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life (& death?) on the farm

July 23, 2008

Farming is about to get a whole lot scarier.
Today, I ordered 27 day-old chicks from Belt Hatchery that will arrive on August 21. The group will include 11 Rhode Island Red pullets (females), 1 RIR cockerel (male), 10 Ameraucana pullets, and 4 Pearl White Leghorn pullets. (I wanted to order from McMurray — I was seduced by their great website — but they didn’t have the availability I wanted until September. Belt is in California, so the chicks won’t have to travel as far, which is better for them anyway.)
A bit of info about the breeds (gleaned from hours upon hours of online chicken research): RIRs are supposed to be hardy, friendly, prolific brown egg-layers. They’re sometimes referred to as a “dual purpose” breed, meaning that they lay eggs—and aren’t bad for eating, either. Unlike various brown-egg laying Sex Links, they’ll breed true. [Sex Links are hybrids, just like seeds labeled F-1, and the next generation won’t necessarily share the parents’ traits. Sex Links are particularly convenient for poultry suppliers because the males and females are different colors, allowing them to be sexed easily upon hatching. Sexing non-sex-linked chickens is a tricky business; you have to pay a very trained eye to do it, and apparently even with a good chicken sexer you still sometimes end up with surprise roosters. When Henrietta starts to crow, it's probably time to shorten the name to Henry.] By contrast, RIRs are essentially an ‘heirloom’ variety—a breed that’s been refined and maintained by farmers over the years.

Next up: Ameraucanas, which are prized for their ability to lay green and blue eggs. Egg-sellers at the farmer’s market have told me that these eggs are extremely popular with customers, and although Ameraucanas are less prolific than some layers, the color may just be worth the effort. (Silly, isn’t it, how the aesthetic becomes so important — it’s not like the eggs have any difference when it comes to nutritional value.) They’re often confused with Araucanas, which also lay blue eggs, but are rumpless and have very dramatic ear tufts. We’ll see what I get from Belt Hatchery — although they say they’re selling Ameraucanas, I might end up with an “Easter Egger,” a layer of blue eggs that doesn’t quite fit either breed standard…

Last but not least, Leghorns: the type of chicken that are most commonly found in big-scale, confinement, battery-type operations. (As such, they’re mostly likely to have produced the eggs in the carton at your corner grocery store while enjoying a space the size of an 8.5 by 11″ piece of paper.) Leghorns are extremely prolific–300 eggs a year. They lay white eggs, and have a great feed-to-egg conversion ratio. In other words, they’re lightweight and produce a lot of eggs for a little feed: a good bang for your buck. Some owners say they’re skittish and people-shy, but others disagree and say that the breed doesn’t matter as much as handling the chicks at an early age. I plan on playing with these little guys a lot! (Note: If you’re interested in other breeds, check out this great chart, which has an awesomely condensed wealth of chicken information.)

So that’s the practical, calculated side of the equation. But then there’s the other side, the emotional side, the part where I admit: I’m simultaneously thrilled and utterly terrified to get these birds. They’re adding an important part to our little farm — a great way to compost kitchen scraps into unbeatable fertilizer, not to mention the opportunity to expand our operation to sell eggs at the farmer’s market. But they’re alive in a way that vegetables aren’t, and when it comes to that kind of alive, I get all mushy inside. The woman from Belt Hatchery on the phone today started talking about how, if one of the chicks dies in transit, I can call and get a refund. And I’m thinking, who cares about the refund? How am I going to deal with a tiny, dead day-old baby bird?! I freak out when I accidentally snap a runner off a bean plant while trying to hook it on the fence. The first time I did it, I seriously felt my heart sink to about knee-height. So right now, I’m just praying that all 27 of my little birds make it safely to the post office.

And that’s when the really scary part begins.

Breaking off the occasional bean runner didn’t slow down the plants too much. The same won’t hold true for chicks!

*Stay tuned for photos of the on-the-cheap brooder I built, and the coop built out of recycled doors that is currently a figment of my imagination…

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