The semi-feral chickens from the woods at our old farm have resumed wild living and are thriving in the woods on the north west corner of the new farm. These second and third generation chicken families, and the learned behaviors they utilize to provide for themselves inspire me to keep tinkering with our production system.
There are several phases to producing a lovely oven-ready chicken, which means there are plenty of areas to develop and progress towards a chickeny fantasy that combines the freedom of expression and quality of life of the feral birds with the practical and economical needs of the farmer. This last week it was the brooding that got a perennial fresh look. Since there's no road map to the fantasy system of the far off future, I can look at what other pioneers in the field are doing and think up my own varied versions.
I want to give the chicks what they seem to be looking for in the first days out of the shell. They want to be under something, they want to be very warm, they like the dark. Of course, a mother hen does this all pretty effectively by squatting just over the chicks, concealing them in the blanket of her feathers, nuzzled up to the warmth of her body. Most brooder designs have the warmth part covered, though very few allow the cover and darkness. I've tried to solve those other two a couple of times before but couldn't keep temperatures in the right range and ultimately had to resort to the same old bright, open brooding methods. Our latest model, in use right this minute, is a 60 year old idea originating from the University of Ohio called a hover brooder. The idea is a box with light fixtures inside that holds the heat in a concentrated area just above the chicks, allowing a low warm area for the chicks to hide under. The original plans have an incandescent light bulb or heat lamp bulb in the fixtures, both of which put out a considerable amount of light. Our plan is to use ceramic terrarium heat bulbs which only emit heat, no light- keeping it cozy and dark while saving in electricity ($) along the way. Unfortunately the bulbs I got for this go-round are the lowest wattage and don't put out enough heat on their own to keep our peeps toasty as the overnight lows start dipping into frost territory, so while the bigger ceramic bulbs are on order we have one ceramic bulb and one old fashioned, red-glowing heat bulb in the box.
The other new idea is to brood the chicks in their pasture pen so that as they grow, there won't be any big, dramatic changes. To this end, I placed the hover brooder in the middle of one of our chicken tractors with bedding under and around the brooder and then plenty of grass around that. The chicks are free to explore around the pen and pop back under the hover whenever they need a cozy nap spot. To minimize draft we enclosed the open sides of the tractor with plastic on one side and metal on another. As their feathers grow in we can phase out the hover by turning off the heat, then removing the hover entirely, and finally begin moving the tractor more and more each day. By the time they're reach harvest weight in January, they'll be scooting around the pasture and fertilizing two full pen lengths per day. Here's a little timelapse video of some of our birds growing in 2013 in one of the pens we still employ: