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Column: No time to rest on laurels, when it comes to spring chicks

I never thought I would be a writer. I also never thought I would be a farmer. But if you keep up with this monthly column, you’ll see that I am actually doing both. I have no background in either. I didn’t grow up on a farm and, because I never thought I would actually use what I learned in English 101 in the real world, I studied economics and accounting in university. My grades were the pits, and I only stuck with it because of a cute boy in my economics class. Which by the way, was not Farmer Jim. Isn’t it interesting that now I am a columnist and have hired a bookkeeper?

And there are other things I’ve learned to do on the farm that aren’t quite what I imagined I’d be doing, and it’s nice to have an avenue to share them with others.

This time of year everyone is into raising chicks, so I thought I would share a Q&A for this month’s “Starting From Scratch” column.

The question that I get asked from time to time is: Is it really difficult to raise chicks? My short answer is no. But this wouldn’t be much of a story if I left it there, would it?

We started here on our farm with one chicken, which we named “Roberta” and we loved her as much as you can love a non-cuddly animal. We thought we were really farming then. Interest in local eggs grew quickly amongst our friends and we bought some chickens that were already laying. Soon we had 30 “Robertas” running around our barn.

I didn’t think I was ready to raise chicks as they are so small and delicate but who can resist their little chirpings at the local Ag-store? I had asked lots of questions and I had been instructed on what to do, but it was unlike raising a baby. A chicken can’t cry when it is too hot or too cold, hungry or thirsty. I was really nervous bringing them home for the first time.

We did everything right with that first batch of chickens and they all survived, but we have lost many chicks since. Not that we were inattentive, but circumstances change in the barn due to spacing or outside temperatures and we just didn’t pay attention as closely as we should have. Being familiar with something sometimes causes you to let down your guard. Last year, we lost around 20 guinea hens because they were too hot. We had a very warm spell in early spring and we didn’t adjust their heat lamp to compensate for it, so they overheated. Learning from this mistake, I suggest purchasing — and using — a thermometer for the space where your chicks are housed. Place it right down there with the chicks so that you get an accurate reading of the temperature for them. This past November, I had a lot of chicks so that my spring egg production would be plentiful. I completely miscalculated my space and the needs of the chicks as they grew. Even though I housed them in my warm basement for a few weeks, some died when they were put back into the barn because they were too cold. Some were overcrowded and died from that. When I planned for this amount of birds in the fall, it all made sense. When I brought in four extra pigs, the plans got derailed.

There are so many breeds of laying chickens that sometimes it is hard to decide which one to choose. I like Rhode Island Reds and Barred Rock because they are medium-sized and can withstand our cold climate. Both breeds venture outside in the snow and rain; they don’t seem to mind. I have a few fancy breeds, too, just for variety. It is fun to get new breeds to see how they will look as they grow up. All of the breeds that I have purchased in order to get different colored eggs have all grown up to be roosters. Go figure.

You don’t need a lot of space for chicks, but make sure that you have your brooder — the space where they will live — set up before they arrive. They are counting on you for food and water and shelter, so it is important to be ready. It is one thing to have cute baby chicks in your house for a few weeks, but it is another to have medium-sized chickens in your house because you don’t have a place for them to live outside. Have a plan in place for where they will live outside. Do you need fencing? Do you need permission from your town or neighborhood? Do you have a dog that could eat the chickens? These are all things to consider before you venture into the Ag-store and hear the chirp-chirp-chirping, which translates into “take-me-home.”

I encourage you to email me with any other questions you may have about chicks or farming in general, and I will do my best to answer. If I don’t know the answer, I will find out and we will both learn something new. I wouldn’t be where I am today without asking questions, lot of them.

Kim Graham lives in Dublin with her husband, Jim, and their two children. The couple hails from New Brunswick, Canada. This column chronicles their first-ever adventures in farming. For more about the farm, see www.oxbowfarmnh.com. She can be reached at grahamkimberly1@mac.com.

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