With springtime fast approaching, homesteaders and backyard chicken keepers are planning ahead for their next round of chicks.  In this conversation with Tom of Murray McMurray Hatchery, we discuss everything a beginner chicken owner needs to know to get started.  Tom also shares about some of the rare breeds being raised at McMurray; you don’t want to miss it!

In this episode, we cover:

  • Three chicken breeds that are great for getting started
  • Specialty breeds raised by McMurray Hatchery
  • What you need to know about ordering meat chickens this year
  • Ordering trends of backyard chicken keepers vs. homesteaders
  • Legislation concerning shipping live chickens
  • Considerations for raising multiple types of poultry together
  • Is it possible to get healthy chicks through the mail?
  • How to prevent and treat the most common chicken illnesses

About Tom

Tom Watkins is the President and co-owner of Murray McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa. Tom and his father-in-law, Bud Wood, are building on the company’s 105-year-old legacy of hatching the highest quality baby poultry in the U.S. Tom manages day-to-day operations of the hatchery which offers more than 120 varieties of chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, and many other types of poultry and fowl. Tom, his wife Ashley, and their four children have a 5-acre homestead in central Iowa where they raised and keep their own flock of chickens, turkeys, pigs, and Scottish Highland cattle.

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Everything a Beginner Chicken Owner Needs to Know :: Homesteaders of America

Chick Days! Transcript: Everything a Beginner Chicken Owner Needs to Kow

Amy Fewell Welcome back to the Homesteaders of America podcast. This week we have Tom from McMurray Hatchery joining us. Tom, why don’t you introduce yourself and a little bit about your business so we can get started? 

Tom Watkins Yeah, absolutely. I’m a homesteader, I guess, myself, me and my family. We live on five acres and we have cows and pigs and chickens, and we’re always adding to that. And gardening and living the best we can. So I’m the president of Murray McMurray Hatchery, so we’re a family-owned chicken hatchery that’s 105 years old. 

Amy Fewell Wow. 

Tom Watkins So we’ve been hatching chickens for quite some time now. 

Amy Fewell Yeah. So you have some experience in this, right? Just a little bit.

Tom Watkins Yeah. So, yeah, it’s me and my father-in-law. We’re partners here with Murray McMurray Hatchery. And there’s quite the history in 105 years, but it kind of boils down to I really like chickens and kept it going. So it’s passed down through the generations here. 

Amy Fewell That’s the brief version of it, right? 

Tom Watkins Yeah. 

Amy Fewell Well, you guys are also sponsors of the 2023 Homesteaders of America event. So you guys have been sponsors for the last couple of years. And so we thank you for that. And then also for those of you watching on YouTube, I have this super cool McMurray Hatchery mug. Isn’t it lovely? So you can go and check them out online. 

Tom Watkins Oh, weird. Look at us. We’re twins. 

Amy Fewell Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your website? Because a lot of people think you’re just a hatchery, but you guys do way more than that. 

Tom Watkins Oh, yeah. So well we have here is we hatch all of the chickens, so we have our farms, we have five farms within an hour here of Webster City. We have all of our breeder flocks. So we have about 45,000 laying hens. So just a couple. 

Amy Fewell Yeah, just a few.

Tom Watkins So on our website, we do sell everything chicken related. So we always kind of say the one-stop coop shop. So whether you need feeders or waterers, heat bulbs, heat plates. If you’re brooding your chicks all the way up to laying stuff— you need nesting boxes, you need egg cartons. You need help selling them, we can help you with that, too. So it’s a little bit of everything.

Amy Fewell You guys kind of have everything. It’s awesome. That’s really neat. And I wanted to just highlight that because a lot of people don’t know that there’s other options out there. When you’re buying your chicks, you can just kind of hop right into the McMurray store and you can buy everything you need for those chicks and chickens. 

Tom Watkins Yeah, absolutely. 

Amy Fewell They even have this super cool— is it a 75 pound feeder? Is that what it is? That you can buy for your chickens. 

Tom Watkins Yeah. It’s a nice one. 

Amy Fewell Of course, I did that and my geese ate all the feed in like two days. So I don’t recommend it if you have geese, but yeah, so you guys have a lot of cool stuff going on. So today we’re going to talk a little bit about chickens, obviously. Springtime is here pretty much at the posting of this podcast. And so people are starting to think about chicks and how to get started with chickens and what they should do. So I’m going to ask just a couple of questions that you probably get all the time and then we’re going to dive into a little bit more discussion after that. So for you as a hatchery owner, what would you say that— if somebody is just getting started with chickens, what are some of the best breeds? Maybe like three. What are the top three breeds you think they should get started with? 

