By Cassie Johnston
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No, this post isn’t a pregnancy announcement (no, just no), it’s to introduce you to the 12 newest residents of the Broken Plow. We got chickens!
We’ve been talking for years about getting chickens, and for one reason or another, we kept putting it off. Our biggest hesitation recently has been that we really aren’t tied down by anything—my work can travel with me anywhere, Craig is a stay-at-home-dad, and Juniper isn’t in school yet. If we wanted to, we could literally pick up tomorrow and go spend a month on an island somewhere. We liked that possibility. But there is one flaw with that logic—we’d never do it.
Seriously, it sounds amazing, but that jet-setting lifestyle just isn’t our thing. We’d have lots of fun for the first few days, and then miss our bed and our backyard. What is our thing? Building a beautiful, comfortable, welcoming homestead right here. So, we put aside our traveling pipe dream and placed an order for baby chicks late last month. I’m all about living fearlessly in 2015, and ordering a bunch of baby birds on a whim is me being fearless!
I’m so glad we pulled the plug. It feels incredibly right to have baby chicks running around on the Plow. Gosh, they are adorable.
Because we made the decision to get chickens so late in the normal chick hatching season, all of our local hatcheries were out of stock. The local feed stores had some chicks in, but they were all straight run chicks (meaning you get what you get—both hens and roosters), and we didn’t really want to deal with a half-dozen roosters on our first go of it.
We ended up ordering from an online hatchery—Meyer Hatchery. We liked them because they were still relatively local to us (Ohio), and they had really great reviews online. A lot of people had really great luck with them.
Because we like living on the edge, we ordered a rainbow pullet pack—it’s basically like the grab bag of female baby chicks. The hatchery grabs a few of the nice looking chicks from each variety that is hatching that day and sends them to you. They guarantee you’ll get at least five different varieties, and a mix of brown egg-layers, white egg-layers, and colored egg-layers. And they guarantee 90% female birds. Perfect for us!
We placed an order for 15 birds, which sounds a little crazypants for first-timers, but we knew we wanted to go big. If all 15 birds produced “normally,” we could get between 7-8 dozen eggs per week during prime production. Craig, Juniper, and I go through 2-3 dozen per week on our own, plus we’ll be providing eggs for my parents (who live on the other side of our lake, if you didn’t know), and we’d love to be able to donate some each week to our local food pantry.
Unfortunately, there were some delays with shipping the birds, and we lost one in transit. It’s okay to ship freshly-hatched chicks because they can survive off the egg yolk in their tummies for 48-72 hours. We thought that shipping from Ohio to Indiana would give them plenty of time to get here, but by the time I picked them up from the post office (at 7am, in my jammies, after driving at not-so-legal speeds on country roads), they were going on 75 hours since hatching. Plus, the temps had dropped during those few days, and even though the chicks were boxed up with heat packs, it was just too much for one to handle.
There were two other birds that were very weak in the box, and we tried our darndest to nurse them back to health. We were literally dropping water in their beaks with an eye dropper to try to bring them back from the brink, but we ended up losing both of them. They were the chicks that were in the corner of the box, furthest away from the heat pack. The travel stress was just too much for them. It’s easy to think if we were more experienced chicken farmers, we might have been able to save them, but I know we did everything we could do. They just weren’t strong enough to make it through the three-day trip across state lines.
Thankfully though, the remaining dozen chickies are super healthy, super happy, and growing like weeds. Whenever you take on animal husbandry, you know you are going to eventually have to deal with death, and we got a primer on it pretty quickly. It’ll never be easy to deal with a sick or dying animal, but I’m proud of how both Craig and I handled it.
I’m glad all of our other ladies are doing so well. And, next time we bring in new chicks, I think we’ll skip the shipping process and instead hit up one of our local hatcheries. I know a lot of people have success with shipped chicks, but it just isn’t worth the variable for us.
We did things backwards, and we are just now starting to build the ladies a coop. Right now, they are living in a large brooder in our basement (after originally living in a cardboard box for a few days). Craig is working every free second to get the coop done, and I can’t wait to show you the finished product! Right now, I’ll tell you that we are going bigggggg. Everything I read about coops is that you want to go as big as you can. Most people will tell you that becoming a chicken parent is really addictive, so you want space to grow your future obsession. And if you don’t get obsessed, it won’t hurt to give your chickens some more breathing room.
