I mentioned in a previous post that one of my favorite jobs on the farm is gathering eggs. That still holds true, but a few days ago we received a new flock of chicks. Getting to hold those fuzzy yellow and brown little babies is another one of my favorite things to do – we just do it on a bit of a bigger scale!
The chicks are incubated for 3 weeks at a commercial leghorn hatchery (leghorn being the breed of chickens we use), are hatched and sorted, vaccinated, and receive a beak treatment, before being placed in boxes for shipment to the customer (me). The chicks travel the long way from Manitoba in specially heated and vented trucks, and arrive here at the farm eager for food and water. These little chicks need plenty of special treatment and everyone involved plays a role in making sure this happens.
It takes a lot to get ready for a new flock. The barn is blown down and all dust, manure and old feed is removed. Then the barn is pressure washed with hot water, disinfected and let dry. This entire process takes about 4-7 days. The cages, fans and equipment need to be checked and repaired, if necessary. The waterlines are cleaned and flushed. We bring in feed that is specially formulated to provide plenty of energy and protein, so that the birds get a good start. The cage bottoms are lined with newspaper to provide better footing for the little chicks.
Here the chicks are placed in the cages, but we haven’t begun hand-feeding yet. We hand feed our chicks for the first few days to make sure that each one has the best access to feed. Hand-feeding means we throw in a couple of handfuls of feed in each cage 4-5 times daily. Automatic feeding begins on the first day, but the extra bit of TLC ensures a strong, nutritious start.
Growing up on the farm, I learned early on the three holy grails of poultry farming: air, water and feed. These three components sound easy, but we need to be constantly vigilant in case of power outages or equipment malfunctions. Having high quality feed and water is essential to ensuring the chicks’ survival in the early days of their life.
Getting good pictures of the chicks is difficult – they have their heads down often as they are pecking at the feed, and droop their heads and squat when they are sleeping. It’s true that chickens flock together, because they like being close together and will huddle in groups for sleeping.
Young chicks like it warm, like 35oC warm for the first several days. It’s a challenge for us humans looking after them, particularly in the winter when it is -35oC outside. I prefer to think of it as a tropical vacation, without the beach.
The red thing in the picture is the waterer, of which there are several in each cage. Chickens like to peck and at the top is a small stainless steel nipple, which allows small drops of water to be released when they push against it with their beaks. Excess water is collected in the drip tray underneath and they can drink from there as well.
After about a week, the paper is removed and the temperature is slowly lowered to about 20°C or room temperature – the chicks will start growing feathers and grow into that awkward teenage phase – the subject of another post. It takes 19 weeks to raise a chick through the pullet phase, to where it becomes a laying hen and lays its first egg.
By the way, 8000 chicks cheeping makes for a lot of noise, but I can tell when they are hungry or it is resting time, based on the way the whole flock sounds. I’m an egg farmer and chicken whisperer!