Tuesday, March 15, 2011

If You Build It, They Will Come...

For most poultry enthusiasts, selecting a brooder — a chicken equivalent of a crib, used by chicks for their first eight weeks — is a no-brainer: Grab a cardboard box, toss in some pine shavings, cover these with paper towels, add food, water, and a heat lamp. Presto! Instant chick brooder. If the water spilled, if the cardboard seeped through with chickie poop, if the chicks grew quickly and needed more room, all you needed to do was switch to a new box and throw the old one onto the compost heap.

Having moved recently enough to our new home, we have a bumper crop of cardboard boxes growing at an incremental rate in our pole barn. We paid U-Haul good money for those boxes. Who knew when we'd need to use them again? Using them to house chicks, however, was not an option. We paid U-Haul good money for those boxes!

Besides, we'd heard all sorts of stories about cardboard-box chick brooders, from the box brooder that skittered around the room as the chicks moved it via some mass concerted effort, to the box brooder that became an impromptu oven when the heat lamp fell in and set the box and the shavings on fire. These chicks were a sizable investment for us, and we wanted to house them in something sturdy, safe, and easily cleanable so it could be reused in the future. Plus, we paid U-Haul good money for those boxes!

J and I scoured the Internet, poultry mail-order catalogs, and our local feed stores to find just the right brooder. We eventually settled on a galvanized stock tank, a 100+-pound glorified metal washtub used as troughs for horses and other large farm animals. We found just what we were looking for one snowy evening at Tractor Supply and, later that week, I went with JTR and B to get it. Note to parents: 7 year olds may insist on carrying stock tanks to the register for you. Allow this. Parents deserve all moments of hilarity directly related to their offspring.

I was quite proud of our brooder once I'd set it up. Scrubbed clean with a diluted bleach formula, it had quite the streamlined appearance, regardless of the wooden gallows J had built to support the heat lamp. It cleaned very easily, kept the chicks warm, and, at four feet in length, took up quite a bit of room in our sitting room turned office area. However, the brooder's size provided plenty of necessary space for growing chicks to roam and explore.

We'd forgotten that chickens can fly.

Dennis and Eggbert reminded us of this fact quickly enough. Dennis' leaps over the roosts, feeder, and half the length of the brooder startled us, considering the little bird was not even two weeks old. J's alarm at our chicks' housing unit's limitations grew exponentially when he saw how high Eggbert, Gloria, and Blaziken would jump, wings flapping, to grab a tasty mealworm out of my hand.

"We're going to need a bigger brooder," he informed me one evening as he watched me give the chicks their evening snack.

"This one's large enough," I replied, paying more attention to the chicks' antics than to him.

J watched Eggbert snatch a mealworm from me; he then placed his hand about an inch from the top of the tank. "Eggbert's head went this high, and he's only a week and a half old," J stated. "He's going to be able to hop out of the brooder soon enough. Do you really want to come home from running errands to find him running around the living room?"

He had a point.

"They have larger stock tanks," I noted, thinking of this immense steel feeder Tractor Supply sold that could accommodate two horses side by side. It would be a tight squeeze in the sitting room, though. And I didn't know how we'd get it home unless we strapped it to the top of the minivan.

J shook his head. "No, I'm thinking about building a more customized brooder," he told me. "I already have it all planned out. We just need to get the wood."

I wisely kept my mouth shut, but I shot a glance at the chicken gallows looming over our current brooder and hoped J's brooder wouldn't resemble a casket. Since J assured me that a home-built brooder would cost less than the larger stock tank, I agreed to let him build it.

That weekend, after a nice brunch at a favorite Indian restaurant, we headed to Lowe's to buy the wood J needed for the brooder. Not surprisingly, the kids opted to stay in the car playing handheld video games rather than accompany us to the lumber yard. We left M in charge of his brothers, handed him the keys to the minivan, and headed into the store.

I quickly learned that J had a very definitive notion of how he would be building this brooder. He kept up a running monologue about 2X3s versus 2X4s, white wood versus #2 pine, and 1X12X6s versus 1X12X8s, all the while pulling out long boards and pointing out how they were warped, then setting them aside in favor of ones that lay flat. At one point, he left me selecting 2X4s while he went to get the necessary hardware. Left to my own devices, I selected the 10 beams he'd requested, not because of their straightness, their pine content, or even their cost. My beams were pretty, without notches, splinters, cracks, knots, or sap. I didn't want an ugly brooder, after all. I piled these on our flat cart, then slowly guided the unwieldy thing to the check-out line, where J met me, a basket full of nails, screws, hinges, and who knows what in his hands.

