Chickens are a good place to start. They are small, require a small investment and a quick turnaround. We started with layers we ordered from a hatchery and, boy, were those city postal workers surprised when the package came through. I built a brooder out of a 4×8 sheet of plywood saved after a home remodel job sitting on another sheet of plywood I got from my neighbor’s trash. Yeah, we didn’t fit in the suburbs. Please notice the heat lamp hanging from a scrap strip of pine board. Not the best idea but chickens seem to manage in spite of owner inexperience/foolishness/incompetence.
We also used this brooder for the first few batches of broilers but a 3′x5′ brooder is cramped quarters for 50 broilers. We tried raising 100. Out of desperation we rapidly graduated them to a portion of the greenhouse…the old, tiny, PVC, ultimately-destroyed-by-a-strong-wind greenhouse.
The following year we used a cracked 300 gallon watering trough for a brooder. Talk about an improvement! Here it is brooding our turkey poults with broilers. (They bunched up for the picture…)
Then things got out of control. We were running 150 chicks in a batch, slaughtering every other Saturday so we built two of these outside:
This is an 8×8 brooder with four heat lamps. The lids on each side are full 4×8 sheets. We use a Plasson bell waterer gravity fed by a bucket once the birds graduated up from the quart drinkers. Here’s a shot of the birds as we pack them off to pasture:
I really feel the 8×8 brooder pictured above was excellent for our purposes. The birds had room, fresh air, they were easy to access and safe from predators. But what do you do when you move to 300 chickens per batch? You move to the new greenhouse. I built a 2′ tall 4×4 brooder that the chicks can enter and exit under each side. There are four lamps inside on two switches so temperature regulation is easy.
Now, I want to point out some major advantages of the current brooder and changes to this year’s management.
1. We moved away from quart or gallon drinkers and picked up some watering nipples. These are screwed into a PVC pipe, gravity fed from a bucket. The pipe wraps around all four sides of the brooder. The birds can’t scratch manure into the bowl since there is no bowl. This is a huge plus to animal health.
2. We are now using course hardwood sawdust for bedding. I had 4 tons delivered for $130 as opposed to the pine chips used in previous years that were $5/bag or something like $1500 for 4 tons. Plus the hardwood chips have been outside for months and are full of interesting things to peck and scratch.
3. Space available to the chicks is only limited by how many straw bales I want to surround them with. They have room to run and run they do.
4. The top of the brooder is a large, warm, dry area perfect for starting my bedding plants.
5. With everything out in the open, it is a simple matter to add bedding, fill feeders or do whatever needs done.
6. This was cheap to build. It’s one and half 3/8″ pine sheets and an 8′ 2×4 with four ceiling light boxes, four bases, 8-10 feet of wire, two switches and a plug. I think it took about 40 minutes to put together and wire up.
7. It is easy to just sit and play with the chicks. We or our guests can just sit on a straw bale and enjoy the commotion. That hasn’t really been possible before.
Everything changes. Everything has to change if I am going to create the best possible environment for my animals. I have to try something, observe, record, reflect and try again. Thank God we do this work seasonally so I have time for reflection.