Tom Watkins Yeah, absolutely. And that’s probably question number one. You know, it’s like, “Well, I don’t know what to get.” So anything— we say a brown egg layer is kind of the— they’re kind of a baseline. That’s not the right terminology but they’re typically larger, bigger hens. So they’re the most hardy breeds typically. So they’re kind of great for people getting into it. So they’re a little more forgiving of things. They’re great for almost any climates. That’s another question. All right, so whether you’re in Alaska or Florida, a barred rock is going to kind of work. They’re just really good, adapted to all of the climates that we have across all of America. So they just fit in really well. So Barred Rocks, Plymouth Rock, so the Barred Plymouth Rock. Barred is a color pattern. The Plymouth Rocks are really good. Ameraucanas. So people really like the blue. They’re a blue egg laying bird. They’re very good, again, for almost every climate. They’re hardy, they’re good against predators. They’re just aware. Buff Orpingtons. They’re a pretty classic bird, and they’re pretty, so they’re great starts. They’re friendly. They’re friendly for people with kids or other animals. They don’t seem to cause a whole lot of problems, so they’re just easy to keep.

Amy Fewell Yeah. So the first year we got chickens, we got Barred Rocks, and they were like little pets. They will follow you around like dogs if you spend any amount of time with them. And so we brought home some chicks from conference last year from McMurray Hatchery, and one of them just happened to be a Barred Rock. And so this little chicken, she thinks that she is not a chicken. She thinks— well, for the longest time, she thought she was a turkey because she lived with the turkeys when we had them. And so she would always follow the turkeys everywhere. Well, then we butchered the turkeys. And then she was like, “Wait, I don’t have a family anymore.” And so now she’s decided she’s a cow because now she’s best friends with our cow. And I’m like, this chicken. There’s something wrong with this chicken. But it’s really funny to watch. I’ve been trying to get a picture of them, but she always hops off. When the cow is laying down, she’ll hop on top of her and sit there. But she wouldn’t let me get a picture. So yeah, we love Barred Rocks and Orpingtons and all those breeds. Those simple breeds. Now, I do want to talk about a breed that I’m really, really loving from you guys, which are the Whiting True Blues and the Whiting True Greens. Would you talk a little bit about those and what they are? 

Tom Watkins Yeah. So the Whitings are a specific line of McMurray Hatchery. We worked with a geneticist out of Colorado, Dr. Tom Whiting. So the Whiting Farms are fly ties, so anybody who fly fishes would probably recognize Whiting Farms. So he raises chickens specifically for their feathers. So all of the breeding and stuff he’s done for generations, it is for fly tying feathers. But he’s always been a fan of McMurray Hatchery as well. So he reached out and said, “I’ve got these really good blue and green egg layers.” And so we’d gotten some stock from him and now we do perpetuate that line here ourselves. But they’re just kind of fun colored, but they’re specifically bred for their egg color. So we do a really hard selection on egg size and egg uniformity and then that color. So the Whiting Blues lay blue eggs and the Whiting Greens like a green egg. 

Amy Fewell So a lot of people, they’ll ask about hatcheries to get chickens from. And then, recently we hatched a batch of our own chicks, and it never fails, I’ll get somebody say, “But I thought you got your chicks from McMurray.” And I’m like, “I do get my chicks from McMurray.” But your Whiting stock has become one of my favorite genetics to work with here for the last couple of years, because they produce— with my regular flock and just integrated in with your Whitings that we got from you, they create the most resilient chicken I have ever had. I mean, it’s just crazy. They’re super self-reliant. They are consistent egg layers. They remind me a little bit of the Icelandics that we used to have. 

Tom Watkins Oh, sure. Yeah. 

Amy Fewell We had chickens several years ago, and they were a little bit too wild for me. But these Whiting hybrids that we have going on with our flock and just hatching them over and over again, they seem to be really incredibly self-reliant, not as crazy as the Icelandics, but also super self-sufficient. And so I had posted about them on Instagram not long ago and people were like, “What? I’ve never heard of these before.” So I did want to touch on that really quickly that you guys— you know, a lot of people want to add new stock to their chicken flock, but maybe you don’t want to buy them every year. So it’s something to think about. Oh, I could buy from McMurray certain genetics and have these chicks and then further my own flock, and then a few years later, add more from McMurray. So there’s a lot of different things that I’m seeing homesteaders do—including myself—that’s not just buying chicks every year.

