So much has happened in the last couple of weeks that we are going to need to write four or five blog posts in order to catch you all up, but perhaps the most exciting event was the arrival of our first batch of chicks!!! Back in March (or perhaps it was February?) I ordered chicks from Freedom Ranger Hatchery in Reinholds, Pennsylvania. Most of the meat birds raised these days are Cornish Crosses which have been bred for intense meat production (especially on the breast) at the expense of hardiness and foraging ability (because why would they need to forage if we are only feeding them grain?). So although large breasted meaty birds have a certain appeal, we decided to go with Freedom Rangers. Our chickens are supposed to be great pasture birds and have a wonderful flavor that makes it worth the extra few weeks they take to grow. We will certainly report on whether or not that is the case.
Raising chicks presents a few challenges when one does not have electricity. First of all, chicks are supposed to have access to 90 degree temperatures during the first few days of their lives. Usually, a brooder (the first home for the chicks) will include a heat lamp which solves that problem. With no electricity a heat lamp was not an option so we decided to use buckets and jars of hot water both underneath and inside the brooder. You can see in the picture below that the brooder is on legs so that there is space underneath for the buckets and some insulation to attempt to keep heat in
I can report after about a week that the hot water method does seem to be working, but the first couple of days were pretty rough. At first, we only had buckets underneath the brooder and the temperature just didn't seem to be rising high enough. We got the woodstove really cranking, attempting to warm up the second floor (which is where the chickens are because that is where the most light and space is). Unfortunately, the heat doesn't want to rise in our house (no vents to let the air move around) so in order to get it hot upstairs it had to feel like a sauna downstairs. It was ridiculous. I can't think of a time that I have ever been so sweaty in April. We actually decided to pick up our bed (just a foam mattress) and move it into the back of the van because it is way to hot in the house to sleep. The things we do for love, right?
Anyway, we finally filled a couple of jars with hot water and put them right in the brooder with the chicks. This immediately raised the temperature and provided them with a choice of temperatures (closer to the water=hot, farther away=cold) which is ideal. We did have to get up multiple times the first couple of nights to make sure the water was staying hot and the fire was going in the stove, but as their temperature requirement decreases so does the need for nightly check-ins. Phew.
Ok, enough business. I know you all just want to see pictures of chicks so here you go!
On Friday, April 13th I got two exciting phone calls: one from the post office telling me that they had a box of chicks for me to come pick up, and one from my best friend Elly who had given birth to a beautiful baby girl the day before! I was somewhat overwhelmed (in the best way possible) as you can see from the silly grin on my face in the picture above (the only part of my face you can see which in some way is appropriate to how I was feeling).
When I walked into the post office the windows weren't open yet, but I could hear our chickens chirping like crazy on the other side of the wall. The woman who brought them out to me seemed very relieved to be rid of them. They were quite loud. Interestingly, she also commented on how great it was that they were all alive and said that a local business had been ordering a bunch of chickens lately and they were all arriving dead. The first indication that we made a good choice in our breed and source of chicks.
Books that I read and people I talked to said that it would be completely normal to lose a few chicks in the first couple of days. Some may get sick in transport; some might get squished if the birds are cold and try to pile together to stay warm; some might not find the water in their new home and die of thirst (not particularly bright these birds). That said, I was fully expecting a few deaths, but so far our birds have been doing nothing but growing at a ridiculous rate. The first day and night the little chicks would kind of sprawl with legs outstretched and heads in strange positions while sleeping and it was very hard to tell the difference between sleep and death. In fact, when I got up at 3am to check the brooder temperature that first night I had a bit of a shock looking at them lying like that. The temperature was just about 90 degrees and I was debating about changing the water but in my groggy 3am state I decided that either they were dead and it didn't matter, or they were sleeping really soundly and I didn't want to disturb them. In the morning all 26 of them were up and about and eating like crazy. They have since learned to sleep in a more civilized manner thank goodness.
Though they are still incredibly cute and fun to watch, our chickens have already lost some of their infant charm. Partly this is due to the fact that they are swapping fuzz for feathers, but mostly I think it is the way that they attack my hands every time I feed and water them. Seriously, these guys are fierce! Makes me a little nervous actually. Especially considering they are only going to get bigger. We are hoping it is just that they are ready to forage and think that our hands are delicious insects that they can eat. Speaking of which, the chicks have come in handy for dealing with a little ant problem that has arisen in the house. Catch an ant, put it in the brooder...instant chicken frenzy.
Happy spring everyone!