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Layer Chicks for Starting Over and More

January 12, 2010

April 24, 2009

The lights are on in the brooder houses. Our garage glows with the eerie red light usually reserved for Halloween. The potting shed has been transformed, as well, and the amber light pouring from its window makes it a fitting companion to the nearby garage. This is one part starting over and one part traditional spring endeavor, but it’s all innocent, fuzzy, bright-eyed beginnings, timed perfectly to coincide with daffodils and garlic shoots, peas pushing green spikes from the earth and night-crawler worms emerging to lay fat on the dark, wet soil.

I start 25 ‘meat birds’ every spring. In eight to ten weeks, there will be a long day of butchering down by the woodpile, with months of incredible meals to follow. There are little or no savings to be had from raising broiler chickens from scratch – feed is very expensive and they eat a tremendous amount. They also require intensive management, with feeders and waterers replenished at least twice a day. Heat waves kill almost-full-grown birds, and last year we lost seven, even as I delivered blocks of ice to the big watering trough and ran fans in the open door and windows. The many hours of labor caring for and butchering and processing the birds are not taken into account when adding up the feed and materials costs to determine that they are worth over $15  a piece. In the end, they are probably worth about $25 for each five to six pound bird. Here’s to micro-farming.

If you don’t have a soft spot for big breasts and huge legs, you can raise cheap male chicks of the same breeds used for layers and butcher them around four or five months of age. They are equally moist, with less meat and a more stringy texture, but the cost may end up being similar to the broilers, although it is spread out over a longer period. Experiments with old layers, or stewing hens, has lead to a deeper understanding of the genesis of the burrito. I prefer to save up funds and get the job done with the big, juicy roasting birds everyone has come to expect from the grocery store.

This year I am starting 27 laying hens in addition to the meat birds. These girls will take five months or so to start laying, and I am hoping to create a new hen house out of all recycled material – read ‘junk’ – for them to occupy. This will be a real Sanford and Son style shack, as I am a pretty crude carpenter. We are at a disadvantage in Orleans when it comes to creating cool stuff from junk, as our ‘transfer station’ has eradicated the much-loved metal pile and contractor disposal area. I once dumped a stripped-down upright piano into that pile, after I realized that there was no dissembling the harp.  I also weighed in over 1,200 pounds of plaster and lathe we tore out of the 1800s house. Ahh, the old dump. I digress. Trash is a now a heavily guarded commodity, from food scrap for pigs to torn-out cheesy faux-wood paneling and high-brow wainscoting and even beat-up doors. I reached over the concrete wall and pulled a couple of lovely old windows from the bins, all under the watchful eye of the big guy in the big bulldozer. Four by eight sheets of plywood for the flooring will be harder to come by.

I saw an item in Yankee magazine recently that featured a potting shed with recycled sap bucket lids for roof shingles. Exterior covering has always been a bit of a puzzle, although those plastic selectmen’s race signs that recently covered the town would have been perfect overlapped as shingles. If they had shown up at the transfer station I would have snagged them, but, alas…  Who knows – the effects of UV light on plastic may have turned them brittle. At present I have two windows, a pair of two-part closet doors, a limitless supply of pallets, and a free four by eight trailer. Design brainstorming sessions with kids have resulted in plans for a bell-tower with a real bell that sounds when an egg is laid and drawers for nest boxes that can be accessed from outside the house. There have also been some Rube Goldberg-style contraptions drawn. Wish me luck. I can’t wait to get the little layers outside.

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