Let's Write a Tale of Miscues, Mistakes, and Learning on the Fly...
WARNING TO READERS: This will [hopefully] be the longest post I ever write, so much to fill you in on at once!
TLDR (TooLongDontRead): We made mistakes, we learned, we are better now at making less mistakes…
Currently at Greener Pastures:
Well...almost nine months after closing on the property, we have 14 Jersey Giants on pasture to be ready for processing in early February. This is our first batch of meat birds; our "inaugural season" if you will. We chose to start with a larger breed that was known for its long and slow grow cycle so that we had plenty of time to figure out kinks along the way! Unlike many other meat birds, this breed is not crossbred to the extent of others, so it does not have a strict timeline/window on when you NEED to process before they have health issues due to decades of genetic modifications like other breeds, such as Cornish cross, which were crossbred with the intention of growing as big as possible, as fast as possible, and to be processed as soon as possible.
These Jersey Giants will always have a special place in our hearts! We originally started with 17-day old chicks in mid-August. We lost one chick within the first week; an unfortunate downside of raising any quantity of meat birds, even at this small quantity, sometimes you’re just going to lose a couple birds early, so we learned quickly that you always order extra. Two of the others, we hand-picked based on their smaller size compared to their peers, to join our backyard flock of hens. Speaking of which, I’m getting ahead of myself!
Let me tell you a little about our “House Hens”! In July, about a month before our Jersey Giants arrived, we ordered and received our very first batch of 6 chickens! We kept it simple with 3 Steele Eggers, two of which came yellow and one grey, and 3 brown Welsummers. These chickens were going to be our House Hens; just a handful of pullets that would eventually be egg-laying machines to supply the two of us in the house. They’re just chickens, we thought, how hard can it be?
Well, despite hours upon hours upon even more hours of research, we made mistakes. We had this perfect little flock of pullets, that were doing great in the brooder, in the meantime, we began to build their coop! Their coop, which we based off our plans for the future chicken tractor meant for raising broilers, was really something. It was our very first structure that we built with the intent to hold living things inside of it, it was our masterpiece, even if it wasn’t exactly “practical”. But we built it, and it was ready.
After the chicks spent 4 weeks in the brooder, and Charles and I did enough research to write a thesis, we were ready to get these birds out of the brooder and into the coop! They spent a week locked in the coop, which had a perch, and nesting box, and all the things we thought a few chickens could need. Well, at night they all huddled in the corner above the ramp that led up to the perch and used it as a make shift “roosting bar” (something we both somehow missed in our mess of research), the nesting box was wishful thinking (considering they were at least another 3-4 MONTHS away from laying), and although this coop may have been small in stature it was as heavy as tank.
The following week we had poultry netting around the coop and let the girls out to do their thing and they were loving every second of it! But then, one grim day, one of the yellow Steele Eggers had a lame leg. After a few more days she clearly wasn’t recovering, she couldn’t get up to find food and water, so, we had our very first casualty. It was sad, we wondered what we could have done better, but nonetheless we continued down our path with our, taking every ounce of energy to move the massively little, but perfect, coop we built for our girls! Then it was time to rip off the band-aid and let em free!
With an automatic chicken door installed before the poultry netting phase, they were already trained and ready for whatever life threw at them! They took quickly to the door opening at dawn and closing at dusk. Every day, on their own, they went out and explored and foraged around the yard and lived their best lives, and every evening they went back in to cuddle in the corner overlooking the ramp, and all was well. Our little flock of five had two that were already named; Boss Ass Betty, the leader of the crew who may or may not have actually been a cockerel, and Cracker, named for her yellow/white feathers. Betty ran the show, she picked on everybody else and everybody else knew that it was “her/his” flock! Cracker, on the other hand, even though she was clearly the runt of the flock, was the bravest. While the rest of the flock was content foraging under a tree, Cracker would go on an exploration of something different, forcing her peers to follow her, because that’s just what chickens do. For a couple weeks, we had it all figured out and life was good…
Then one day, a Monday, Cracker was gone without a trace. No feathers, no body, nothing; just gone. Maybe she got lost in the woods? Maybe she got spooked and is hiding somewhere? Nightfall came and the other 4 girls took their spots on the perch and Cracker never returned. The very next morning, Boss Ass Betty randomly let out a crow, and we thought we had mistaken her for a pullet when she was actually a cockerel! We were excited to see what happened next. Unfortunately, the entire flock disappeared for hours. When they did finally reemerge, we were one more short. Betty was missing and never returned.
