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What Is Up With My Chickens??

For the last 2 years, our meat birds have been dismally small. This year has been even worse than last year. I got so frustrated last weekend when I went to process chickens, that after the first 4 were ready to gut, I told my husband to put the rest of them back. No more chickens got processed last week.


I immediately sent an email to my customers explaining the fact that I was going to let them grow out for 2 more weeks. Experience, this year, has told me that it won’t make a huge difference. In years past, waiting 2 more weeks meant I processed 7-10-pound chickens–the size of small turkeys. This year, I’m hoping they’ll be closer to 4 pounds by 10 weeks.


Ridiculous.


I poured over notes, pictures, butchering logs, and daily tracking sheets. I went back and re-researched everything I’ve already learned and put into practice.


The photos–combined with going back to “Chicken Kindergarten”–held the key.


The chick brooder hasn’t been at the correct temperature during the first week of the chicks’ lives.


Today, I sent this out to my customers:


 

EUREKA!

I solved (with 98% certainty) my (our) mystery of the tiny chickens!


I was so disappointed last week when I had to email you about delaying processing by an additional 2 weeks, due to the size of the chickens.  This year has been an utter disappointment.  You already know that—you’ve been disappointed yourself.  


Last weekend was weird—Friday afternoon and evening, my TWO oldest kids now (not just the oldest) were both at work.  My husband and sons were at a campout for Trail Life.  So, it was just sweet Charlie and me!  We got a LOT of girl time last weekend, between my oldest daughter’s work schedule, my men all being gone, and my middle daughter is now working, and had prom Saturday night.  But during the evening on Friday, and Saturday day, I poured over the last 5 years’ worth of notes, blogs, tracking sheets and processing data.  I scrolled through 5 YEARS’ worth of farm photos.  That is a LOT of photos….


The puzzle pieces I thought could be an issue—round feeders vs trough feeders, green grass vs. dormant pasture, walls vs no walls on the tractors, location, shade, etc—none of those were the BIG issue.  They may have played some factor, but I’ve grown out 5-6 lb chickens in the snow, on dormant pastures, in tractors with no back or sides, using round feeders, on more than 1 occasion.


BUT, photo after photo of the chick BROODER—their temperature-controlled environment for the first 3 weeks—was the key.


I didn’t keep it warm enough during the first week of life.


The first 7 days of a chick’s life are the absolute most critical.  Screw something up, and there is basically no recovery.


Food and water are plenty.  Shavings are clean.  There is plenty of space for the chicks, and there is room for them to get warm—or cool.


But I didn’t make sure they were warm enough during their first week.  I assumed they were, but didn’t check.


My prior brooders were either inside the house, or inside the shop.  I also used either heat plates, or used heat lamps with an insulated cover on top of the brooder.  I was able to maintain that 90-95 degrees that is crucial for that first week of a chick’s life.  


My current set-up, with heat lamps, does not trap enough heat down low to maintain 90-95 degrees at surface-level.  Apparently.


So why did we change course on brooder location, and heating method?  


Well, chick brooders take up space.  Our house isn’t big enough for the size brooder we need.  Neither is Darrin’s office, nor the shop.  Our brooder really needs to be a separate structure.


Our separate structure is sufficient in size, and allows for plenty of airflow.  This is great for keeping the air clean for the chicks.  But terrible for trapping heat down low.  


Which is where heat plates come in.  


With a heat plate, the heat is trapped at the ground-level, warming the shavings underneath.  The adjustable legs allow the plates to be raised as the chicks grow, and as less heat is needed quite so close to ground-level (remember, they are only in the brooder for around 3 weeks before they go outside).  But the shape of the legs, as designed, and movement of chicks in and out from under the brooder, causes the legs to sink down into the shavings, which could trap and smother a chick. I’m a little paranoid about this happening!  The heat plate needs to sit on top of a more level surface, like fence slats.  This works out great, but the fence slats are extra material that gets crapped all over.  Have I ever mentioned how much chickens poop?!  I chose not to use the heat plates last year and this year, rather than deal with poopy fence slats.  And now we have sub-par (in weight, only) tiny chickens.


The heat plate is now in the brooder, but as of last weekend, when I figured this out, the chicks were already 10 days old—and this is the last batch for this season.  That being said, within 15 minutes of putting the heat plate in the brooder, the shavings underneath climbed to 90 degrees within 15 minutes.



Moving forward, a few different things are going to happen:


1. Once this current batch of chicks moves onto pasture (next weekend), I’m going to add insulation to the walls.  This will reduce my square footage some, which will reduce the number of chicks I can fit in there, but that’s not an issue at the moment anyway.  I have plenty of space for my current-sized operation.


2. I’m going to build a removable, modified “Ohio brooder” to accommodate the current heat lamps.  Holes on the top for the lamps to hang into, with the heat plate in the middle, like I currently have set up.  I already have a temperature gauge in there that can shut off if it gets too warm.  And Darrin has a way of tracking temps and getting an alert on his computer if it gets too warm or too cold.  I just got cocky last year, and thought I had everything figured out and dialed in….


3. We are going to raise another batch of chickens late summer/early fall, just to confirm my suspicions.  These chickens will be available at no cost to you at our end-of-season dinner here at the farm, in October.  Whatever you normally get each month is what will be given to you, for free, as an apology for the last 2 years of puny chicken!  

I am so relieved to solve this mystery!  I know it has been just as frustrating for you as it is for me.  Smaller chickens just don’t feed as many mouths, or allow for leftovers.  Feeling like you’re not getting your money’s worth is the pits, especially in this current economic climate.  


But now that we know what the issue is, and have a solid plan to fix it, I hope you will let me make this right for you and your family.  Thank you, as always, for your continued support of our farm.  Your loyalty is important to me, and is what challenges me to get better, to find solutions to problems, and to offer not just the best chicken that I can, but the best darn chicken, period.


Always Learning,

Heather <><

Your 7 Arrow Rancherita

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