When Life Hands You Chickens, You Make…

Four years ago a friend of a friend bought three silver-laced Wyandottes at a store in Alton to make his granddaughter happy. She was, indeed, happy. But the subdivision rules said “no”.

With promises to do our level best to protect and love those chickens, the grandfather brought them to our farm. His face showed regret mixed with relief.

Dot and her two sisters did not fit in well with the flock. They were smaller than the other pullets and that comes at a cost. They were not allowed to roost at night and slept next to the chicken house.

dot 2

Two of the three were murdered in the middle of the night by an evil, stinking, thieving skunk. We slept in the field for a week trying to bring that monster to justice. We failed. But the kids had fun. Grandpa and grandma and the kids slept in a tent next to the pond. I patrolled on foot or slept next to the chicken tractor. I guess it sounds romantic but it was miserable in real life.

The skunk problem may have been solved for us by way of owl. Or car. I don’t know. But the murder of our chickens abated…briefly.

Dot eventually became a part of the flock. The only black and white bird in a sea of red. How could we avoid naming her?

dot 3

Somehow, years passed by. Where did the time go? Where does the time go?

Dot died earlier this week after a big storm passed. I went out to close up the birds after moving the cows and noticed her laying still, taking shallow breaths under the nest boxes, unable or unwilling to open her eyes.

I have some idea what was wrong with Dot. Mostly I suspect she was old. There is nothing I can do to prevent old. I believe her heart had failed her in some way, though her comb was not yet blue.

So it was time for Dot to do what Dot should have done a long time ago. We should not own 4 year old hens.

Dot lived with a purpose. She is not a pet. She is a farm animal. She existed because she was productive. When she is no longer productive she moves on to the next job. The last job. Two gallons of beautiful, amber broth.

I left Dot sitting on a jacket in a cardboard box while Julie boiled scald water. This box was last used to comfort a dying cat at Christmas. The cat was a pet. We buried it. Dot is not a pet. Dot is food.

It only takes a minute to dress out a hen. We let her soak, maybe with a dash of salt, then she stewed overnight with a few onions.

There are three details I would like to add in here. First, she had a heart attack as evidenced by what I found inside of her. Second, she was in otherwise excellent health and, even at her age, was still actively laying. Third, we would never even consider selling a sick bird. We keep them for ourselves. Heart attack birds taste a little off.


That said, I suspect she will taste something like our pasture. She will taste like long nights sitting under the moonlight staring at the stars. She will taste like sacks and sacks and sacks of feed I carried on my left shoulder to the pasture over hills and across creeks. Mountains of bedding shoveled in and out of the chicken house or the greenhouse. She will taste like every morning I opened the chicken house door no matter what the weather and every evening I closed the door to keep them safe at night. She will taste like the long July days we spent in the hot sun building said chicken house. I cannot waste years of investment by burying Dot in the compost pile.

I would rather she had lived. I liked Dot. But this is what needs to be done.

The pasture feels a little empty without her.

August Farm Photos

Hello everyone! This is Julie. I love to take pictures and I am going to start sharing some of them here on Chris’ blog. I hope you enjoy! You can also follow me on Instagram.0726150755~2~2




Chris taking over…You know I can’t let a post go up with so few words. Comments in order of pictures:

  1. Somebody photoshop me into the Abbey Road cover. And remind me to stand up straight.
  2. Reserve your turkey now. Now.
  3. How did he turn 11? What happened?
  4. Swallows have about a week left before they go away for the winter. Dragonflies are coming through now. Hawks will start soon. Less than a month until we light the wood stove. That picture is a reminder of how little time we have.

Some Thoughts on Keeping Chickens

I don’t claim to know all there is about keeping birds. Heck, I don’t claim to know anything at all. This is a post about what I think I know about chickens…and I have given this topic some thought.

Egg Eating

All chickens eat eggs happily. All chickens. Just break an egg open in front of your flock and see who comes running. I THINK this is a normal, instinctive behavior. Birds don’t want messy nests so they clean up broken eggs. And believe me, I have some experience in this matter. I have heard and read that egg eating is contagious and the only cure it is to cull the whole flock. I believe this to be false. I believe the contagion is the end-result of nutritional deficiency in the flock or of unclean nest boxes.


