It is important that you know exactly what preparations need to be taken into consideration when jumping into small scale pastured poultry. As you work out your livestock plan and, later, when your chicks arrive, keep the following basic water/food/shelter needs in the forefront. Keeping the chicks’ basic needs met is the best way to provide a strong foundation on which they can grow.
Here at Rodale Institute, we use NOP standards for organic space requirements. The space requirements usually depend on how many pounds of poultry to how many square feet (about 600 hens per acre). I used our barn’s old grain storage area for beginning chicks and it worked well. Each stall was 5’ x 12’ and I put 25 chicks in each stall. It’s very important to use heavy cardboard in the corners of the pen to create rounded corners. Ninety-degree corners are a big no-no and will result in birds trampling each other.
Most people use shavings, which creates a much smoother surface for chicks to walk on. Shavings work well, but one thing to take into consideration is that shavings are dusty and will mold when damp. Both are not good for newborn chicks. I, on the other hand, prefer straw. If you have a straw chopper to work with that helps, but straw that has yet to be chopped is also fine. Use paper or cardboard in the center of the pen because the straw will be coarse. The paper makes it easy for the birds to walk on the first week or so, until they are big enough to handle the coarse straw.
There are several options for lighting. I use aluminum clip-on fixtures with heat lamps. I also use bale string to hang them. Being able to adjust the lighting is important. A good rule of thumb is:
• If chicks are huddled in a ball and on top of each other, the light is too far away.
• If chicks are really spread out, the light is too close.
You want a happy medium so everybody is comfortable and not crowded.
Use a small size water container until chicks grow larger, then use a medium size water container when they go to pasture. Add apple cider vinegar to water— 1 cup vinegar to 10 gallons of water. This helps the chicks get started without any problems with parasites and worms. Make sure waterers are cleaned daily. It’s very important to keep a scrub-brush on hand in the brooding room. Also, if you’re raising chicks organically you must use certified organic apple cider vinegar.
Use organic broiler starter feed with small and medium feeders until they go to pasture. These feeders should always have some feed, but let them eat it down to about 10% before filling again. This way they will get all the minerals they need. Remember: Feeders should never be empty. The bird should always be eating or it is a tell-tale sign that something is wrong. My rule is no feed, no profit.
When your chicks arrive...
Chicks must learn to drink and eat upon arrival. One at a time you must dip their beaks in the water by hand and let them drink. Repeat three times, and then set them next to the water. They usually find the feed on their own. Some will need help, so be sure to put the feeder close to the water. Birds should be ready for pastured pens in three to four weeks. However, if you decide not to use soy-based feed, it may take a little longer.