Beware the Straight Run Chicks

Amy Barkley, Livestock Specialist
Southwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Program

April 1, 2021
Beware the Straight Run Chicks

Beware the Straight Run Chicks

By Amy Barkley, Livestock and Beginning Farm Specialist with the SWNY Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Program and Jason Detzel, Livestock Educator with CCE Ulster

 

The pandemic has disrupted many of our domestic industries, and the farming sector is no exception. Last year brought trouble for seed suppliers (Seed shortages, 2021), tool makers (Meester, Bisson, and Dekker, 2020), and even poultry hatcheries as demand far outstripped supply (Chick suppliers, 2020). With many families spending more time at home, some are fixing up their backyards and growing some of their own food, which for many includes chickens.

 

While agricultural supply stores are in the thick of their chick season, there has been a rumor floating around that one of our largest agricultural supply stores in the state was only going to sell straight run chickens this year. While not yet confirmed, it would not be a surprise. Ordering chicks in from major hatcheries has been difficult. Not only has the pandemic resulted in increased demand, but the recent cold snap in the Midwest had a significant impact on number of chicks hatched in March. This, and hatcheries are still catching up on orders that were cancelled because of the recent live animal weather-related transport ban and brutal stretch of winter weather which resulted in the inability to ship chicks safely. When there are more orders than there are chicks to fill them, one option that hatcheries have is increasing the number of straight run chicks sold to help keep up with the demand. Pullets (or female chicks) are sold out at many hatcheries through the summer, and straight run may be the only option available for those looking to get chicks this spring.

 

That said, as livestock educators, we have a simple warning for those who are interested in raising poultry for fun and profit…BEWARE THE STRAIGHT RUN!

 

Straight run means that hatcheries do not separate the chicks by sex; your purchase will be split roughly 50/50 between roosters and hens. Hatcheries do not yet have the commercially available technology to sex baby chicks before hatching, but the technology is being developed in countries around the world (In-ovo sexing, 2021). Another technology, which features the ability to hatch 100% females, is being developed right here in NYS (Zonshine, 2020). However, those technologies are still some years out from being commonplace. Hatcheries are currently forced to hatch all the eggs set, and then hire highly trained "sexers" to sort the birds by sex. The reason they are separated is that most heritage egg-type poultry growers only want the birds that are going to lay eggs for them to sell, and as we all know, roosters don't lay many eggs.  

 

Typically, when you buy from the hatcheries directly, you can choose from three different options for sexing, depending on your specific needs. The most expensive class is female birds because these are the egg layers. The male chicks still cost money to produce, and by separating out the males, which must be sold at a lower price point, the costs must be made up through the sale of the female chicks. That, and it's an equation of supply and demand; female chicks are in higher demand, so naturally they'll cost more.

 

The second most expensive class would be the straight run, a mix of birds that are 50/50 male and female. While not preferred by folks wanting to produce eggs for their own enjoyment or for market, straight run is popular with farms that raise broilers (meat birds). This is because the strains of birds grown for meat grow so quickly that weight differences due to the sex of the bird are not a large factor.  The lack of need to separate the birds by sex also helps to keep costs lower for meat bird producers.

The final and cheapest class of heritage egg-producing chicks you can purchase are the males. They are cheapest because they do not lay eggs, they have a slow, inefficient growth rate for meat production, and they can be very loud and aggressive.

 

Most hatcheries offer all three options to the public, but farm supply stores typically only have pullets and straight run, since demand for male chicks is so low. However, because of the shortage of chicks this year, some merchants may switch from offering primarily pullet chicks to offering primarily straight run chicks. That means that you will have approximately 50 percent males and 50 percent females.  While this may seem like fun, it can mean big problems for many newer poultry farmers and enthusiasts who are not aware of the potential issues with raising roosters.

 

Most backyard chicken-keeping regulations state that no roosters may be kept on residential properties. Not only can they be aggressive, but they have evolved to be very loud to claim their territories and protect their hens, which is disruptive to neighbors, especially those living close by. While raising roosters is very similar to raising hens at first, in about 3-4 months, those roosters are going to feel their oats and begin crowing and going after the hens to mate them. Unfortunately, this can be quite an aggressive behavior, and some may find that hens will lose feathers or run scared out of fear of being harassed, which can delay their maturity to egg-laying age. Because it's possible to manage young males' advances on the hens, you may think that you can just hold onto a couple and no one in the neighborhood will notice. Unfortunately, this is not true. 

 

Although the young birds will only crow a little at first, as time goes on, they will crow louder and more often. Roosters crowing in one part of a neighborhood can cause other, local roosters to crow in return as a show of dominance. Crowing starts a few hours before sunrise because of birds' internal clocks. They'll even crow as early as 3-4am in the summer! I bet if you ask around, no one is going to want to be woken up in the wee hours of the morning, and that can include you and your family! Crowing isn't confined to morning, either. Most roosters will crow throughout the day, and some will crow in the middle of the night if something startles them. What we're getting at here is if you have neighbors, they are going to notice the gentleman you keep with the ladies.

 

If you've identified that you have roosters where they aren't permitted or don't want roosters in your flock, you may be wondering your options are.

 

You may have the idea to send your birds to a local farm sanctuary or rescue organization.  However, after speaking with some of them, they have shared that they don't have room, and therefore cannot take on any more unclaimed roosters. The same is true for the ASPCA. In 2020, the Ulster County ASPCA took in about 25 birds that were part of a former fighting ring in the area. Those birds, which have been raised to be aggressive, must live in solitary cages and are difficult to rehome. This is one of the many examples of how shelters fill up, leaving no more room for roosters that need new homes. That leaves a rooster owner in a pickle. 

 

If you have the resources and abilities, humanly processing these birds for meat at home would be a great option. Unfortunately, many local codes specifically prohibit at-home slaughter in high density neighborhoods.  That said, if you live in an area where this is allowed, there are resources on humane slaughter and food-safe processing, such as Cornell's self-paced, On-Farm Poultry Processing Course (https://smallfarmcourses.com/p/on-farm-poultry-processing).

 

Alternatively, there are small, local poultry processors across the state that will take small orders, but sometimes these folks are booked out months in advance, and it's difficult to get an appointment. However, if you can get a slot when you start to see the male birds' combs and wattles begin to grow large and red, which is around 6-8 weeks of age, you may be able to book an appointment for them when they are 16-20 weeks old, which is the proper finishing age for an egg-type heritage rooster.

 

With the above said, there are a few more options for flock owners. There are some ads on social media by individuals who indicate that they will take in any birds that you have of the offer. However, we cannot speak for any of these entities or individuals, or what will become of the birds you give them. There are also opportunities to post ads that either sell or give away live birds in the paper, on farm store bulletin boards, and on some limited online advertising forums. If you have a local livestock auction nearby, that may also be an option. Most often, roosters sold through these means are processed at buyers' homes for their own consumption. Very few sold will end up as pets or flock protectors, but it is a possibility.

 

So there you have it: your options for unwanted roosters. If after reading this article, you feel that you are up to the challenge of purchasing and managing straight run chicks, go for it! However, if this isn't the right decision for you, steer clear of the straight run chicks and opt for pullets instead.

 

References:

 




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