There. I said it. This is total heresy in the farming world though.

My birds have had trouble with this from time to time (keep in mind I have a flock of four year old birds). Most of the time the cure has been to keep oyster shell in front of the flock free-choice. When that runs out, eggs start breaking. The other possibility has been packed or dirty nesting material. If we have a prolonged period of rain I may not be as disciplined as I should be about cleaning next material. Wet birds with muddy feet do bad things to clean nests. The final reason I believe I have had periodic trouble with broken eggs is because we are sometimes delayed gathering eggs. Things work better if we collect eggs at 11am and at 4pm, not just when we tuck in the birds at night.

clean nest boxes

In summary, I THINK you should keep oyster shell in front of your birds keep your nesting material clean and fluffy and collect eggs frequently to prevent egg eating. And I don’t think you should cull the whole flock when you notice the behavior.

Old Birds Don’t Lay Eggs

I think there is some merit to this idea. I do. I have a flock of NH Reds that have passed the 4 year mark. This is a small flock. Survivor birds. They have been here since the beginning. They survived the mink, several skunks, hot, cold, rain and dry…these birds have seen what Macoupin County can throw at them. I say I keep these birds as breeding material to build my own flock of acclimated birds but, really, I’m not hatching any eggs. I just have the birds because I want the birds. They seem to lay well in the spring and summer but things slack off noticeably in the fall and winter. I suspect one should start chicks every six months and rotate out flocks every 18 months. But that’s a lot of work.


How much money can you make selling shell eggs? It depends. How much money do you have to spend to keep your birds alive, healthy and how efficiently can you pack eggs? I think layers provide two main benefits to your farm. First, they add and manage manure on your behalf without any training. Second, the eggs you do sell provide ongoing customer exposure. Every yummy dozen eggs you put in someone’s kitchen is a chance for more. Maybe they want a chicken. Maybe they have a neighbor who wants to try your eggs. You need exposure to get word of mouth. Eggs provide constant exposure.

But not a lot of profit. If Henderson couldn’t make shell eggs pay…

Sick birds

I am not a veterinarian. I can not afford to call a veterinarian. If I have a sick chicken I just make a decision on the bird and move on. I don’t spend a lot of time on this topic because I keep my birds well fed and healthy (and I do think you feed health into your livestock). But I also don’t waste a lot of emotional energy on this topic. When it’s time to do something I just do it. Make a decision and move on. For example, we found four turkey poults were having trouble walking and put them in a hospital pen. One bird was looking particularly rough, the other three were recovering. What caused the problem in the first place? Maybe too crowded? Not enough Riboflavin? Too much protein in their feed? Dunno. I’m monitoring the situation. But that one bird? Compost. No second thoughts.

Also, and I know this seems uncaring, sometimes birds just die. No apparent reason. Just a dead bird. Was it defective? Did it break its neck getting on the roost? Did it choke on a grasshopper? Dunno. One dead bird is not cause for alarm. It is going to happen. 20 dead birds in one night is a problem to be solved.

Size of flock

How many birds should you have? More. Always more. Too few birds and you don’t have enough to sell and I would suggest a minimum of 50 birds to make it worth the management effort. If I had 100 birds/acre I would be a busy boy but I don’t think I would overload my farm. My current marketing reach could not move that much product but it would be fun to solve that problem. But the more birds you have the more efficiently you can operate. Every 250 birds or so will need a range feeder and a couple of drinkers. You should probably have 80 nest boxes for each 250 birds. And once you crack 250 you need to aim for 500. Then you can start getting bulk discounts on egg boxes and selling eggs by the case to larger buyers. I’m not there yet. I, personally, may never get that far. But I suspect the next generation will expand what I have started. I think you need more birds. Yes, I’m talking to you. Yes, you.


