Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

Chicken Lore

by Norris Chambers


The mother scratches vigorously
Into the farmyard ground,
Her chicks come running hopefully
To see what she has found.

   One of the most interesting things to watch on the farm is the old mother hen with her brood of a dozen or so tiny chicks. Her sole purpose is to keep them safe and to find nourishment for them. She has them well trained. At the first hint of danger, signaled by a certain kind of cluck, they rush to her and crawl under her spread wings.. She closes them off from the outside world and keeps them safe and secure. She will fight any creature that tries to threaten her babies, including we of the human race. Kids being raised in the country learn to walk around a mother hen and her chicks. Another type of cluck signals them to come running to share in the morsels she has uncovered with her constant scratching in the dirt of the barnyard. She finds stray kernels of maize, corn and other grains as well as unlucky worms and bugs. She breaks these up nicely so that the little fellows can swallow them.

  Chicks, when first hatched, are very small. But they are active. They do more running than walking. Any sudden noise, or suspected danger, brings them together quickly. The mother is there with open wings.

  When the old hen gets the urge to become a mother, she enters what the old timers described as a "brooding" or "setting" condition. She grabs one of the hen nests (usually a row of boxes nailed on the wall in the hen house) and doesn't leave. If there are eggs in the nest, in about two or three weeks the chicks peck their way out of the shells and are ready to face life. In about two months they have matured into "late teenagers" and are ready to be culled. The pullets, or females, are checked for maturity and condition and the decision is made whether to keep them for layers or dispose of them. The males, or roosters, who have developed distinguishing combs at this time, are pretty well destined for the frying pan or the market. At this stage the roosters bring top money. They are at the right stage to become a welcome delicacy at the dinner table.

  This is the way we started chickens when I was small, and the way my parents and grandparents did it. But in the thirties a new method of raising chickens emerged. The mail-order catalogs, the radio stations and the magazines had advertisements enticing farmers to order baby chicks. They could even request pullets or roosters and a high percentage of accuracy was guaranteed. Before this there had been no way for the chicken raiser to tell a male from a female among the tiny chicks. Some said that if you held a string with a small magnet tied to the end above the chick's head, it would start rotating if the chicken was a male. We tried this, but never was convinced that it was accurate. The hatcheries did a very good job of guaranteeing the sex of the chicken.

  There were also hatcheries in most of the towns in the area. Larger towns had several. These businesses would buy eggs for setting from the farmer and sold chicks and feed. Usually they would also buy chickens. They had large incubators. Eggs were layered in these and kept at a constant temperature with electric heaters and thermostats. Small incubators were also available to farmers. These usually held from two to four dozen eggs and the heat was supplied by a kerosene burner. It, too, was controlled with a thermostat. There was a ready marked for pullets or fryers, as well as old hens and old roosters. The older birds were not worth as much, but weighed heavier.

  There were several breeds of chickens. The breed that the individual preferred depended on whether he was raising them to lay or to sell as early fryers. The heavier breeds were slower to develop and were not ready for market as soon, but when they did get ready they were heavier. Most chicken farmers kept Leghorns. These were light birds that developed quickly. Leghorn roosters were ready for the market in six to eight weeks. They weighed about two pounds and would bring thirty five to forty cents, depending on the market at the time. The pullets also developed quickly and were good egg producers.

  Some farmers bought about a dozen chickens and gave them to a setting hen. She took care of them and raised them as if they were her own. Some had chicken houses that would house several hundred. But usually a brooder house (as they were called) was small and raised about a hundred at a time. The houses had to be kept very warm. We tried to keep ours at 100 degrees. This was hard to accomplish in a larger house, since about the only source of heat in the country was wood or kerosene. Sand was layered on the floor of the house and the little chicks ran loose all over the house. The heater was placed in the center and the little birds could get close to keep warm or back off if they needed to cool. Heaters were available and did a good job of heating a well insulated building of about four by six feet. This size building would accommodate up to two hundred at a time.

  About every third day a layer of sand and droppings was brushed off the top of the floor and carried to the garden for fertilizer. If the brooders were not kept clean the chicks often became sick and most of them died. There were tablets to place in their drinking water that were supposed to help keep them healthy. They turned the water to a pale red color. We accused the chicks of drinking wine.

  Chicken feed was available for the chicks. The first was called "starter" mash. This was a finely round mixture of grains and nutrients. The next batch was called "growing mash". After that, if the chicks were not finished, they could eat anything that an adult could eat. An adult chicken will eat just about anything. Sometimes it appeared that the filthier it was the better they liked it. We fed our chicks starter for about a week , then switched them to ground feed that we prepared from our own home grown grain. We had a hammer mill that would pulverize corn, maize, peanuts or cottonseed along with any hay or stalks that we wanted to add. Ordinarily we mixed oats and maize, still on the head. If we had plenty of corn, we added a little corn to the mixture. Our home grown feed worked as well as the bought mixtures.

  In later years farmers raised the fryers and broilers on wire racks. The droppings fell through the wire to a metal or wooden tray below that could easily be emptied. These racks had improved feeders on the sides and efficient watering cans attached. They did not have heaters, but depended on the temperature of the room to provide optimum temperature. Several of these racks could be placed in a larger building.

  Clifton and I built our own floors and cages. We wove baling wire for the floors, leaving about five sixteenth inch squares. We used heavier wire for the sides and top. These worked very well and we made a little money raising chickens.

  But every good thing comes to an end. The sale of chickens was so attractive that many people started raising them for a business. The market was soon flooded, and the price was so low it wasn't practical to raise them. This was before the Colonel and other fast-food chains started the "chicken eating revolution" and there were just too many chickens for demand.

  We quit raising chickens to sell and started raising hogs. I bought my first car (other than a Model T} when I sold a crop of hogs. Small pigs were available for two to four dollars each. If you had feed to raise them, they brought ten or twelve cents a pound. If you sold a pig at two hundred or two hundred and fifty pounds, you made a nice profit.. If you had to buy feed, the profit went down. But you could buy feed and still make a worthwhile profit.

  I don't know if there are still any country folks trying to raise chickens. I doubt it. But if they are, they must be having fun. Little chicks are fun to watch, fun to eat and at one time brought the "chicken man" a nice profit.


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