Tom Watkins Absolutely. 

Amy Fewell But I really enjoy that you guys take care in your genetics and what you select to send to people, because I feel like that’s really important too. So moving past those types of things, what would you say is probably your most exotic breed of chicken that you guys offer at the hatchery? 

Tom Watkins Yeah. Boy, Ginger, she gets kind of mad at me because we put something in the catalog, and then it never fails that the next year, it just doesn’t do very well. And so then it’s just like really limited on what we have for hens. We’ve got a lot. So out of— we work closely with the Livestock Conservancy and we’re trying to— you know, that’s my goal is to perpetuate conservationism and keeping the heritage genetics alive. And not just— like I said, not for our use but for everybody. So the goal is to have homeowners raising their own birds, but to do it in a specific manner. You’re creating a land race that’s perfect for what your needs are. But also we value keeping kind of those genetic lines available to be able to do that. So we’ve got 40 out of the 70 on the Livestock Conservancy’s list of rare and exotic. You know, they’re not threatened in a conservation status. So we’ve got quite a few of the lines that are very rare. Our Red Cap line only exists one other place in North America. So there’s one farm in Texas, and then there’s our farm. And that’s all of the Red Caps in North America. 

Amy Fewell Wow. 

Tom Watkins That’s probably under 30 tens total, like on both farms. 

Amy Fewell Wow. That’s crazy. 

Tom Watkins There’s a pretty good sized flock in England and then there’s a good flock and Australia as well. That’s where you’d have to go to find them again. But then breeds kind of— we consider them rare and exotic for a reason. They either have poor hatchability. They don’t have a strong native sense of survival. 

Amy Fewell Yeah. 

Tom Watkins And our Sultans, our Sumatras, they’re extremely rare. And they’re hard to raise, so we talk about a first time homesteader, homebuyer, backyard chicken keeper, probably wouldn’t want to start out with those there. That’s expert level chicken keeping. There’s a lot of things about sheep. The goal of the sheep is to try to die or to kill itself. And then it’s like, some of it’s like, I don’t know if they’re not sheep. 

Amy Fewell Yeah. And those chickens you just mentioned, are those the ones with those really long tail feathers? Like the roosters have those long tail feathers or are those different? 

Tom Watkins The Sumatras kind of have a little bit longer tail than I would consider normal. A Phoenix is one that does have the— 

Amy Fewell Oh that’s probably what I was thinking of. Yeah. 

Tom Watkins Yeah. Sumatras are domesticated crows. They’re all black, they’re shiny, they’re shimmery, and they’re just completely wild. 

Amy Fewell Yeah. Well okay, so all of those genetics— awesome. But what does Tom have on his farm? So what do you like to raise on your homestead? 

Tom Watkins Oh yeah. I go back and forth because, you know, I do stuff that I like to— I’m a dabbler, so I’m working on things. I’ve got some Dorkings at home right now that I like working with. The Silver Great Dorkings are really cool birds. They’re kind of— they’re heavy, they’re short, they have five toes, but they’re just very docile, almost to a fault. They need to be a little bit more active. 

Amy Fewell They need to run away from the fox, not towards it.

Tom Watkins Yeah. So I’ve got quite a few of those at home. I’ve got some Chocolate Orpingtons that I’m trying to raise up. It’s always the project stuff that the hatchery kind of needs. It’s like, “Oh, I’ll take that home and I’ll work on that.”

Amy Fewell That could be dangerous. 

Tom Watkins Right now, we have 200 chickens in our basement, and my wife is less than happy.

Amy Fewell Oh man. Oh goodness. I bet your wife loves that. 

Tom Watkins We were gone for the weekend and then we came back, and the house just smells like a barn. And she said, “Mm. No.”

Amy Fewell Yeah, yeah. 

Tom Watkins You’ve got days. 

Amy Fewell No I feel that. Yeah. So last year when we first moved here, we got a bunch of meat chicks from you guys. And of course, meat chicks poop three times more than regular chicks. 

Tom Watkins Oh, for sure. Yeah. 

