In February of 2001 we got our first order of 50 "assorted heavy" baby chicks from McMurray Hatchery.
We'd built a nice brooder from one section of an old, 5'-round galvanized metal calf feeder and set it up in our unfinished guest room with a 250-watt heat lamp (which we could barely manage providing the electricity for) in advance of their arrival. Sadly, a few of the little fellers were dead on arrival. Another one died during the next few days but the remainder (we finally were able to count 48 so I guess we got some extras) stayed good and healthy and began growing - FAST.
They stayed in the guest room for about a month (by the end we'd had to add another ring of sheet metal to the brooder to keep them from jumping out) before getting big enough, noisy enough and dusty enough that we had to move them outside.
In March we moved the 48 chicks from our guest room to the newly completed Hen House. Click here for pictures of the Hen House Project. Of that first batch we kept 10 laying hens and a goofy-looking Polish Crested rooster. The rest were dinners.
The hens settled down into a nice production schedule providing 7 eggs a day, on average. We actually named the hens.
In June we got another batch of 50 chicks. This time we went with all cockerels (males) of the fast-growing meat breed "Cornish Rocks", from Welp Hatchery.
These little guys eat so much and grow so fast that (especially at high elevations like here) you have to take their food away for 12 hours a day. If you don't they will eat to the point that their too-full crops push on their little hearts until they stop beating, a heart attack called "flip". Seriously! They lived in our guest bathroom for a couple of weeks before being brought out to the coop with the older birds.
In August we did a 2-day butchering session for the 50 Cornish Rocks. At the time - only 9-weeks old, they were MUCH better filled out than the mixed heavies we had grown last time and it was clear right from the start that they would be a better eating bird. I can't say enough good about the confirmation and build of these birds. On the table they are tremendously meaty, succulent and juicy. Single boneless breasts from these guys weighed in at a full pound! We had been planning on growing a few out a bit further but many were beginning to have foot problems and all were plenty big for our needs. The only thing we'll do differently next time is squeeze in another hen house cleaning at around their 7th week as it was getting pretty nasty in there by the end.
This Fall two of the hens died independently of unknown causes despite our best efforts to save them.
The "Mixed Heavies" as chicks and poults
Some of our first eggs
In late March of '02 we bought 6 chicks at the local feed store as eventual replacement stock for our layers and they have grown into wonderful producers. With 14 laying hens we average 10 eggs a day, even through the winter.
We decided not to get any meat birds for 2002 since the rabbits had kicked into such prolific production.
In early 2003 we raised 25 Cornish Rocks, again from Welp's. They were, as we've come to expect, WONDERFUL!
In mid-July we also bought 16 White Pekin ducklings to see how we like growing them for meat. WE DIDN'T! They were not hard to raise but made a pretty nasty mess of their pen by (as Kathryn puts it) "being extremely extravagant with their water usage". The butchering was simple but the worst part of the whole experience was trying to pluck them. We had long-ago resigned ourselves to eating skinless chicken - we very much prefer it that way and it is SO much easier on butcher day, but skinless ducks? What's a nice roast duck without the skin, we thought? Try as we might we couldn't find any way to do a good job on feather removal without it taking FOREVER. By the end, we were, again back to skinning the birds and processing the meat into boneless breasts, and leg-thighs for confit - a fine and tasty solution, but not really worth the time and money invested for the effort. We were so tired by the end and disheartened at the plucking results, we passed on butchering the last 3 ducks (the most feminine ones Kathryn could pick out) which we put in with the chickens and rabbits in their house with the intent of collecting eggs. Kathryn chose wisely as we are now picking up 2 to 3 duck eggs a day, mostly for Livestock Guardian Dog Kira's breakfasts.
Cornish Rocks at 5-weeks.
These are not a very attractive birds (to put it mildly) but hoo-wee they're good eatin' by 8 weeks of age!
Pekin Ducks photographed just after their arrival at the Ranch.
They were cute, interesting and easy to raise, but impossible to pluck efficiently - we'll not likely be raising them for meat again soon.
