Raising Healthy Cornish Cross Chronicles

Discussion in 'Meat Birds ETC' started by ChocolateMouse, Jun 7, 2016.

  1. ChocolateMouse

    ChocolateMouse Chillin' With My Peeps

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    Hello! I thought I'd do a semi-journal thread with regular updates where I can tell people how *I* raise a healthy cornish cross and to dispel some myths. I hear a lot about how fragile and unhealthy they are when classically raised. But the classic way of raising meat birds is the same way that CAFO operations raise them. What is the point of raising your own if you're just going to raise them the same way that large multi-thousand chicken operations do? And wouldn't you have similarly dismal and unhealthy results? I absolutely love cornish crosses for healthy, active meat birds and I wanted to share how I do it a bit differently!

    So why cornish crosses and why raise them differently?

    While I have no problems with red rangers, freedom rangers, and other "slow growth" meat chickens, the reality is that if you are ordering a batch of meat chickens you are ordering a hybrid chicken that will be butchered by four months old. Even the "rangers" are still four way hybrid chickens. They have a nearly identical breeding process to cornish cross but they toss in a Rhode Island Red or something instead of one of the normal meat lines. They are in no way more sustainable or self-sufficient than a cornish cross. But they do grow slower. If your goal is to grow healthy meat quickly, I'm not sure how that is a good thing if the same results can be obtained from a faster growing chicken. My real beef with Rangers lies in the Feed Conversion Ratio.

    [​IMG]

    This comes from the blog "backyardfarming" and I find it to be a pretty accurate assessment of over all costs, feed conversion ratios and per lb costs. Cornish cross should require around 2.5lbs of feed to put on 1lb of growth. A freedom ranger (or similar "slow growth" hybrid) will require 3.5lbs of feed for 1lb of growth. That adds up fast, and for most people it's already more expensive to raise their own chickens than to buy meat from a grocery store. $1.50/lb is about what I pay for a whole chicken I buy and I didn't have to put any work into it. So adding more expense and more work (harder to pluck, even longer grow out time) is very counter productive for me.
    The problem with the CX in this chart is the "mortality" rate. A 20% mortality is unacceptable even in a commercial facility. A 10% mortality rate is really difficult to deal with in a small scale setting where every bird counts! If you could reduce the mortality rate the cost gap between FR and CX would just grow. So the question becomes, how to reduce that mortality rate?

    I have found that it's surprisingly easy to get a healthy, low-mortality rate for CX by restricting feed, feeding wet, fermented feed, and encouraging lots of low-impact activity from early in their life. This is actually the exact same methods used by veterinarians when raising giant breeds of dogs or horses. Great Danes have the same problems that Cornish Crosses do and we can learn a lot about healthy meat bird management by looking at how those problems are managed in other species.

    First, I'd like you to meet my Big Bertha, my cornish cross.

    [​IMG]
    Classic name. I named my Cornish Crosses after old ladies that year and she happened to be just the right size to keep as an experiment for the future. The other two ladies I had in mind just didn't make the cut (being too big or too small).

    Bertha is two years old this year and she is going strong. She's an active, happy part of my laying flock. She's regularly bred by my rooster. She layed for a while during her first year. Now she plays an important part in our flock as a sort of second rooster. She's a calm bird with a good disposition, but she's huge. None of the other birds try to stand up to her. Because of this, birds lower on the pecking order often flock near her because she will cheerfully break up fights. She helps to keep the peace in my flock. She also often leads the charge against intruding cats. The neighbors have cats and she LOVES chasing cats.

    She's part of my model. She was raised using my methods, gleaned from numerous people here on BYC and my own substantial experience with animals. And she proves that CX can be healthy, happy birds that live natural lives.

    Today I had 16 CX chicks come in the mail. They hatched yesterday. I ordered them from Meyer Hatchery who had a free shipping sale this week on 15+ straight run CX. I thought some folks might like to follow along on a meat bird journey, especially if they were considering raising their own in the future.

    So here it is!