Amy Fewell And our garage is in our basement and our bedroom is right over top of our garage. And at that time, we had them in our garage and we woke up one morning and we were like, “Oh, what is that smell in our bedroom?” And because everything rises— we had just changed them. But just in that day and a half time period, they were funkin’ up the place. So speaking of meat chicks, you guys do more than just egg layers. And at the October conference last year, you talked about meat chickens and stuff like that. So now’s the time people are really starting to get into putting their orders in and things. So right now—we’re recording this the beginning of February—what does your timeframe look like if people want to hop in on the meat chicken train this year? Should they get in really, really soon? Or how does that work with how many people are raising meat chickens this year? 

Tom Watkins So what we kind of ran into the last few years is— I don’t want to say shortages, but definitely supply chain issues. And we’re not seeing that so far this year, but the demand is very, very high. So I am getting what we’re asking for in eggs, but we’re still probably not keeping up with what we need. So yeah, if you need to order, I would not wait. 

Amy Fewell Yeah. 

Tom Watkins Don’t put it off. You can order— what’s nice about McMurray Hatchery is you could call today, and you could put an order in for the end of October. There’s no reason to not do it as soon as you can and go, “Oh, we’ll do that later. We’ll do that later.” No, call. From the beginning of November of last year, you could be placing orders for any time in this year. And the sooner you get it in, the sooner that you get the dates that you’re looking for. 

Amy Fewell Yeah, that’s what we did. I knew that it was gonna be crazy, so I remember— you know, when 2020 hit, you guys, I’m sure had— it was crazy for you, if I remember correctly. 

Tom Watkins It was crazy, yeah. 

Amy Fewell And so we definitely knew from that year, we need to start getting our order in soon because there’s no telling what could happen. Again, look how quickly that declined in the country. And so speaking of that, what are you seeing? What are you seeing in the homesteading community as far as people ordering chickens? Has anything changed? Like obviously the amount is more, but how much more do you think it is? And then are you seeing a difference in people in what they’re ordering? Are they ordering— is it less backyard chicken people and more homestead type people? Or talk about that a little bit. 

Tom Watkins Because of what we carry—so all of those, you know, we have 110 varieties of chickens, we have 20 varieties of duck, 12 turkeys or 12 geese, pheasants, all of that stuff—we really cater to a large group of people. And we still probably do more backyard than homesteaders, but homesteaders is absolutely growing. And so when you see that, you’re seeing multiple orders. Typically you’ll say we’ll do some meat birds and some layers, and you might do layers every other year or every third year, but you’ll see successive broiler, and so that’s nice. But then the backyard flocks, like I said, they’re smaller orders. You might top out at 20 birds within those kind of situations, but we do a lot of those. I mean statistically, it’s the bulk of them. It’s a busy year. Like you said, 2020 was one of the busiest years we’ve ever had. And it just happens to be that with chicken keeping, that two year window because they lay really good the first year and they lay pretty good the second year, and that third year, you’re like “Aw, they’re not laying that great.” And so in our business, we see kind of a roller coaster. So it’s like every other year, it’s like well we’re getting the people who ordered two years ago are going to reorder again. So we’re hitting kind of that peak of this wave right now from the 2020 people who got into chickens. So it’s a lot of existing customers, but it’s a lot more birds than we’re ready for. 

Amy Fewell That’s incredible. 

Tom Watkins It’s very, very busy. 

Amy Fewell So Ginger asked me—and this is probably a good place to put this—she was talking to me yesterday… so for you guys who don’t know Ginger— a lot of you will know Ginger because she’s with Tom at our events, and so you can stop by their booth and say hello. But for those of you who don’t, Ginger helps with marketing, helps with the McMurray business. But Ginger had asked me yesterday— she said that there is just a rumor going around again about the government passing a law to ban shipping chickens across states or out of states. Do you have any information on that? I know people will question that since you’re on here. 

Tom Watkins Yeah. So she sent that to me and in kind of a tizzy and I said, “I’m aware.” They actually— the vet on supporting this bill had reached out to us last year probably. He reached out and we talked several times on the phone and he wanted our support on this bill. And what it is is a bill to curb shipping of adult roosters for specifically cock fighting. 

Amy Fewell Gotcha. 

Tom Watkins And I wouldn’t put our name on it. Obviously, we’re against cock fighting. It’s illegal. Don’t do it. But I don’t even— I couldn’t tell you anything about it. I mean it’s so far out of our realm, and I think our customer base is— I’m not concerned about it because I don’t think it’ll make it out of the committee level. I don’t like seeing restrictions on shipping on birds kind of at any level. 

