Baby chicks are available from a variety of online sources, and you can also get them (at least in the US) from Ag-way, Tractor Supply, or a few mom & pop stores. Ideally, you can get baby chicks from neighboring farmers not living more than say, an hour or so drive from you – but you may be limited in options for what to purchase or acquire. However, local farmers will most likely be raising breeds adapted to your climate to begin with.
WARNING: However, once you let it be known you want to start raising chickens…. you will find helpful neighbors, acquaintances, and perfect strangers you find in feed stores offering you full grown hens of varying ages, or roosters, or… This is NOT a warning sign that you shouldn’t get into poultry-keeping as some people have very good or even sad life-changing events going on in their own lives that necessitate their getting rid of their flocks. (One woman offered me her two hens and her barn for free (if I could transport the latter) because she’s been diagnosed with stage IV cancer.)
And the roosters of course… one only can raise so many roosters, and frequently people offering up roosters don’t want to know about your putting them on the dinner table… (These offerings were frequent enough that I’ve almost considered doing some sort of homesteadiers’ comic stand-up routine… except that I’m no good at stand-up!)
I declined all of these offers of chickens, primarily for ONE reason.
I’d never handled a chicken before. Not a live one, anyway. And not an adult live one. I needed to start with chicks, and grow used to working with them as they themselves grew. The only bird I’d ever worked with was a really nasty cockatiel that my one-time housemate had, and eventually HE didn’t want to deal with that bird, either. My experience with the avian world wasn’t primed for just jumping in with an adult beak on a flexible neck (and no, I won’t de-beak).
Another good reason… being offered an older bird or three means any new chicks you bring in have to get along with the established adults. Or, run another coop… I figured for my first year I wanted to get chickens that would grow up together, and in future years if and when I have to, I’ll deal with introductions. (Although it only took Celeste about 4-5 days to settle in with the layers when I moved her from the broilers to the hen house – but all these birds were youngsters of about 18 weeks of age then.)
You could purchase eggs ready to hatch, but for starting out, that means jumping into running an incubator, and there’s definitely a hatching failure rate. Plus, you can’t order all-future-female or all-future-male, if that’s your desire. No, the usual way to start out until you are convinced and on your feet, is to acquire day-old-chicks. Most times, you can select gender (especially useful if you are wanting to have laying hens and can’t have roosters.)
Do your research before selecting your breeds. Yes, your chicks will spend their first few weeks indoors somewhere — see below. But you also need to plan for their late juvenile/adult housing. Yep, that’s another post as far as the major details go…
For the meat chickens: Chicken intended for the freezer don’t have to be winter hardy. Well, unless you want to raise them over winter, which isn’t necessary! BUT just get a few, not a year’s supply of meat the first year. You want to check to see if this is for you. You don’t want 25 broilers or Cornish Cross sitting around that you don’t have the heart to slaughter (or have anyone slaughter for you). Plan their chicken tractor or other outdoor home. Decide if they will be at all free-ranged, how often, and how you will deal with potential predation. They WILL need to be in a protected shelter at night.
I went with broilers as they have a bit more dark to white meat ratio than the standard Cornish Cross, and also as it turned out, because I ended up having to wait longer than ideal to process them. Line up someone to help show you the ropes early on… and in my case, if the first deal falls through, find resources in town to help you punt. Best to note to line up assistance as early as possible, even if my original choice had to bow out. (As I did here.) I noted in the last Raising Chickens Post that I eventually want to breed dual purpose non-hybrid birds for eggs and for meat, but my first year was for getting my act down. If you have no desire to hatch chicks in the future, just stick with one or so of the hybrids (Cornish Cross – approx. 8 weeks growing time, Red/Freedom rangers – approx. 11-12 weeks growing time, or red or black broilers — approx. 15-16 weeks growing time as ideals. Heritage dual purpose birds might take even longer – depends on the breed).
It will be easiest to find the above hybrids as “straight runs” – they don’t sex the chicks before shipping them out, so you’ll end up with both males and females. If you have the option, choose males as they will grow bigger. (Some of them may be mean enough that you won’t mind them going into the freezer, either…)
For the egg layers: I’m Zone 5 b, and sometimes I can have hot summers. I needed to get a good chicken coop lined up. I went with one constructed by the Mennonites, complete with a covered run, and various other features I love (more discussion in a future post of this series). A word to the wise in advance of that post: chicken coops are like camping tents – I have a “5-man” camping tent that might hold three short people. Don’t expect your coops to hold all the chickens happily that your brochure might say!
