We have now been here on the farm for a year and a half. It has been a challenge at every turn for us as new farmers. It seems even when I think we’re starting to get good at something, a new problem will present itself. We are now on our 5th batch of meat chickens and this batch has been a struggle since the beginning. As it turns out, there is a season for everything and Winter is NOT the season for raising chickens. We will not be doing this again for a multitude of reasons and here’s why:
- RATS. Rats were a problem for us last winter when we lost several litters of newborn bunnies to either the rats themselves or to neglect from spooked mother rabbits as a result of the rats. Our barn cats seem to have solved that problem for us since we have not had any more problems at the barn. Unfortunately as the weather turned cold and wild food became scarce, the local rat population discovered the chick brooder. We raised over 100 chicks in the brooder during Spring and Summer without a problem, but our chicks delivered in early October were killed by rats when they were a week old. ALL 52 of them…in ONE night. The rats didn’t even eat a single one. They must’ve grabbed them one by one as they tried to take them back to the den and failed to get them out. It was a heartbreaking sight for me the next morning, that’s for sure. The dead chicks went into the freezer immediately and were used to supplement the barn cats’ diet over the next couple months. We couldn’t just give up on raising another batch since we had already committed over 30 chickens to our Winter CSA as well as been approved to sell chicken at the Fall farmer’s market. So we ordered more chicks. However, the rat massacre set us back 3 weeks and $147.00 ($142 for the chicks and $5 for the food they ate during the week we had them). We also had to invest another $12 in a roll of wire to cover the top of the brooder so the rats couldn’t get back in.
- MUD. We went through a drought this Fall and when it finally ended, the rain just kept coming. It was during this rainy time that the chicks got big enough to leave the brooder and go into the chicken tractor. During the Spring and Summer, being in the chicken tractor is a great life for a meat chicken. They get to eat fresh grass, bugs, and breathe in the fresh mountain air. In winter, there is not much fresh grass to be had, especially since much of what was there at the end of the Summer was dug up to put in our new Septic lines or died during the drought. So when we put the chicks out the field was mostly mud. We knew it wasn’t ideal, but they were starting to get too crowded in the brooder so we didn’t have much of a choice. Half the tractor is covered, so the birds had shelter and TS stacked some bales of straw at the end to provide additional insulation from wind. They did okay for the first week but by the following week there was nothing but mud in the tractor. These Cornish-cross meat chickens are not very smart at all and would pile into their water bowl to drink and get themselves soaking wet and muddy. We lost a few chicks one cold night and I attributed it to them being cold and wet. I put down some straw as bedding to get the chicks off the mud, so they could hopefully dry off.
- TRAVEL. We usually don’t travel, but we decided to make a trip to Atlanta to visit my family just a few days after Christmas. We have a wonderful friend who came by to take care of things while we were gone. The last morning she called to tell me a few more of the meat chicks were dead. When we got home late that afternoon I immediately cleaned out the tractor. The straw I had put down had already been covered in mud/poop in the 3 days we’d been gone, so we ended up losing another 7 chicks during that time. I don’t at all blame our friend – she did a great job of taking care of things. But had I been there I could have added more bedding or moved the tractor sooner. We put 20 of the remaining chicks back in the brooder. The brooder has a center partition so there are 10 chicks on each side and it seems like they have plenty of room. We left the other 19 chicks in the tractor with fresh straw bedding and still lost another one that night. The next morning we moved the tractor out of the field and into our front yard where we still have some green grass. We have moved it every few days, given them a tray full of wood shavings so they can get completely off the ground if needed, and covered the whole tractor with a tarp. It has been a week since then and so far we have not lost another (knock-on-wood).
- COLD. The cold is mostly just an inconvenience. It seems that as long as we keep the chicks dry, the cold doesn’t bother them. But it does bother us people that take care of them since we have to make sure they have water even in freezing temperatures. Most mornings I have to break ice out of the water bowl before filling it with warm water from the house. Some days we have to do that a few times during the day as well. Multiply that by 3 because this batch of meat chicks is now divided into 3 groups housed separately. It’s a lot of extra work. I am also not looking forward to butchering these guys in the cold.
- COST. This batch has cost us so much more money than it should have. We had the losses from the rats, the losses from the cold/wet, and the expense of extra bedding and extra heat for the brooder. If we butcher the remaining 39 in a week (I hope they will be ready then!) we will have spent $205.50 on food, $35 on bedding, $142 on the chicks themselves, $147 for our rat-killed chicks that must be accounted for, and $30 for heat. That’s $559.50 for 39 chickens or $14.34 each: $4 per lb for a 3.5 lb chicken. In comparison, our previous batch only cost us about $7 each: $2 per pound. We should break even on the ones we sell and are paying twice what we usually would for the ones we eat ourselves, NOT accounting for all the work we put into them.
So there you go. If you are thinking of raising chicks in the winter, just don’t. Or at least plan for them to be housed in a rat-proof indoor facility. Or just don’t. We will definitely not be doing this again even if it means we raise bigger batches of chicks non-stop through the Spring and Summer!