Amy Fewell Right. 

Tom Watkins Especially for something that’s already illegal. Like if you have scenarios where you know something’s going on, then do something about it. But just making it harder for people to do honest business isn’t really— I don’t think cock fighting is actually this huge thing through the mail. 

Amy Fewell I don’t think so either. I mean we— around here, I’m sure it happens. But whenever I’ve seen— like sometimes, in the south, you’ll drive by these houses that have roosters on leashes and there’s like 20 of them, right? It’s kind of obvious what they’re doing. But then you can go on Facebook or you can go on Craigslist and buy roosters for like a buck. So yeah, I think you’re right. I don’t think the roosters are probably a big deal through the mail as much as people might think. 

Tom Watkins No. And to ship anything through the mail and especially across state lines, you have to be NPIP certified. So that’s the National Poultry Improvement Plan. So you have to have an inspection from your facility, from a vet at some point, whether that’s annually, you have to follow testing protocols. So if you’re running a underground illegal cock fighting, it’s got to be fairly obvious to whoever has to go through there. So I don’t know. There’s already some— I’m not particularly concerned about this particular piece of legislation.

Amy Fewell Now there was an issue— you’ll know this more than I will, but I do remember there was an issue. Was it in 2020 where you guys were having a hard time shipping chicks through the United States Postal Service? Was it for lack of— was it during the shutdowns? Or what was that all about? 

Tom Watkins So, yeah, so actually that was— and that’s the biggest concern in my entire existence. That’s what keeps me up at night is we rely on the post office. There are no other options. While they do a very good job typically, they don’t handle disruptions very well. And when you’re hatching chickens, there are no other options. They’re going to hatch. They’re coming out. So if you tell me, “Well, in three hours, we’re going to close down,” it’s like, “Well, I’m— you know, I have…” 

Amy Fewell I have 1,000 chicks I’ve got to get rid of. 

Tom Watkins Well, in our— we might have 100,000. 

Amy Fewell Wow. Oh, my goodness. 

Tom Watkins And, you know, we’re a small hatchery compared to some of them. We’re all kind of in that same boat that we just can’t hold that many birds. And actually in 2020, they shut us down for two weeks with zero notice. 

Amy Fewell That’s crazy.

Tom Watkins So it was real tough. It’s tough to recoup because we do— our season is 24 weeks, so if you take two of those out, that’s a significant part of our ability to do business. 

Amy Fewell So what were— what did you do with all those chicks when that happened? 

Tom Watkins So the first week, we were able to do ground shipments. So you could not fly with the birds. You could go ground. So we ended up driving across the whole Midwest. We drove to Montana, we drove to Michigan, we drove to Texas, we drove to St. Louis. Everywhere that we could drop off birds and hit a kind of metropolitan area, we did.

Amy Fewell That’s dedication, Tom. 

Tom Watkins Yeah, we did what we could do. And then on one particular day, we did just have a sale out the back door. And it was like a dollar a bird, you know, all sexed females. Come get what you can have. We tried to put some away for our flocks, but again if it’s— now, we’ve got an inch of snow coming down today. It’s not really the time to be brooding.

Amy Fewell No. Yeah. You guys have snow, and we have rain today, but it’s like springtime outside, which is— you know, we’ve got some chicks outside today and it’s warm enough, but I’m just waiting for the weather to say, “Hey, winter really is here, and you’re going to regret putting those chicks outside.” 

Tom Watkins You keep saying that word “spring” and it’s like where? 

Amy Fewell I know. I always forget. We’re on the East Coast, you know, we’re in the middle of the East Coast, but you guys are way up north. And so that’s quite a bit colder than we are. 

Tom Watkins Yeah, I’ve not seen spring yet. 

Amy Fewell Well, you’ll have to come to Virginia. 

Tom Watkins We’ve had a couple of nice days, and we’re coming. We’ve got a couple of weeks here yet, but then we’ll be feeling like spring, too. 

Amy Fewell Well, you know, some of our biggest blizzards are in March, so I’m still holding on that we’re going to get tricked one way or the other soon.

Tom Watkins Yeah. We’re the same. We get the most snow in March, but we’re usually not cold. It’s too cold to snow.