Hardy winterizable chickens were called for here… do your research for your climate!
What ALL your baby chicks need!
Okay, with an eye towards what your birds need as day old chicks! And do set up housing, water, and feed before you bring the chicks in, and test the heat source. Have it on for them, waiting!
- Safety from small children and pets.
- Chick first aid.
Housing: Before the chicks arrive, set up their indoor home. If you live in a warm climate, you could even consider keeping them in a barn, in an area shut off from other animals or itinerant wildlife (including rodents). The actual container size depends on how many chicks you have, and expect that as they grow, you may need to add in extra containers. OR simply buy a large enough container/brooder to begin with.
I did discover that the chicks in the smaller container were friendlier as chicks (until testosterone kicked in) than the ones in the larger. The latter were more likely to panic and run from my hand. They had more space within which to do so! So I can totally see starting them out in a smaller space than your ultimate brooder space, and then moving them into a larger space as their size and needs grow. (This is why I submit Celeste the black broiler with Australorpe heritage has been friendlier than any of the full-blooded Australorpes… although those are pretty cool too.)
There are a variety of brooders you can use. The large metal pans you can find at Tractor Supply or so forth are handy, and clean out easily. Some people make or buy dedicated wood brooders, which is probably the expensive way to go. Others have barns where they can shut off an area and turn that entire space into a brooding zone – certainly handy if you are going for chicken quantity.
Since my house was new construction, I had a couple large cardboard boxes I pressed into service. The eleven laying birds ended up in a 39 x 23 inch cardboard box that had been used to transport a freezer, and the 8 broilers ended up in a box that had once housed a toilet (quite appropriately) 28 x 16.5 inch box. Since the broilers would grow faster than the layers, and came from different sources, I kept them housed separately (although in the same room). I cut down the height of the first box so I could reach the ground in there with ease (I’m tall, this helped. And in my case meant that a cover wasn’t needed until fairly late in their development.) You have to cut down and cover to your own needs.
I lined the bottom of the boxes with “Solid Grip Easy Liner“, obtained from Bed, Bath & Beyond, allowing the lining to go up each of the four sides about an inch or so. Unlike some other liners, this stuff doesn’t get very mad if it can’t re-curl. Actually, writing up this post… I just learned this stuff is also machine-washable. Until or if until I know better, I’d probably not send it through on high heat…
On top of this liner, I laid down about 3 sheets of newspaper (I’m new to this region of the country, so it was a great opportunity to scope out newsprint news until I settled on buying the cheapest newspapers on Sundays when the papers are thicker), and over that I spread their pine chip bedding. Fortunately the woman at Tractor Supply knew something about chickens (don’t count on this), and steered me to the actual shredded chips, not the light fluffy almost-sawdust stuff they also sold. IMPORTANT. Apparently the sawdust like flakes can cause respiratory problems in chickens after they float around after chickens do their scratching thing.
DO NOT USE CEDAR. The volatile oils of cedar, as much as most of us humans like the aroma, are not good for chickens. Stick with pine shavings. My chicks were fine.
While they were chicks, I cleaned out their bedding regularly. The first week I was able to wait five or six days, but this rapidly devolved into every-other-day bedding changes. I remember once I could not get to them long enough for litter change-out for three days… well, that was rather repulsive! Bedding changes meant that the newspapers and chips were removed and disposed of. The shelf lining plastic was hardy and I didn’t change it other than the one time I’d had to wait three days. You can compost their pine chips, newspaper, and poo. I left that BB&B sheeting material alone, except for that time I couldn’t get to the changeout until late – that day I replaced it. The two large boxes, due to the good BB&B layer at the bottom, can actually see a second year of use. (For space reasons, I got rid of the smaller boxes.)
To be honest in retrospect, you can set your chicks up without the newspaper. It’s just easier to grab the paper in pulling their wet poo and shavings out (if you don’t wait too long).
At some point before they could go outside, the broilers outgrew their box, and I scrounged a couple smaller boxes from neighborhood establishments, and put two chickens in each of the smaller boxes, leaving three in the largest box, all set up the same way. So they wouldn’t “forget” their future outdoor tractor mates, I randomized them every time I did a bedding change. (Don’t know if they would or not, but why take chances?)
When they are young chicks, you probably won’t need a lid. But get lid material to hand for when you do need it. I picked up chicken wire and weighted it down with leftover construction wood, and in one case, I had some ornamental fencing from my past home that I simply laid over the top, when the time came.