Total cost: $260.

"Ummm, you do realize we could have bought two of those large stock tanks with that money," I felt it was my duty to point out as we made our way back to the car.

"This is better in the long run," he retorted. "It'll be customized, and we can reuse the wood when we're done with the brooder. How can we reuse large stock tanks?"

M popped the trunk open when he saw us approach. "Do you guys have any idea what time it is? You've been gone for more than two hours!!"

Ooops. Time flies when you're selecting wood, apparently.

That night, after the school-aged kids had been sent to bed and B was ensconced in front of the television, watching educational videos, J went to work. I was suffering from a massive headache brought on by spending too much time near treated lumber and complaining children, so I paid scant attention to the questions he asked me. I vaguely recall something about the size and orientation of the brooder, separation panels, and the space required. I clearly recall J wanting to put the brooder in the basement.

"No," I told him. "I'm the one that's going to be taking care of the chicks, and they need to be in a convenient location for me. If I'm going to be feeding and watering them and giving them frequent hand-time to train them, then they need to be in the sitting room."

"But you originally wanted them in the basement," J pointed out. "You even cleared out that large space for them."

"That was before I realized how intensive hand training would be," I replied. Hand training involved holding each chick for one to two minutes, letting them hear my voice up close and eating from my hand... several times a day. "It takes me a good chunk of time to hand train just these seven," I added. "In about a week I'll be hand training 40 chicks. I'm not going to spend the majority of my day in the basement."

I went to bed shortly after, having lost out to the headache and having been assured by J that we'd be able to move the brooder down to the basement when the chicks got older or smellier, whichever came first. Since I'd been keeping the brooder fresh and clean, I doubted I'd have to move the contraption downstairs for a number of weeks. I must have fallen asleep the moment my head hit the pillow, because I don't recall B coming in and snuggling with me, nor do I remember the sound of hammering or anything. I have only a vague recollection of J climbing into bed around 3 AM, kissing me, and asking me to tell him what I thought of it.

I awoke the next morning to find an enormous wooden box in the sitting room. Just over two feet in height, our new brooder had panels that would allow us to either use the brooder as one unit or divide it into two or three separate brooders, each as large as our current stock-tank brooder and each either one or two feet in height. J had lined both the floor and the first foot of the brooder wall with heavy-duty plastic sheeting to protect the wood from moisture. Four posts, one at each corner, were meant to support the beams that would hold the chicks' heating lamps. It was spectacular! It also took up most of the available floor space. And there was no way it would be moving out of the sitting room except in pieces, as it was wider than both doorways.

J had set up the first partition with a heat lamp, newspaper, shavings, and several thermometers to gauge the temperature within. These averaged about 90 degrees, perfect for our chicks. I finished the job by adding pine shavings, feeder, waterer, roosts, and chicks, then stood back to watch them discover their new home.

"Where are the chicks?" J asked from behind me, having emerged from the bedroom to find an empty stock tank.

I pointed at the wooden brooder.

J smiled. "Excellent!" he exclaimed, coming to stand beside me to take a peek at the little birds. "How do they like their new home?"

"They seem to like it just fine," I replied. Sure enough, Gloria and Blaziken were already noshing away at the feeder, while Belle, Cutie, and Barbara snuggled down for their early-morning nap and Dennis busily dug his way to the newspaper liner, covering the close-by sleepers in a coating of pine shavings. Only Eggbert seemed unhappy. He kept jumping and pecking at the thermometer, trying to get it to make his beloved KLANG! sound. Metal thermometers don't klang on wood. They thud.

"Poor Eggbert," J murmured, watching the little brown chick grow increasingly frustrated with his favorite toy. My attention wasn't on Eggbert's frustration, however. It was on the height of Eggbert's jumps. His wing-assisted leaps were taking him to within inches of the brooder's brim. I turned to point this out to J, but he'd already seen it.

"Great," he remarked, watching as Gloria and Blaziken began eyeing the brooder walls, then leaping upward to heights matching Eggbert's. "Guess I'm going to have to build a screen top now, or else everyone will be wandering around the living room."

Or jumping over the partition to visit the newborn chicks on the other side. One week and counting...

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