Amy Fewell So speaking of all of the— you know, we’ll move away from the United States Postal Service drama because, you know, I’m sure we could spend more time on that. But so you guys have more than just chicks. You kind of touched on that for a second. You have turkeys and geese and other birds. You also have ducks. We’ve gotten quite a few ducks from you guys, too. What would you say— for a first time homesteader getting started, would you say there’s any other— other than like chicken chicks, is there any kind of bird they should stay away from the first year? Or are they all kind of easy to take care of or how does that work? 

Tom Watkins So, yeah, no, it can get really complicated. I think turkeys are the most similar to chickens as far as what you can do in raising them and even keeping them together. It’s not recommended, but I do it and I have great success. Ducks and geese are kind of a different ballgame. They’re really fun. They’ve got huge personalities. It goes back to what your goal is as a homesteader. What are you— are you trying to produce just food for yourself? Are you trying to produce food to sell or to barter or use outside of your own use? I think when you’re doing it yourself, there’s more window for error. I mean, it’s like, “Yeah, all right, well, we’re going to raise 20 turkeys and we really only need 15.” So ducks and geese have completely different feed requirements than chickens. I mean, optimally, you need to be on a much higher protein level. That gets really expensive if you’re trying to feed the one feed. They’re really messy. They almost need separate space. You can raise them with chickens, but they’re going to cause issues within your chickens because of how wet they are. And that’s like wet, moist is like the worst thing for chickens. They will be sick all the time. They get colds. You know, they’ll be all stuffed up constantly. 

Amy Fewell Yeah. Yeah. 

Tom Watkins But it’s really doable. But I think having it kind of laid out before you get into it. Don’t buy the, “Oh, they were there and they were pretty and they’re cute.” And it’s like, all right, well, I need to have a separate pen. I need to have a separate feed system. You know, ducks and geese don’t have to have water, but they do need deep enough water to wash their eyes and their nostrils and stuff out. So they’re on their own level, and they are fun. But there are requirements. If you’re going to sell duck eggs, there’s a really, really big market for duck eggs. People don’t sell goose eggs because they just don’t lay that many. It’s not for what to eat. You like said they ate all of your chicken food. They eat a lot. 

Amy Fewell Right? Yeah. And so yeah, so that’s the thing I learned. So I have found that I can raise two geese with my flock integrated together, and with the amount of space I’ve given them, it doesn’t get messy. But when we were raising ducks, we had six ducks and it was awful. Like it was so awful. It was exactly what you said. It was wet all the time. There was poop everywhere. It was like— and they would tear our yard up. This was when we lived on a half an acre. Don’t do that. Don’t do what Amy does. But they were really fun. Like you said, ducks are just so loving and geese are the same way if you raise them from a gosling. But yeah, we learned real quick what our limit was and not to leave out freedom food because our ducks and geese both would just gorge themselves on feed. And I had a bunch of feed out. We had gone on vacation one year, and I had a bunch of feed out, and I had a duck just keep eating the feed. Like she wouldn’t stop eating it. And so my poor farm sitter walked out the next morning and found her. She had just toppled over and she was just full of feed, like she’d just eaten all this feed, and it was too much for her. And so there are definitely— you know, don’t buy the ducks just because they’re cute. Really think about it. You know, the commitment that you have to make for those animals, and just do your research. And you guys have a lot of information on your website too, because—right?—you guys have that blog post. The blogs are still going and you have new information there all the time. 

Tom Watkins Yep, absolutely. The blogs are a great resource. They’re everything you think you needed to know is in there somewhere. But yeah, so it comes back to what your homestead farm plan is. Like if it’s— you know, you’re going to— and budget’s a really big part of that. And so it’s a bigger budget to do kind of ducks and geese. You know, turkeys are the same, but you get a lot of meat off a turkey.

Amy Fewell You do. Yeah, so we got turkeys from you guys for the first time last year and we were really impressed with turkeys. And so it actually came at the best time because my husband found out he’s now allergic to beef and pork, and so he pretty much can’t eat anything that’s not a chicken or a turkey. He can eat birds. And so that’s what we did this year. We are one of those people. I think we have 40 birds on order with you guys. We’re splitting up 20 in the spring and then 20 in the summertime. And you do. I was amazed at how much meat you can get off a turkey in a pretty short amount of time. But I’m not sure if I’ve told you the story yet… we got the McMurray— is it the brown ones? What’s the exact name for those? 

Tom Watkins Yeah, the bronze. 