Bird Breeds

It’s no fun to work with flighty birds. A reader, Eumaeus, suggested that his experiences with Silver Laced Wyandottes were negative…mostly that the birds were flighty. I find that I agree. SLW are flighty, lay medium eggs but they appear to winter well. Customers invariably ask me for Large eggs instead of Medium. It’s a problem.

We bought a flock of Rhode Island Reds from Central Hatchery some years ago. When I sold the aging birds they each weighed 10-12 pounds. Those were big, big birds. They were also pretty chill and gave fair numbers of large eggs.

We have also had good luck with a number of red sex-link breeds but our favorite, by far, are New Hampshire Red. Those are large birds but not as big as Central’s RIR. They lay dependably and tend to tip toward Large eggs.

Years ago we had Barred Plymouth Rock. Those birds didn’t do well with our heat here and I prefer not to raise them.


We have also kept large numbers of Americauna chickens. For years we would pack a blue egg in the front right of every egg box. But we stopped. Americauna seem to stop laying entirely in October and don’t pick up again until April. Their eggs tended to be medium, they don’t do well with the heat…not worth the novelty.



Our recent chicken house is, I humbly submit, a work of genius. We insulated the top and left the upper two feet open, wrapped with chicken wire. That is a cool structure for the birds to sleep in through the hot summer nights. Dad even wrapped the top in plastic over the winter to keep the birds warm in sub-zero weather. It worked very well. Predators seem to be reluctant to climb the ramp up to the chickens too. It’s a win all around.

It beats our other chicken housing attempts in every imaginable way. We have tried to close the birds up tight and they suffer in the heat. We have tried to leave them completely open to the elements and predators and they did a little better, though owls would pick them off as they roosted on the roof. The wheeled chicken house is highly portable, convenient and safe. 10/10. Would chicken house again.

Those are a few of my somewhat random thoughts on keeping chickens. Even if you don’t agree, please comment with your thoughts below. I can take it.

Hopeful. Cautiously Hopeful.

It snowed. Then it snowed again. Then, to add insult to injury, it snowed again…on March first.


There are some years Julie and I plant peas and radishes outside in the last week of February. This is not one of those years. This was a cold, snowy, cold, dreary cold winter. Did I mention it was cold? Oh, it was cold all right.

But the forecast this week calls for 50’s and 60’s in the day and mid-30’s at night.

You know what that means? Well…you know what that may mean? Well…you know what we hope that means?

We hope that means we can move the broilers out of the brooder and onto pasture. And they need to go. They really, really need to go.

I plan to run the chicken tractors on a slightly sloping hill north of the hog building. That should help drainage (I killed an area of my alfalfa field where chicken tractors were parked during a heavy rainstorm) and will make moving the chicken tractors easier each time.

BarnTime travel with me 5 days into the future.

I’m back. You may not have known but I shelved this post for a few days. I was hopeful but cautious. I’m cautious even about crossing my fingers publicly. Let me sum up what you missed.

It warmed up.

Ta da! 75 degrees yesterday! Moving fence for cows I was stepping about half of the posts into swamp, half of the posts into ice. Weird.

I didn’t put the chicken tractors on the slightly sloping hill north of the hog building. I put the chicken tractors where I ran them last spring. That’s not ideal but it’s not awful either. It just is what it is.

Why didn’t I put the chicken tractors up north?


Because I still haven’t grazed and cleaned that field. It is full of saplings and dilapidated fencing and tree limbs and thorns, brambles and bric-a-brac. I need the cows to bulldoze, clean and fertilize it before I even attempt to drag a big metal box full of chickens across it.

So that’s the haps. Many of the broilers are in tractors on the field. Not all of the chickens. The forecast is calling for warm weather but it is also calling for an inch of rain tomorrow. An inch of rain can kill little birdies. I’ll have to come up with some tarps. It’s always something.

But I remain hopeful. Cautiously…

Iowa and Back Again. A Chick Tale.

Iowa. Miles, Iowa.

11 hours. 520 miles. 5 degrees with strong winds. Nail in my tire.

It is cold. So cold we asked the hatchery not to ship our chicks to us. There is no way any of them would survive sitting outside on a post office dock in these temperatures. Not only did the hatchery agree, they ended up cancelling all of this week’s shipments.