Heat: You will need at least one heat lamp, and I’d recommend the red bulbs, as this won’t interfere as much with their diurnal cycles. I did pick some bulbs up of each before I knew better (there was a going-out-of-business sale a year prior to my getting chickens), but stuck with the red. Buy extra bulbs. Like batteries, bulbs die when you least want them to. Murphy’s Law.
This first year, I did go with the standard heat lamps, the type you clamp on and hope don’t fall down into the bedding and cause a fire. I made sure mine were secure and checked them often, and by the time my chickens were able to jump that high, they didn’t need heat any more. Obviously, mine did clamp properly, but next year my babies will have the heat lamp pictured below; I’m simply debating the best way to clamp it to their brooders.
Water: Like any animal, water is crucial. Your best bet is finding a brick or a thick piece of wood to set the water container up on. This won’t prevent the chicks from soiling it, but it will keep them from soiling it so thoroughly. If your setup permits you can hang the water from the top of your brooder, or from your ceiling. Change the water daily. Occasionally, not very often I admit, I gave them acidulated water – basically 2-3 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar per gallon of water. Much more than that and they’ll be put off drinking their water, or so I understand. Didn’t test that supposition!
Feed: Get chick starter feed. Many recommended NOT to use medicated feed. Other opinions may differ, but taking care of the chicks’ various needs should generally mean medicated food is not necessary. Get them “chick starter” feed, and it should be granules, no pellets – for the first two or three weeks they can’t handle pellets. Laying pullets (immature hens) can switch over to “grower feed” at about 8 weeks, go ahead and mix the starter feed in with the layer feed until you run out of the former. Switch this to “layer feed” around 18-20 weeks. The future hens do not need extra calcium until they’re close to actually laying eggs (20 weeks or so – mine were definitely more!) I’ll talk more about adult bird feed in a more adult-oriented post for the future…
Broiler birds mature MUCH faster than layers or dual purpose birds. This is so they can be harvested much earlier than the others. That’s how they were bred. Saves on feed… but it also means you will transition your broilers over to “grower feed” at about 4-5 weeks for those. They’ll remain on this until harvest. (I am not speaking for Cornish Cross… no idea when one should transition them over…)
As for organic feed: you can go either way on it. If I had a LOT of birds, I’d be sticking with regular feed, as organic gets pricey real fast. However, while they’re chicks, they don’t go through it all that fast. As they get a little older, you can supplement with kitchen scraps, torn up into tiny gullet sized pieces. I’ll discuss feeding them adult feed when they go outside to their coop or tractor, in a future post in this series. But one thing I do like to do is read the labels. I read labels on my own food, and this is indeed one reason I’ve decided to raise chickens for my personal consumption to begin with.
Safety from children and pets: While the chicks should be handled to encourage docility, small children may get over exuberant, and pets might at first back away awkwardly, but then may discover new chew toys to hand. I kept my chicks in the workshop, a room closed off from my non-existent children and my very very existent cats. (Someone other than myself likely has some expertise in introducing small children to chicks safely …)
Chick First Aid: You may want to consider having your chicks inoculated against Marek’s Disease when you order them. However, if you have one batch of chicks that won’t be, but the other does have the vaccination option, it is best not to vaccinate. The vaccinated birds can shed attenuated but not totally killed virus that the non-vaccinated ones can pick up… and get sick from.
I will put up a post on chicken first aid supplies soon in this series (it’s getting rather lengthy here, and you can wait until shortly before your chicks arrive to get some of those supplies in).
Getting your day old chicks – For US Customers
(I know nothing about how this works in other countries…)
I ordered the laying birds from My Pet Chicken, because they could ship me fewer chicks. The minimum order to arrive in my zip code of Massachusetts was 7 chicks in May. Most suppliers won’t ship less than 15. I figured 15 was pushing my envelope. In most cases with online hatcheries, you should order a couple months or more in advance, or as soon as they’ve laid out their schedule for the season. This will help you more or less guarantee you will be able to get the day old chicks of the breed you want. Like, start looking NOW. Even so, they might ask you to choose some something if they can’t quite predict what will be laid the week you want them. (Since I was ordering four breeds – one breed with either of two color choices, I simply said to just change the numbers of each of those breeds as it might work out, and to simply choose at random a different male from any of those selected breeds. In any case, I got what I’d ordered.) They might also ask you for a range of weeks on top of your preferred date of shipment. I got mine when planned. You may have more difficulty getting exactly what you want if ordering stock that’s more rare, but that’s merely a guess on my part. But, do order early.
