Happy New Year!
If you are a gardener, you have been poring over seed catalogs, feverishly planning the layout of your garden.
If you are a chicken addict you have been studying the catalogs trying to decide which breed you want to add to your flock this year. Perhaps a certain breed didn’t work out for you last year or you simply need new chickens!
If you are new to chickens and have been reading the poultry catalogs- you are maybe a bit confused by the array of chickens. Who knew there were so many to choose from!
How do you pick which are going to be the best fit for you? This article will help you focus on what you need to know before buying some of those cute, fluffy little peeps.
Basic Chicken Questions to Ask Yourself
The first and most important question is:
Are you zoned for chickens?
If you live in a town/city/urban area, it’s likely there are laws in place about keeping livestock on the property.
Some places will not allow chickens but many do, with the caveat of no roosters.
Roosters can be loud and insistent. They don’t just crow at daylight, they announce that this is their patch frequently, through the day.
If you are zoned for chickens- congratulations!
With that being said, roosters provide protection, more baby chicks, and entertainment. So if you’re ok with the crowing, consider keeping a rooster with your hens. He’ll be extremely loyal and vigilant about protecting them.
How much space do you have for these birds?
How much square footage you can devote to your birds will dictate how many birds you can comfortably keep.
Large heavy breeds such as the Orpington, Brahma, Rhode Island Red need a minimum of four square feet of floor space per bird in the coop. They also require about eight square feet of run/enclosure/pasture per bird. If you have very limited space, perhaps you could choose lighter breeds or bantams.
Bantams require three square feet of coop space- this is easier to accommodate since they like to fly. A large coop with several perches at different heights work like a charm, it keeps them happy and busy.
If you are looking for a good laying hen, any of the sex-linked hens will do the job splendidly: Red Stars, Black Stars or Comets. Other dependable breeds that are good layers are Rhode Island Reds, Welsummers, Barred Rocks and Easter Eggers.
All of these breeds are known to be friendly, curious and dependable. Many of the more popular breeds are also available as bantams, so be sure to check several sources until you find what you want.
What is your weather like?
If you live in colder climates you will need to select birds that can deal well with cold weather. Chickens in general deal fairly well with a cold climate- it’s too much heat that is more likely to cause problems.
If you do live in a hot, humid area you can still have large, heavy feathered breeds but you will need to make sure they will be able to escape from the heat, so plan your coop accordingly.
If you live in a cold climate, hold off ordering mail-order chicks until the weather warms up. Chicks are tougher than we think and can handle the journey through the USPS very well. But there’s not much that can help them through sub-zero temps in the middle of winter, in the back of a postal van. So plan your order for the first warm month for your region.
What do you want from your chickens?
Are they going to be laying hens, meat birds, dual purpose, exhibition or 4H? Think carefully about why you want them and how much time you are going to spend with them. The more birds you have, the more time and energy you should spend on them.
Family pets such as dogs also need to be thought about. Many dogs love to chase things- chickens included. It has been known that the family pet can turn into a ‘spree killer’ while chasing chickens. This doesn’t mean you can’t have both. Just make sure your chickens are safely enclosed.
Many dogs live in complete harmony with chickens- I have two Beagles that are actually very wary of the chickens and behave like guardian dogs.
When you finally decide on your breed(s), you can usually get chicks, started pullets or eggs. The vast majority of people get chicks either from farm supply stores or catalogs. Chicks are the favorite because they have a huge ‘cuteness’ factor. They will however require some work from you. They will need a brooder to keep them warm, and you should be changing their water and feed dishes at least daily.
Started pullets will cost you more, but they should be more robust and nearer their point of lay. I have found that started pullets are usually not quite so friendly as raising your own chicks because they haven’t imprinted on you.
Hatching eggs are fun projects for schools but I really don’t recommend it for first time chicken folks.
How to Get Your Chicks
If you have mail ordered your chicks, the company will call you when they are shipped out. Once you know this date, alert your mail office staff that you are expecting them.
Local mail employees are usually very considerate of live shipping and will call you immediately when they come in. Unfortunately, packages sometimes get lost in the big sorting areas and chicks can die. When you go to pick them up, be sure to take a camera with you. You will need to open the package in front of the mail person to verify that all are alive or otherwise. Take pictures and file a form with the mail office.
Once you get home take care of those chicks immediately. They have been highly stressed by now and just need to be shown where the food and water is and left alone to rest under a nice warm heat plate or light source. If there were some dead chicks call the sender after caring for the survivors. Let them know that pictures have been taken and the paperwork has been started. Most companies are very good at reimbursing you for lost chicks and may even send a replacement order if you wish.
