As I sit here typing, the brooder has been fired up and although it is a chilly 12 degrees outside, the small insulated room where we start, or brood chicks, is a balmy 90. The walls and floor and ceiling are sweating from the ice that had embedded itself into the wood, now melting. In a day or so, we will host 300 little peepers. We talk about this chicken brooding every year like it is the first time we’ve ever done it and like it is some sort of miracle, and that is because it seems like the first time every time we do it and a high survival rate at this time of year is literally a miracle. Keeping a completely artificial atmosphere going 24-7 is a harrowing business. The chicks need things to be just right if they are to thrive and it is up to us to make sure everything is working to ensure the temperature, light, bedding, food, water, and general social peace are achieved. This is particularly important during the first three days and then for the next two weeks. Baby chickens cannot really survive without outside intervention. I am their surrogate mother. The propane heated, pine shaving lined, fiberglass insulated brooder is my feathery warm underbelly atop a cozy thatched nest. The feed needs to be as nutrient-rich as a just regurgitated worm. The light on a timer is the sun rising and setting. Everything is contrived to replace the natural chicken order.
When I’m sleeping at night, I worry that the flame on the propane heater will somehow inexplicably be extinguished. If this were to happen, especially in the first three days, most of the 300 little beings would surely perish. This is the biggest worry, actually, but there are countless other scenarios that come to mind when trying to keep the birds happy in the fragile beginning: drowning in the waterer, grit too small leading to clogging the back end, grit too large leading to clogging the front end, too warm leading to piling (and subsequent suffocating) on the margins, too cold leading to piling in the middle, feeding them too much, feeding them too little, drafts, ventilation, and on and on.
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy it and I’m pretty practiced by now so most of these terrible things don’t happen, but if you don’t constantly worry they will happen. A good success rate is considered 5% loss during brooding. An acceptable rate is 10%. So, if I lose 15 birds, I’m doing pretty darned good and even 30 would not be considered a huge blunder, but can you imagine? It is pretty heartbreaking to lose even one. I try not to lose more than 10 birds every time I brood chicks. So that is roughly 3%. I have actually succeeded in not losing any from time to time, but it is rare and usually happens in the summer when enough heat is not the issue. The cold is the hardest and most unforgiving part of it. If they get cold, there’s little chance of meeting my expectation.
Anyway, it is a nervous and exciting time.
We will see you tomorrow with eggs, chicken, and some other things to be determined…
We will also be accepting CSA memberships and contributions tomorrow.