All suppliers that ship do so through the US Postal Service. Neither UPS nor FedEx will take them. On the positive side about this is that the USPS has been doing this since the mid-1800’s and should have the experience to handle it, especially if you are not doing roof top chickens in large cities… When you make your order, you need to give them your phone number(s) – in my case, since cell service is bad here, I provided them with both home and cell, in case I was out somewhere. If you are possibly going to be at work, give them that number, too. The supplier will give you the date of arrival, but very rarely things may happen. When you get the call, you will almost certainly have to go in and take personal delivery. I do understand there are a few rare places where the postal workers will drop off the birds directly TO you, but don’t count on it.
In my case, I got the call to go to the Pittsfield post office (which is not my own), because it would have taken them another day to bring the chicks out to my small town. Mail doesn’t rush around here! I dropped what I was doing and ran in to pick them up. All were chirping merrily to the amusement of the staff behind the counter.
Since it was a 40 minute drive home, I chucked my jacket and cranked up the car’s heat, but keep in mind in transit to you, they’re also at ambient transit temperatures.
As for the broilers, I picked them up at the Mom and Pop farm supply store. I’d ordered them two or three months before, and they had a set date for pick up, which they told us in advance. I had ordered 9 birds, 5 red broilers and 4 black broilers… one of the reds didn’t survive the trip to the store, and as I was the second person there who’d ordered the reds — the first person had gotten all of his or her order, and I was left short one. But eight was perfect for a first year test flock.
If you get your chicks from Tractor Supply — they seem to have birds in the stores up here in New England twice a year. Once late spring, and once in September/August. You can mix and match from what’s there with a minimum of six chicks. If you want to order from their online catalog, it’s a minimum of 10 chicks, and I don’t get the impression you can do much mixing. I assume Ag-way works similarly.
Keep the chicks warm on the way home from the post office/farm store/friendly neighborhood chicken keeper. I brought a warm towel to cover the box they came home in. Once home, take them out, and put them in their already set-up boxes/containers, dipping their little beaks into the water so they know that’s water. (You DID set up everything before bringing the babies home, right?) Don’t bother them for a day or two other than to change water and check food and heat; they’ve been under a lot of stress.
If they bunch together tightly, they may be too cold. If they hang apart, far from the heat source, they’re too hot. Adjust accordingly.
How I picked my breeds for Laying Hens
Breeds for colder regions of the US/Canada (although I am dubious about the Northwest Territories of Canada):
Selected for: cold hardiness, heat tolerance, ability to free range AND to be confined (especially in winter, mine hate going out in snow), egg production, docility to each other, friendliness, dual purpose, and day old chick price. I also selected against feathered legs (potential mud factor), but if you like feathering, the Cochin may be for you. I selected against the heaviest birds that are prone to cracking their eggs, such as the Jersey Giant. I also based all of the year’s selections on the Livestock Conservancy; I wanted to work with heritage chickens. (I will broaden my horizons next….)
This year, I was not concerned about broodiness. If you aren’t going to have roosters, you don’t need broody (wanting to lay on eggs, incubate and hatch) chickens, since there won’t be any fertile eggs. You can break broody hens from mothering her eggs, if you need. My thoughts here was to focus on the characteristics of the birds as listed above, and, since I have a rooster, if one or two decide to go broody in the spring, we’ll let nature take its course. I am interested in raising my own flock, but I’m content to wait until 2020 before I focus heavily on this. Your time frame may well vary.
I have the starred (*) birds, so I note my personal experiences with them to date – source for these breeds is My Pet Chicken hatchery; various lines of the same breed may exhibit some variation in behavior depending where bred. All chicks and pullets of these breeds were handled equally, so friendliness to humans is being judged based against each other. (None of my birds was more aggressive to other birds than the other, although it took one female buff Orpington a couple days longer to adjust to the presence of the new ex-broiler in the coop.)
- * Australorpe – (friendliest in my experience of the ones I’ve raised). Main coloration is black, baby chicks have some white that goes away as they mature.
- * Buckeye – (second-friendliest breed in my experience. The first to want to step out of the chicken run when I opened the door. They are very curious about the world, and like to be out foraging). The white meat on this chicken is supposed to resemble dark meat, for me a selling feature. Of the four breeds I currently have, they are allegedly the least prolific of the egg layers. Reddish plumage. But… dark meat, should I decide to breed this type. I am also pleased with their need to forage as adults.
- Delaware – Eggs can get to jumbo sized. