rapid, I see changes daily, and their personalities continue to evolve. Their first few days home were incredibly stressful, and we had a few losses, but we made it through and we’re now sitting at three weeks old tomorrow (that’d be Monday, December 4th, 2017).
The biggest and most unexpected challenge was the daily inspection for pasty vent. The vent is where poop, urine, and eggs come out of (efficient, no?). Pasty vent occurs in the first few days of a chick’s life, whereby fecal matter dries over the vent, preventing the chick from being able to excrete normally. It is life-threatening if not dealt with. So just picture this: me and 150-some chicks huddled in the brooder as I individually inspect each and every one of them, cleaning up their pasted little vents with a paintbrush. One paintbrush for wetting, another for detail work, and the last for applying disinfectant post-cleanup. The first day took about three hours. But by day four we clocked it in at a whopping 30 minutes. It sure was tedious, but, to be honest, I had a blast. It’s hard not to when you’re dealing with the helpless ball of warm fluff that is a chick.
Love to you all and thanks for your support. Always a pleasure.