After keeping the girls cooped up for a couple days and reevaluating our strategy, we realized that chances are, a hawk snatched up Cracker, and then came back the following day for more easy prey. We realized that this was likely because of two things. First, we were letting them free range too soon, and second, coop placement; not only were they just seven or eight weeks old, but the coop was in the middle of a wide-open area, free from any tree coverage, where each morning the girls had to run for their lives to get cover from air flying predators, even if they didn't really realize that they were up there. This was our earliest mistake to learn from, which now seems like common sense.
After losing half our flock to air predators and a lame leg, we cooped the girls up and then we did the only thing that any two irrational brothers on new farming venture would do; we more than quadrupled down and ordered 17 Jersey Giants to raise as broilers (meat birds), 3 more hens (1 Columbian Wyandotte, 1 Easter Egger, 1 Green Queen) to replace the departed and abducted, a cockerel (Buff Brahma) to grow into a rooster to run the show/keep the girls in line...oh, and while we were at it, why not 4 Jumbo Pekin ducks too? And so, furthermore, we continued.
Now, we are on track; if you have something made of wood nearby, please give us a superstitious knock. It’s been 4 months since that whole shit show happened and we’ve learned and improvised. We took 2 of the Jersey Giant chicks and added them to our flock of hens, for protection, or should I say disillusion. The Jersey Giants, large in stature and black in color, help deter hawks from the flock of hens because the hawks mistake them as crows; hawks and crows are archrivals that will typically avoid conflict if possible. The hens have also been upgraded to a palace of a coop, enclosed in each direction but with plenty of ventilation, an attached 10x10 dog kennel to range in which has a gate so we can let them out to free range on our terms, all of which is outfitted with cameras just to make things fun (or because we like to overengineer things and Chuck likes to play with tech-toys). All 8 hens are now at least 17 weeks old; they are growing big and able to carry their own, and ole Big Jim the cockerel helps keep them in line and gets more and more aggressive with the world around him by the day. The 3 girls remaining from the first batch should be laying any day now! But we anticipate that the entire group will likely hold off on laying until Spring; we'll see! Side note: we named our cockerel Big Jim after Jim Justice, the Governor of West Virginia (check out the link if you don’t mind a little profanity: Jim Justice Link). Our Big Jim makes sure that the hens "Fuckin Follow the Guidelines"!
And now I’ll circle back to the meat birds! The Jersey Giants received an upgrade as well. We started them in a 6x6 structure, like the original coop, but slightly more movable. We originally over engineered the hell out of the chicken tractor idea, with feeders and waterers that seemed practical, but they were not. Again, we like to overengineer at times. Now, they live in Suscovich-Style [hyperlink maybe?] tractor with a hanging waterer and hanging trough feeder. It may be early in our poultry days, but we have become huge fans of John Suscovich. If you’re reading this as someone beginning to raise broilers, google him, he’s a legend in the pasture raised poultry community.
And lastly, also based off the Suscovich-Style tractor, we built a chick brooder that can hold up to 60 chicks, or two tractors worth of chickens. We just raised our first batch of 34 chicks in it which we just moved into a tractor to be moved around our front yard! Our hope is, that these birds will forage and dig up the ground each day, fertilize it with their manure, and behind them we will plant new grass seed to see if it helps revitalize in that section of our yard (which is much needed)! We ordered these chicks with the timeframe in mind to have them processed with the Jersey Giants in February.
Charlie and I have now been here for almost nine months; give or take. For the past six months we have been raising chickens. We have learned so much in these six months that I can’t even fit into this novel of a blog post, but I tried. There’s so much more to learn, so much more to gain, and a lot more of mistakes to make along the way. But we are thrilled to be here, doing something different, doing something unique, doing and building something that is truly our own; and we’re glad you’re here to follow along and hope you stick around through our trials and tribulations. Maybe even support us by buying a chicken or two. Either way, thank you for reading my novel, there’s many more (shorter) stories to come…