We are not getting day-old chicks this winter. It had become an annual ritual to buy day-old chicks from a hatchery and have them shipped to us in January or February. They had to be shipped that early so they would be big enough for the 4-H Fair in July, but after doing this for four years, we realized there were a number of reasons not to do it.
It is not sustainable for a number of reasons. Buying new chicks every year is like buying new seeds every year -- perhaps worse. George Washington would not have approved. We certainly would not have met his definition of real farmers. Baby chicks are kind of like puppies in a pet store though -- those pictures in the catalogs are so cute, and before you know what's hit you, you've ordered several different varieties.
It is also not sustainable because of the ridiculous amount of energy required to raise chicks in winter. Baby chicks need to be kept at roughly 90-95 degrees for the first week of life, then 85-90 degrees the second week, reducing the temperature by five degrees per week until they are fully feathered. There is a very good reason why chickens stop laying eggs in the dead of winter -- babies would die if they hatched. No mama hen could keep her chicks warm enough when it's below freezing outside. When you don't have a mama hen, you have to use a heat lamp, and a 250-watt heat lamp sucks up a lot of energy when it's on 24 hours a day. So, it's not environmentally sustainable to raise chicks in the winter.
It's not sustainable from a modern economic standpoint because buying new chicks every year is also expensive -- far more expensive than simply buying a bunch of cockerel chicks for meat birds. If you want 100 chicks of specific breeds, it's around $150, which is about $1.50 per bird. Half of them will become layers, and half of them will become roosters, and by extension, dinner. Spending $1.50 on a chicken that will ultimately become dinner is just not smart. After all, he is still going to eat grain for 3 1/2 months, and then he has to be processed. Last year, after Margaret and I dropped off the roosters at the processor, I went to the gas station, and as I was watching the gas pump price go up to $10, $20, $30, $40, I couldn't help but start doing the math, and we realized that those roosters had cost us about $7-8 each, including cost of purchase, then feed, then gas to get them to the processor, then the cost of processing. It was a very depressing day.
It's also cruel to ship baby chicks in the dead of winter. One year, we received a shipment where half of them were dead. I called the hatchery, and they said they'd reship the next week. That turned out to be a bad idea. The next week was even colder, and every single chick was dead on arrival. I called the hatchery again and just asked for a refund. I couldn't stand the thought of attempting to ship more chicks in such terrible weather.
I am completely happy about the decision to not raise any chicks this winter, and in fact, I wonder why it took us four years to figure out that raising chicks in winter is a really bad idea.