Before You Get Your Baby Chicks, You Should Read This

During this past week, I’ve been chatting with several people who are interested in raising chickens.  It’s that time of year – fruit trees are blooming, the weather has been beautiful, and if you dare to walk into a feed store, you’re sure to be tempted by the sweet chirp of baby chicks.  The day old birds are, without a doubt, one of the cutest things in the known universe, which is reason enough to get a few for pets.  I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how delicious real eggs taste, though, which is an even better reason to start a flock.

eggs

The logic sounds simple so far, right?

The next step gets really complicated.  Before you even purchase chicks, you need to decide whether or not to raise them following strict organic standards.  When you buy chicks from a hatchery, you’ll have the option to get them vaccinated before they’re shipped to you.  The chicks from the feed stores in our area are usually not vaccinated because the stores need to give customers the option to raise them organically.  (We live in Northern California; this may not hold true in other areas of the country).

If you don’t get vaccinated chicks, you have the option of giving them medicated starter feed.  Chicks that have already been vaccinated shouldn’t have medicated feed because it will counteract the vaccinations.  The medicated feed only helps prevent certain illnesses and does nothing to prevent others that the vaccination will cover.
chicken saladI’m 99.9% sure that anyone reading this blog will gravitate towards following the organic route. When we first got chickens, that was certainly what we did.  It seems obvious: antibiotics and vaccines seem like disgusting ingredients for an omelet.  A few years ago, we had an absolute disaster that made me realize that it’s not nearly as simple as you’d think…. It’s probably an important story to read for anyone thinking about getting a flock.

It was the first time that we’d decided to try getting a larger flock so we could sell eggs at the farmers market. Since we’re off the grid and don’t have a 24 hour power source, running a heat lamp for first six weeks of the chicks lives was virtually impossible. We found two different people on craigslist that sold pullets that we ready to be outside without the heat lamp.  We went to both farms and both seemed perfectly lovely.  The pullets were all healthy and happy.  We fed them organic feed and raised them up to egg laying age, and then………… they started dying. It wasn’t all at once, but we were having one or two hens die every week. They would look slow and lethargic for several days, then have trouble walking and standing up, and no matter how much tlc we gave them, they died.  Our coop was very clean, they had plenty of food and water and plenty of space to run around, and we were completely baffled why we were having so many problems.

Initially, none of our research really yielded any good answers, and most vets that we spoke with only worked with larger farm animals.  One morning, when I found another hen that was clearly suffering, who could barely stand and looked like she was having trouble breathing, I got fed up. I packed her into a box with some blankets and took her to the vet we use for our dogs because I had to do something.  When the vet saw her, he told me that she was far too sick to help, and we had to put her to sleep.  The vet office sent her body to UC Davis for testing to figure out what was going wrong.  (At this point in the story, I start losing any kind of farmer street cred that I may have had.  Who pays money to get a chicken put to sleep? Just wring their neck and it’s done.  It was a weird morning, what can I say…)

Holding a frail, sick hen in my arms while she died was about the most awful thing ever. I left the vet office in tears, drove across the street and parked under some trees near the hardware store, where I sat and cried for an embarrassingly long time.  I felt sick to my stomach that all of these animals in my care were dying.

When we got the test results back from UC Davis, my suspicions were confirmed: the hen had Marek’s Disease.  Marek’s is something can a hen can carry for a long time and seem completely healthy, but then will flare up during a stressful period.  For our flock, the trigger was the transition into egg-laying.  If one hen had it, the whole flock was definitely carrying it.  There’s no treatment and it has a 90% fatality rate. Once Marek’s flares up, it’s a slow and painful way for a hen to die.  They become more and more lethargic, and then experience asymmetrical paralysis, meaning the hen will lose use of half of her body.  A hen that’s dying of Marek’s will often have one droopy wing and one leg that’s limp and outstretched. Eventually the hen won’t be able to breathe and dies.  UC Davis told us that the only way to get rid of it in our coop was to “depopulate” the flock, clean the coop, and leave it empty for several months.

The crazy thing in all of this? When you order day old chicks from the hatchery, there’s a little box you can click on the order form, and for a couple extra bucks you can get all of them vaccinated for Marek’s (along with several other diseases) when they’re a day old.  It’s not organic at all, but it would have prevented the whole nightmare we went through with our hens.  We’re still not sure how we ended up with Marek’s in our flock, but it was almost certainly because one of the farms I got our birds from had it in their flock.  This was the point where we decided: we will always raise our own chicks, even if it’s a total pain in the butt doing it off the grid, and we will always get them vaccinated from the hatchery.  After that we feed them organic grains, and I just figure that by the time the six months have passed for them to start laying eggs there can’t be much medication left in their system.