The 3 Pekin Ducks we kept have now moved themselves out and into the "free-range" category. It started when we transferred them to the goat buck pen - a 30'x70' fenced enclosure with several shelter areas - to reduce the impact of their mess in the chicken coop. They took to the new digs like... well,... ducks to water! They seemed to thoroughly enjoy their larger accommodations and got along just fine with all the goat bucks they shared the space with. The bucks mostly ignored them, only paying any attention when the ducks would try to steal some of their grain. One day, the ducks discovered that the spacing of the cattle panel fencing allowed them to wriggle through and explore the big world Outside. With no practical way of keeping them confined any longer we assumed that they would soon fall prey to one of the numerous predators (coyotes, hawks, wild dogs, bobcat, bear, mountain lion etc) that we have in the vicinity - or even, possibly, one of our own 6 dogs who had never really been trained to accept poultry as part of the family. To our surprise and delight, the ducks continue to do just fine in avoiding trouble all on their own. They continue to explore a larger and larger area outside their shared pen (where they still return every evening for sleep and go to lay their eggs) and have been accepted by everyone as "those noisy neighbors who pop in from time to time". They are very entertaining to watch, and now that they are giving us 3 big eggs nearly everyday, they're also earning their keep!
Free range Pekin ducks, and the ducks with "their" bucks - May 2004
This was a busy year in the poultry and fowl department.
Early spring we ordered 25 pullets from Welp – 5 Araucanas, 10 Red Sex Link, and 10 Leghorns. They arrived in great shape and were all busy laying eggs by early summer. Our old flock of hens went to a new home and their new people are enjoying them immensely.
On a sad note, an owl or other predator killed our three Pekin ducks. We missed those crazy things so much that we ordered 10 Golden Hybrid ducks, 9 duck hens and 1 drake, from Metzer Farms. 9 duck hens and TWO drakes arrived and they were a beautiful batch of sturdy ducklings! They were energetic and grew very well. We moved them to the chicken coop after a few weeks in the house – ducks ARE messy! Once they were totally feathered out and didn’t need any more extra heat, we let them out of the coop and they took up residence with the bucks. Once again ducks ruled the range at BMR!
The duck flock covered an amazingly large area looking for food, and apparently, finding plenty. They also covered an amazing area while laying their eggs! It was an Easter Egg Hunt every day of the week - one that the local raven population participated in too. Even though the ducks lay very large eggs, those ravens can still grab one and fly away, so the trick was getting out to find and collect them before the ravens did.
The year was not without duck "adventures" either. Once, a duck laid “an egg within an egg” – one fully-formed egg, surrounded by egg white and encased inside another shell! Very bizarre! One drake managed to badly brake his leg – a multiple compound fracture. We ended up amputating his foot and lower leg – and darned, if that fella didn't quickly adapt and now gets around just fine. As winter approached, so did a pack of stray dogs. We lost the two-footed drake and two hens before moving the ducks back into the coop for their own safety. Once the dog pack is eliminated, the ducks will once again have free range.
We also raised 25 broilers from Welp again this summer. They arrived in less than 24 hours from the time they hatched in Iowa!! They were hugely healthy and grew well…up until they reached about 4 weeks old when they stared dying off. After consulting with the folks at Welp, and them consulting with their State Agriculture Dept. and University, we figured out the problem. We were trying out a new feed from a different feed mill (Westside Milling in Phoenix), but they had mixed it incorrectly and it had WAY too much protein in it causing the birds to start dying of ascites. This is the same company that had sold us some bad grain for our goats once that ended up killing a beautiful doe from copper toxicity. Anyway, within a couple days of changing their feed, the birds were back to normal and ended up growing out fine and tasty. We’ve always liked the birds from Welp, and now we are very impressed with their customer service as well. Thanks guys!
And a new challenge! In November we adopted 10 guineas and 6 peafowl from Terry at "Our Dream Ranch" near Wickenburg, AZ. Because of the dog pack problem, the new birds are still confined to the coop, but once those dogs are gone, the ducks, peafowl, and guineas will get the run of the place. We are hoping that the guineas will help keep the insect population down, and the peafowl…well, they’re just pretty. We are toying with the idea of getting an incubator for hatching some peachicks and guinea keets.
Chicks and ducklings in brooder
The bucks and Golden Hybrid ducks
The duck egg-within-an-egg
Some of the peafowl
The peacock strutting his stuff
This spring we took the plunge into free range poultry. All the chickens, peafowl, guineas, and ducks were allowed to wander around the range at will. We made a small door for them to get into their coop for food, but they mostly like to scratch and peck and find their own lunch. Quite soon after letting the birds free, one peahen either flew away or met up with a predator. Our ducks, sadly, must not have been producing enough oils on their feathers and once we let them free, a number of them jumped into a water trough and drowned! Can you even believe that? It was very sad and strange.