So we drove. Miles, Iowa.

We left the house at 8:30 and dropped off three of the kids with Julie’s mom. Then we headed North. We had 6 inches of snow over the weekend and another inch overnight. The wind kicked up and made a mess of everything.


On we drove. Semis were weaving in the road as gusts of wind pushed them to the side. I brought a stack of books to read but Julie asked me to drive the whole way.

Mile after endless mile of wind, snow, weaving trucks, limited visibility and a tire pressure warning light…losing 5 pounds of pressure each hour.


Things got better as we continued North.

Four lanes turned to two. Two gravely lanes in rolling hills, unexpected stop signs. But the Iowa roads were well maintained and clear of snow. We meandered through. It felt like we drove to Kansas then to Nebraska then back across Iowa when, suddenly, we saw it. Schlecht Hatchery! The localest hatchery I can find.


What a sight! Wow! A real building dedicated to hatching chicks, not just some crazy lady hatching birds in her living room! WHEW!

Our chicks were started on feed and water in a battery brooder. They were clean and warm and happy. In fact, that sentence describes the whole place. Schlecht hatchery was a clean and warm and happy place. She has capacity to hatch nearly 10,000 birds each week! And she nearly does!

I would have loved to spend more time visiting with Etta. We have spoken to her on the phone for years and never met. She is every bit as nice as she seems on the phone. But we have to get home and that tire isn’t going to air itself back up.

Speaking of air, the car was soon filled with that wonderful new chick smell. If you don’t know what that is, get some little chicks and you soon will.

Slightly different route on the way back, rather than take the interstate we just stuck with 67 the whole way…which turned out to be a 4-lane road most of the way, meandering through small towns. Some gas stations have free air available. Some charge $0.75. That’s better than walking home and $1.25 later we were in our driveway.


We were surprised to find one of the brooder tanks was still a little cold. I’m not entirely sure what was going on. Julie and I decided to put four lamps in one brooder and put half of the chicks in there. We took the other half of the chicks home with us in their shipping crates. This way we didn’t have all of our eggs in one basket. The chicks we delivered were doing well when we left them at 7:30. They were doing well when I checked them again at 9. We give them sugar water when they first arrive to get them off to a flying start and make sure feed is at floor level in several places.


We will have to spread these chicks out in a week or two, adding a third and maybe a fourth tank to our brooder capacity. I really should just cover the floor with plywood and brood there but…well, this is where we are.

We will surely lose a few chicks. That’s just part of the deal. The long drive was awful but receiving a box of dead birds would be worse. We take a risk getting chicks this early in the year. But in normal years, they are well feathered out and ready to thrive on pasture just as things are greening up. Then they are in the freezer well before buffalo gnats emerge.

There is a little more I want to add in though. I could have stopped at an auto parts store and plugged my own tire. I had my coveralls and boots and tools with me just in case. But the wind chill was something like -30. So we tried option #2: Find a repair shop. Even armed with Google this proved impossible. On a Wednesday even. So we drove our slow leak home. I have concerns for a world that can’t maintain small, privately-owned garages in every town…or in any town.

At some point in our trip someone mistakenly said “Ohio” instead of “Iowa”. Well, I can’t let that go. We celebrated the error by listening to this song which was then stuck in my head all day. Kind of the theme song for the trip if you will. (Really just the chorus.)

One last addition. 6:52 the next morning, all chicks in the brooder are fine. By fine I mean alive, scattered about pecking and scratching, not barely hanging on, huddled under heat lamps. Now off to unpack the rest!

OK. Once Again. Why?

Q: Why we doin’ this again?

A: Sigh.

OK. Well. OK. Let’s do it this way. Take chickens for example.

Most of the chickens of the world have been mutilated (beaks trimmed) and mistreated. They are crammed into cages or, if cage-free, crammed into houses. They don’t see the sun. They can’t run, hide or scratch for worms. They are not utilized…their design is not appreciated. They are simply fed and mined for 18 months. Mined for eggs. They are given just the right amount of feed to maintain high production, not high quality. Often this is an all-natural, vegetarian diet. What is natural about feeding a vegetarian diet to an omnivore?