If you’re wondering about our doomed flock, we didn’t have the heart to kill all of them the way UC Davis recommended.  The chickens that hadn’t gotten sick yet were still happy and healthy, so we let them hang out with us until the disease flared up, when we would take matters into our own hands and put them out of their misery.  It was really depressing, but it seemed like the nice thing to do.

I’m sure other people have had different experiences raising chickens.  Most people don’t end up with the mess that we had. This was the single most important lesson we’ve ever learned about chicken farming, though, and I hope that sharing it helps other people make conscious decisions about their farming methods.  Things are not always as black and white as they seem, unfortunately, and animal husbandry can be a lot more intense than growing some tomatoes in your backyard garden.

 

P.S. I still would rather raise them organically, so if you have a good solution…. please tell me!

Our New Chickens, and How To Introduce Young Chickens Into Your Flock

I swore that I would take more pictures of the baby chicks this time around, and I totally didn’t do it. They just grow so fast; before you know it, their feathers are in and they’re starting to look like chickens instead of little stuffed animals.

I’m really excited for some of the breeds we have.  Up until now, our flock has been 100% ameraucanas, so our eggs are a lovely mix of pastel greens and blues.  When we placed this order with the hatchery, we decided to worry less about egg color more about having an interesting flock with a large assortment of breeds.  I’m particularly taken with the blue-laced red wyandottes, one of which held still long enough for me to take a picture: I ordered us a couple special roosters too.  This guy was absolutely not excited about the camera, but you can see how long his tail feathers already are.  He’s a phoenix, a rare variety where the roosters have wonderfully dramatic tail feathers.  (Click here for some pictures to get an idea of what I mean)The baby chicks growing up means that it’s time for them to join the big girls in the main coop.  If we had tons of space, I would keep them separate for another few months, but we don’t.  I’ve learned a few things about this process over the years, (some of which might conflict with information you may read elsewhere, which usually advises against different age groups in the same coop).

It’s completely possible to combine multiple age groups of chickens into one space.  Ideally, you can keep them separate until they’re full-grown, but not everyone has that much room.  Here are the tricks that I’ve learned over the years:

  • Never put day old chicks with laying hens. The age difference just too much.  Instead, put the day old chicks in a smaller space for a month or two to grow a little bit.  The smaller space doesn’t need to be lavish since it’s so temporary (but do make sure that it’s warm, dry, that they have plenty of food and water and space to move around.) I’ve used rabbit cages, sectioned off areas of the main coop, and makeshift cardboard boxes or storage bins.
  • The actual age that you decide to put the young chicks in with the grownup hens depends on a few variables.  If your hens have a lot of space to roam around, you can put the chicks out a little younger.
  • When you first combine the two age groups, do it about an hour before sunset.  That way, if it’s too soon and the grownup hens start picking on the little ones, they won’t really cause too much trouble because they’ll be going to the coop to go to sleep soon.
  • The most important thing: The key is to distract the grownup hens from the younger ones.  Put out lots of scratch, vegetable scraps from the garden, leftover kitchen scraps, whatever you have.  You want to have the older birds so caught up in eating all this awesome stuff that they don’t notice that there are suddenly a bunch of little ones running around.   Remember, there is such a thing as too much scratch.  It’s much better to give your hens lots and lots of fresh vegetables than to overdo it on the scratch.
  • Pick a day that you’ll be at home and can hang out with your chickens.  Don’t just combine the two groups and assume it’s fine.  There will be the occasional scuffle.  An adult bird may peck a younger chick, and if it draws blood it can turn very dangerous for the younger bird.  If you catch it right as it’s happening, all you have to do is grab the younger bird and wipe off the blood, then the bird can go right back into the group. (I’m talking about a very small amount here, just a speck of blood.  If you’re around to pay attention to the birds, it shouldn’t progress any farther than this, but if it does and you have a bird that has a larger cut that is actively bleeding, you need to separate it from the other birds immediately.)  If the two age groups are not getting along and you’re having to break up more than one or two little scuffles, it means that they’re not ready to be combined yet.
  • It will probably take a couple days for them to be completely comfortable together.  You’ll need to keep a closer eye on your chickens than usual and give them lots to do for these two days.  This is the time to give them a fresh bale of straw to play with, some heads of lettuce to tear apart.
  • The two age groups aren’t supposed to be eating the same food. The calcium in the food for the laying hens isn’t good for the young chickens and you don’t want the older chickens eating medicated chick starter (we don’t use medicated starter, but if you do, know that the medication can end up in the eggs if laying hens eat it).  The best solution that we’ve found is to use a flock-raiser mix and also put out oyster shells for the hens that are laying.
When we first let out the little chicks, this one immediately flew onto j's head and then pooped on him. Charming, right?