Holiday Chicks

Hatching chicks in December? Isn’t it too early? Well, if you are expecting eggs by summer time, hatching out in winter is a good idea. If you do wait till spring, it will be another year before you see good egg laying. The “Easter” chicks will mature normally, but come into peak laying in winter, when, due to long dark hours, production slows. A winter rest also allows her to conserve energy against the cold. Another logical design nature gave these animals is the common sense not to attempt hatching out chicks into the cold. Commercial production birds- even the “friendly” free range, are kept under artificial lights to maintain production. I’ve never known the artificial disruption of the circadian rhythm to be a good thing. Even Certified Humane embraces artificial lighting systems.

Ok- but I’m using a ton of artificial to hatch out these chicks in winter at EEC. Yes, because I too run a domestic artificial system. However, I find the winter hatch out to be far less of a stress on the birds- because of the human intervention with consistent warmth, food, and fresh water. As the human in need of eggs, choosing to raise birds for food, my method of stewardship can play with nature’s balance to enhance my production- while allowing the flock to experience normal ovulation cycles, along with other important cycles, which give these animals a better quality of life. Hens left on a normal light cycle tend to live and produce longer than hens living under continuous laying conditions.

What about the lack of mother hen in the chick’s lives? Well, the cool thing about birds (and many other species of avian and reptilians), is the incredible built in instincts which these animals possess from birth. Just imagine hatching from an egg at the start of life. Taking a moment to understand the physics which come into play in this initial action, birds are kick ass little rebels with compelling cause. They do need social flock time- so hatching a clutch is important. The birds will work together to find food, scratching in the bedding for dropped grain. They also protect each other by giving alarm to warn each other of potential danger. Because I incubate and hatch in the house, the chicks develop in a safe space, where my voice, vibrations, and the general goings on in the home are present.

I do not imprint the chicks on me, instead, allowing them to bond with each other as birds, and usually keeping this connection together when they move into the adult coop. When you introduce young birds to a mature flock, there is safety in numbers. Already in this young brood, “older” (day or two at most) birds are taking younger ones under their wing, another level of developmental security in the clutch that forms naturally. Another point in the bird’s favor is their breeding- they are all at least half Ayam Cemani- which is far closer in makeup to it’s original jungle foul cousins. It’s driven to forage beyond the coop feeder, and prefers insects to grain. Most chicks will go for bugs, but adult layer breeds are often more inclined to the metal hopper. Below is a scene of fresh bug feeding- no one goes for the grain when fresh “meat” crawls by.

The chicks will stay indoors for another week- then quickly outgrow this initial bin and graduate into a sturdy hardware mesh enclosure in the garage with a dehumidifier that keeps the room well above freezing. It’s still chilly, but the chicks will keep their brooder heat source until fully feathered and large enough to produce enough heat mass. As the weeks progress, these little chicks will become awkward teenagers and graduate to outside. Our weather remains temperate enough for the birds, with good rain and wind shelter, to survive outside. They are then hardened up for a few more weeks, before fledgling out and moving into the adult bird coop. I’ve been working on this rhythm with the chickens for several years now, and the “holiday cycle” chicks tend to be the most acclimated, and efficient animals in the flock.

Spring and summer hatched chicks are ok, but end up being less accustomed to people because they don’t get time in the house- the weather is fine outside to brood and hatch them in the unheated garage. They also start laying in the late fall, and go into early shut down, which can give another boost to longevity, but makes the grain input too costly. This is the curse of capitalism, and not being able to fully close the circle of inputs on the farm. That’s why we are moving towards forest restoration, using livestock for a period of time earlier in the restoration to improve fertility bank for long term old growth forest. Chickens are a primo species to fold in fertility on the land with low input costs. You could just do birds and get enough regeneration in the soil, but since we’re managing in a high growth area, we also fold in sheep to keep up with the grasses and blackberry.

Chickens will outlast sheep in our stewardship restoration project. The work of these birds is tremendous, and getting eggs on top of all the free physical labor- a natural stewardship to the soil- is worth the grain input. Eventually, we could pair the flock down to just a handful to keep the garden edges free of pests, and mowing the lawn around the house. Might even go to geese then- we’ll see. But these ever present peepers are a pleasure to work with and learn from. We’ll enjoy our holiday hatchers of 2020, and look forward to more in 2021.

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