We’ve got 650 baby chicks. It’s difficult not to smile standing over their fluffy, peeping selves. It’s a little like watching improv comedy. They step on one another as they explore their cozy heat-lamp world and find delight in their water and feed. Then they tell you all about it.
And I can’t overstress the peeping. When Jason was driving them from Iowa, I couldn’t even hear him on the phone over the din. It’s truly ceaseless. Until you make a sudden noise and then they fall silent and look at you.
This is our first big brood – we’re starting from scratch this time. When we first began our commercial egg operation the summer of 2012, we’d bought birds close to laying – around 16 weeks. With so much initial construction, along with the need for timely cash flow, it made sense to avoid baby birds. Looking back, it was one of those “seemed like a good idea at the time” scenarios.
Mostly, the problems (and there WERE problems) stemmed from the basic philosophy differences between commercial and pasture-based chicken operations. If you remember from my previous post, even when a chicken is labeled as cage-free, it doesn’t mean that the bird is free to roam the farm. And while it’s still miles ahead of battery cages, it simply means these hens can mill around their warehouse.
Given that we were ordering up 1,800 adult chickens, we didn’t have any options other than to contract with a commercial farm to raise our birds. So when our new hens landed in great celebration on our gloriously green, flowered fields we weren’t expecting what happened next.
The birds were utterly terrified of it.
They didn’t want to come out of the coops – and when we finally chased them out, they didn’t know how to eat grass. Now I thought a LOT of things could go wrong with this new egg company, but chickens not knowing HOW to be chickens …was not one of them.
In the evening, one can count on birds putting themselves to bed. It’s such a given there’s even an adage: “Chickens come home to roost.” But these chickens would NOT go inside at dusk. They stood there – staring at us, with that one eye on the side of their head checking out the falling sun, but making no move. And then it struck me.
“Hey,” I said,“these birds don’t understand the natural biorhythms of sunset because they have NEVER SEEN THE SUN!” I’m pretty sure I started crying, too.
We’d finally chased all the birds inside their hoop coops, which is no small feat. I mean, there’s a reason that the boxer Rocky trained by chasing a chicken: they’re fast, dodgy little things that can easily outflank you. But once they were in, we discovered another problem. They wouldn’t roost.
Roosting is when birds perch on long sticks elevated off the floor, and it’s the natural way flocks of birds sleep. It’s important for a few reasons. Hens need to roost for enough real estate in the coop itself and protection from some prey, but it’s also a warmth issue. Living on pasture is a cold deal in Northern Minnesota and those girls needed to cuddle up.
So for the first several weeks, Jason went out every night wearing his headlamp, and took sleeping chickens, one by one by one – and hand placed them on roosts. (Chickens are really heavy sleepers.) I told my friend Deb about this and she liked the idea of the chickens waking up and saying, “What the heck?!” then looking over to their neighbor saying, “You too, Lola?”
Over time, Jason actually managed to rewire their marble-sized brains and now they (mostly) go in at night willingly and in the morning they race out of the coop in search of whatever the pasture has to offer. But it wasn’t easy.
Now when our little Lolas are just a bit bigger and the weather milder, we’ll start acclimating them to pasture and feed them some sprouts to get them craving green. It’s another farm chore to raise the chicks – more feeders and waterers to tend, but we’re sure it’s worth it.
Here’s a video of the girls: chicksvid . It’s peeping madness.