Chicken Feed

It was near midnight when I pushed open the door into the one of the three new brooder houses. I was checking on the newly hatched baby chicks I had placed under the brooder stove the day before. The room was warm and cozy as my flashlight showed the 350 chicks contentedly asleep on the floor in a ring around the outside perimeter of the hover. The chicks themselves adjusted the distance from the stove they wished to lie. Day-old baby chicks require a hover temperature of between 100 and 104 degrees. As the heat from the stove would vary slightly they would instinctively move closer or farther from the perimeter of the circular hover. The circle of sleeping chicks was "three or four chicks wide". As the outside chicks would get cold they would unceremoniously walk over the top of the inner ones toward the heat and crowd the others outward. All night there was constant movement from the cool outside area inward and the hot inside outward. Thus, they regulated their own sleeping temperature.

The little coal-burning stove was fairly well regulated by a wafer type thermostat. The wafer expanded when hot and contracted when it cooled. This would open or close the stove's draft.

Sometimes of an evening I would sit on a box in the corner and with the light of a kerosene lantern just watch the scene for a while. It gave me a very relaxed, tranquil feeling. The warm room, the circle of sleeping chicks in the dim light, faint chirping sounds, and the occasional loud complaints of a chick getting its head stepped on by a rude sibling! It was a scene I never tired of watching. I could easily have dozed off myself.

Before I had good brooder houses, the first year after buying the farm, I had converted the old pigpen into a brooder house and laid concrete over the old dirt floor. I had dug the gravel for the concrete out of a small gravel bed on neighbor, Frank Rice's, farm. I knew it was not the best quality gravel. There was too much dirt in it. However it was the best I could find nearby so I went ahead, and using a shovel I mixed it with the cement and water in a big iron kettle. I remember finishing the floor about 11 o'clock one night. My order of about 300 chicks arrived a few days later.

One morning I opened the door to find disaster. There were dead chicks scattered around the room and a pile of dead and bloody ones near the door. Some were still alive under the hover and others were crowded into corners. A hole in one edge of the crumbly concrete floor told the story. A rat had dug through and raised havoc with the chicks. Apparently he had eaten parts of a few and just killed and piled up many more. Some of the chicks in their fright had piled up in the corners and smothered each other. Fifty or sixty of them were dead. It was a nasty bloody scene. Very disheartening! I felt sick.

I put rat poison down the hole and plugged it. I kept fighting the rats for about six weeks making many a night visit, poisoning and plugging new holes. It kept them under control fairly well. At 5 or 6 weeks of age the survivors were old enough to take out of the brooder house and move into range shelters in a clean green field a long distance from the rat predators. I never used that old brooder house for young chicks again. It went back to the pigs. I managed to build the new brooder houses in time for the next batch of chicks.

Farm life has great rewards, but always some tragedies.

Charles E. Page 2003