We’re still working on identifying all of our chicks, and it will get much easier as they get older and older. More experienced chicken wranglers, please chime in! We’d love to hear your thoughts on what breeds we have. Here is what we are thinking as of right now:
Like I said, it’ll be much easier to identify them once they are a bit older, so I’ll keep you posted!
If you’re wondering how Miss Juniper is taking to the chicks, she is absolutely fascinated by them! We take her down to the basement to visit the brooder a couple of times a day, and she just hangs over the side and stares at them as they run around going about their chicken business.
She doesn’t really reach out for them or try to touch them, and she’s still too young to handle them at this tiny, fragile size, but we hope that by exposing her to the chickies and the chickies to her, they will be great friends for years to come!
We’re trying to make sure we handle each chick everyday to get them used to human interaction (it can be a little difficult to keep track, so we pet and snuggle one, and then move it to a second brooder box so we can keep track of who has gotten love and who hasn’t). These are definitely more production birds for us than pets, but it would be nice to have some of them (if not all of them) okay with human contact. I’m sure Juniper would be very happy to have pet chickens as she gets older.
Other than our chick losses in the first two days, it’s been going really well with the chicks! During their first few weeks, you have to keep a close eye on them to make sure they’re settling in well and make sure they don’t have pasty butt (yup, that’s actually what the condition is called). Basically, we’ve been wiping each of our pullets’ bums twice a day to make sure their vent is all clear. It sounds gross, but it really isn’t. Changing a baby’s dirty diaper makes wiping a tiny bit of poo from a chicks bum seem like a walk in the park, in comparison.
The only other hiccup we had was when our power went out during a thunderstorm! We had to pack up the ladies and take them over to my parents’ house (because they have a whole house generator) to make sure they stayed warm during the power outage. Have chicks, will travel.
One of the reasons I think our chicks are doing so well is because we sprung for the much-coveted EcoGlow Brooder at the recommendation of my chicken farming friend, Grace. Typically, you use a 250W red light bulb and lamp in a brooder to help keep the chicks warm, but it’s hard to keep the heat consistent with those, which can cause issues with your chicks (including lots more pasty butt issues).
The light is also a huge fire hazard. One Google search will render you thousands of stories of chicken farmers who have had their brooders, coops, barns, and even houses burned to the ground by a lamp that was knocked over by a chick. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night with the lamp on. The brooder doesn’t get hot to the touch, and is just warm enough to keep the ladies warm. They use it like an electric mother hen! They run under it when they need to warm up, and run out when they want to explore. We love it (and no, I’m not being paid by the company that makes them).
The brooders are a bit expensive, about $80 each, but they are much more energy-efficient and pretty much pay of themselves compared to two of the heat lamps in one go of raising chicks. Totally worth it for my peace of mind!
I love that instead of us artificially adjusting the heat in the brooder (by raising or lowering a lamp), the chickens are regulating their own heat. They spent a lot of time under the brooder in the early days, and now, a lot of them sleep on top of it, or just pop under it when they need a little bit of warmth. Eventually, they’ll get to the point where they stop using it, and we’ll know they are ready to head outside.
Alright, enough about the brooder already (seriously, I love it, though).
I think that pretty much brings you all up to date on our first 10 days of chicken wrangling. If you are interested in checking in on the ladies, we have a live stream set up of their brooder. It seems silly, but being able to check in on them on my phone or laptop has been so nice! Without it, we’d probably be down checking in the brooder every 10 minutes. And, plus, it’s fun to share our chicken experience with the rest of the world!
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We just introduced 6 new little ladies into our flock this weekend. Chickens are so much fun!
I find myself with a lot less food scraps to compost these days because I love taking everything out and treating the ladies at night.
For local chicken supplies I love shopping at Fresh Start (downtown Louisville). And when I need any accessories I find that Rural King (in Jeff) is usually the cheapest. I always hit up the tiny local farm store in my town when I need advice about sick chickens, etc. – they know best and are happy to share their knowledge!
We <3 Fresh Start and RK! :) Although, we do tend to hit up Tractor Supply more frequently because we have one right close by here.
Had to hit up Tractor Supply yesterday to get bird scarring balloons – we’re having major woodpecker problems with our house this year! Oi.
Oh, the funnest chicken tip I have to offer is don’t wear flip flops and red toenail polish when you’re around the chickies – Chickens heart red. Hah!
Congratulations on your new chickies! Getting chickens was such a great decision for our family. They are pretty low maintenance and they’re a ton of fun. Enjoy!
