We housed the birds in the large, grassy, and enclosed outdoor run attached to the barn where the laying hens reside. Occasionally, I supervised some free-ranging time in the field, but for the most part they stayed in this setup, with various additional make-shift shelters like dog crates for shade and weather protection. Although they were always on grass, with plenty of bugs to eat as well, I would say the majority of their diet came from the grain we provided. Next time, we'd like to build a Salatin-style pen, and rotate the birds through pasture, allowing them access to new grass each day.
There was a major setback a few weeks prior to the first butchering day, when we lost 8 of the biggest males to the elements. We had a hard rain and biting wind just before dusk, and the chickens got wet. Then the temperatures dipped down that night, and we realized after some research that those big boys had a difficult time keeping their body temperature up. That loss was quite a blow to us, especially since it was preventable on our part, had we just brought the flock into the garage (no electricity in the barns), and put them near the heat lamp. Big lesson learned. After this, we built a hay bale structure with a couple plywood planks as a roof, and rigged a light bulb to 3 small solar panels. This way, they had a light on all night, which allowed the birds to be active, eat, and keep their temperature better regulated. After this improvement, we suffered no additional losses, and the birds really seemed to love it.
It looks very manger-like, don't you think?
The injured chick and fighting rooster pair were spared butchering, and have pretty much become feral chickens who run around with the goats all day. We're entertaining the possibility that they could perhaps be a breeding pair (Even if not, they are currently entertaining us, so we like having them around). There was one other bird who seemed to develop a temporary leg problem in which he couldn't stand up fully. I brought him into the garage brooder, and after a few days with his own food and water, the problem resolved itself. He was a very laid-back and large fella, and actually ended up being the first one we harvested.
|butchering station (yes, that is a lopped off traffic cone hanging from a ladder)|
With the loss of 5 laying hens to the fox (two originally and three more of late), we also decided to integrate 2 of the pullets from the meat bird flock with our laying flock. I'd like to see if they might be good dual-purpose birds, and am interested to find out if they will come into lay since they are now eating layer feed and essentially free-ranging. It might work better for us to have a true dual-purpose flock, rather than trying to harvest so many broilers at once. Logistically-speaking, it's only possible for us to butcher a few chickens at a time without extra help - baby only naps for so long, even when carried on my back, and as first-timers, we are horribly inefficient! The 14 chickens we did end up butchering were spread out over the course of a couple weeks. I'm not sure if all-at-once or one-once-in-awhile is better. What I do know, however, is that this experience has educated, tested, and enlightened me in ways I never imagined. And this is just the beginning.