    Day One
    The Brooder


    My chicks will only spend about 10 days in a brooder, but it's an important time period. Cornish crosses grow very quickly, so they need to move out of the brooder quickly. I try to order meat birds in the height of summer so I can get them outside faster! Right off the bat cornish crosses should be extremely active and robust, more than most egg chicks. They should be running quickly and exploring, pecking at things, and generally being pushy. They have a pretty good mob mentality. Most people find that meat chickens wildly out compete other chicks in a brooder and so can't be kept with egg chicks unless the egg chicks are about a week older. I agree and think this speaks to their general hardiness. They are VERY robust birds and are hard to bring down. If your chicks are dying in the brooder, there's something very wrong with your environment or your supplier.

    Teaching them to eat and drink is easy. Just set up your food and water and dip their beaks in both. I do this for a random assortment of about half of the chicks and then the same with the food. The rest of them will catch on very quickly. A mason jar chick waterer is easy to come by and pretty ideal IMO. You can use a pint and then a quart size jar as they drink more. After that an upgrade to a plastic gallon waterer works well until they move outdoors.


    [​IMG]

    Heat;
    While I'd prefer to use a suspended heating pad, I don't have one that would function and I have lots of lamps, so I use those as my heat source. The heat lamp I use is small and only heats up a small portion of their brooder pen. They sometimes bundle very close together under it. That's OK. Chicks in nature bundle together close under a very small heat source, a mama bird. I make sure there's enough space under the heat lamp for every chick to sit without piling up, but no more than. The food and water are on the opposite side of the pen from the heat lamp. This makes the chicks eager to spend some time napping under the heat lamp, and then move out from under it to play, eat and drink. They spend less time under the heat lamp and they feather out faster, which means they move out of the brooder faster! Less heat also helps prevent pasty butt.
    For safety, I like to use reptile heat lamps instead of "chicken" ones. Reptile heat lamps tend to be a little more secure, have sturdier metals, and are designed without the metal "cage" under the bulb, so they can be placed on a flat wire mesh surface. I have a large wire mesh top to the brooder, so the heat lamp simply sits on this on a table where it's well out of the way. The bulb and lamp can never fall into the brooder and catch fire this way. Exercise lots of caution when using heat lamps.

    Bedding;
    I use a thick pad of newspaper layed flat on the bottom with some shredded on top of it. The thick base keeps the brooder clean and the torn up shreds give the chicks some traction and something to dig through. I find newspaper so easy to keep clean and dry compared to other bedding, plus it's free. Keeping the pen dry and easy to clean is important for natural cocci management.

    Food;
    I feed a standard starter/grower or flock raiser crumble, always unmedicated, 24/7 in the brooder. Any unmedicated crumble that is 18%-22% protein will suffice. The trick is that from their very first meal, the food should be wet like a mash. Do not feed dry feed, even if they seem picky or make a bit of a mess. For the first meal I simply wet down some crumbles. For every day after this I will be fermenting their feed and teaching them to forage for greens and bugs. For more on fermented feed, check out the Fermenting Feed For Meat Birds thread. I will be talking about how I do this tomorrow. By keeping the food and water away from the heat source you also keep the bacteria loads in the food and water lower as well as force the chicks to move regularly, which leads to healthier growth. Keeping cornish crosses active as they grow is important for keeping them healthy.

    Parasites and Disease;
    I don't worry much about cocci or similar conditions. I tend to use a fresh brooder each time (VERY large cardboard boxes) so there's little chance of contamination, but if your brooder is wood or plastic a bit of bleach water a few days in advance and sitting in the sun for a few hours will kill just about everything. I wash my mason jar waterer fresh each time and only use this waterer in brooders. The key is to introduce the chicks to micro-organisms in the environment slowly and to change their bedding often. A sterile environment is only good until they have to leave the brooder and we want them to move outdoors quickly. I introduce germs to my sterile environment in a controlled way right away by placing a lump of healthy, grassy dirt from my lawn (about 10'-20' from the egg chicken pen) in with them. The egg flock is only allowed into the main lawn on occasion so the load of potential hazardous micro-organisms is low, but probably exists. They will climb on and peck at this lump of dirt and grass and slowly adjust to the micro-organisms they will have to live with outdoors for the rest of their lives.
    This also conveniently gives the chicks a source of grit directly from the soil, which means I don't need to provide any in order to start feeding fresh greens and bugs very quickly. This is a very natural way to start building a healthy immunity to a lot of environmental factors.