Over the summer we lost a few chickens to predators, though the dogs are doing a great job of keeping the bad guys out. One of our neighbors is allowing his pack of underfed dogs to roam and they are becoming a serious nuisance. As the weather got warmer, the peahens got broody and sat on their eggs, but dog, Blue, managed to eat the eggs just before they were due to hatch.
We got 30 straight run Welp Cornish-Rocks as opposed to our usual preference for raising all cockerels. They grew well, but because of the different growth rates of the males and females we ended up having two butcher days. We butchered the males at 8 weeks and the females at 10 weeks. Some of the birds seemed a bit stringier than usual, possibly due to the extra time needed to grow the birds as big as we like.
Our poultry raising and other animal operations were inspected and we qualified to have our ranch certified as Humanly Raised and Handled.
This winter we put up a cattle panel fence around approximately 200 of our 280 acres. This should keep the dog and coyote packs out of our homestead area. That lets us breath a bit easier since all the poultry are wandering quite far away from the buildings, we’ve seen them as far as an eighth of a mile away at times. We lost another peahen when we introduced Kirby, one of our Anatolian’s to “free range” life. He has been living in the goat buck pen because he likes to chase the chickens. We were working with him on NOT chasing the poultry, but turned our back at the wrong time, giving him the opportunity to catch the peahen. Kirby is now back in the buck pen until we can work with him more.
This spring we ordered 40 Welp Cornish Rock’s plus picked up 10 layer chicks from the feed store – all right before our big generator blew up. That meant we didn’t have enough power to keep the chicks warm, so they were moved to our bedroom and put under the propane heater. 50 chicks can really smell up the place fast! Luckily the replacement generator was up and running in just over a week and we moved the chicks back out to their brooder in their own private area. That made us all a lot happier.
During the summer the peahens again became broody this year and started sitting on clusters of peafowl AND guinea eggs. When one peahen had been on her nest for over 3 weeks, another hen joined her there. We’ll see what happens if some chicks actually hatch. Another hen has her nest right under the goat manger – not exactly an out of the way spot and she is continually having to rearrange her clutch since she’s right in the goat’s walkway. Some of the new layer chicks we got are Cochins and should be good broody birds next year. We’ll give them some peafowl eggs to sit on when that happens. The peacock is a real ham. His train this year is almost 10 feet across and he loves to show it off. He blocks doorways and paths and doesn’t get scared off when we have to push by him or have to move his feathers out of our way to get through.
Where does the time go!? I see that I've missed a couple years of updates. Between selling some birds and losing some, 2010 started off with around 5 laying chickens, 12 or so peafowl, and 5 guineas. One peahen sat on a clutch of eggs in the goat barn this summer and was very devoted. She hatched out 3 chicks. She lost one at 2 months old but the other two are doing great and look to be hens. Last year this hen hatched out three chicks that are still around plus another hen hatched out and raised two chicks.
2010 was a somewhat wet year so we had a worse fly problem then usual. I decided that we needed some muscovy ducks which are supposed to be quite good at keeping the insects down. One thing I learned very quickly about Muscovies is that they don't travel well. Unlike chicks that can survive several days in transport without food and water, Muscovies cannot. Poultry absorb the yolk of their egg before hatching and that sustains them for awhile. Muscovies have a very small yolk and can't live long without food and water. It took two days for my ducklings to arrive and all were DOA with the exception of one. That one lived long enough for me to set up a private brooder for it, then it died. I discussed this with the hatchery and asked if I could pay extra for overnight delivery but that option isn't available in this area. Since I have a friend in the Phoenix area that is good with poultry and can get overnight delivery, I arranged to have Ridgeway Hatcherysend the ducklings there. Rhonda got them off to a good start, then she drove them up to the ranch. 27 cute and fluffy ducklings all in excellent health.
The ducks are growing well, but are certainly more high strung than I'm used to birds being. They run away and cower in the corner any time I go out to check on them, feed them, or clean out their waterers. On one visit they were already cowering before I even got close. A quick look over their pen was all I needed to see what the problem was. A 5 foot long gopher snake was in the pen - and it was swallowing a ducking! Using my snake hook I got that bad boy into a 5 gallon bucket, put the lid on - securely - and drove the snake out to the wash which is almost half a mile away. Hopefully he will not return. A head count of the ducklings showed that there where still 26.
