The Super Seven... A Memoir of Our First Flock!
Back in 2016, when we decided to purchase our first flock of chickens, it was nerve wracking. As someone who is psychotic about operational perfection, going into our purchase, I spent hours reading books, ordering hatchery catalogs, reading forums and blogs and making long lists of all the items we would need to get started and all the things that could go wrong. Let's just say it was a little bit of overkill on my part. My husband and I talked for hours on which breed to order, how we would handle the responsibility working two full time jobs with travel and if we could handle having a rooster. I said maybe, he said yes, and that continued for a couple of days until we decided that it would be best for protection and breeding.
My husband, being an excellent builder and engineer, built a custom brooder from wood and hardware cloth. It was sturdy and heavy and after a few trips to tractor supply, we had our organic Non-GMO food, water and food containers and heat lamp ready for the babies to arrive. We decided to use paper towels as their bedding (how novice we were then) but would later switch to wood chips, trust me, it's better.
Finally when we thought we had it all figured out, we decided on ordering from Cackle Hatchery and ordered our first flock - 5 hens and a single rooster. We went with the Barred Rock breed because in our research were told they were great production layers, had good temperaments and were perfect for small backyard operations since we just bought our property and was still making renovations.
I remember the day we placed the order and how crazy it was that these little day old chicks would be shipped postal mail without all being dead on arrival. Sure enough, USPS knows how to handle chicks. A week later I got a called from the Palmetto post office and seven little adorable faces peered out of the box. "Seven!? I ordered six" I remember thinking. That was my first lesson that most hatcheries send an "extra" just in case one doesn't make it. We got lucky, there were no dead babies in the box. So far so good.
The first day we were so nervous and excited. We put them in the brooder, prepared the probiotic and electrolyte water and tried to do everything "right". We checked the temp every hour, dipped their beaks into the water so they knew how to find it, and speaking for myself, worried about every single thing they did. They were so small and fragile, but yet so adventurous and curious, even though they were only a day old. We took turns picking them up, introducing them carefully to our older German Shepherd, Luka, who wasn't sure if they were a squeaky toy. I remember telling Luka that he was now the "flock defender" and would have a real farm job now.
I can honestly say since he passed away from cancer a few years later, that I think he understood me, because he truly loved them and took care of them up to the day he passed.
As a few days turned in into a few weeks, they got bigger and stronger and loved to make a mess and poop pretty much all over the place. This includes inside their water container, on top of their water and food container and some how outside the brooder though I have no idea for the life of me how the logistics of that worked.
If you are thinking about chickens, you should know they poop, A LOT. I still to this day can't believe how much manure chickens can make; great for composting by the way. We were changing the wood chips every couple of days and my husband and I would always joke that it would be OK, because they would be on pasture soon enough and my days of scrapping crappy wood chips out of a wooden box would pass.
Finally after about 6 weeks they were big enough to move outside into pasture. By this time we had built and painted their coop and used hardware cloth to make it secure. As part of our research we learned chicken wire is all about keeping chickens in, NOT keeping predators out. Like proud parents we took the brooder outside and slowly introduced each pullet and our single cockerel, Joe, to their new home.
Once again, that same fear and worry came over me, like the first day we brought them home. I started asking tons of questions like "What if they don't like their home and don't come back after free ranging", "What if a predator gets in the coop", "What if they don't know how to use the nesting boxes". My husband reassured me that they would figure it out and that we just had to take one day at a time. He was right.
The first week was a little difficult, but after some research we learned that you should keep the flock locked in their new coop for a day or two so they get used to the new location. Also as they start to free range, at dusk, you can put a light in the coop and that will help drive them back into it at night. As I observed my first flock, I realized that when you let a chicken be a chicken, you don't have to work as hard.
The months flew by and the flock bonded to us and bonded to each other. Joe started to look like a true rooster, and unfortunately act like one too (that's another story) but he was excellent with his girls and respected Luka as the true flock leader and herder.
As we approached 24 weeks, I remember feeling super excited as we were now close to the window of the girls laying their first eggs. Every day I would approach the nesting box like a kid on Xmas morning and most days I was bummed. "Not yet" I would tell my husband. Finally at 25 weeks, I opened the nesting box and saw a small tiny perfectly brown egg sitting in the middle box. "OMG someone laid an egg" I yelled out. That moment I'll never forget. It wasn't even edible, but it was from OUR GIRLS, they did it,and it was a cherished gift.
Over the next couple of weeks all of our hens started laying and the eggs got bigger and bigger and more frequent. But the excitement of visiting the nesting box, to this day, has never gone away. You don't forget that moment with a chicken gives you the gift of food and nothing tastes better than a freshly laid egg from a chicken that has lived its whole life as nature intended.
Unfortunately I would like to say today we still have all of our original first flock, but chicken farming is hard and it comes with a harsh reality that their lifespan is shorter than ours. From our original seven we still have three hens including our head hen and Joe, our oldest rooster. The rest have passed away but they will never be forgotten and I will always be thankful for everyday for the food they gave us, the lessons they helped us learn (sometimes the hard way) and showing me that I was meant to be a chicken farmer (and crazy chicken mom) for life.
Jessica Kesler, MBA, PMP, CSM, PMC-II is one of the owners of Drunken Cabbage Farm and is passionate about growing organic, non-GMO produce and chicken farming and supporting the regenerative agriculture movement.
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