When Josh & I first got our laying hens it marked a bit of a turning point for us. We've both grown up having home-kill meat in the freezer and have not thought twice about it...we knew where it came from! In New Zealand most farm animals are free range. Cows, sheep and deer are certainly not cooped up in confined spaces...it just wouldn't work, however chickens and pigs are a different story.
It became clear very quickly that when our chickens were allowed to free range, eating as many bugs and as much greenery as they liked they were so much happier and healthier looking. As soon as we could see that this was clearly how chickens were supposed to be, we changed our way of thinking and our chicken buying habits. Up until this point when buying chicken from the supermarket, we bought what was on special. From now on it was free range or nothing at all.
The next natural step was raising our own chickens to eat. We did a bit of research and found that we could get day old Cobb chicks - Cobb chicks being the breed of birds that the big commercial chicken farms grow for meat birds. So we bought a brooder and a couple of weeks later bought home 6 day old chicks. They were adorable! Through a bit of trial and error we came out 10 weeks later with 4 fully grown chickens (we lost 2 along the way...) ready for the pot. And they were TASTY!! The culling/plucking process was a bit of a mission but we were hooked.
Now it's time to start again but this time we have 13 babies to raise. Last time we found it really hard to find any information on how to raise day old chicks in terms of how much to feed them, how long we should keep them under the brooder etc. So while I'm not claiming to be an expert (at all!) I thought I would take from our past experience, record what we do this time, and do a week by week guide to raising chicks. Starting now!
We have 13 little yellow balls of fluff in our spare bedroom! At 1 day old the chicks are very vulnerable and need access to clean water, food and most importantly warmth. We have them in a large wooden box that is 1300mm long and 450mm wide (built by myself, might I add!...OK, with help from Josh and only because he is currently in a sling!)
We have an old sheet and some newspaper down as the base with some shredded newspaper on top so that it doesn't get too slippery with all the water and poop...chicks are pretty weak and can get splayed legs which is not good. We had used wood shavings last time but they look so much like their food that the chicks tended to start pecking away at it!
Warmth: We have an EcoGlow 20 Chick Brooder that can fit 20 chicks underneath and also only uses 18 watts - much less than infrared lamps. The brooder needs to be on 24 hours a day until the chicks have grown all their feathers so that they can keep themselves warm. The brooder essentially replaces the mother hen.
Food: The chicks weigh about 50 grams and we are feeding them about 6 grams, per chick, of NRM Chick Starter crumbs a day. Josh found a guide to feeding meat birds online, but that was based on the chickens being ready for the pot in around 5-6 weeks. We prefer a slightly more slow & steady approach so have adapted it to suit us.
The instructions on the Chick Starter crumbs recommend that you feed the birds ad-lib which means to have food available all the time. We found last time that if there was food there, they would not stop until it was gone and ended up gorging themselves. We decided that this was not the right approach for us - it is probably more suited to commercial growers trying to grow chickens in a shorter time - so we have set feeding times a couple of times a day. Don't get me wrong, they still go nuts over the food but at least there is an end point!
We feed the chicks in 2 long trays. This way there is plenty of room for them all to get to the food without too much fighting.
Water: Last time, we used a small container with rocks in the bottom to weigh it down but we were constantly changing the water and cleaning the container as the little fluff balls loved to walk through the water and poop in it! This time we have purchased a proper waterer which is impossible for the chicks to walk in but easy for them to drink from. It also holds a lot of water so we are not having to fill it up several times a day.
We're as ready as we can be to raise these chickens. 1 day down, 10 weeks to go until roast chicken time!