Saturday, May 5, 2012

Teaching the chicks to from hawks

I don't really need to teach them.  They instinctively know what to do.  I just have to give them access to suitable forage, and keep them safe from predators.  This is how we do this here at Blue Viola Farm.

  These chicks will be 8 weeks old tomorrow.

A couple years ago my dad and I build this hoophouse aka chicken tractor.  This is a way to keep chicks...or in some cases, full grown chickens....on pasture while still keeping them contained and safe from most predators.  We only had to purchase 4 2x4's, two of them eight feet long and two of them ten feet long, and three cattle panels for the frame of the walls and hoop.  We had chicken netting, tarps, and the door (that rusted thing you see in the picture below, something that a friend found in a dumpster where he works and that has had many uses here ever is fantastic for setting on a wheelbarrow for sifting compost.)  The door is simply wired in place for hinges and there is a snap wired on the other side to hold it closed.

Light Brahma hen visiting....note the size difference.

Here is a view of the entire hoophouse.  It got warped last fall with that freakish, wet snow storm we had in October, even without the tarps in place.  But it still works just fine.

Bricks are used to fill any chick-sized gaps when we move the hoophouse each day.

We do this so they can have access to fresh grass and weeds, and we attach ropes to the corners of the tractor (so-called chicken tractor because it moves) and drag it very slowly to new grass, watching for chicks that might get crushed.  Haven't squished one yet.  They learn pretty quickly to rush to the new grass.  It really is amazing how much fresh greens they will eat, given the opportunity.  It is a large part of their natural diet, along with plenty of bugs.

This is why the netting covers the entire chicken tractor.

Now that they are outside...they went into this new home at six weeks of age, once they were fully feathered and could withstand temperature fluctuations without a heat lamp....they get fed a diet primarily of whole grains.  I slightly sprout wheat and oats for them, any small grains will do.  Barley is great, but I can't get it here.  They also get a small amount of whole corn in the afternoon.  Some of the chicks are still a bit small to handle the whole kernels, but they seem to find smaller pieces to eat.

For the protein portion of their diet, I still feed catfood, but only when something more natural is not available or if my schedule is just too tight.  Otherwise, they get fresh goat's milk, whey from cheesemaking, chevre that is getting past its prime, meat scraps from making broth, and worms that I dig from our organic vegetable gardens as I prepare the soil for planting.  I can fill a quart container about 3/4 full of earthworms in a few minutes.  This is the chicks favorite food, hands down.  Wings down.  Beaks down?

Most importantly, they get no soy, not a speck.

I love this brown and white spotty Icelandic chick.  Hope it is a pullet (young female.)

Ginger hopes for grain, while Peach stands on the board that I took off the hoophouse to take pictures of the chicks.  Plummy scratches her back with her horns....don't you wish you could do that?  Tilt your head and scratch that itch between your shoulder blades?  Ahhhhh.......

Once the chicks are close to full size, I'll start letting them out to mingle with the rest of the flock.  I'll lift their hoophouse onto concrete blocks on one end so they can come and go without interference from the goats.  Then I'll start training them to join the rest of the flock in the coop at night by carrying them in just after dark.  The hens, anyways.

The roosters can continue to live in the hoophouse until fall, when the weather cools and it is time the freezer.  Our roosters have a fantastic, happy, natural life and only one bad day.  Unlike commercial chickens, for whom the reverse is true, when their final day offers them release from misery.

There are growing numbers of small, local farmers that are raising their poultry in such a natural and healthy manner.  Not surprisingly, the meat and eggs from such birds are very, very healthy for us.  If you can't raise your own meat bird or keep a few hens for eggs....and most communities do allow a few backyard chickens....get to your local farmer's market and talk to people.  You'll find someone nearby who has properly-raised poultry and eggs to sell.  It will be double or triple (or more) the price in the grocery store, but you can enjoy truly healthy food without thinking about the concentration camp conditions that the animals were kept in.

In the spring, it is not unusual to have someone in the neighborhood with a few hens running loose.  Often these people have excess eggs to sell.  Go knock on their door and ask.  Eggs will keep in the fridge for four months if not washed (ask for unwashed clean eggs if you plan on storing them.)  Feel free to buy while they are available and stock up.  Do the same if you keep a few hens.

When I was a kid, we lived next door to a commercial egg farm, the type with the "battery" cages.  Five hens stuffed shoulder to shoulder in wire cages above a manure pit.  A conveyer brought them their food and water, and they laid their eggs on the wire bottom of the cage.  The cages had a slight tilt and the eggs would roll out to a gutter and a person would roll a cart along the aisles, collecting the eggs twice a day.

The fumes would make your eyes water.

Those hens never did this.    Or this.

As a kid, I learned to mimic the sounds those hens made.  As an adult, when I finally kept a some hens myself, I learned that the only chicken sound that I could make was that of a hen frightened and upset.  That was the only sound I'd ever heard.  I was rather disturbed at this realization.  This was a very large part of our decision to start to raise chickens for meat as well.

I'm asked often how I can do this, raise them and then eat them.  If I'm going to eat chicken....humans are can I not?  It is not because I am cold-hearted, rather, the opposite is true.  I know not everyone can do this, either because of their location, time factors, or the ability to look at a live animal one day and have it on the dinner table the next.  But everyone can support local farmers who have taken cruelty out of meat.  Don't be someone who rails against the likes of Michael Vic and then supports that behavior and worse in the grocery store.  Vote with your dollars.  Buy good meat, poultry, and eggs.  It is so worth it.


  1. We also raise our broilers on pasture. Ours start in a Salatin pen, then move to the 40' sq. pen when they are big enough (about 8-10 weeks). These are either moved daily, or every 4 days.

    I've also been asked about raising and eating. For me, it was a choice of raise my own or stay sick and in a wheelchair the rest of my life. I could not afford to pay another farmer to raise my food.

    I was raised in a family that believed an animal you took into your care, you were responsible for until it died of old age. We had bantam layers, but they were pets. We ate the eggs, but buried the birds when they died.

    So it was a big mind set change for me, to decide to raise and eat what I raised. But I could no longer afford, health-wise, to eat grocery store food.

    So now we raise our own layers, broilers, beef and pork. And have the garden, all organic, and as sustainable as we can manage.

    Like yours, ours have a really good life, and 10 bad minutes.

  2. Yup, it is a work-intensive yet satisfying life...and the food is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G-!

  3. "with only one bad day..." aint that right!

  4. Really, you can't even call it a bad day. More like a bad minute.