Click image for source

I don’t think any of that is right. Any of it. Birds are a tremendous blessing to our farm. They eat bugs and worms and larvae, they put down manure, they spread cow patties to help limit repugnancy zones (livestock don’t want to graze up against their own poop…imagine that. The chickens spread a cow patty out so it decomposes more quickly (think surface to volume ratio)). We work hard to keep them on pasture when it is appropriate, to keep them near to and behind the cattle, to keep them safe from predators, to meet their varied dietary needs and honor their design. Boy golly, let them see the sun!

alarm clock chickens 2


But you know what? That’s expensive. If I built a confinement facility and crammed birds in by the thousands I would have to amortize the facility over time but chores would be easy. I wouldn’t have to walk sometimes miles each day to give my birds food and water and to collect eggs. I wouldn’t have to sit up at night hoping to catch whatever has been eating my birds. If the birds were indoors I could control light and temperature for optimum egg production. As it stands, my birds go to bed early and get up late because the sun goes down early and gets up late. So egg production has fallen off.

You want to know why our eggs are more expensive than the “cage-free organic” brown eggs at the store? Because it’s a lot of work to maintain a flock of safe chickens living outdoors with access to a wide variety of feed.

egg sale 3

But there is more to price than just cost. Customers don’t care what my costs are. Customers don’t care what it cost to raise the chick to point of lay. They don’t care how much I spend per egg box. They don’t care about the hours Julie and the kids and dad and I spend slaving away to make our chickens happy. They care that my eggs are fresh and tasty and that my birds are whole. They want to see pictures of fully-beaked birds running and flapping in the sunshine on green pastures. They know that costs a little more than eggs at the store and they are, apparently, glad to be a part of that story. In fact, I think that’s what initially attracts customers to us. They want to be a part of something. They want to know they are supporting respect. When a customer buys that first dozen eggs they usually ask me a million questions. They want to see pictures of the chickens on my phone and they want to know the story of the farm. There is no story at the grocery store. Well, there is a story at the grocery store but it’s not pretty so nobody talks about it.

But after they try that first dozen they come back again and again. At some point a customer has company for a weekend and runs out of eggs. So they go to the store and buy the most expensive, cage-free organic eggs and put them in the skillet next to mine. Then they make a strange noise…the sound of disappointment. This is usually followed by getting their phone out to take a picture of the eggs, side by side, in the skillet. They then text that picture to me saying, “I can’t believe the difference between your eggs and those from the store!” or they post the picture on instagram or Facebook.

I don't know who took this picture. No idea. I just know the orange eggs are mine.

I don’t know the people who posted this picture. A customer shared my eggs with them. I just know the orange eggs are mine and the picture was taken in July to be shared on FB. Hope they don’t mind me using it…

That difference you see? That orange yolk that makes your blueberry pancakes turn out green? That rich flavor that you comment on? Do you know what your are tasting? You are tasting what should be. You are tasting respect.

So to this point I have successfully avoided your question. You asked me why. I told you what.

Now the why.

First because Julie and I couldn’t buy the product we were looking for. We were going bananas doing handstand push-ups and pull-ups and climbing ropes and jumping on boxes but we couldn’t find the quality of food we wanted to fuel our health. So we got a handful of old hens and built a chicken tractor in our back yard. I think only one of those old hens was still laying but that sparked a fire. It was no longer enough to have a big garden. We needed eggs!


But it only takes a few birds to get all the eggs you can eat. Turns out, other people were looking for the same kind of food we were producing. In fact, we vastly underestimated demand. And price. So, economies of scale apply. We increased our production numbers without sacrificing quality. Really, with more birds to absorb our labor and infrastructure costs our quality went up…quality continues to go up each year. In fact, since eggs are only a small portion of our our overall farm revenue we can focus on quality rather than work to maximize egg production per acre. The cows, broilers and pigs help carry the financial load so the birds don’t have to shoulder the burden alone…all while making things better for all parties involved.

