Size Matters

Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.

Elanore Roosevelt

Consider this a public service announcement. Not all chickens are the same.

When we first began our chicken journey we started our small. Just a few chickens.

Except that the few chickens became 17 chickens.

Chicken math.

Fortunately our neighbors had started out small the year before us. Just a few chickens. Twenty-five in their flock, to be exact. They loaned us their brooder after their first year. We knew pretty confidently that our 17 chickens numbered less than their 25 (chicken math aside), so our 17 should easily and comfortably fit in their old brooder.

Our initial brooder (Brooder 1.0).

And we were right! Worked like a charm. Our girls (and what turned out to be a few guys) grew up nicely in the brooder until they were ready to be put out into the larger coop we had built in the back of the garden shed.

As first year chicken owners we had apparently done everything right. Our flock thrived, the eggs started coming later in the same year, and everything went swimmingly.

So for our second year we were looking at biggering our operation and adding some meat birds to the mix. Lulled into a sense of being knowledgeable, veteran chicken owners we set our sights on raising a few rounds of meat birds. And since we knew our brooder would accomodate up to 25 laying hens sufficiently we knew we were all set.

Chicks all start small.

Or at least we thought we knew.

Turns out a chicken-is-a-chicken is not a thing. And while there are plenty of warnings out there about the hazards of rapidily ballooning flock sizes through the magic of chicken math, we offer that there are not sufficient warnings about the size of various bird types.

Because broilers, or meat birds, are a whole other chicken animal.

A Cornish Cross broiler at 4 weeks.

We selected cornish cross birds for our first go round with broilers. These birds are bred to grow quickly; and do they ever! Even at just a couple weeks they were much larger than their laying hen counterparts. We separated out the laying hens into a makeshift brooder (after adding another 6 because… chicken math) shortly after the second week. By the third week we were realizing that the original brooder just wasn’t going to be big enough.

Our makeshift brooder for the hens.

And then there was the smell.

Meat birds eat voraciously. And as a result, they generate a lot (seriously, a lot) of waste. Twenty five birds in close quarters generated enough waste that even the thick layer of wood shavings could not mitigate the odor.

Once you have an odor, you know you have a problem. And a problem we had. Between the excessive chicken waste and the birds constantly spilling water on the bedding material the brooder couldn’t hold up. Dirty and damp are potential bird killers. The original brooder wasn’t going to be big enough to get our chickens ready to go outside into the chicken tractor. We were going to need an intermediate stage, even if only for a week or two, until we could get the birds outside and moving on fresh pastures.

So we improvised. Using some excess lumber and chicken wire from various projects, we built a 32 square foot enclosure in our garage to house the birds. Using 5/4″x6″ boards we built a modified 8’x4′ garden bed frame and lined it with 36″ tall chicken wire. Set on a tarp on the garage floor and piled deep with pine shavings, this made a perfect temporary housing for the birds.

Newly built second phase brooder.

Fortunately it looks like tonight might be the last truly cold night in the foreseeable future. While it may dip down into the low 30s tonight, the rest of the forecast holds lows in the upper 40s to 50s. Even at just 4 weeks old now, the birds can easily adapt to those temperatures provided we keep them dry and out of significant drafts.

They even seem to be enjoying basking in the sun.

Broilers enjoying afternoon sunshine.

So take it from us as we learn on our journey. Raising a flock of broilers for the freezer is not the same as raising a few laying hens for the coop. The broiler’s rapid growth and increased size, along with accelerated feed consumption and waste production, make them a very different endeavor from raising laying hens.

Are we saying don’t do it? No. Of course not. By all means we encourage you to always expand and grow your independence. But take the lesson from our mistakes so you may be more prepared when you face new challenges.

We can all learn from our mistakes. And that learning allows us to grow.

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