By Kristen Kelderman
Nope, you didn’t read the title wrong. This spring, a university friend of mine called me up and asked if I wanted to plan a date with him and 6,000 chicks. An odd request you might say. And no, it isn’t a spinoff dating show from the Bachelor. Those of you familiar with farming have probably already figured out my cheeky attempt at a play on words. My friend Ryan is a broiler breeder farmer and yes, his chicks are yellow, fuzzy and fit in the palm of your hand.
I was very excited to get the call from Ryan. This was my first time going to help out on a chicken farm with the delivery of new chicks. Being the farm kid that I am, I asked what I needed to bring with me – the obvious stuff like work boots, and layers of old clothes to pile under my coveralls. To my surprise, Ryan said all I needed was a t-shirt and jeans. With the cold spring we’d been having I was still wearing my winter coat. I thought I would freeze!
With my dairy farm experience I’m fairly used to working in a cold barn and piling on the layers during chores. But Ryan’s barn is much different than my parents. It was like summer in there! The temperature was quite warm compared to the chilly April morning that was outside.
The inside of the barn was heated by propane to a balmy 30 degrees C on the third floor. I could get used to farming like this! I almost considered calling up my Dad to say that he need to sell the cows and get some chickens.
So why does the barn feel like you’re on a beach in Jamaica? It’s not for the people who work in the barn, it’s for the chicks that would soon call it home.
One of the most important and laborious jobs that a farmer prepares for when getting new chicks is the work before they arrive. The barn needs to be freshly clean and disinfected from floor to ceiling, new shavings spread out, the feeders and drinkers working properly and set to the right height for the chicks, and the barn needs to be the right temperature- nice and warm.
This is important so that the chicks can settle into their new home a quickly as possible. Young farm animals notice small changes in their environment much more than older mature farm animals, especially with temperature. Getting this right is vital to the health of the chicks. You want them to adjust to their new home right away.
On chick day Ryan had all of the hard work done. All we had to do was unload them from the truck. The new chicks traveled all the way from Kentucky and would have been about 12-15 hours old. They rode up in a climate controlled truck, where they were kept warm and dry.
The new chicks were unloaded by hand in the trays and carried to the third floor of the barn.
As you can see in the picture (below), the new chicks are only given a portion of the barn floor. This is because giving them too much space will cause issues keeping them warm, safe and eating. As the chicks grow they will be slowly introduced to more and more space until they have access to the whole area.
Once the chicks are settled into the barn, the first thing that Ryan looks for is that they are eating and drinking right away. Finding food and water signals that the chicks are thriving and healthy right from the start. If they are not, this tells the farmer that something is wrong and needs to be addressed right away.
One thing that Ryan does to help them get off to a good start is add extra ground waters and spreads extra feed onto the paper shown in the picture. This helps because they don’t have to go too far or compete with the other chicks.
The actual process of getting the chicks off the truck and settled into the barn did not take that long, we spent most of our time observing and chick watching to make sure they were adjusting well. Observing their behavior, that they were eating and finding water and checking the temperature of the floor.
Ryan had this neat little tool that he could point at any spot of the barn floor and it would tell him the temperature. Because chicks are so temperature sensitive it’s important to eliminate hot and cold spots on the floor; so that they feel comfortable everywhere and do not bunch up in any one area.
One of the many things I learned about chicks that day, is that you can actually tell if a chick is eating by picking them up and gently massaging just below their beak (in the neck area). Birds store their food in this area called the crop and you can feel the food in it.
It was very interesting watching and seeing how the chicks behaved in their new environment. They were very curious and would actually run right at you and peck at anything shiny. They are not shy.
A big part of farm animal welfare is understanding and observing animal health and behavior. On my day with Ryan we assessed these areas of welfare, health and behavior with the new chicks. As a farmer he is very perceptive and detail oriented. Being responsible for these birds is something that he doesn’t take lightly. I’ve been friends with Ryan since our first year at university and nothing makes him more excited than talking about his chickens.
I truly cherish my experiences to learn from farmers and spend time with them on their farms to truly understand what they are doing on-farm. It gives me a renewed sense of pride and confidence in Canadian food and farming. They truly are inspiring!