Gosh those little chicks are precious! Posts like this make me want to drop everything, move out to the country, plant a garden and raise chickens…until I remember that farming is a TON of work and I’d be really lousy at it. I’ll just have to live vicariously through you :) Thanks for all the great chick photos — can’t wait to see these guys (oops, girls) grow up! Craig’s coop looks like it’ll be fantastic.
Congrats! I just got my first set of chickens this weekend too! Except I got 5 pullets instead of chicks. It will be fun to compare chicken notes! Right now my chickens are afraid of me, so I am trying to get them to warm up!
Ours are a little skittish, too! But warming up to us everyday. We’ve found they are the most friendly when we take them outside. They don’t seem to mind us then!
What an amazing adventure!!!! I’m incredibly jealous. Our daycare actually has chickens (they live on land), so I love that Magnolia gets that experience.
I agree, I think E & F are barred rocks. We bought about 30 chicks our very first time getting chicks, all different breeds (well, probably 15 breeds). It’s so addicting! We’ve hatched out our own chicks before, which is really fun, and last year we had a barred rock hen sneak off and hatch chicks all on her own. Once we discovered them, we set them all up in a large pen on grass, and I moved them into a dog kennel every night for protection. It was so interesting to watch her sit on them to keep them warm, and just teach them how to be chickens! We’ve recently branched into guineas too. Have fun! :-)
I’ve started thinking more and more about chickens lately. We can’t get them where we live now, but Tim vows our next place will have more land and privacy. When that happens we first expand our garden and plant fruit trees. then later I work on him saying yes to chickens. lol
This is fantastic! We’re getting chickens for the first time too. They’re arriving this weekend from the exact same hatchery. But I only bought 4 Australorps and now really hoping they make it okay. I too wanted to get the eco-brooder but the price steered me away. I ended up coming across this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q25k2WbP8Vc) and so bought a heating pad. Like you, I’ve wanted to do this for years and finally took the plunge. Congratulations!
I remember Rhode Island Reds as little chipmunks rather than the golden orange of the first pictures. Those memories are 2+ decades old, though. I was explaining mail-order chicks to a city friend once and casually mentioned that there’s always at least one dead one upon delivery. She was horrified and I was surprised by my own nonchalance.
We got 5 chicks last year. We live in a small city in Illinois. I don’t really know what type our chicks are either. They are all girls even if every one who saw them said 2 or 3 were boys! We built our coop out of screen plus hardware cloth because they are kept inside the garage at night. We use sand for the bottom and just scoop it with a cat box scoop that is attached to a broomstick Makes the poo removal easier. We hang the food container and water from a chain. You can find a lot of info about backyard chickens on line. Even in town we have many predators= cats,dogs,hawks,raccoons,opossums. We put them out in our yard under an older trampoline that we put fence around. Gives them shade and protection from hawks and cats or dogs. Plus, I didn’t want them in my neighbors yards. We can move the trampoline around the yard to give them fresh greens everyday. If it was a more permanent enclosure they would tear up the grass in about a week! We really don’t have much space in our yard, but it is enough. We handled them as much as we could, but they were still a little skittish. We heard from a friend that after they begin laying they get more friendly. It has been true for us!! We use a large plastic tote for a nest box. We cut an opening in the side and they like it because they enjoy a little dark private place to lay. They will have a pecking order. I’m not sure how it works with several birds, but the top chicken of our group protects the others since we have no rooster.She is always the chicken to do everything first. They LOVE mealworms!! We use it as a treat and it helped them trust us. Our top chickie will sit on your shoulder and try to preen your hair! They only lay eggs for a couple of years and they live several more years. We wanted them for pets and the experience of a mini farm for our children. We always wanted (still do) to live on a farm, but I figured if we can’t move to a farm then bring the farm to us. Not the same as a real farm, but still very enjoyable! I wish our city would let us have goats, sheep, etc. Probably a good thing they don’t or we would be outnumbered! Lots of good magazines, books,websites, about chickens. Good luck to you! Enjoy them! .
Oh my goodness! They are -so- precious. I love their little faces. Everyone seems to be getting little chicks— that time of year, I guess. I hope next year maybe I’ll be able to, if we have a bit more of a yard. It really seems like quite an adventure. :)
I, J, and K look like my Easter Eggers did as chicks.
I usually love everything you post but this made me so sad. I can’t believe anyone ships live chicks across the country in boxes, of course they are stressed out, especially if something goes wrong (so common with mail deliveries). I’m glad you said you won’t do that again. Also the poor chicks huddled under the brooder acting like their mom- maybe I’m a softy but I’m really sad they aren’t with their actual mom!