    Exclusive expenses so far;
    $37 for the chicks ($0 on shipping, as there was a sale), $14 for a 50lb bag of feed that will last a long time, and about $5 for the heat lamp usage (bulb and electricity)

    So that's it for day one. Day one is all about setting up a healthy brooding environment and laying down groundwork for a healthy future! I'll be back to post about fermenting their feed and introducing fresh foods to them tomorrow. :)

    In the meantime, please feel free to ask questions or share your own healthy meat bird stories!
     
    Last edited: Jun 7, 2016
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  2. ChocolateMouse

    ChocolateMouse Chillin' With My Peeps

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    Day 2
    Starting to ferment the feed

    My chickens will eat fermented feed until their butcher date. Fermented feed effects the birds in three ways
    1; The wet feed helps to prevent dehydration, which many animals fed dry kibbles suffer from. Meat chickens especially can suffer from it in commercial facilities, when they struggle to walk to the waterer nipples. Lack of water can also reduce digestion efficiency.
    2; It helps with nutrient absorption. Cornish crosses are known for being gross with huge, awful smelling, watery poops. Fermented feed allows more of the food to actually be digested, making the poops less watery and smelly. It also means they get more nutrition out of the same amount of food.
    3; The weight and mass of the food they eat is greater, making them get full faster. This helps prevent them from over-eating naturally. Some "Animal Rights Activists" claim that feeding chickens on a restricted diet causes them extreme stress and suffering akin to starvation. That is not the case with this feeding program.

    The chicks regularly leave the feed to go peck at the dirt block in the brooder or nap under the heat lamp. They stay active, moving from one spot to another throughout the course of the day, frequently stopping eating to just hang out.

    • Fermenting the feed is a simple process. I start with a quart size mason jar and move into larger containers as the need for larger amounts of feed increases. But this early, a quart size mason jar is fine.
    • Fill the jar half way with feed and then pour warm water over the feed until it is about an inch above feed level
    • Optionally at this point you may mix in a small amount of probiotics or unpastuerized unfiltered Apple Cider Vinegar to "jump start" the frementation. If you do not, it will still ferment, but more slowly. It may be best to start it two days ahead of time for a good ferment.
    • Wait until the feed has absorbed the liquid entirely (it will likely expand) and then add more warm water and let sit. Stir to see if it is the right consistancy. A thick oatmeal is the ideal consistency.
    • Add more feed and water to the jar, allowing it to sit inbetween additions to absorb properly, until the whole jar is filled with feed that is the consistency of thick oatmeal.
    • Allow the jar to sit (open or covered with a loosely woven cloth like a cheesecloth) until you need to refill the feed.
    • Feed freely in a low-walled dish or feeder. Every time you remove some feed, refill the jar with feed and water to maintain consistancy

    Within a day (or three) the feed should begin to obtain a soured sweet sort of smell. Some people have compared it to pickles, kimchi, yogurt, sourdough bread starter, old beer or occasionally vomit. This is the smell of the microbes working to break down the nutrients in the feed, making them more accessible to the chickens. These are the same bacteria and yeasts that naturally colonize the digestive tracts of nearly all animals and break down the food for digestion. This is a bit like pre-digesting the feed for the chickens, allowing more of the nutrients to be absorbed. The longer the feed sits, the stronger it smells.
    To maintain the bacterial colonies in the feed, I always leave a good amount of feed at the bottom of the container during feeding. This leftover feed contains a strong colony of microbes looking for new food to colonize. When more water and feed is mixed in, the microbes readily start multiplying and breaking down the new feed within a day. Without new feed, the microbes would eventually run out of food and slowly die off. This is a lot like feeding a sourdough starter.

    Every day I change the water in the brooder (whether it's empty or not) and put down some new shredded paper bedding. This prevents the chicks from consuming their own feces, and therefore reduces their potential parasite load.

    Overnight last night I lost one chick. This was my 16th chick, the "extra" chick that Meyer hatchery will send along on occasion. I have found when they send an extra, somehow one always dies. It's possible they send along the worst looking chicks as extras. Loosing 1-2 chicks in the first few days tends to be normal, regardless of order size. This is what makes up the majority of the mortality rates for any breed of chicken. In theory, this should be my only loss. Every other chick is running, eating, drinking and peeping quietly to one another. I'll keep posting updates.
     
