Here on our little acreage we are fortunate enough to have space for our laying hens, the odd lamb or rabbit and of course the annual arrival of our Cornish Giants. We order our chicks through a local hatchery and pick them up when they are 1 day old. Our chicks are non-vaccinated and we feed non-medicated chick food, so for us each step of their development is a milestone. We have had great success with the Cornish Giants and only order pullets (females). For our purposes, they are an ideal meat bird, and we find their temperaments are perfectly matched to our style of farming.
First things first, we prep a brooding area for them to go into with a heat lamp, food and water. This is typically a round area with shavings in the bottom; we use cardboard in a circle about 3.5 feet in diameter and 3 feet high (for 25 birds). The circular shape ensures they can not huddle in corners, and is easily expanded as they get larger. We set the water dish and feeder in a triangle format in relation to the lamps positioning, with the water closest. Try to set this up in advance of picking them up to ensure that the environment has an opportunity to come to temperature. It does no good to have warm air but cold shavings. Slowly we introduce each chick to its new home by lightly dipping its beak into the water and setting it into the brooder beside the watering container. They tend to be quite thirsty and will hang out by the water for a bit before heading out to explore. The eating/food part they seem to pick up on naturally by themselves as they are exploring, however it does not hurt to place a couple marbles in the ration to entice them (think "oh a shiny!" and believe me, it works!). Just remember to remove them as they get larger, once they know the basics on feeding.
A very important part of their up-keep at this stage is the heat. They are not born fully feathered, but rather with a downy fuzz and they rely on the heat lamp to maintain body temperature until they do feather out. A standard heat lamp bulb (red 250 Watt) is all you will require, and it should provide adequate heat (you may need more then 1 depending on the size of your flock). It should be suspended above their brooder approximately 18 inches above the shavings, and can be adjusted as needed and as they grow. It is very easy to identify when it is to cold (they will all huddle directly under the lamp, often climbing over each other to get to the warmth) or to warm (they will sprawl out at the edges of the brooder farthest away from the lamp, spreading their wings and legs out to cool off), and it is critical to prevent deformities during early stages.
As the chicks begin to grow and start to feather out, you will want to consider expanding the brooder area as they like to stretch their wings and test their running capabilities. Not to big that you can't maintain heat, just enough for them to be mobile. It is beneficial to their overall health and after all we want happy,healthy birds! Another thing I like to do at this early stage is introduce them to insects and clipped up grass and plant foliage. Small, manageable plant greens that they can forage thru on the floor of their brood and small insects (like ants) that they can chase and eat. It's is a good way to supplement their food intake and again, it keeps them moving. The reason I keep coming back to movement is that with these type of birds, they can have the tendency to get rather large, more so if they are not mobile and their food is not regulated.
Soon enough the chicks will require more space and they have mastered the motion of flight...at least enough to escape the brooder, if not enough to get back in. Get rid of it so you don't have one get out during the night and unable to get back in where it is safe. Ensure they have a well fortified area that they can move around freely, lots of shavings to keep them dry and comfortable, and a never ending supply of water. It is at the discretion of the owner how much to feed but we typically never allow the feeders to go empty. We do provide them with a scoop of ants each day (when ant hills abound) and we give them plenty of grass as well each morning and evening, with the intention that they fill up on the healthy eats, and peck at the dish as they become hungry again. As they become bigger and you notice some literally sitting at the feeder, it's time to suspend them to a standing height and force them to stand. Lazy, sitting chickens are more likely to have mobility issues and broken bones. Not a good thing!
We did experiment with a bit of free-range last year and they seemed to take to it as easily as the laying hens, however, depending on the flock size this may not be a manageable option. Also, because Cornish Giants tend to be unwieldy during their "adolescent" stages, they may be vulnerable to predators if you can not supervise them continually, and who has time to babysit 25-50 chickens?
Raising your own chickens for consumption has many advantages, the most obvious of which is the quality of life the bird will enjoy as well as the resulting quality of product you will gain in the end. With a bit of space and some compassion, you can try out this time honored tradition and join the honored ranks of "chicken farmer". I promise you won't regret it and you may even find yourself "talking" to the birds before its all over.
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