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Healthy Raising of Chickens for Eggs and Meat
My husband, kids and I have been keeping a chicken coup for 16 years since we bought our first 10 acre farm in south central Ontario that came with its own coup and 6 Barred Plymouth Rock laying hens. With only six birds we were blessed with a constant supply of brown eggs most of which we had difficulty fitting into an extra large egg carton. The dark, orange yolks made for a delicious, nutritious egg. Free run chicken eggs are much higher in the Omega 3-6-9 fatty acids and therefore are a healthier choice. Our original coup resembled a garden shed with nest boxes inside. A fenced- in chicken run allowed them to peck vegetation and bugs outside during the spring, summer and fall months. Being next to the dog kennel detracted predators from attacking the flock and we experience no predator casualties from racoons, foxes or rats during our six years at this location. Our barn cat who we would often find sitting in the coup left the chickens alone but kept the rat and mouse population to a minimal level. Our birds were always healthy and produced eggs regularly past their second year.
After six years, we moved to a much larger property. It had three barns including an old dairy bank barn with several stalls. Unfortunately there was no pre-formed chicken coup so we converted a large stall in the dairy barn to service our needs. With the addition of four large nest boxes and a fenced in chicken run we had a makeshift chicken coup that served us well for a few years. We made our first foray into raising roaster chickens of the Cornish Cross variety our first summer. For the next two years we faired well losing none to predation. However, our third year of raising these birds we were not so lucky. One morning before leaving for shopping we checked on a new brood of seventy chicks only a few days old. All but ten were gone! At almost $2 a bird that was a fair investment gone which by careful watching we determined was due to Norway rats burrowing through the stone foundation of the barn. It was a tough blow, but we repaired the foundation, trapped the rats and started again, this time keeping the chicks in a wired cage so they would be safe from predators. This system seemed to work for several years but more and more often we would lose birds to other predators most often racoons. It was difficult for the dogs to patrol such a large barn and their kennel was not close. This past summer we lost the last of our egg-laying flock (4 birds) to racoons and that prompted us to rebuild the coup in the barn we had been using for tractor storage. The dog kennel is beside this barn and therefore, the coup is constantly patrolled by our dog Rosco.
The following lay out the specifics of our relatively successful adventures in raising chickens for their eggs and meat.
The Chicken Coup
Our new chicken coup was built in the back corner of an old barn behind our house. As we live in south-central Ontario it gets very cold in the winter. Therefore, this coup was framed-in using 2X4's with plywood walls and the walls and ceiling were insulated using fiberglass insulation. Windows were added in two places to provide adequate natural light and an entrance to the outdoor pen with a secure door to prevent predator entrance at night was added. At 14X12 feet, it is big enough to house 15 to 20 permanent egg-layers and a transient flock of 60 meat birds (which we raise only every two years). Four nest boxes provide a place for eggs to be laid and a ladder provides a roosting spot as we have discovered over the years that the birds prefer to rest higher off of the ground. As well, we installed electricity in the coop as the chicks require heat lamps and the laying hens require approximately 16 light hours per day to lay eggs so a light source from late October until May is necessary so the hens do not stop laying.
Read More About Raising Your Own Chicken Flock
CARING FOR CHICKS
Most often we buy our chickens from a hatchery through our local farmer's co-op. We are able to buy several breeds of egg-laying chickens as well as the Cornish Cross white bird which has been bred specifically for consumption of its meat. At the present time, we are raising Shaver sex-linked chickens for eggs. They are winter hardy and provide abundant eggs. The Cornish Cross chickens put on weight quickly and after 12 weeks range from 8 to 12 or more pounds. In order to protect the chicks from predators and to keep them together for warmth and so they do not stray too far from the heating lamp, we keep them in a wire mesh cage about 3X3 feet (will comfortably house up to 70 chicks for 2 to 3 weeks). Their environment must be kept at about 95ºF for the first week and then gradually cooler over the next three weeks. We keep two heat lamps about 8 to 10 inches from ground level for the first week and then gradually raise them over the next three weeks. The chicks can move around in the cage, closer or farther away from the lamps to stay adequately warm. After three weeks, one lamp is removed. After about 3 weeks, the wire cage is also removed so the chicks can wander. As we have full grown egg layers in the same coup, we remove the cage gradually by peeling back the wire mesh from one side of the cage allowing the chicks to wander out at will and also providing a safe, familiar place to retreat. All birds have a pecking order and the chicks do experience some pecking from the adult birds upon first introduction. We have found the pecking not to be life threatening and as the adult birds have been exposed to the chicks from day one, it lasts less than a week after which egg layer and roasters live together in relative harmony.