  3. Pendragonz

    Pendragonz Chillin' With My Peeps

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    Chocolate Mouse, I'm anxious to follow your posts. I raised a batch of meaties last fall and had a fair number of losses. I ordered 40, they sent 44, and by the time we processed I was down to 37 chickens. Granted I only lost 3 of the number that I actually ordered, but would have liked to have had a lot less losses. Please keep posting.
     
  4. ChocolateMouse

    ChocolateMouse Chillin' With My Peeps

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    Pendragonz, do you usually have a lot of early mortality or mortality as the birds age? I'm doing this journal for funsies, so I'll be continuing it either way. Thanks for your interest! Loosing a single bird for every 12-15 or so you have in the first few days is pretty normal and nearly impossible to avoid. I have 5 chicks under a broody hen right now and it used to be 6. One died in the first two days. So that's just built into nature. But safe, cared-for animals shouldn't have serious losses beyond that IMO, and the 20% mortality tends to be caused by slipped tendons, bad legs or heart failure in broilers. I've never had any of those problems. (Watch, now I have jinxed myself and will loose, like, half of them to some fluke.)

    In the meantime...

    Day 3
    Teaching Foraging

    No losses, happy, hardy chickens.
    Regular brooder and feed maintenance; shredded paper bedding gets refreshed, water gets changed (and waterer cleaned), fermented feed gets refilled and placed in a warm location

    [​IMG]

    This is the layout of the indoor temporary brooder. In a few days they'll move into the garage where they will have a larger brooder. You can clearly see the wire mesh top, which they will retain in their new brooder for heat lamp safety. It's a simple mesh top for an aquarium that can be bought at any pet supply store. The whole brooder is about 14" tall.

    Chicks with their mothers are out foraging and eating the same foods as adult birds from day 1. They have a mom bird to teach them this and they have VERY strong instincts to forage. Most heritage breeds are especially good at this, but production layers also learn quickly how to forage when in a flock with birds that forage regularly. Cornish crosses don't have as strong of foraging instincts as heritage breeds, and a common complaint is that they will not dig or scratch for bugs, nor will they eat pasture and weeds. I never have this problem.

    On day three I start introducing these foods to their environment (though they've had the dirt and grass block for a few days now). I tend to focus on three common foods that are rich in nutrients; earth worms, clover and dandelions. These are all high in protein and the greens are also high in calcium, which is important for building strong leg bones.
    I gather the earthworms from my compost pile. I have a lot of large, red colored earthworms thriving in there. I mean LOTS. I can gather dozens from a single shovel full of compost. The easiest way to do this is to lay the compost on an old feed bag in the sun and start removing the dirt from around the edges. The worms will start to dig into the lower, middle parts of the dirt and as you remove more dirt they will eventually gather in the middle in a slimy bundle to preserve moisture. You can just lift the bundle into a container and you have worms.
    If I did this I would end up with literal cups of earthworms, so I just pick them out of a small shovel of the compost. I get a few dozen. I also pick 3-4 dandelion leaves that are medium sized (about 6 inches long 1-2 inches at the widest point) and a small handful of white clover leaves with as little stem as possible from my back lawn.

    The white clover I tear up and mix into their FF for the day. They will slowly pick it out and eat parts of it, learning to eat greens. The dandelions I simply pull the stems up through the wire mesh, and then back down, allowing the leaves to hang into the brooder... But you can use any method for suspending the leaves hanging down into the brooder. (I've tied them to twine and tied the twine to the top of the brooder before, for example.) They will typically show some interest in this new, hanging thing in their brooder and will peck and tear at it. Within an hour of hanging these today, half of a leaf is already gone and the other two have been nibbled at. This also provides stimulation and entertainment to the chicks.