Unfortunately, these are the harsh realities of animal husbandry. We do our very best to provide wonderful care for our animals, but at the end of the day, you still have to deal with the negatives that go along with raising animals for food. The only question is if you choose to deal with it directly (like we do) or indirectly (by buying animal products from a farmer or grocery store). Don’t worry about our chickies, they are very happy, active, and well-loved.
I suppose those are the only two questions for someone choosing to participate in animal husbandry, however some people see a third option which is to not participate in raising animals for food.
Yes, some people choose not eating animal products, and that’s a fine choice, but it isn’t our choice. It isn’t the right decision for me and my family, so we do the best we can within those parameters. I fully believe it is possible to love and respect animals while still eating animal products. But I know that many people disagree.
Since I can’t reply to your second comment, I’ll reply to it here. What (I think) Cassie was saying was that the question and the options are whether you DO or DO NOT raise animals for food.
The former, animal husbandry, allows you to be in control and know how your chickens are being treated and raised. The latter, someone else taking care of the chickens that provide you with eggs, leaves you guessing about even the best of scenarios, wondering what exactly “organic” and “cage-free” even mean.
Chances are very high that the eggs you eat on a daily basis, if you’re not vegan, came from chickens that were raised by some kind of brooder and not a mother hen. Chances are “cage-free” simply means they’re not in a cage and hundreds of birds are packed into a warehouse with one small door that they may or may not get a chance to go through. Chances are “organic” simply means they were fed organic feed but still might very well have been raised in cages.
The deaths of those three chicks were incredibly tragic and unfortunate and literal tears were shed and a lesson was learned, but the other 12 that survived are going to have the absolute greatest life and best chance of survival that we can provide, and probably even better protection from predators than a mother hen might have provided if this scenario were played out in the wild, provided the eggs weren’t snatched up before they even got a chance to be chicks.
To not raise animals for food is 110% acceptable. It took us forever to finally bite this bullet and understand it’s not for everyone. But food is so incredibly important to us that we want to make sure that we can control as much of what goes into our bodies as possible and as long as we are eating eggs, we’ll sleep so much better at night knowing that what these chickens have been eating has come from the 9 acres they’ve been free to roam all day, every day, for as long as mother nature allows them to be a part of our farm.
Thanks for this reply, Craig, I really appreciate your perspective and the time you took to write it. I choose not to eat animal products but I understand everyone draws their own lines and I accept that. To be honest, I actually think it’s great that you guys are going to take care of chickens and I have no doubt that your chickens will live happy lives and be well cared for. I just was completely shocked that you had them shipped to you in the mail. I have been a fan and follower of Cassie’s blog for a while and look forward to her posts so much, I just……..I don’t know, it felt like someone kicked me in the stomach when I read about the chicks trapped in the mail, on her blog. Anyway, I’m sorry if that seems judgmental or harsh, I truly don’t mean to be, it was just very hard to read. Like I said, I have no doubt your chickens will be well taken care of and I think you are doing s great thing by keeping your own instead of supporting the systems you referenced above, I just wish they could have been acquired under different circumstances.
I wish there was a “Love” button to click! Thank you for sharing! I’m going to look into one of the brooders you mentioned before our ducks hatch. And good to know about pasty butt problems. My husband is gonna love me when I tell him he has to do THAT while I’m at work too!
Oh my, are they cute.
The whole poop situation reminds me of when we took care of a friend’s baby chicks when they arrived – I was so terrified they were going to die on our watch, in part because there were only two. One of them had a blocked poo hole, and there was so much drama – http://www.ktmade.com/2012/04/baby-chicks.html. We figured it all out, though and they survived!
I, J, & K look like Americauna. You’ll really be able to tell when they start laying. Americaunas lay any color ranging from white to blue to green, depending on their diet. They are all so cute! Goodluck!
I read this about a week ago, right before my husband came home with six new chicks. I mentioned the part about your wiping their bottoms and he thought you were crazy. But two days later, guess what happened? We noticed pasty butt and I knew what to do and now the chicks are clean and happy. Thank you! Also, Orscheln in corydon indiana is still getting shipments of chicks if you decide to add more to your family.
If you’re looking for some great chicken-raising resources, check out Northwest Edible Life. She has an amazing blog and I think a lot of it would resonate with you. Plus, she just had baby ducks hatch!
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