Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Where the Peeps Sleep

With our chicks now ordered, the next obstacle to tackle was a logical one: where on earth were we going to put them? Newly hatched chicks have many requirements: heat lamps set for specific temperatures, access to copious amounts of water, a flooring surface with enough resistance to ensure proper leg development, and a feeder that keeps the curious little birds from climbing in and contaminating their chow. They also need about 1/2 square foot of space per chick... for now. Ever wonder why the chicks your Great Aunt Tillie gave you for Easter died so quickly? That's why.

When we were still planning on a half-dozen chicks, our solution was a simple one: a sturdy cardboard box would serve as the brooder, or chick pen. We had plenty of U-Haul boxes in our pole barn, stored away after we'd finished unpacking just in case we ever needed a carton again. We'd simply assemble one, line it with newspaper, then pour on two inches of fresh pine shavings. Voila... instant brooder.

For 26 chicks, we'd need a refrigerator-sized carton. Or bigger. Ack.

I'd ordered a catalog from the Randall Burkey Company, an outlet that not only stocks day-old chicks but also carries poultry-rearing equipment. The catalog featured several brooder kits, including basic cardboard pens and plastic "chick corrals." The brooder kit that caught my eye came with a heat lamp and stand, waterer, feeder, and chick corral for a very reasonable price.

J would have nothing to do with it.

"There's no floor," he pointed out. "It's just a freestanding pen. A few chicks leaning against the wall will be able to move it from one place to another. We need something with a floor that's stable. And plastic's cheap. How long is it going to last, one or two years?" While amused at the thought of a chick corral skittering across the floor thanks to a team effort amongst the chicks, I agreed to check around some more.

The folks at the local feed store happened to agree with J, but not because of the mobile-home aspect. "The heat from the heat lamps can melt plastic corrals,"

"And start a fire," another employee chimed in.

"Cardboard's worse. Don't know why so many people think cardboard brooders work. Chicks can peck and scratch through cardboard like you wouldn't believe," said the first.

"Cardboard burns quicker, too," said the other.

Sigh. Undaunted, I checked with some friends and with the forums (a fabulous font of knowledge!) to see what other people had used for brooders. One woman had turned an old refrigerator -- with door removed -- into her chick brooder. Several were using spare bathrooms, housing the chicks in the shower or bathtub. I suppose that would make it easier to clean, but the idea of chicks in the bathroom weirded me out. Our friend T used a sectioned-off area of a trailer she'd converted into a coop and storage area, while our friend P simply set up a brooder in her garage. We had just managed to clear out and clean up our garage so that J could park his car inside, away from all that Michigan snow. I didn't see his Mazda yielding its beloved space to two dozen chicks happening any time soon. Our pole barn was out of the question: too drafty, and currently in use as the county's spider incubator.

Sensing my frustration, J suggested I check galvanized tubs out. They were fully enclosed, easy to wash out, and -- most importantly -- durable. If we were going to the expense of getting chick gear, we might as well get stuff that lasts. I treked back to the feed store, where my one of my new employee friends were happy to point out the 15- and 17-gallon galvanized wash tubs they had in stock.

"How many chicks are you going to keep in it?" he asked, reaching up to take it down from its hook.


His hand stopped in mid-reach, and he turned to goggle at me. "This isn't going to be big enough for 26. Ten to 16, maybe. You're going to need at least a 20- to 25-gallon washtub for that many chicks. We don't carry those."

Great. If a country store that carries chicken feed, horehound candy, and horse halters doesn't carry large-sized washtubs, where were we going to find one?

Why, Amazon, of course. J hopped on and, within minutes, had created a new wish list, complete with a 46-gallon washtub, galvanized chick feeder, heat lamp, bulbs, and more. I pulled the list up on my laptop and grimaced when I saw that none of these items qualified for Amazon Prime, the free-shipping service I'd paid membership fees to enjoy. I could only imagine what the shipping costs would be on a 44-gallon, galvanized steel tub, and expressed as much. But at least now we knew that such tubs did exist. The search was on!

And so it was that on a blizzarding Monday evening, with work cancelled due to the weather for me and J home early because of the swirling snows, we found ourselves driving in almost white-out conditions to Tractor Supply Company to examine its inventory of galvanized stock tanks, huge oval-shaped metal tubs used to feed and water horses, cattle, and other farm critters. We were the only customers in the entire store, and the employee was none too pleased to take me outside to where they kept the fencing and tanks. Only one 44-gallon tank remained, and we had to kick the snow away in order to see its full 1 ft X 2 ft X 4 ft dimensions. Perfect! And right next to it, for only $5 more, the identical tank but with two-foot-high sides instead of one-foot-high ones. Even more perfect!

The tank -- with a whopping 110-gallon capacity -- was eventually wrestled out from where it was semi-frozen, the snow scooped out as much as possible, and carried over to our car for loading. I sent silent thank yous to whatever gods had granted me a nice, roomy Jeep courtesy car while my minivan was in the shop, but even so the tank was a tight fit. No using the rear-view mirror for the drive home, and definitely no stopping for groceries, unless we planned to carry the bags on our laps. That was all right, though. Mission accomplished: our chick brooder had been bought!

Now, where the heck were we going to put it?

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