Amy Fewell Yeah. So we got them and they look just like our wild turkeys. We have a flock of wild turkeys out here that just roam around. And we had one white turkey from you guys for that batch. And there’s an older lady that lives across the field from us, and she called me one day. She’s like, “Have you seen these turkeys?” And I said, “Which turkeys?” I didn’t know if she was talking about the wild ones or mine because mine would just disappear during the day. And she’s like, “The one with the albino turkey.” And I’m like, “Oh, man, those are my turkeys.” She said, “I thought they were wild, and I went out on my front porch to shoo them away, and they started running after me,” she said. And I’m like, “Oh, no.” And those things are huge, you know? And she’s like, “They scared me.” “I’m so sorry, ma’am. Like, I’m so sorry.” But those things will wander, too. 

Tom Watkins Oh yeah. 

Amy Fewell And so that was something I wasn’t prepared for, for them to kind of wander a little bit. But I will say, they were really good at converting bugs and grass into meat. And I’m not a huge turkey fan, but when— this tastes totally different to me than store-bought turkey. And we’ve really enjoyed them. 

Amy Fewell Yeah. We had kind of a similar one. We raised some turkeys, and we were in town, and they got out, and so our backyard was a field and it had trees along it. And they just kind of disappeared. And we have a creek back there, so it’s coyotes and fox and raccoons and stuff, and we just assumed they got eaten. And it was like two weeks later someone down across the block called and like, “Hey, do you have turkeys?” It’s like, “Well, we did.” You know, he was like, “No, they’re here in my backyard,” And so they had been— she had a bird feeder out, and so they’d just been living under the bird feeder. And so, you know, you can’t catch turkeys. So it was like two degrees outside. Me and my wife were parked and we have the minivan on the street. And we’re just running around this house trying to catch these turkeys on this old lady’s back porch. And it goes like you think it would. 

Amy Fewell Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah. They do make us laugh, though. When we had all those turkeys, they were such gangly things, and they were just big goofballs. And we kept two of them. And I’m sure you guys have maybe seen on my Instagram a few times— I should make another video, but the male turkey, he always comes to our glass door in the front. He just pecks on the glass until I open the door for him. And we don’t really spend that much time with him, but he’s just so personable. They’re pretty funny. We’ve enjoyed them way more than we thought we would, that’s for sure. So going back to homesteaders and everything you guys have to offer, there are some homestead concerns about getting chicks in the mail. So I see this every spring. You know, “What do we do if our chicks arrive and there’s some dead or they’re all dead?” Or whatnot. How would someone go about dealing with that? I always have to navigate that because everybody wants to blame the hatchery first, but oftentimes it has to do with post office. So how would you suggest people go about managing that? 

Tom Watkins Yeah, so it’s a valid concern, but it’s— you know, as a conservationist at heart, how do you wrap my head around putting the chicks in the mail? And actually it’s really, really successful. We see about a 4% loss. So out of all of our shipments, we lose about 4%. But what kind of validates, I think, what we do and how we do it is that if we take the birds right directly to the farm, within that first week, we still see about a 4% loss. So, yeah, not everything is going to be perfectly viable. We do select the healthiest chicks off the bat, but that comes down to incubation and uniformity. That’s what we’re really good at. If you want to say what’s different about us than somebody else, it’s the management we put into our flocks and then our incubation practices are to make that chick as strong as possible. So that’s the end goal. You know, premium feed, all-you-can-eat buffet, space, light because I want a strong healthy chick because yeah, we’re going to put it in the mail. So it’s very, very similar in percentage to what we would see as a loss on our farm even without going through the mail. But yeah, absolutely, it does happen. Handling is a bigger issue than specifically the time. So we just want them to do their job. That’s it.

Amy Fewell Yeah. So my dad used to drive for the post office, so he would drive one of the box trucks. So he was the intermediate between the mail, the post office, and then the little delivery drivers. And so he would always call me and say, “Your chicks are on the way.” And so he was just amazed that there were so many big box truck drivers that would just throw the chicks in the back and then just not think anything of it. And so he would always tell me, “I put the chicks right up front under the heater, so they’re going to be warm.” And so it would always make me chuckle. But I mean, I would say that we’ve had pretty good rate on all of our mail chicks. And we even moved last year. And we still have had— I mean, I’ve maybe lost two each batch maybe. And so I would say that— and normally you guys put extra in for that reason. So I would say I haven’t seen a huge issue. 

