Our peeps arrive at the farm within 24-hours of hatching from their eggs. We place the chicks and their starter feed or ‘crumbles’ on kraft paper, right under their water-delivery system. This way the feed doesn’t get lost in the bedding and, within moments, the chicks relax and start to eat and drink. You may wonder how a chick knows how to drink, since there is no mother hen to show them. The water dispensers have little stainless steel balls at the bottom, where the water comes out, and the chicks peck at these shiny objects.
Once they’ve eaten, then the fun starts. Small groups of chicks run here and there, exploring their big, new world. The farm families provide ‘toys’ to keep their birds active. Would you believe our young chicks love to play in-and-around cardboard tubing? As they get older, the chicks peck at and climb on straw bales, ramps and perches. These activities encourage the chickens to jump and play…building healthy bodies and strong muscles. Since our chickens remain active throughout their lives, they rarely suffer from breast blisters. This condition is caused when birds have not developed strong leg muscles and spend too much time resting on their breasts. Active, healthy chickens have much less stress.
Because we provide a low-stress environment, our chickens remain calm and non-aggressive. They’re not stuffed into an overcrowded house, they always have plenty of feed and fresh water, and we never put them through the pain or stress of being de-beaked or de-spurred.
On our organic farms, the chickens are free to go outside, scratch in the dirt, look for bugs in the grass, enjoy the sunshine when it’s warm…. or take shelter inside the house when the weather’s bad. Our outdoor pens are enclosed so no predators can attack the chickens and our farm families always make sure the chicks are safe and secure in the house at night.
Look for my next entry, when I explain what we feed our chicks…and why.
Unlike the conditions you may have seen depicted in Food Inc., our chicken houses are state-of-the-art and very clean. We build our houses with cement floors that have a raised lip on the sides. It makes it easier to clean and guarantees rodents cannot tunnel under the floor and up into the house. Rodents are the major cause of salmonella and campylobacter, and their presence is very stressful to chickens.
After each flock of chickens, we remove all manure and litter then thoroughly clean and disinfect the house. The house remains empty for approximately two weeks to make sure any virus life cycle has been broken, to protect the next flock. Then a new bed of clean, wood shavings is laid down…unlike other poultry producers who just add new litter on top of old manure.
Before the chicks arrive at the farm, the temperature in the house is raised to 90-92°. Chickens are very sensitive to temperature. If it’s too hot, they get stressed. If it’s too cold, they get stressed. Our houses have cutting-edge electronic systems that monitor all conditions in the house, to provide year-round climate control and to insure optimal temperature and air quality in the house.
Fresh litter and constant fresh air circulation keep dust and ammonia in the house to a minimum. If you saw Food Inc., you’ll remember the people in the houses were having difficulty breathing, so much ammonia had built up in the house. We never have that problem, because we don’t leave that old manure in the house. Also our chickens don’t suffer from hock burns. These marks are where the ammonia from the waste of other birds has burned through the skin on the bird’s leg. It’s painful and totally unnecessary.
We have a new video coming out at the end of the year. It will be available for you to see on our new website. When you watch it, you’ll see for yourself the steps we take to make sure our chicks are healthy and happy.
In my next entry, I want to talk about the chickens’ life at the farm.
We will start with preparing for a new flock that has just been hatched and is being immediately transported to the farm.
The house preparation actually started two weeks ago, when the last flock went to market. The manure was immediately removed. The house was de-dusted and the concrete floors swept. Disinfecting the house and letting it set empty for two weeks really helps kill bacteria, break virus cycles, and put a fix to rodents that would contaminate the birds with salmonella. Two or three days before the new flock arrives, we spread new clean wood shavings over the entire floor for a nice comfortable bedding. Baby chicks have very sensitive feet and need to start on a warm comfortable floor. We start the heat in the house a day or two before the flock arrives to bring up the floor temperature and provide a comfort zone of about 90-92 degrees. We do not need to start day one with any extra stress if we are going to raise clean, natural chickens honestly without antibiotics or other crutches.
It is very sad that the cost and profit pressures have forced most of the brolier chicken industry into alternative production methods and I do not know how they get natural labels approved. Most of these lower cost alternative production methods use ground dirt floors. If you have ever tried to clean a ground dirt floor, you know it is difficult. In the case of our organic production, we let the birds go outside and scratch in the grass and dirt but they sure like to come back into their clean protected house where their feed and water is kept. Once I tried a dirt floor in my chicken house until the rodents drilled a hole in the ground from the outside and came up in the inside of the house and attacked my chickens. Well that was enough of that!
Just to give you some idea what these alternative methods are, I will start with the flock that just went to market. The house is immediately prepared for the next flock that may be started as soon as the next day. Most of the old manure stays in the house to compost, and maybe some new litter is added. They usually take a machine through the house to break up the manure. There may be five to ten flocks of chickens in the house before the manure is taken out. By leaving the manure in the house flock after flock, there is a big challenge to manage the ammonia coming out of that composting manure that can and will cause blindness and serious respiratory problems to the chickens. I feel sorry for the chickens being raised that way.
The result of these alternative methods of production can be horrible and these chickens should not be labeled natural. I think I wrote enough for today, but there is a lot more to come.