Julie and I wanted food of the highest quality to feed our family and yours. We wanted to see animals respected and honored for what they are. Terms like “Organic” and “Cage-Free” just didn’t seem to get the job done. We wanted more. So we just up and made it happen.

That’s why our beef cows don’t get corn. That’s why we try REALLY hard to keep pig noses in fresh greens…not just bare dirt. That’s why our eggs cost a little more than those in the store.

But that’s also why you are a part of our story.

Let’s see if I can give a more concise answer. Why do I farm the way I do? Because I like my animals.


Changing of the Guard

It’s that time of year. The older birds are slowing down. The young pullets are ramping up. The switch happened last week. In terms of numbers, the young flock laid more eggs than the older birds. By weight, the older birds are still winning.

Recently we brought in 98 eggs. That’s pretty good for 200 birds in mid-October. But let’s break it down further. The 90 or so pullets (I lost count) gave us 58 small eggs. 110 or so older birds delivered the balance.

So it’s time to transition the flocks. Those 100+ older birds are nearly 30 months old and will soon achieve their ultimate purpose and our feed costs will be cut in half. Yes, 30 months old. We got more than two eggs/3 days per bird this year out of a flock that is well beyond the recommended time you should keep them. Granted, we were short on eggs last winter but for whatever reason Julie and I decided not to brood pullets in 2013, a decision we regretted in fall of 2013. But we learned our lesson and now it’s time for those old birds to go.


There is quite a lot to consider here. First, I need to plan to market those soup birds. This is rarely a problem…and is one Julie and I prefer to solve with our own soup pot. But many customers enjoy the rich broth you can only get from an older bird.

But there is another issue. Our customers have come to expect giant eggs which, again, you can only get from an older bird. I have been offering steep discounts on tiny pullet eggs for the last month or so. A pullet egg, if you have never tried one, is the essence of egg distilled into a concentrated package. Less egg, more WOW! Normally all eggs are the same price but for now we are selling the small eggs at a 25% discount. It won’t be long and the new flock will begin to lay medium and large eggs but as the days continue to shorten the number of eggs will continue to shrink.


But there is also the issue of flock management. We plan to have the new birds in the greenhouse on Nov. 1 to simplify our chores for winter and to minimize pasture disturbance and stress. That will surely help. But the greenhouse is not ready. It is not surrounded by electric fence, it’s surrounded by weeds. The roosts and nest boxes are not there, they are in use elsewhere. So what’s a farmer to do?

Work. These really aren’t problems to solve, just chores to do. The real problem to solve is how am I going to get by without hens on pasture? They do a lot of work for me adding fertility and spreading out cow pies, not to mention entertainment value. It’s a lot of fun to open the chicken house before sunrise and close it again after sunset, checking under the house for anybody trying to camp out.


The retiring flock is a big mix of birds. We ordered a few hundred Sil Go Link pullets from Central Hatchery as well as some heritage Rhode Island Reds. The RIR birds they shipped grew up to be monster chickens and excellent in every way. Good layers, plenty of heft, thrifty on pasture. The Sil Go Link were surprisingly variable in color as can be seen on their site. We had black, white, white with black spots and red. These have done a great job of laying for us no matter the season. We also bought 50 or 100 Cinnamon Queen and Red Sex-Link birds from Cackle Hatchery at the same time. Finally there were 50 or so Americauna ordered from Cackle. These have proven time and again to be fragile birds who give up laying early in the fall. I don’t think we have gotten any blue eggs the whole month of October. The majority of the pullets we ordered were sold at 3 months and are still in use. All of these hatched in March of 2013 so it’s just time for them to go. We think it works well to order the replacement flock each spring then make soup with the old birds all winter (we don’t eat much soup in the summer).

There are a few others in the flock including the offspring of our original flock of New Hampshire birds which we plan to continue breeding.

The flock transition is a tough time for us. We plan for it each year, spending the spring brooding and the summer raising the replacement flock. When fall arrives we are usually flooded with tiny eggs that can be hard to sell but the reward for all that work arrives. We have fresh eggs and delicious soup all winter long.