Farm Store/Private Hatchery
Farm stores usually put their chicks in a fairly prominent area so that people can see the varieties. Make sure you pick out the liveliest chicks – the quiet ones are usually less robust than the faster ones.
Private hatcheries may or may not let you pick out which you want. They are unlikely to let you near the chicks because of the fear of Avian Influenza and other possible contaminants.
You may not care for this approach, but remember, this is their livelihood and one sick chick can result in all being culled by the USDA.
Farm stores, mills, and even some retail stores like Tractor Supply Co. start advertising chicks mid-winter. You can bulk order chicks, and go in on shipping with others, or the store. This saves on shipping costs.
If you chose to order with a farm store, ask where they source their chicks and do a little background research on the hatchery. It’s nice to know where the chicks are coming from, what hatchery practices are in place, and if your chicks will be vaccinated. These are all important issues to consider for your new and, if applicable, current flock’s health.
You will need to have a few things in place before you bring your chicks’ home. Here’s the check list for you:
- It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. A sturdy cardboard box will do to start with. It should have enough room for a feeder and drinker and allow space for the chicks to move around.
- Chick feeder. A cheap plastic one will do fine. It needs to be threaded so you can attach a Mason jar (or similar) which holds the food.
- Chicks can dehydrate quickly. You will also need some pebbles or marbles to fill the drinker trough two thirds full. Why? Chicks have been known to drown in drinkers.
- This is usually pine shavings which are absorbent and pleasant smelling. Some folks use shredded paper, peat moss or sand. It needs to be inexpensive since you will be replacing it frequently.
- Heat/light source. You can use a heat lamp securely fixed over the brooder area. The amount of heat generated by these is unbelievable. I now use a brooder plate. It’s a bit pricey, but if you are going to be hatching lots of chicks it’s worth its weight in gold.
- Chick feed, electrolyte/vitamin supplement and water.
First Day with Chicks
It’s important to check your set up before the chicks arrive. Make sure the light/heater is working and check it with a thermometer. It should be ninety to ninety five degrees Fahrenheit for the first week.
If you don’t have a thermometer a quick and easy way to tell if the temperature is ok for your chicks is to watch them for a while. If they scatter to the furthest corner of the box- it’s too hot; if they all huddle together under the lamp- too cold; if they are all dotted around the box- it’s just right.
Make sure they know where the food and water is. It is vital that you dip their beaks into the water so they can drink when they need to.
Likewise with the feed- they will get the idea if you tap your finger into the feed repeatedly, this is similar to a mother hen telling them it’s ok to eat. A few chick crumbs sprinkled on the floor will encourage pecking and foraging behavior as well.
Now, as tempting as it may be to pet and hold them, try to let them rest for a while. It has been a long and stressful journey for your chicks.
Second Day with Chicks
The first chore of the day with your chicks is to make sure they don’t have ‘pasty butt’. You will need to inspect each and every one of the chicks. Pasty butt occurs when the poop dries out on the rear end causing pasting. If it is not removed the chick can die. Using a Q-tip or make up pad, gently wet the area and try to remove the poop. Sometimes it’s easy, other times not so much. If you are struggling to remove the poop, see if you can trim some fluff away to release the pasted area. Be gentle, their skin is very delicate.
Once you have cleaned them up, you can apply a very small dab of olive oil or other natural oil to the vent area to help prevent the poop from sticking again. Check your brooder temperature (or watch the chicks). Pasty butt can be caused by too much dry heat.
When you are done with this task you now need to check on the feeder and drinkers. It is highly likely that your drinker is packed with soggy shavings and poop. This needs to be emptied out, cleaned and replenished- same for the feeder.
Once you are done with the basic needs of your chicks- you can pick them up and handle them gently.
Please, if you have small children make sure they are supervised in handling chicks. They are very delicate and vulnerable at this age.
At the end of the first week, you can reduce the heat by five degrees. You will continue to do this every week until the temperature in the brooder is approximately that of the outside ambient air.
At this point, they will have lost their fluff and have their first feathers! They are fast approaching ‘teenage’ status, and no, they aren’t as much trouble as human teenagers…
Once they are fully feathered it’s time to move them to the coop. They do not need extra heat or light at this stage.
After the first few days, you should read our article on raising pullets for more help.
We have given you a very basic ‘crash course’ in getting your new chicks. You can find much more information in some of our earlier articles.
A quick note on exhibition birds or breeding – both of these facets of chicken keeping can be very rewarding.
However, they take time, careful record keeping and knowledge that takes time to come by. It really is not for the novice keeper.
When I started, I simply wanted birds for eggs and endless entertainment- I’m sure you do too!
What else do you think you should prepare before your chicks arrive? Let us know in the comments section below.