From Chick to Laying Hen–Step-by-Step Guide Phase II (Week 4-16)

drinking-pulletsOur chicks are nearly 6 weeks old now, entering the gangly looking adolescent stage.  They still sleep in a heap under the heat lamp at night, but only because this is the dead of winter.  If you are raising chicks in the early spring or summer, you can stop the heat lamp during the day and just use it at night if the temps are dipping below 60.

But let me back up a bit.  Phase I took you through Week 3.  Until you move your chicks to the coop not much changes, except maybe your enthusiasm for changing out their water four times a day (in my case) and adding a fresh layer of shavings every few days.  And speaking of hygiene, if you haven’t already changed the shavings completely and laid down a fresh layer, do that now–approximately half way through the time you expect them to be in the brooding pen, or every 3 weeks, whichever comes first.  Continue to add a fresh layer of shavings every couple of days between the big clean-outs.

And what to do with a plastic bin full of shavings?!   Here’s some ideas:wood-shavings

1) Save a bucketful to make liquid fertilizer for seedling starts.  This works like Miracle Grow–only its organic–and free!  I call it, Chicken Poop Tea.  For now just put in a bucket reserved for “Dirty Stuff.” We color-coat our buckets: gray ones are for any chore with potential poop contact, and orange buckets are for harvesting produce, and other “Clean” chores.

2) Use your poop-infused wood shavings to mulch around trees or shrubs.  The poop will fertilize whatever you spread it around, and the wood shavings act as a buffer against the winter’s deep cold.  In the summertime, mulch acts as weed control and helps retain water.  So after saving a bucketful for “tea”, the rest of our nitrogen-rich shavings went around our blueberry bushes and a few young plum trees.blueberries

And while I’m on the topic: a few things NOT to do with chick poop-infused wood shavings:

1) Don’t put it in your compost pile.  Wood shavings break down very slowly, much slower than vegetables, grass clippings and leaves.  So the shavings won’t poison it, but it will slow down the process of turning your scraps into wonder-soil.

2) Don’t flush it down the toilet.  Yes, it stinks.  Yes, it’s poop, but it’s also a whole lot of woody substance, which could make a much bigger stink in your house if it backs up in your plumbing!

3) Don’t throw it in the garbage.  I say this just because it’s such a waste of a great by-product of brooding chicks…  Surely you can find some tree or bush to mulch!

Chicks from week three on should be flitting to and fro, establishing their pecking order, roosting inconveniently on top of the water and feed jars (which means poop sliding down the outside of the jars and plopping into the water and feed…) and otherwise realizing life is pretty cool, even if at this point fairly limited.  Give them a roost, and/or hang a CD from a string into their cage, put a tennis or rubber ball in their brooder.  Any and all of these will entertain them.

Since it’s still January, our 6 week old chicks won’t go outside for a couple of weeks yet, but since they were getting crowded in their brooding pen, we got the dominos rolling to get the upper hen house ready for them.  I’ll dedicate a post to moving chickens and cleaning hen houses/coops later, but the short of it is that Mari bought (at a very good price) the 12 older hens we were selling,  so we moved all the upper hens to the lower hen house, thoroughly cleaned the upper hen house (very important step), and introduced the pullets to their new home. I keep a heat lamp on during the day and night out there, so they can scurry under it whenever they get cold.  Even though they are still limited to inside the hen house, their world got a Whole Lot Bigger and more interesting.

Once chicks are five or six weeks old, if it’s spring or summer you can put them outside for a few hours every day.  Supervision is a good idea if they are free ranging as they can disappear pretty quickly.  They will likely find their way back to the coop, but if it’s their first field trip into the Wide Wide World, they might get lost, or way-laid by a hungry fox, raccoon, coyote, hawk or the neighbor’s dog or cat.  Besides, watching them scratch at the grass, discover the wonder of insects, test their wings on benches, stones and anything else a few feet off the ground–is rather entertaining.   When we let ours out, it’s in a fenced area, so we don’t have to worry about chasing them down when we want them back inside. If you let them out near dusk, they will naturally want to go back inside as it gets dark.pullets-in-hen-house

About heat: You’ll find different opinions about this.  I error on the side of keeping chicks warm.  Until all their adult feathers are in, and all their chick fluff gone, if the temperature dips below 60 at night I’m still going to put the heat lamp on.  And make it available during the day, too, if temps are below 70. By 8 weeks I’ll just keep a light on at night if temps dips below 50, and by 10 weeks I’ll stop altogether unless we get some freezes.

From that point on we won’t use a heat lamp again.  In Oregon our winters are fairly mild, and while we will have a few weeks where temps go below freezing at night, seldom will they dip much below 20 degrees.  Our birds are hearty and robust partly because we haven’t coddled them with a warming lamp whenever the temperature gets below freezing.   There are different opinions about this as well.  And if I still lived in Chicago, I’d work to keep adult chickens warm in the winter.

By 8-10 weeks chicks will be clucking more than chirping, and we open the door in the morning and give them access to the outside all day, closing them up at night (which we do with our adult birds as well).  Since we have resident hawks, coyotes, and foxes who also need to eat to flourish, we have built a large covered enclosed area to encourage predators to look for easier prey.  I’m thinking field mice, gophers, moles…  We do give our hens access to our gardens after the final harvest–but after our hawk attacks this month we will likely just put them in the gardens for a few weeks next year–or until we see the hawk returning.

In Phase III I’ll talk about changing their feed as they near maturity and get ready to start laying, as well as some tricks to help them lay in the nesting boxes if they are confused about that.  Also in the next couple of weeks I’ll post some thoughts about coop options, since most of you planning to get chicks will wisely wait until spring–a far more reasonable season for raising chicks!  I welcome your questions or comments!pullets




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