Frosty Morning Chicken Work

Our first frost is not quite two weeks late. This morning the thermometer showed 38 degrees but the windshields were covered in ice. Everything I touched was slightly icy. I am out of the habit of wearing gloves so I just had to deal with it today. Otherwise, beautiful morning with just a pinch of moon.

FrostyMorningThis morning I had to move the main layer flock. Apparently it takes me 2 minutes to collect each length of fence, three minutes to stand each back up and another 8 minutes to move the house, feeder and drinker. I don’t know how to speed that process up but that’s what I have to do. Even on flat land where I can build a simple square I’m slower than I would like. I’ll be sure to tell you what I come up with if you promise to offer any tips you have.


Trying my Patience

I love the Marx brothers. From Duck Soup:

Sir, you try my patience!

I don’t mind if I do. You must come over and try mine sometime.

Today the chickens were out. The milk cows were out too. Did I mention the pigs? Oh, you can bet the pigs were out. Yes-sirree!

You know what doesn’t work when you are trying to contain animals? Let’s make a list of things that don’t work.

  • Throwing whatever is handy
  • Yelling at the animals
  • Beating the animals
  • Yelling at your wife
  • Slamming the truck door
  • Yelling at the kids
  • Running and yelling
  • Standing and yelling
  • Crying and yelling

I think you get the idea. So, deep breath. Flora is in season. She didn’t settle last cycle. Sigh. So she found her way to the bull and took her friend and their calves with her. The bull.


We grabbed a reel and calmly surrounded the cows then Julie led the way back to the barn building fence as she went. I followed behind. Before we could go we had to sort out which calves belonged with which group but that wasn’t a big deal. Everybody loves mom.

Just when we thought we had our problems all squared away we noticed three pigs in with the horses. Huh. Pigs. In with the horses. Three of them. Huh. “What do you think, Boo? Did the fourth stay in his pen?” Nope.

The pigs came running to see us. And why not? We bring them treats. They love to see us. But one pig couldn’t negotiate the gate to the horse pasture so I had to help him out. Then they just followed me to their pen. I thought it was kinda funny so I caught it on video. Sorry for the poor quality.

Again, no yelling. No running. No bad words or thrown objects. Listen to the noises they are making. Can you hear the happy in the noises they are making? The optimism? If they only knew…

Chickens were a little more difficult. I moved them to a new location this morning and about 20 of them moved themselves back. It took several sessions and some creative use of extra fence but we eventually walked the chickens back into their enclosure. They were glad to find food again.

I had hoped to catch a couple of roosters for dinner tonight but…well, no such luck. No lost tempers. No bad words. Just Julie and I…me…I…erm…Just the two of us and a flock of Silver Laced Wyandottes. Hmmm. (That could be a geriatric Flock of Seagulls country cover band.)

Since we already had fence in place, and since the cow was obviously open, we then walked the milk cows back to the pasture to hang with the bull tonight. Hopfully that’s all we need because the bull leaves in 13 days.

I find that patience is gained slowly. But I’m getting there. Days like today help.

Brooder Health Matters

There are things we apply to our livestock that we just don’t care to apply to ourselves because we are biologically different. For example, our cows can metabolize grass. We can not. But there are lots of biological similarities. Women won’t menstruate if they don’t have enough fat. Cows are the same. And I would love to share my observations about herd behavior in the airport vs. in the feedlot but I’m afraid it would not be well received.

Instead I’m going to talk about the chick brooder. Learning to brood chicks is BY FAR the most important thing to learn as you raise birds. If your chicks don’t get a good start in life, if they are wet and cold and catch pneumonia early on, they will never amount to much and you won’t have a quality product to sell. We don’t raise chickens for the companionship, we raise chickens because we treasure meat, eggs and manure. Any old bird will give you manure but to get the meat and eggs, the bird has to be healthy. To have a healthy bird, you need health in the brooder.

This post was inspired by an article I read about the recent increase in average human height. The article indicates that a lack of infection allows the body to focus more energy on growth. That seems pretty obvious. And that is the reason mainstream livestock production uses medicated feed in high-stress, high-density housing. So what’s a farmer to do if he wants to use the same animals used by the industry but deviates away from medication of any sort?

