Monday, November 15, 2010

Chick Days

For years whenever the kids would say they wanted something, I'd reply, "Oh, yeah?  Well, I want a house in the country with chickens and a goat.  I don't get what I want; you don't get what you want."  So, a little over six years ago we moved out of town.  The following spring we got our first shipment of chicks to raise.  A couple years later we added a milk goat.

I am not a country girl.  I am not a farm girl.  I never had any kind of livestock growing up.  I never had any interaction with livestock growing up.  We had a cat my entire youth, and various dogs.  (When my mom got sick of the dog, she would give it away while we were in school, thinking we'd never miss the dog.)  What made me want to raise my own food?  I do not really know.  My older sister had chickens, goats, and sheep.  Did chasing her goats up a hill through a neighbor's property make me want them?  I don't know.  And I was pretty afraid of her free-range chickens.   

The first time we got chicks, we ordered them from a catalog.  They came in the mail, but we had to go to the Post Office to pick them up.  While my oldest son and I were gone to collect them, a friend dropped by looking for me.  Hannah told her I was getting our new chicks.  My friend said, "Oh, did she go to a farm?"  Hannah looked at her like she'd lost her mind.  "NO, she went to the Post Office!"  Who knew you can get chicks from the Post Office?

The last couple of years we've hung around Tractor Supply waiting for Chick Days.  (They didn't get them during the big Avian Flu scare, so we had to mail order them.)  They don't always know when the shipment will come in, because it depends on the weather.  Our spring weather is unpredictable, and they won't ship when it's really cold.  I do not prepare in advance for new chicks.  The day we bring them home, I am scrambling to get their brooder ready.  We keep the cute little balls of fluff in an old playpen in the basement.  There is no way on earth I have that thing cleaned, sanitized, and laid out with fresh bedding before chick day.  No, I'd much rather be scrubbing the playpen out with bleach, drying it, looking for a feeder, waterer, and heat lamp that works while the boxful of chicks sits on my dining room table, driving my cats crazy with their alluring smell and charming peeping. (Please tell me you hear the sarcasm.)

We take off school on chick day.  I seem to do all the work...Teacher In-service Day maybe?  The kids enjoy putting the peeps into the fresh, clean playpen, equipped with a removable chicken-wire screen top to keep the curious cats out and the able-to-jump/fly-way-sooner-than-you'd-think chicks in.   They dip each little beak into the waterer.  I think that's only necessary with shipped chicks, because they are mailed out shortly after hatching and can be dehydrated by the time they arrive.  We do it with the TSC chicks anyway...maybe it teaches them where to find water...maybe it just gives the kids the allusion they are "helping" me. 

The new chicks should be kept at a little over 90º, dropping 2º each week until they are fully feathered and can be moved outside.  Now we have the math/science lesson of placing the heat light at the correct distance so as not to roast or freeze the cuties.  There are a couple ways to tell if the temperature suits them, handy if you can't locate a thermometer that's safe to put in the pen.  If they all huddle under the light, it's too cold.  If they are scattered to the edges of the pen, it's too hot.  If their waterer seems to be boiling, it's too hot.  ;-) You can also listen to them from upstairs.  If there is frequent peeping, varying in magnitude, they are okay.  They are in a constant awake-sleep cycle.  They sleep until someone steps on them, or decides that little speck-of-something on them might be food and needs a good pecking.  When awake, they never stop peeping.  Too much or too little sound and it's time to check to see if the heat light burned out or if the waterer has boiled dry 

We keep our spring chicks in the basement for about five weeks.  By then they are fully feathered and can tolerate outside temperatures.  In five weeks, they quickly turn from cute little balls of fluff, to scrawny-necked, scraggly looking creatures who stink to high heavens.  My whole house stinks and I apologize to every visitor at the door.  (Fortunately it dissipates quickly once they're gone.)  They also act viciously hungry at all times.  Getting the feeder out and in again is a challenge, fighting off a flock of hungry younguns who think they want out of the pen.  They are also terrified of any action from above, and scatter in fright when you drop anything in with them.  (An instinct to avoid chicken hawks, I guess.)  Chicks will poop on anything, including their feeder, their waterer, each other, and you.  The waterer, kept warm by the heat light and filled hourly with wood shavings and poo becomes our family foe.  We fight over who has to clean in out.  We count down the weeks until they will be out of the house. 

One year we kept the chicks out in the garage in a refrigerator box.  It was much harder to maintain the temperature, though.  While they were out there, Hannah came in the house crying.  "I was kissing a chick and my gum got stuck on it."  I was busy at the time, and sighing in exasperation.  Why was she kissing chicks?  How was she kissing it so that her gum got stuck on it?  The chick was going to be very unhappy at the degumming process.  I'm too busy for this.  Before I could go out to deal with the situation, Hannah bounded back into the room all smiles. "Don't worry, one of the other chicks pecked the gum off and ate it!"  Lord help me!  How good could a wad of gum be for a days old chick?  Oh well, it survived. 

This year we've let hens hatch some eggs.  We've had 4 chicks survive.  It is so nice to let the Mama Hen do the work!  She keeps them at the perfect temperature.  She makes sure they find food and water.  If they get stinky, she deals with it in her house, not mine! 

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