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Podcast

Living Among Giants

Part 1 –  An Introduction to Jersey Giants

Nandor the Relentless… trying to get my attention

On March 16th, after much anticipation and near-obsession, 9 black Jersey Giant chicks will hatch and be shipped to me. This will be my first flock.  For a year I’ve been researching, plotting, planning, and acclimating my husband to the idea… and it’s all about to happen. Chicken stewards (chicken tenders?) carefully curate their flocks for different reasons… novelty, beauty, egg color… I was looking for an easy-going temperament and hardiness.  Jersey Giants ticked all of the boxes for me.

Cold Wisconsin winters meant that I needed a breed that could handle the weather.  Their size, robust body structure, black coloring, and feathers that lie tight to the body all help JG’s to weather the cold.  These attributes are not a great match for far-southern regions… and keeping them cool in the summer, even in Wisconsin, is something I have taken into planning by providing them a covered run for shade. I’ve also built them a small teepee that they gather under when the sun is sweltering or there’s scary snowflakes in the air.

Living within the Kickapoo Reserve, I needed chickens whose size would deter raptors. Although slightly smaller than the original Jersey Giants of the early 20th century, today’s roosters average 13 – 15 pounds, with the females weighing about 11 pounds.  Considered too large to be carried away, hawks tend to leave the giants alone. Weasels, racoons, snakes, coyotes, fox and an occasional wolf and bobcat are another story.  The coop is fortified – which is a topic for another post. 

The caveat to their size is making sure they have proper nutrition for growth.  Jersey Giants are slow to mature… they take 9+ months to reach their height, and about another 9+ months to fill out.  Golda Miller, considered to be a pioneer/godmother of the breed had this to say,

“Please DON’T push those Giants too fast…give them time to grow that strong body and those strong legs…they will put on the weight later and fast but let them grow that strong frame first. I think that most folks push these GIANTS too fast with high powered feeds. They mature before they get that big frame built…you have to build the frame first, and then put weight on.”  

She suggests a protein content of 18%, and many others suggest supplementation of minerals and vitamins for bone health.  I am taking a holistic approach in regard to feeding which is another topic for a future post and way more complicated (and stressful) than one would expect.

When designing the coop, special considerations need to be made to accommodate their size.  Roosts and nest boxes should be placed closer to ground level as jumping from any height could cause leg injuries.  You should plan a coop that provides a minimum of 4 square feet per bird… with some sources recommending 6 or 8 square feet per JG.  Nest boxes should be a comfortable 18” x 18”. Luckily for me, I am content with my soul-chicken breed, so we were able to design the coop around them proactively. My current coop/bird ratio is 7.11111111 sq ft/Giant…plus a run of 72 square feet and supervised free range.

Size aside, the Jersey Giants’ temperament is what sent me over the moon.  They are truly chill and gentle giants. My approach to animal keeping is a partnership… much easier to do if the animal is open to that arrangement. They display calm temperaments and are not considered to be flighty. They are fairly good layers… laying 150-200 eggs per year. The hens seldom go broody, but when they do, their size makes them prone to breaking the eggs. I will need an incubation plan if I want to continue my flock.

Originally developed in the late 1800’s as a large roasting bird, the Jersey Giant’s slow maturation made it a not very cost-effective option for meat production.  The bird fell out of favor and in 2001, The Livestock Conservancy listed the breed as critically endangered.  Thanks to renewed interest in backyard poultry, Jersey Giants were moved to the conservation watch list in 2017.  Those passionate about the breed can join the National Jersey Giant Club.

If you have the space, and you have the time and patience, Jersey Giants are a lovely breed.  While raising them may not be cost-effective for some, they are a very much ‘joy-effective.’

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Blog WanderChicks

WanderBrooder

The Babies’ First Home

The Structure

If you’ve researched the topic, creating a brooder for the babies can be as simple as retrofitting a plastic tote or a cardboard box. I was looking to use something a little more structural, that was easy to clean, could be added to as the babies grew, or broken down easily for post-chick storage. What I decided on was 18′ x 24″ white plastic yard sale signs… connected by small zip-ties. I ordered these through Amazon for less than $30 total.

The Guts

Lil’ baby chicks need to be kept warm, like 95 degrees warm in the beginning, with gradual decreasing of temperature as their feathers mature. From everything I’ve read, the chicks will let you know what they need. Example: huddled together with a lot of peeping means they’re too cold… if they’re panting or splaying their wings away from the heat source they are too hot.

I’ve opted to use a chick brooder heating plate, and here’s why: heat bulbs by their very nature are a fire hazard. Heat bulbs also need to be on 24/7 with no night/down time for the chicks… and this seems really unnatural to me. If hatched by their mama, the babies would gather under the hen for warmth and protection… as a surrogate, the heating plate radiates downward, so the chicks gather underneath the plate. The height of which can be adjusted as they grow. And, of course, I took it a little further by attaching feathers around the base so when the babies scoot underneath, it feels a bit like mom. The brooder heating plate… with the add ons of feathers and a no-roost roof for the top (to keep it poop-free) can be found on Amazon.

I have hung a full-spectrum, LED light above the brooder that will be on a timer. The LED throws off no heat so would not be suitable for keeping the chicks warm.

For the waterer I am using automatic chicken watering cups attached to a tall, clear, plastic, food storage container. I will let you know how that goes. The feeder is a small, round, metal chick feeder base with a mason jar to hold the feed. Again – not sure how well this will work, so I will have to let you know.

The Bedding

This is a far more complicated topic than I was expecting. It has always been advised to stay away from cedar shavings as they emit gasses that can cause respiratory harm to the chicks. It is now coming to light that pine shavings, previously thought to be benign, also contribute to respiratory issues in chicks. If you think about it – pine shavings aren’t naturally occurring… unless you have a beaver dam in the neighborhood, which we do btw… just not in the vicinity of our flock. More on what I’ve chosen to use later.

Baby chicks arrive needing to build their strength as well as their immunity. Their teeny legs are very fragile at this stage, so for the first few days I’ll keep the bedding soft and non-slippery. Newspaper, especially with glossy ads, is too slick a surface for the babies. Some people put layers of paper towel down for the first week, I am lucky enough to have kept some old, unused puppy pads which will work beautifully.

When the chicks graduate from the puppy pads I will be using chopped straw. To the chopped straw I will be adding some crushed leaves and dried, chick-friendly herbs I collected from last summer… and, when the snow melts and the ground thaws a bit, some clumps of dirt from the yard (in addition to chick grit.) This is all in an effort to expose the chicks to new things as wells as build their immunity. Turns out, ingesting a little dirt is good for them. “Just like kids,” my husband says.

I have also started a patch of grass for them to explore after their first week or so.

Which leads me to the next topic… exposure and boredom busters.

I believe that we humans do not give nearly enough credit to the intellect and sentience of animals. To think of animals, any animal, as unworthy of our best effort is lazy. Chickens, it turns out, are much smarter than we had previously given them credit. And as a their human, I want to give them an experientially rich environment. Hence the grass patch, and the herbs, and the mirror I’ve already placed in the brooder. Once they acclimate, I will build them a teeny roost on which to practice. I will bring them watercress, and alfalfa sprouts to explore in small amounts. I may even play them music… and I may or may not have already started a baby chick playlist. Don’t judge me.

*After adding three more chicks to my order – I panicked and expanded the brooder. It’s now 12 square feet for 9 babies… with extra panels for future expansion.

In the end – this is my approach to chicken raising… you come to the table with different experiences so your approach will likely be different and that’s beautiful! I’d love to hear from you about your methods and theories.