To raise a healthy Cornish Cross chick to the finish line in 6-8 weeks requires a healthy brooder environment. In February we took delivery of 303 birds, 3 were dead in the shipping boxes. 300 birds went into our brooder, 296 came out 3 and a half weeks later. In years past we have done better and we have done worse. The worse is always our fault…either because we neglected security and a cat got into the brooder or because we were not attentive enough during a cold snap and a group of chicks somehow got wet and died of hypothermia or piled on each other. A dead CX chick costs me around $1.20 and a couple of days of feeling bad and kicking myself. I can’t spare the cash or the emotions so we work pretty hard to keep them alive.

This year we brooded our chicks in the pig nursery in 300 gallon tanks. In a water tank there are no sharp corners for chicks to pile up in. Nobody gets crushed. There are no drafts. The pig nursery is a big, insulated box so cold weather and rain were not an issue and if the power had gone out we could have placed a kerosene heater or two in there and kept the space warm enough. The real trick was keeping enough fresh bedding under the birds to keep them clean, dry and healthy.

brooder health 1

I can’t overstate the importance of fresh bedding in the brooder. CX chicks poop a lot. Like, a lot lot. We used enough sawdust to completely fill each 300 gallon tank over the course of three weeks…obviously we scooped out a large portion of the bedding along the way.

To get started we put 5 or 6 buckets of sawdust and one 5-gal bucket of horse manure in each brooder space. The horse manure gives something for the chicks to scratch and pick at while inoculating the rest of the bedding pack. We are shooting for at least three things. We need clean, dry chicks, we need to feed and entertain the chicks (lots of tiny bugs live in the litter) and we need supplemental heat from the warm, composting bedding. To get this done we would add a bucket or two of fresh sawdust every day. Toward the end we were adding bedding twice each day. Every day the chicks would put down and scratch in a new layer of manure. Rinse and repeat.

By doing this we were keeping the chicks warm with heat lamps in an insulated building in brooders that were completely draft free. Beyond that, the chicks were warmed by the growing, living mass of compost beneath them. All we had to do was make feed available, keep the water clean and add in fresh bedding. Then, as a final benefit, we got three large loads of broiler litter to spread on our garden.

Obviously, animal health is a primary concern ranging far beyond chickens. Calf stress at weaning causes all kinds of performance problems. There are techniques we employ to minimize stress…everything from castrating pigs before they are 5 days old to weaning pigs by removing their mothers, not by removing the pigs. Lead, don’t chase or beat your cattle. Don’t yell in the corral. Keep your mouth shut, learn to read and leverage animal behavior.

So, OK. That stuff is not hard to understand. Is there a human application? Heck yes! Ever seen a politician work a herd of humans?

This is where I get myself into trouble. I’ll side step slightly by saying there are things we should monitor about our own environment and behavior to limit stress and disease. We don’t do this because we are concerned with maximizing human growth potential but, instead, simply because we are concerned with our own health. I want to raise animals without antibiotics and I don’t want to use them either. Not that I am some sort of science-doubting luddite (far from it), but because I would rather prevent a disease than cure it.

Is your brooder (home) a cold, sloppy mess or a warm, healthy environment that encourages development? Do you put yourself (or your children) in situations where you receive verbal or physical abuse (unhealthy workplace or bad public school)? Do you get regular sleep? Do you eat a variety of healthy food or do you eat wheat and sugar at every meal? Do you skip a breakfast now and then to throw your body a curve ball?

Look, I’m a computer guy who pretends to be a farmer. I am not pretending to be a health professional, a nutritional therapist or even a lifestyle coach. But are you aware of the average level of health in your community? Are you above or below the average? Does your shopping cart look like the average shopping cart?

If you need a little help making changes in your home brooder I encourage you to follow my wife’s blog. She regularly (well, maybe not regularly) writes about her continuing efforts to limit household clutter, encourage emotional development and enhance our health. If you have a problem with your chick brooder, feel free to ask.