If you were a chicken

I would ask you one million questions. Do you prefer roosts made from a cedar limb or an oak? Would you rather have pine shavings or old hay for bedding? Should I turn your house so it fills with light at sunrise or do you prefer to go lay outside like you do? Are you sitting with your friends there? Do you have friends?

I would grill you (with questions) because, dear bird, you are so hard to read sometimes. I want to make you happy, to fill your life with all the riches you deserve. And yet, you walk around in your tottering way, head jerking this way and that, all feathered and everything. If you never furrow your brow, how can I tell when you are displeased?
Perhaps I overcompensate for your inscrutability. Perhaps you don't care whether that grain was sprouted or not, whether the surfaces of your coop are wood or metal, if there's a vinegar tang to your water. If you would just bend your little beak into a smile or frown one time, at one of the million little things I do for you! 

Instead I will pass yet another coffee break striving to decipher your unblinking gaze, content to know that in the end my efforts may or may not make you happy, but they do make you delicious.


Feral mama hen raising her chicks without any assistance amidst the woodland sow pasture.

Feral mama hen raising her chicks without any assistance amidst the woodland sow pasture.

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:

In 2013 we used a timelapse camera to capture meat chickens growing to market weight in mobile pens. This is still the way we raise our meat birds.