    The worms are simple. Find a place where the chicks peck a lot when they are bored and exploring. I find that this bunch likes to peck bits of dirt on the cardboard brooder walls a lot. Then put a single earthworm there. (The earthworms are slimy and stuck nicely to the cardboard with zero effort.) One of the chicks will assuredly peck at it, and then realize they can pick it up. Then instinct starts to take over. They know they have something good that's too big for them... So they run with it, cheeping loudly, trying to find a spot alone to break it apart to eat it. The other chicks then know that chick has something good and will try to steal bits of it. By doing this, they ALL start to learn that worms are food and they also help break up the worms. Once that worm is gone, in goes a few more at a time until they are all gone. They have a strong mob mentality and drive to find food, so they will energetically struggle to conquer the worms and steal them from one-another. This is not only an entertaining and protein-rich food but it also encourages lots of leg motion, which is important for building healthy legs for the future. It's also hilarious to watch as they run around, flapping and tweeting loudly. :) I have never met a cornish cross that did not enjoy worms after a day of this.

    I will feed out fresh greens and worms every day or so for the first couple of weeks. I'll be slowly adding to what greens they are exposed to, introducing seeding grasses, soft grasses, and many other weeds over time before they ever set foot on grass. This teaches them to view these plants as food, so being outdoors becomes like being at a buffet.

    A small note on feeding earthworms... Earthworms can be carriers of several parasites that effect chickens. I've never seen negative results from feeding earthworms, but it CAN happen. Just a heads up or a disclaimer if you will. Always do your own research.

    And that's the entirety of Day 3. I will watch their feed levels and top them up throughout the day as needed. If the fermented feed gets trampled and compacted, I simply stir it in the dish to break it up and the checks get very interested in it again. It only took me a few extra minutes to get greens and worms for them.
     
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  5. donrae

    donrae Hopelessly Addicted Premium Member

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    Thank you so much for posting this. I've raised small batches of CX with my layers over the years and have never had the issues so many folks complain about. It angers me when people say these birds stink so much and simply sit in their own feces----I'm wondering why they don't keep their animals clean? I just processed a few days ago and the birds had been healthy and active, the first out to forage with the layer chicks. Granted, they didn't tolerate the sudden heat wave too well, but neither did I [​IMG]
     
  6. ChocolateMouse

    ChocolateMouse Chillin' With My Peeps

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    Donrae, my meat chickens interact with my egg layers as well. Because they grow so fast and they are speedy and aggressive, you can have them forage with egg hens VERY early on. Here's a picture of some previous years CXs foraging with my egg flock;

    [​IMG]

    Those are australorps in the background and a golden buff in the foreground for size reference. I think they were around 6 weeks and about 5-6lbs live, each. That's around the same weight as a commercial producer might expect and these are clearly clean, healthy, birds out foraging. They aren't collapsing under their own weight, they don't have huge patches of feathers missing, they aren't dirty and lying around at all. The only birds I lost that year were to a hawk. I didn't even loose a chick.

    Speaking of chicks...

    Day 4
    Until day 7, the chicks will stay indoors and be maintained about the same way that they have been thus far. Every day is;

    Refresh bedding
    Clean and refill water
    Feeding fermented feed
    Refreshing the FF
    Feeding greens and bugs

    Every day I will try to introduce a new green. I will do red clovers, sow thistle, goldenrod, ground ivy, grasses (seeds and leaves)... Pretty much anything I have growing in the back yard that I know to be non toxic, I will have some go into their pen. Small greens I will shred into their feed and large leaves I will hang from the ceiling. Plants with lots of leaves that stick out on a tough stem like goldenrod I may also just lay down in their brooder for the day. Any greens that are uneaten get removed the next day to keep the brooder clean.

    Right now all the chicks are still active and healthy. They're devouring their food and running around like nuts. :)
     
  7. rssnbabybear

    rssnbabybear Chillin' With My Peeps

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    I am Soooo eager to follow this thread. I did my first flock of Cornish X this year and really thought I had done my homework. Plenty of space, constant fresh water, feed for 10-12 hours per day after week 2. But I lost 25 out of 50 birds. 5 of those I think were, like you said, natural selection. The other 20 were from weeks 4-7. I processed at 8 weeks and just dreaded going to the coop each day, sure that I had lost another bird (or two or three). I have since been desperate for information on how to better raise these animals. I kept them seperate from my main flock, but have been trying to find information on integrating them. I'm assuming that you eventually allow your meat birds in with the egg layers. At what age do you do this?
     
