Baby Chicks!

by Nathaniel Huntley


Preparing for spring is one of the more exciting times on the homestead. Not the least of which is the arrival of baby chicks. While most of our layer flock comes from incubating fertilized eggs from our bred hens, we do order replacements from time to time to keep genetics fresh. Our cocks have been of very high quality so we have had no trouble selling them when they have bred a few generations of hens.

But these are not layers. We always order our broilers as day old chicks. These are the Cornish Rock cross breed. You will likely remember from a history class that FDR promised America “A chicken in every pot”. The funding that was used to make that promise reality bred this chicken. It is a deeply kept industry secret exactly how it is bred but we do know it is generally a three-generation cross of the Barred Rock and the Cornish. The result is a chicken that grows very fast and large while still young, allowing for more tender table fare. They also have the exceptionally large breasts the market as come to expect.


While I feel confident that I could breed this bird given enough time and space, I have no interest. The state only allows me to process one-thousand of these birds (one of the most restrictive laws in the nation, the feds allow 10,000) without having them processed in a USDA facility. If you have read my previous blog on the subject you will understand that I take too much time and care in the raising of these birds to have them finished mechanically and bathed in bleach.  This restriction makes broiler chickens a small portion of the family income and attempting to breed them would represent too large a time commitment for the small pay-off.

Having said that I am very happy with the hatchery we use. They are out of Aimes Iowa. They always ship on time, the birds arrive healthy and the brooder mortality rate is far lower than the industry standard. They mature quickly and are ready for pasture in two to three weeks.


*Wait? Did you say ship?

Yes! The USPS gets our chicks to us happy and healthy. This is possible because the chick hatches with about three days of nutrition from its absorbing of the egg yolk. This incredible design allows for chicks to hatch at different times, the hen to stay sitting and heating the eggs, and the first chicks and last chicks hatched to have the same level of health! Isn’t nature amazing?

I should also mention that UPS and FEDEX do not ship live chicks. The USPS is the only carrier that does, and they do a great job of it. In fact, I have never, not one time, had a box of chicks arrive with a mortality, not a single broken bone from being jostled. NOT ONE. Bravo postal workers, bravo.



You can see from this picture they are already starting to get their true feathers. We will not put them outside until they are fully feathered and can withstand a cold spring rain.  Until then we keep them under heat lamps in the brooder.

The process is very much like hardening off seedling vegetables to be planted outdoors. There are whole books on the subject of what temperature on what day old etc.  I just watch the chicks. If they are huddled together in a lump under a light, they are too cold. If they are separated and lined up outside the edges of the light and panting, they are hot. If they are scooting around like little water bugs and singing their beautiful songs, they are just right.

One of the factors of mortality in the meat-bird industry is digestive disease. This is a problem we have rarely had in either our layer or broiler flocks. This is down to several factors. We start them with apple cider vinegar in their water and probiotics. We use high quality feed. We do have a recipe for a custom feed (shared by a farmer I respect) but recent climbs in grain prices have made custom mixed feed difficult to obtain in the small quantities we require. We use the highest quality commercial ration we can find, regardless of price. Quality does not necessarily mean organic, although when two foods are of equal quality, we do buy the organic option. We look for the variety of micro-nutrients, pro-biotics, and other things that may set one feed apart from another, but even that is less important than the freshness of the feed. If we can get whole, unbroken grains in the feed that is the priority. We buy in small quantities, as close to direct from the producer as we can. Saving $1 a bird by buying stale feed in bulk is a losing proposition if that bird is unhealthy. Any commercial feed that we buy is then supplemented with Kelp, Azomite (a very nutrient dense grit) fresh vegetables, fresh herbs, and all the grass and bugs they can eat on pasture.

The pasture is, of course, the key. It allows us to feed about thirty percent less (by weight) than the industry standard. It also allows the birds to balance their own diet as individuals. The chlorophyl they have access to helps to mitigate anything less healthy about the commercial feed, while the sunlight and fresh air keeps the environment healthy so their energy stays focused on healthy growth rather than fighting illness.

The result is that our birds are larger and healthier than the industry standard. We are cutting a week off the cycle this year (7 weeks, down from 8) because the size of last years birds were too much for small families. We had many over eight pounds. That’s a turkey! Confinement raised birds simply can not be raised to this size. The mortality rate is too high after week six for it to be profitable. Our birds are healthy at harvest time or they are not sold. 

For us profit is a concern but it is not the only concern. Our pastures are made healthy by these birds moving through them, fertilizing the fast growing grasses in the rainy seasons. Our family is made healthy by these birds, we have not had to purchase a commercial chicken product in several years. That’s no anti-biotics, no saline injected bleach bathed meat in our diet. Our community is made healthier as well, local food keeps the money local, taxes are paid locally, the food is fresh, and the buyer is made healthy by eating what the farmer feeds his family. So while we must make a profit or quit doing this, the real goal is to make a healthy chicken.

We sold out this winter much faster than we thought we would (sorry about that!) and have had many inquiries since. We will be harvesting the next batch in early May. We are taking pre-orders and are nearly fully reserved for that batch, so hurry. We will have a second batch before it gets too hot and you can always pre-order for fall as well. Thank you for your continued support of local food. Without you we are just woke folks who have some land.



Edgewise Farms