Monday, September 14, 2009

53 new babies!

The Post Office called Friday to let us know that our chicks had arrived from the hatchery in Iowa. As I mentioned earlier this month, our layers are getting a little old and are not laying enough to be cost effective. They're averaging about one egg a week. That's not much of a surprise though, since almost all of them are three to five years old. Hens are the most productive in their first two years.

In the past, I've been mesmerized by the hatchery catalog pictures of colorful chickens and had a terrible time choosing breeds. When we first moved out here seven years ago, we got 25 hens, half Silver-laced Wyandotte and half Buff Orpington. After that, I let my daughters choose since they were in 4-H. For four years, we'd order 100 straight-run chicks (usually 50/50 boys/girls). Margaret and Katherine each chose two breeds, meaning we had 25 of four different breeds every year. This would provide our chicken meat for the year, since we'd butcher the roosters when they were three to four months old, and we'd have about 40 new layers every year. The girls kept track of what breeds arrived in what year, and once the hens were two to three years old, we'd butcher them for stew meat.

All 50 of these chicks are New Hampshire Red pullets (females), which are supposed to be an excellent dual-purpose bird. The hens are good layers, and the males reach a good weight for butchering. In December, when our current hens stop laying, we'll be taking them to Arthur, where they'll be magically turned into chicken while we're out shopping in Amishland. Then these girls will be moved to the hen house.

Someone asked why I was ordering chicks now, since most people order them in spring. When the girls were showing in 4-H, the chicks had to be ordered in February, so they would be mature by the fair in July. Shipping day-old chicks to Illinois in February means that a lot will arrive dead, because they're being shipped in such cold weather. In fact, one time the shipment had 100% mortality, which was really heart-breaking. And it simply does not mesh with my personal morals. I can't do something that would reasonably bring harm to an animal -- and shipping when it's so cold is just not safe for the chicks. We tried shipping later and later and finally concluded that it's risky to ship them when temperatures are below freezing. It's really not a good idea to ship any earlier than late April or May in Illinois, but if you do that, the hens will reach maturity around the time that their laying would slow down in fall, so they might not lay at all that first year. By getting the pullets in September, they'll mature right around the time that they would normally start laying in spring, so I won't be feeding them for an extra six to nine months with little payback in eggs.

So, who is this little dude with the funky thing on his head? I forgot that McMurray gives you a free rare-breed chick. This little guy is undoubtedly some kind of crested breed, possibly a Sultan or a Houdan. Although he will probably be a beautiful bird, I doubt he will last long here for two reasons -- one, if he's a Sultan, he'll be white, which is a blinking beacon for predators; and two, he's going to be legally blind with his funky feathers hanging over his eyes. I've seen these birds at the fair, and it really doesn't look like they can see anything. Living out here with coyotes, coons, and hawks can be risky if your vision is impaired.


DangAndBlast! said...

Heh -- I've been meaning to ask about all the reports on the news of Shock! and Horror! that chicken farms kill all the male chicks. I mean, I understand that they're useless as far as egg and chick production goes, and all that. But I'd been wondering why they don't just raise them for a few months and then turn them into food, rather than fertilizer. Seems like that's what you do, so now I'm even more curious (now that I know that it's a feasible idea, and not just the misguided thoughts of a girl whose only livestock is cattle -- where they come out in edible formats, so there's no waiting period required).

Deborah said...

Historically, the males were raised as meat birds, but in the 1980s, they developed the super-charged, fast-growing Cornish cross, which reaches slaughter weight in a month (for what they call a Cornish game hen), six weeks (for what they call a fryer), and eight to ten weeks (for what they call a roaster). An old-fashioned meat bird like the New Hampshires takes 3-4 months to reach fryer weight, and modern farmers think it's ridiculous to raise a meat bird for twice as long and get only 2/3 as much meat. If you're talking about the egg-laying breeds, the ratio is even worse. It probably costs 3-4X as much per pound to raise a leghorn male as it does a Cornish cross male, because the leghorns are tiny birds.

I have more on this on our website:
I am not a fan of the modern meat bird, but I keep thinking that maybe I should raise a few sometime just so I can give people a real comparison of what they're like. I have raised some of the broad-breasted turkeys, and that was an eye-opening experience.

IsobelleGoLightly said...

And we thought that adding three little Serama chickens was exciting! 53! WOW. We don't eat our old chickens here (or our old goats, I hope) and so we're keeping it small for when the chicken retirement home opens in a few years. I like that fuzzy top-knot chicken! Goat Kisses from Isobelle!

Angela Rountree said...

From personal experience, your fancy chick is a white crested black polish; and yes, they are blind as a bat when their crest feathers grow in-excellent hawk food on our farm.

Shula said...

Oh they are super cute chicks. I loved getting mine this spring, and it is fun watching them grow up. Good luck getting a nice mix of boys and girls'.

hippygirl said...

Chicks are fun! We have 3 New Hampshires (started with 6, ate one, and two got eaten by something else).

I can see your point about getting them now as opposed to April or May. We just now have a couple that are laying and the others should start any day now. But they won't lay daily for long, if at all. I expect them to lay well in the spring, though.

I liked brooding chicks, but I'm not sure I really want to do it again. I think I'd like to let the chickens do it themselves, which is part of why we have kept a New Hampshire rooster and will keep one of the Orpington roosters (the other is for protection). I want to let them breed in the spring so we have a supply of layers and meat birds. But I'm curious why you don't do that because I wonder if I'm missing something that might sway me.

Deborah said...

Hippygirl, I really don't like getting chicks from a hatchery, but it's not as easy as it sounds. We have not had much luck lately in hatching our own eggs in an incubator. Most hens don't get broody. It's been bred out of a lot of breeds, because "they" want the hens to lay eggs, rather than set. Out of our 40-something hens, only two or three set this year, and they lost all their chicks within a couple days. And unless you're willing to feed hens for their entire natural lives, you need to know who is no longer laying. You can feel the bones around the hen's vent to know if she's laying, and although I've seen someone do it, I haven't tried. Although there seems to be a general consensus that hens are good layers for only two years, we generally keep ours for 3-4 years.

You might have noticed that I didn't explain my whole plan yet. I'm thinking that I'll get a different breed next year and then the following year and keep track of their ages like that. If the New Hampshires turn out to be broody, I might just starting raising them, but we'll have to see. Usually the only hens that are predictably broody are bantams, but they're not good for meat or eggs, and they can only sit on about four big eggs, so they're not even very good about helping you with your big chickens. They do make excellent mothers though. Unfortunately, I've discovered that the hatchery descriptions of breeds are not very accurate when it comes to broodiness.

Mom L said...

I can just imagine the delightful peeping concert at your farm!!!

Nancy in Iowa

Susan said...

Deborah, we started our chicken brood last August from Cackle. Our only problem with this time of the year and chicks were the hawks.
Yesterday a hawk flew into one of our yard's big trees to inspect 3 different times. (Last year, one was successful in snapping up an ~month old chick when I just started letting them out of the tractor.) I -think- these almost 4 month old chicks are too big, but I'm keeping an eye out. Just as they are.

This July, we lost one almost 2 month old to a big, old hawk. (One of my faves- a cochin- of course)


Love your post about your chicks. I have two girlfriends who have chickens, one lives in Florida and the other in central Ohio. I'm jealous of both and now of you.

Last time I raised chicks I was 6 years old and bought Easter chicks. That was back when they were coloring chicks so kids would want to buy them.

Dutifully, my father fed them laying mash until my great aunt informed him they were all roosters. :-) They didn't tell me I was eating my Easter chicks/ens for the longest time.


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