  8. ChocolateMouse

    ChocolateMouse Chillin' With My Peeps

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    Rss, I have separate night time residences for egg hens and meat birds, and they share a forage space (the rest of my lawn). This helps keep pathogens down and reduces fighting. The space is "neither"s territory. I eyeball it. If the CX are approaching the same size as my smallest hen (but are still noticeably smaller) they can forage together. The CX tend to be in a big group (8+ birds) and are more aggressive than egg chickens so they can stand up for themselves even if they are much smaller and younger than most of the flock. By the time they start hitting 9+ weeks (should you keep them that long, I keep 80% of my flock this long because I typically like BIG, 6lbs carcasses, but if a 3-4lb carcass is more your thing, 8-9 weeks should be enough) the boys need to be kept separate. They will bully the egg hens and female CXs.
    Most of their time after the brooder will be spent in a mobile tractor pen. We can only free-range in the evenings with supervision due to predators and vegetable gardens. So we release them in the evening, an hour or so before their normal "bedtime" and just shill outside with them. Everyone's got a different free-ranging situation and different free-ranging solutions. This is just what mine is. Without the tractors, both the birds and the vegetables would be sitting ducks.

    12 on 12 off is a typical feeding schedule for CX in a commercial facility. Commercial production works fine if you have a commercial style facility, want your chickens in commercial conditions and have enough birds to accept commercial mortality rates. It does not work for a healthy, active meat bird in a small homestead. I disagree strongly with the 12 on 12 off method, and require my birds to forage for most of the hours in the day post-brooder (which is why teaching them to forage is important).

    These early weeks lay down the strong nutrients and motion and experiences needed to keep their bodies strong enough to handle the massive growth. You will have a bit more bone on these birds because their skeletons will actually be sturdy enough to support them. Lots of exercise when they're tiny still helps build their heart and lungs to massive sizes to match their bodies. The more nutrient rich feed and an extra week(ish) of growth makes up for the size differences between commercial raising and raising free-range.
     
  9. Pendragonz

    Pendragonz Chillin' With My Peeps

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    Pendragonz, do you usually have a lot of early mortality or mortality as the birds age? I'm doing this journal for funsies, so I'll be continuing it either way. Thanks for your interest! Loosing a single bird for every 12-15 or so you have in the first few days is pretty normal and nearly impossible to avoid. I have 5 chicks under a broody hen right now and it used to be 6. One died in the first two days. So that's just built into nature. But safe, cared-for animals shouldn't have serious losses beyond that IMO, and the 20% mortality tends to be caused by slipped tendons, bad legs or heart failure in broilers. I've never had any of those problems. (Watch, now I have jinxed myself and will loose, like, half of them to some fluke.)

    That was my first attempt at raising any chickens. For my first time I didn't think it was too bad. I am currently raising an order of 25 mixed breeds of chicks that will be egg laying hens. I ordered 25 straight run BA's, 5 barred rocks, and 5 each of red star and black stars. I am raising them the same way I started with the meaties. I got them 2 weeks ago today, and lost 1 two days later, and 1 four days after getting them. The rest seem to be doing great. I will be getting a batch of meaties later in the summer so will be anxiously reading and keeping up with your posts in this thread. Thank you for chronicling this.
     
  10. ChocolateMouse

    ChocolateMouse Chillin' With My Peeps

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    Whoops. I accidentally missed a day, but that's no big deal.

    Day 5 and 6

    The chicks have gotten quite a bit larger. I would guess they have easily doubled in size. Because the fermented feed is stronger, and they are eating more and they are pooping more as well, I have taken to putting some baking soda down under the newspaper when I refresh the bedding. This controls the odors quite well since it is all rather acidic. They are still fighting over worms and I am still refreshing the bedding and the water daily. Tomorrow the chicks will be moving to a new brooder with a heat lamp in the garage rather than my living room none the less. They need more space and to start experiencing things like wind and bugs and the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. Also, due to the heat lately, I have swapped out their heat lamp for a smaller one and begun turning it off altogether in the hottest parts of the day. We hit about 80-85 in the hottest parts of the day, even in the house. We do not use AC. This is plenty hot enough for the chicks right now. This is why I like to raise meat chickens in the summer.

    The chicks are also starting to look pretty scrappy as their wing feathers are well developed and they are rapidly going from being puff balls to fully realized chickens. They should be feathered enough to go outdoors at around 30-35 days old. Right now they are easily eating more than a quart of feed a day. We still have 15.
     

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