At the same time as the original (dead) ducklings arrived, so did 32 Cornish Cross cockerels from Welp Hatchery. They were feisty and in great shape. I did a head count at 10 days old and discovered that I now only had 28 chicks. That was odd since I never saw any dead little bodies in there. After finding that snake lunching on my duckling I now suspect that the same thing happened to those chicks. Good thing these meat chicks grow so fast that they are quickly too big for being eaten by a snake.
Once again, a few years have slipped by without a poultry update. I'll try to catch up.
In 2011 we butchered out some of the Muscovy ducks. They were hard to pluck, tough, and not very tasty. We were disappointed in them. We fed the meat to the dogs. Then, the remaining Muscovies decided to leave - and they did. One day most of the flock was gone. A month or so later all of the rest left. Strange birds and I don't miss them much. While they were still here one of them went broody and sat on a couple eggs. She would roll the eggs around the floor of the chicken coop. At some point she collected a peahen egg during her rounds. It hatched at the same time as a couple of ducklings. The momma was appalled!! She literally pushed that little peachick over to a peahen that was probably it's mom. The peahen had just hatched an egg so she was more than willing to take the chick back.
In 2012 we raised 30 Cornish cockerels for the freezer. Love those birds! They grew well and we didn't lose any of them before the date with their planned destiny. That's me (Kathryn) on the right getting ready to start butchering. It's hard to see but my left foot is wrapped in a plastic bag and duct tape to keep my surgical boot clean. See our Sheep Page to find out what happened!
In June of 2013 a peahen hatched 5 chicks. She is a great mom, but one of the chicks managed to drown in a water tank - even though we had blocks in it to keep that from happening. But the hen is doing great with the remaining 4. In July another 4 peachicks were hatched by two moms. Neither we nor the hens know which chicks belong to which hen, but they have taken on a joint partnership to get those little chicks raised. The picture on the left shows one momma with her chicks peaking out underneath her.
We got 27 layer chicks from Murray McMurray - their Rainbow Layer Assortment. What a very interesting group of birds. They are pretty funny to watch, I just hope they can lay eggs. In anticipation that they will, we have purchased and, eventually, assembled an 8 hole front roll-out nest box. The assembly instructions were quite poor and we ended up grinding off many rivets before we got the thing correctly put together. Hopefully the new nest box will be easier for the birds to use than it was for us to set up.
The roll-out nest box was not a big hit with the birds at first. It took them a long time to feel comfortable using it. I like that the eggs are now very clean when I collect them. Unfortunately, the Rainbow Layer Assortment of birds that we got last year are much more colorful than they are productive. I think I’ll get some Leghorns next year and rehome these pretty birds.
We ended up getting overrun with peafowl, so I sold quite a few plus sent some down to Rhonda at Crow’s Dairy. We are now down to 9 birds and I wouldn’t mind moving one more pair out of here.
We raised 31 Welp Cornish Cross cockerels and all grew well with no losses before it was their time. Butchering day went smooth and easy. We love having these birds in the freezer!
This year we had one tenacious peahen that sat a nest and hatched out one chick. The chick did fine until our temperatures soared to over 100 and the humidity plummeted to 1%. The little chick just couldn’t overcome that much stress and died. So the momma started another nest. But one of our dogs got in and ate the eggs.
When she started a third nest in one of the kid pens, I shut the gate so that she could be left alone. She hatched out one chick. So far it is doing fine although I did have to rescue it from drowning in a water tank.
Another peahen hatched out 2 chicks in the garden. They are doing well but one chick did require rescuing when our Anatolian puppy grabbed it. He put it down when commanded to and the chick ran back to its momma.
The chickens are laying a bit better than last year though not by much. Maybe next year I’ll get some replacement layer chicks. It just seemed like way too much work this year.
Not much excitment with the birds this year. We did trade all of our peafowl for some dressed ducks which seemed like a wonderful deal for everyone. It has been a lot quieter around here since then! The chicken flock is down to around a dozen birds with none of them seeming interested in earning their keep. But they do catch bugs and eat the food scraps that the pigs throw out at them.
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