Up here in New Hampshire and New England in general, we farmers (be it animal, vegetable or what have you) are all about the season extension. We routinely risk snow in April and frost in October, which isn’t optimal when it comes to raising pastured broilers as our livelihood.
I vividly remember our first batch of chicks arriving in late April of 2015 and it was 36 degrees outside. Since baby chicks during their first few days need temperatures upwards of 86 degrees, this was unequivocally uncool. Having come through a season of raising around 3,000 pastured birds, there are some season extending tidbits we learned along the way from both personal experience and colleagues that I would like to pass along.
In the cool temperatures of late April, we found ourselves worrying about chicks being chilled. October presented the similar issues, as we encountered our first hard frost towards the middle of the month and cold nights in the end of September and were concerned about putting birds from the brooder directly into the harsher temperatures. In times like these, your brooder is extremely important.
For our April brand new chicks, we worked very hard to keep these babies warm. Very young birds who have not had a chance to grow feathers are extremely susceptible to cold. Being exposed to temperature fluctuations at a young age is stressful for birds and can impair development then and later in life.
I suggest heating up your brooder several hours before your chicks arrive so they go straight from transport to a warm dry area with food and water. Turning on the heat source a few minutes prior will most definitely result in chilly chicks crowding around the heat instead of eating, drinking and sleeping. Keep an eye on your birds, and make sure they don’t get too hot either.
The October birds were a different case entirely. They were older and had feathers, but the brooder was comfortable and outside, comparatively speaking, was not. Our general rule was to keep the birds in the brooder for about three weeks. During this time we gradually lowered the heat and turned lamps off periodically – similar to hardening off a plant – to get the birds ready to go outside.
Given the weather, this round we elected to keep this flock in the brooder for an extra week to ensure the transition was complete and give them extra time to grow more feathers. This measure worked well and we didn’t notice any sudden deaths once the animals moved outside.
Not to keep comparing my birds to plants (see hardening off reference above), but they are like plants. Cold temperatures aren’t necessarily what hurts them (once they have been hardened off, of course!), but the cold wind can cause some problems.
Through talking with other pastured poultry producers in our area and even farther north, the general consensus was that as long as the birds are dry and protected from the wind, the cold temperatures of the fall will not hurt them. Granted, they will not grow as quickly even though they consume just as much food as your summer groups do. I don’t think there is anything one can do to change this fact, aside from keeping the birds indoors, but that defeats the whole purpose of a pasture raised bird.
In any case, we wrapped the open sides of the coops with clear plastic about 18 inches high, leaving the mesh above open for ventilation. Between the tarp on top and the plastic wrap, I could feel a noticeable temperature difference when stepping into the coop. In an effort to keep the animals dry, if there was frost, we waited until it had burned off before we moved the coops. Using these measures, we successfully raised birds from April 26th until October 30th.
Kristen Kilfoyle is a new farmer who interned in 2014 with Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm (read about her experiences at Polyface here). She and her fiancé, Dan, currently raise chickens, pigs and ducks on their 45 acres at Sugar River Farm in New Hampshire. Kristen also teaches seminars on pastured poultry production. Also find her on Facebook and Instagram.
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