Our guest blogger is Rawley Johnson, Local Roots Farm 2012 crew leader and our first full-fledged incubator farmer. Rawley is keeping 500 laying hens on the farm this year, selling his eggs through our CSA program. If you are interested in joining our egg CSA, you can find the details here: Local Roots Farm CSA.
Here’s Rawley to tell you more about the life of a chicken farmer:
When the phone woke me up at 5:30am on a chilly October morning, I knew instantly who it was from the chirping on the other end of the line. My baby chicks had arrived at the post office. 500 just-hatched chicks had been sent air mail all the way from Iowa. They are packed 100 to a box and usually survive the flight just fine, subsisting on stored nutrients from the eggs they hatched out of.
I rolled out of bed and stumbled into the early morning darkness to make some last minute preparations for the birds’ brooder space. Wooden apple bins fitted with heat lamps were going to be their new home. By the time I arrived at the post office it was 7:30 and the cacophony of chirping could be heard from the moment I swung open the door. Those poor postal workers had been putting up with the chatter for 2 hours! From the urgency in the birds’ voices I knew they were ready to get out of there and see some daylight.
As much as I wanted to free the birds from their little boxes all at once, it’s better to do it one at a time. I gave each bird a quick inspection, looking for any health concerns. One had what they call “pasty butt” and needed a cleaning reminiscent of a dirty diaper change. Another had actually lost its rear claw and was bleeding. I gave it a makeshift mini bandage and it turned out just fine. After passing inspection, I dipped each bird’s beak into the water bowl to make sure they knew where to get a drink, and then they were free. The distressed high pitched chirping of the box was replaced by a contented, soft tweet, as each bird began to explore its new world. If you want to know how a baby chick is doing, just listen to how it chirps.
The key to happy chicks is keeping them warm. It takes about 8 weeks for their adult feathers to grow in, and for their first week of life they need it to be about 90 degrees. This is why a mother hen keeps her clutch close at hand. For these birds, I was the mother hen. This meant getting up in the middle of the night for weeks to make sure everything was okay. When they get cold, chicks have a tendency to bunch together to share body heat and can suffocate if the pile gets too tight. The picture below is an example of how things should look at night. I know the heat lamp is warm enough because no birds are sleeping directly under it.
After a week, they were already hopping up to roost on sticks of bamboo. In 3 weeks, they had outgrown their brooder space and were ready for more room. I found some mobile chicken coops on Craigslist (who knew?) and invited some friends over to help fix them up. Now I can lock the birds in at night and drive them to new grass in the morning.
At only 5 weeks old, I let them out on the grass for the first time. They love running around on the pasture playing tag. One bird will pick up a piece of carrot or something and run off with the others in hot pursuit until another one snatches it away and sends the chase in another direction.
I ordered all females (pullets) from the hatchery but now that they’re 3 months old, I can see I’ve got a few males (cockerels) in the bunch. They actually have a guy at the hatchery who is a professional sexer, trained to tell a pullet from a cockerel at birth. You couldn’t pay me enough to do that job every day. One breed I ordered, the Red Star, is a modern “sex-link” variety, which means that the hens and roosters are different colors at birth, making the job a lot easier. But the Barred Rocks and blue-egg laying Araucanas are heritage breeds and my sexer apparently missed a few. I haven’t decided if I’m going to keep any roosters; it’s a myth that they encourage egg production. I’ve heard that the roosters help alert the hens of eagles and hawks, but this is probably a myth, too. Hens can fend for themselves just fine.
They should start laying eggs in early April. I’m feeding them hand sprouted organic whole grains and locally milled Scratch and Peck feed, so these eggs are going to taste great. CSA members can sign up for the season at a discounted price or come get them at the farmers market this spring!