Counting Your Chicks after They've Hatched

Reader Contribution by Sue Dick
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We raised chicks last year.

It was a complete success. They were the most delicious, juicy, plump birds we’d ever laid eyes on or fork into. The only pity was that we hadn’t known we’d be such good chicken farmers and had only enough to put in our personal freezer. People asked if they could buy some and we reluctantly sold one or two, but as we could only cook chicken approximately 1/week for the whole year after, we told ourselves we needed to expand.

We had raised two kinds, laying hens of various breeds and Cornish Crosses for broilers. Both had done extremely well.  This year, apart from the replacement laying girls I ordered (a mix of Australorps, Isa browns, Amerecaunas, and a Silkie or two) we ordered about 185 broiler chicks.  I had sent out a cold-call email asking which of our past customers (our farm also sells completely natural grassfed beef and pork and lamb) would be interested in chickens and received an overwhelming positive response. Calculating my profits mentally, and happy to provide great, healthy chicken for people, we were excited about our expansion.

The weather was terrible for brooding chicks. While we’d gone through the mildest Winter in memory, Spring was slow and cold. The chicks huddled together under the lamps, and although there were many lamps to huddle under, we realized too late we should have insulated the brooder house. Last year it hadn’t been an issue, and so we hadn’t thought of it.  There were a couple of mortalities, but within a realm of reason. I did notice that with the colder weather they seemed to grow slower. At 5 weeks I still had the lamps on for them and we received a series of frosts in June (!!), but still, although I wouldn’t say they were thriving (not in comparison to last-year’s anyway) they were certainly surviving. And then finally the year-long dry spell was broken by a two-week period of thunderstorms.  After each storm I would go out and find a few that had been killed by piling (when cold or scared chicks pile on each other out of warmth/fear and suffocate or squish the bottom ones).With each flattened one I disposed of I cringed. We had lost 1 chick out of 65 last year. This week we endured some of the ugliest storms I remember in a long time. We were lucky that the weather was too cold for tornadoes (for surely those black clouds had it in them) and the hail that fell passed us by, but the torrents of rain that fell were disheartening, obliterating the views from the farmhouse windows with sheets of water.  After one particularly thunderous storm I went out to find that after 6 weeks, more than half of my broilers were dead. Flattened by their frightened cohabitants.  I sighed and sent off an apology email to those whom I had promised chickens, very sorry to disappoint them, and very sorry not to realize the profits from their sale.

Less than 3 days later from this disappointing event a cat found it’s way into the brooder yard/house and decimated almost the rest of the population. From 185 broiler chicks we are left with (as of last count) 14. Yup, 14. Needless to say, the cat is no longer with us, and we now have to do another (smaller) batch once these last few are out of the house/yard, just to fill our own freezer.

It seems hard to believe we enjoyed such a successful last year and such a complete and utter failure this. But that is farming. It’s faith. It’s ‘next year’ country. Hope Springs Eternal, and I can’t think of any group of people that that applies to more perfectly than a farmer.

Just don’t count your chickens till they’re processed.