Apr 18, 2011

Chickens 101: Buying Chickens & Caring for Chicks

The woman I purchased my "new" (year old) chicken coop from is a good example of how not to go about raising chickens. She was not well informed when she got her chicks; it sounded like she'd never even read one book on keeping hens. She thought she could allow her hens to free range in her yard, not understanding they would destroy her vegetable garden and could cause muddy areas. And she wasn't willing to put in time caring for them properly. After a year, she was disillusioned and couldn't wait to get rid of her hens.

So the decision to raise chickens in your backyard isn't something to just jump into. However, assuming you've done your homework and feel raising chickens is right for you, the first thing to consider is how to get your chickens. (Not sure if chickens are right for you and your family? Check out this quick pro and con post.) First, understand that you can obtain chickens in three stages of life:

1. Chicks
2. Pullets
3. Full grown chickens

Full grown chickens are already laying, which is a bonus - but if someone is selling them or giving them away, it's most likely because they aren't laying as many eggs as they used to. In addition, older hens may have a harder time adapting to their new home and owners. And if you get chickens from several different sources, care must be taken in introducing them. Never introduce just one new hen to a flock, since the other hens could literally peck it to death.

Pullets are young chickens just starting to lay eggs. They are a nice choice if you want eggs right away. However, they may not be as friendly as chickens you raise from babyhood and you need to take care introducing them to each other.


Chicks are cheap (typically less than $3 each) and it's generally easier to find the breed you want in chick form. In addition, chicks are much more likely to bond with you and your family if you raise them from babyhood. Besides, kids adore chicks and helping to raise them is a wonderful educational opportunity. However, chicks won't start laying until they are 20 to 24 weeks old and require a little extra care in their first several weeks. In addition, although most sources sort chicks by gender, mistakes happen and you could end up with a rooster when you really only wanted hens.

And before you buy, please be sure to check out the chicken breed comparison chart! It will give you a good idea how many eggs to expect, what kind of temperament, and what kind of care each breed requires.



Where to Buy
Grown chickens are mostly available from sources like Craigslist. You may also be able to adopt hens (from a source like Chicken Run Rescue) who would otherwise be killed after spending 2 years in a commercial egg laying operation. Pullets are also often available from Craigslist, and some local farm stores may also offer them for sale.

Chicks are readily available in the spring from local farm stores, as well as from 4-H groups and small local hatcheries. In addition, chicks can be ordered via mail - although this option can be costly, since the chicks must be express mailed. (One hen owner I know orders extra chicks from mail order hatcheries, then sells them to help recover some of the cost of shipping.) Most hatcheries sell chicks in fairly large quantities (25 and over, usually). However, MyPetChicken.com, IdealPoultry.com, and Meyer Hatchery all sell as few as 3 chicks at a time to most locations within the continental U.S.

Prepping for Chicks
In future posts, I'll type about outfitting a hen house for grown chickens and pullets, but for now, let's focus on chicks. People often think caring for chicks is difficult. They are, after all, tiny and rather fragile. But truthfully, it's not expensive or difficult to care for chicks.

Begin by setting up a brooder. The cheapest way to do this is to either find a large cardboard box or a plastic storage container. If you use a cardboard box lay a tarp or sturdy garbage bag beneath it, because no matter how well you line it, urine will eventually soak through the cardboard. The box should allow at least 1/2 square foot per bird.

Line the bottom of the box with several layers of newspaper (If the chicks slip on the newspaper, lay some paper towels on top of them.) Do not use pine or cedar wood shavings; they are toxic and cause breathing problems in chickens.

Next, you'll need a lamp to help keep the chicks warm. You can use a warming lamp (which you might want later, to help your hens produce more eggs during the winter), but an ordinary gooseneck lamp with a high watt bulb might work fine as long as your house is reasonably warm. The lamp needs to either clamp on to the brooder box or onto something very near the box (like a tripod).

To determine how close the lamp should be, place a thermometer on the bottom of the box, just under the lamp. Chicks who are days old usually need the temperature to read about 95 degrees F. for the first week. Thereafter, lower the temperature by no more than 5 degrees F. every week until the temperature matches the outdoors and the hens are fully feathered. To change the temperature of the brooder, simply lower or raise the lamp. In lieu of a thermometer, you may also just watch the chicks closely. If they pant, spread apart, and/or spread their wings, they are hot and you need to move the lamp up higher. If they shiver, they are cold, and you need to bring the lamp closer.

Give the chicks either a chick waterer or a bowl of water with low sides; chicks should be able to easily reach the water. Chicks can drown easily, but scattering pebbles along the bottom of the dish will prevent this.

You can buy a special feeder for chicks that prevents them from scattering food everywhere and keeps them from roosting on the feeder, but some people use the bottom of a cardboard egg carton instead. Just spoon the feed into the cups the eggs used to sit in. (A purchased feeder holds more food, however, so with it you'll spend less time making sure the chicks are getting enough to eat.)

You can also give the chicks something to roost on, if you like. Some chicken owners feel this makes it easier for the chicks to transition to a hen house.

In addition, scatter a little sand in the brooder once the chicks are a couple weeks old. Chickens use sand to help them digest food.

Another good addition is a screen (window screen, a piece of chicken wire, some wire cooling racks, etc.) placed over the top of the brooder. At some point, the chicks will try their wings, and they could flutter out of the box if there's no screen in place.

Also consider where you'll keep the brooder. If you only have one or two chicks, you'll simply want to keep them in a temperate location - probably in the house, but possibly in a temperate garage or out building. If you have more chicks, however, they'll spread dust that's pain to clean. For this reason, some chicken owners keep the brooder in the bathtub.

Daily Care
Caring for chicks isn't difficult, but it does require attention to detail every day. Encourage your children to help you; most likely, they'll love these chores.

1. At least twice a day, check the temperature of the brooder and adjust the lamp, as needed.

2. Three times a day, check the water and feed content of the brooder. Chicks drink and eat day and night, so it's important to keep their feeders and waterers clean and full.

3. Soiled paper towels and newspapers should be removed from the brooder as necessary (usually daily) and replaced with fresh papers and towels.

4. Finally, handle the chicks at least once daily. If you do this, they will bond with your family, proving more friendly and social. Now is also a good time to teach children that chickens have poor eye site; no one should hold a chick or chicken close to their face because they might peck at a person's eyes. In addition, teach your children to scoop a small amount of feed in their hands and offer it to the chicks. This will help create trust and a bond that will last the chicken's entire life.

Costs

Chickens or Pullets: Varies greatly according to breed, but pullets often sell for between $3 and $25.

Chicks: As little as $1.50 for most breeds, but up to $5 for more rare breeds

Brooder: $0 to $15

Waterer: $0 for an ordinary bowl or $3 for a chick waterer

Feeder: $0 for a recycled egg carton feeder or $3 for a metal feeder

Newspapers: $0 if recycled
Paper towels: $1 to $2 per roll. Plan on using 3 to 5 rolls total.

Lamp: $5 to $10 if an ordinary gooseneck is used; $12 to $25 if a brooder lamp or warming lamp is used

Chick feed: about $5 to $9 for 25 lbs. If raising chicks from the time they are a few days old, expect 5 chicks to go through 2 bags.



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