FOOD AND WATER REQUIREMENTS
Chicks require a constant supply of water and feed. Water is supplied by an automatic waterer placed on a wood slab or concrete block to reduce shaving contamination. The feeder used for the first three weeks of life is a trough low enough for the chicks to easily access feed with a central rotating bar to keep chicks from sitting in the feeder and contaminating the feed. In the first three weeks of life, stress-reducing vitamins are added to the water and the feed used is a medicated chick starter containing about 24% protein. During this time they will have consumed about 2 25 kg bags of medicated feed. At about 3 weeks of age the chicks are transferred to a non-medicated chick grower which contains about 20% protein and more fat. The feed is distributed into two large canister type automatic feeders. Two automatic water containers are used which together hold about 9 gallons of water. In the hotter weather, these containers are filled about 3 times per day. When the weather cools, they are filled morning and night. The last two weeks (for us about week 11 and 12) the chicks are fed a chick finisher which is high in fat and energy and contains about 18% protein. At about 5 weeks of age, 60 birds will consume about one 25 kg bag of feed per day (at about $15 per bag). The last two weeks they tend to consume about half of that. After 12 weeks, the Cornish Cross birds weigh on average between 8 and 15 pounds. Roosters tend to weigh out heavier than the hens. Egg laying birds tend to remain much lighter.
PECULIARITIES OF CORNISH CROSS CHICKENS
When we buy our roaster birds, we buy an unsexed mix as it is much cheaper to do so. The Cornish Cross birds have been bred to gain weight fast. Unfortunately, their hearts do not grow fast enough to keep up with the weight gain and it is not unusual to find birds suddenly dead. The cause is usually a sudden heart attack. We noticed this phenomenon along with birds developing crooked legs due to the quick weight gain. In the past, we had bought our chicks in April or May and took them for processing mid-July to early August. In south-central Ontario, April and May are still very cool or cold months while July and August tend to be very hot. Consequently, we required more heat lamps to keep the chicks warm and we always lost a number of birds to sudden heart attacks before processing time. For the last few broiler flocks, we tried a new system by buying the chicks in August when it was warm. By the time the birds were getting larger in October, the weather had cooled off significantly. We discovered that we had lower chick mortality and lost virtually no birds to sudden heart attacks and had few or no birds with crooked legs. As well, the growing birds more comfortable in the cool weather actually gained weight more efficiently. The average weight of our flock was about 3lbs heavier starting the chicks in August! After 12 weeks, we take the birds to a local processor who provides us with cages for transport. The processor we use is government inspected. Each of our birds is examined and must pass inspection as being safe for consumption. They are chilled according to Canadian poultry guidelines and labeled with their weight. As we are able to legally sell up to 300 birds, we decide on a selling price based on feed prices that year and that is also added to to the label.
WHAT TO DO WITH EXTRA EGGS AND BROILERS
My husband's co-workers are big fans of our eggs and poultry. They are willing to pay $4 dozen for our eggs. His co-workers tend to set the price for our eggs and have gradually offered to pay more per dozen over the years. Our eggs are usually extra large with dark, orange dense yolks. As they are free range they are said to be higher in vitamin D, beta carotene, vitamin E, vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids and have lower cholesterol levels than commercial eggs.1 Although our eggs have not been laboratory tested, they are highly sought after. Our broiler birds are also always sold well before they are ready. We set their price based on feed prices for that year. This year we will sell for about $4 per pound and will have no trouble selling 35 birds (we tend to keep 10 to 15 for our own freezer). Again, our roaster birds are raised as free range. The have access to pasture and their diet is supplemented with fruit and vegetables grown on our farm. The taste and texture, from our experience, of free range birds is far superior to that of most store bought.
Although time consuming and often quite a stinky process, the raising of birds for roasting provides us with low cost poultry for our family, factoring in the selling of our extra birds. We always have egg layers on the farm. We have not bought eggs in over 16 years and comparing store bought with the quality of our own I cannot see us in the long foreseeable future buying again from a supermarket.