Rhodes and Dodes

My chicks are now four weeks old. They outgrew their brooder box long ago and I moved them to my small 4′ x 8′ chicken house.

As you can see, though they were almost indistinguishable as day-olds, the white Cornish Cross meat chicks are already more than twice the size and heft of the five golden Buff Orpington layer pullets. And you can also see why. The meat chicks have two goals in life: eating and drinking. After that they are content to sit. This is ideal for weight gain but is rather sad to see in any animal.

The elderly mother of a farmer I know called Cornish Crosses “dodes,” short for dodos. It is true that the brains seem to have been bred out of them. Thick-witted and slow, they lumber from feeder to waterer on tree-trunk legs that barely support their bodies and often sit down abruptly to rest. In comparison the Buff Orpington chicks seem bright and quick, veritable Rhode Scholars of chickendom, scampering nimbly through the shavings, scratching and investigating in curiosity.

I am very gentle with the poor little dodes.

In a commercial set-up they would have only three weeks more to live. After that, not only does the feed-to-meat conversion equation begin to tip in the wrong direction, but the birds begin to die of heart attacks. Their legs also give out. Poor little Frankenbirds.

I don’t think my Cornish Crosses will grow quite as quickly as commercial birds raised in warehouses, because I hope to put mine out on grass in a portable pen, a.k.a. chicken tractor, to give them a taste of life with sunshine and grass and bugs. The pens are moved every day so the birds are always on clean ground with fresh grass. The farmer Joel Salatin made these movable pens famous.

Here’s a typical Salatin-type chicken tractor. It is a flat enclosure about 18″ high and roughly 8′ x 12′ in dimension. Half is covered with metal roofing and half with wire. The bottom is open to the grass.

Salatin, however, is in southern Virginia, not in the cold, wet, and windy Adirondacks. I have been pondering what modifications of the basic concept — enclosed, movable, open-bottomed shelter — I will need to make for my birds’ comfort and safety. We have had so many torrential rain storms recently that sandbags are common on local sidewalks and houses are being lost in mudslides. Meanwhile I’m picturing the whole thing carried away in our ferocious winds.

Whatever I come up with, I will be building entirely out of scrounged materials so those factors too come in to play. As I go about my chores I find myself staring at the various oddments of wire, roofing, and lumber I have stashed in corners, thinking furiously.

The chicken tractor will be next week’s project.

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10 Responses to Rhodes and Dodes

  1. Missy says:

    Oh, oh, oh, can’t wait til I see what you come up with. I have been dreaming and drawing chicken tractors here for months. I’m even starting to wish I hadn’t given my old one away when we moved here. I can’t wait to get my hens out of the chook yard. I hate the chook yard so much that I even dedicated a complete post to it’s derision. (I think Salatin’s chicken tractors are rather ugly and I’m planning a much prettier one!)

    Glad your little meat chickens will get a nibble of grass before they end up at freezer camp. Poor little things, it is a bit sad for them to be bred as they are.

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Yes, chicken yards tend to be lunar and barren. My hens don’t even have one — they wander everywhere. That may change after I clean up from the latest project.

      Salatin’s all about function over form — he couldn’t care less how anything looks. Also, I think you are talking about a long-term addition to your landscape, for layers, whereas Salatin’s uglier structures are for meat birds and only house chickens for about five weeks at a time, and then that batch is slaughtered and the cycle starts again.

      I don’t think mine will be too beautiful, either, especially given the somewhat ragged scraps I have to work with. My big hope is that they WORK! And after the birds are in the freezer, I can tow it to my back acres. 😉

  2. Awesome birds. So strange to hear that the breeding has caused such lack of movement. About chicken tractors, my husband built one for our backyard chickens and it is wonderful. We move it every four days and the chickens automatically go “home” into the enclosure and coop every night by 9am and it is wonderful. Our grass loves it, the chickens get to be chickens and safety is still maintained for them to have sweet dreams.

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Yes, chicken tractors can be beautiful and I’d love to have such a thing, but mine will only be used 4-5 weeks a year (meat birds only live 8-9 weeks) and my budget is nil, so I don’t anticipate producing anything that will improve my landscape! LOL

  3. Coleen says:

    Love reading your blog! We made pasture huts for broiler chicks that are similar in concept to your sheep shelters. I just realized I don’t have a pic on my blog of these huts, but we cut a cattle panel in half and then used fence staples to attach the two half pieces to a frame made out of treated 4 x 4 posts (I think it is 4 feet by 8 feet). Cutting the panels in half makes a much shorter shelter that is less likely to get caught in the wind. We pull the feeders out to fill them, keep the waterers in the pasture, and the chicks do fine. We use a tarp for the cover and have found that having four wheels makes it easier to move them around.

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Coleen, that’s a great idea, cutting the cattle panel in half. You must then have electric netting around it? I used to have a roll of electric netting but don’t any more since my bull calf at the time blundered into it and tore it to shreds. So now I’m trying to think of something that will be entirely self-enclosed and not need netting.

      • Coleen says:

        We have done this with and without netting. With the netting the chicks can range more of course and you can fit more birds per hut. In the early spring we have found that the colder temps and frequent rain are really hard on young chicks and we have had problems with ravens attacking the chicks (the crazy birds will sit on top of the huts and peck/tear through the tarps until they get a hole big enough…), so we made hoops out of black plastic water line and attached chicken wire to them. We then slid each pipe end over a long bolt to anchor these panels to each end of the hut’s frame. It is more of a pain to keep the waterer inside the hut, but this enclosed hut worked pretty well for us. We kept 25 chickens per hut up to about 6 weeks, processed half of them, and then had 12 or 13 for another week. By 5 weeks or so they had to be moved twice a day to keep the area somewhat clean. I think they would have been okay in this setup even longer if they had more space. Thankfully we are no longer processing 12 chickens a week, but we still use the huts without the end panels inside electronet.

      • adkmilkmaid says:

        Coleen, that’s an interesting solution — especially since I happen to have some chicken wire and black water pipe scraps! 😉 Yes, ravens, much as I love them, are clever opportunists and therefore a pain in the neck when it comes to young chicks. I haven’t yet had a moment to get working on a tractor and hope to in the coming week. I don’t have $ for electronet and another battery set-up at this point, so mine will have to be fully enclosed.

  4. Missy says:

    I just found a great site, full of chicken tractor pictures that might spark an idea… http://home.centurytel.net/thecitychicken/tractors.html and http://home.centurytel.net/thecitychicken/hhotm.html
    Hope that helps … I am looking, looking, looking!

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Thanks so much, Missy. I’ve seen that site and really like it. However one of the things that is hard to remember is that the needs of meat birds are very different from the needs of laying hens. Most of those tractors are for layers, and just a few at a time. I have 30 meat birds. Currently they are in my sheep stall, which is about 12×16. Though this is more space than they need, it’s not A LOT more. So I’m looking rather frantically at the cheap and boring chicken tractors, and meanwhile hoping for time to tackle anything! 🙂

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