Tom Watkins And we guarantee delivery and 48 hours after delivery. 100%. So we can either ship or refund, and it’s a no questions asked. I don’t need to see pictures. I believe you. And we’ve been burnt on that, but that’s part of it.

Amy Fewell All right. So now people have their chicks and they’re loving on their chicks. What are some common illnesses that you see that people should start looking for? And then how can they kind of combat that? Or maybe even prevent it before it happens? 

Tom Watkins Yeah, absolutely. The first one that you’ll see is coccidiosis. And coccidiosis is a protozoa that they get. It’s an intestinal parasite, basically. And you’ll see that probably between three and eight weeks old. So kind of either in the brooder or slightly after the brooder. And it’s everywhere. It’s on everything. It’s on this desk right now. It’s just part of life. It’s part of nature. And it isn’t an issue until it builds up. And what coccidiosis does is it really thrives in wet environments. So if you have wet bedding or if they spill water or you’re raising ducks with them, then you’re going to see an explosion of coccidiosis. It’s a very, very simple thing to treat. You can go Corid or Amprol is a water additive that you want in and it will kind of clean that up. Coccidiosis, it affects dogs, cats, chickens, all livestock. So your vet, a local vet, can do a fecal float. Take a sample of their poop, and they’ll float it and they’ll tell you what your coccidiosis percentage is. So it’s like $7. So it’s a really simple thing. It’s a really simple test. It’s not just chickens, but that’s probably the first thing. And the way to combat that is just to keep everything dry. And then they build up a natural immunity to it. So the more they’re around it, it’s just keeping that— when it gets wet and it’s wet for a period of time, you’re going to see an explosion of coccidiosis. So some of that’s just your brooding practices, having them enough space and adding bedding if you need to, cleaning up any spilled water. 

Amy Fewell Yeah, I would say the only time that we’ve ever really seen that is when I have a child taking care of the chicks and they’re not quite doing it well enough or changing the bedding out. And I would say that every time, it happened because the bedding was too wet or it hadn’t been changed soon enough. 

Tom Watkins Yeah, and it happens. And it happens, you know, we just kind of plan on it. We know what our brooding— we kind of stock a little bit heavy. You know, it’s something we just watch for. But outside of that— that’s the fastest one that you’ll see. Everything and almost every other chicken disease is respiratory. So they get colds and they get flus and they get sinus junk. And chickens have bad respiratory systems. They’re the sick kid in the class.

Amy Fewell Yeah. 

Tom Watkins And again, it’s damp and wet, and it’s going to influence what they pick up. And again, there’s just things out there that it happens. So, you know, keeping a fan in the coop, even in the winter, I think is pretty key. Helps keep everything dry. Chicks, chickens, they’re very humid. Outside of just pooping on the floor, they expel a lot of moisture through their breathing. That’s how they cool off. So they’re just a very humid animal, so that warm, humid environments— chickens have a higher body temperature than people. It’s like 102, 103 degrees, which is perfect for all bacteria to thrive. 

Amy Fewell Oh, yeah. 

Tom Watkins And they live in poop, kind of. 

Amy Fewell Well, generally we— I think chicks are pretty— normally they’re pretty easy to take care of. 

Tom Watkins Yeah, they are. 

Amy Fewell Yeah. So most people probably won’t have an issue. Well, Tom, I think this has been a good chat to get most people started. Is there anything else you want to add before we close it out? 

Tom Watkins No, we’re just happy to support Homesteaders of America. We’re excited to come back. I told Ginger a little bit ago, I says, “I’m going to take an extra day and I’m going to fish.”

Amy Fewell Yeah. Yeah, you should. 

Tom Watkins I would drive by it every time, I’m like, “I don’t know why I’m not fishing down there.”

Amy Fewell Awesome. All right, Tom. Well, thank you for joining me. And you guys make sure if you come to HOA this year that you check out Tom and Ginger at the McMurray Hatchery booth. They’re sponsors again this year, and they always have chicks. And they’re there to answer all your questions and they’re full of information. And then also check them out online at McMurrayHatchery.com and get those chick order in before they are gone. 

Tom Watkins Yeah. Do it soon.

Amy Fewell All right. Thanks for joining us, Tom. 

Tom Watkins Thanks, Amy. 

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Chick Days! What You Need to Know About Raising Chicks:: Podcast with Tom Watkins | Homesteaders of America