The Baby Chicks Are In

By dhowell - Posted on 30 November 2013

If I hadn't ruptured myself when I had whooping cough as a baby, I probably wouldn't be writing about helping raise chicks on our farm. My three brothers worked with Dad helping with the heavy farm work, but I had to help with lighter things, like baby chicks.

We ordered baby chicks from the hatchery so they would arrive in late March. Many things had to be done before they came and there could be no hitches or delay. We were always ready for them.

Our brooder house was portable and could be pulled around with a team of horses. Dad believed new ground was free from disease and each year picked a new site on the edge of a hayfield abutting the door yard to minimize the chore of carrying feed and water.

The brooder house was a frame building about 10 feet square made of home-sawed lumber with a sloping roof almost high enough to let one stand up at the low end. There was one door, one window and a stovepipe hole through the metal roof in the corner. Each year all of the old dirt had to be cleaned out before we could use it. Old wash water with added lye was used to clean the floor and lower walls as they were scrubbed white. Once it dried out, the floor was covered with layers of clean newspaper and we were ready for chicks.

During the off-season the brooder stove was stored in the granary. We uncovered it and carried it out to be set up in the center of the brooder house. It was in two parts – the stove and the hood. The stove was cast iron the size of a five gallon pail. The galvanized sheet iron hood in the shape of a Chinese coolie hat sat on top of the stove. The tight fit at the top combined with its shape kept 200 chicks as warm from the stove as a brood hen.

The stove burned hard (anthracite) coal which we bought in bags to store in the brooder house with some kindling. A thermostat opened and closed the draft and check draft opened enough to keep the fire going. In milder weather the damper might stay closed too long and let the fire go out. That meant starting the fire all over again. We lived in constant dread that the fire would "get away from us" and "cook" the chicks or go out and let them chill. Either way the chicks might suffer injury from which they would never recover.

After the brooder house and stove were ready, the feeders and watering cans had to be scrubbed and scalded to clean away last year's dirt. We fed our chicks milk so there was a special gallon cock feeder to be cleaned, too.

At last we were ready for that card in the mailbox which said, "Your baby chicks are in". We had to go either to the post office or the freight office, pay the freight cost and bring them home in the car. At that season both the post office and the freight office were filled with boxes of chicks in shipment, accompanied by their chirps.

Baby chicks were shipped in special heavy cardboard boxes, punched with rows of dime-shaped holes for ventilation. Each square box was fitted with a cover that had inch wood blocks glued on top to permit stacking and ensure ventilation during shipment. The interior was divided into 4 sections which held 25 chicks each. I liked to lift the cover and hear them chirp as I gently nabbed the downy fuzzballs, but there never seemed to be much time to do this.

A brooder stove

Water in saucers was nearby and as each chick was taken out of the box, its beak was dipped in water and held there for a moment to start the drinking process, I guess. (I brood.) We counted the chicks as they taken from the box and usually found an extra one in each section of the box – good hatchery men gave customers extra measure in case a chick or two might be injured in shipment. When we were through there were 208 chicks staggering around our feet and we stepped very carefully moving to the door so that none were crushed under foot.

Now the steady grind began. Heat, water and food were needed each day and more were consumed with each passing day. All of it had to be carried to them. We started our chicks on oatmeal and then converted to commercial chick starter. MasterMix feeds came in 100 lb. calico bags, large enough to be made into dresses and aprons. When we went for more food we had to get the right kind as well as match the calico of the last bag, or find a better pattern, if possible.

After a month the chicks were ready to be let outside. During the day they frisked about and preened in the spring sunshine and began to eat grass. I had to watch the skies for a sudden rainstorm to be sure they're back inside before it hit. If they got wet a new fire was started to dry them out so they didn't crowd together for warmth and possibly smother some in the process. No matter what the weather was, they had to be shut in at night to protect them from predators. Mother never forgot to check with me at bedtime to be sure the chicks were shut in. I had to make that trip before going to bed even if it were dark and I had washed my feet.

We aimed to raise 200 chicks each year. Ours were Plymouth Rocks or Rhode Island Reds. Chicks were not separated by sex in those days so half were pullets and the rest roosters. Roosters were for eating and pullets added to our laying flock. We didn't mind brown eggs and settled for fewer of them than the white eggs Leghorns laid. We felt Plymouth Rocks or Rhode Island Reds were bigger birds and more flavorful than Leghorns.

Our laying flock produced more than enough eggs for our use. Extras were either sold at the farm or traded in town for groceries. Stores allowed us less than their retail price for the balance against our purchase. Sometimes you received cash back and at other times you paid the difference.

At the time I was caring for baby chicks it was difficult to remember all the good things our chickens did for us.

Howard E. Parr
November 3, 1992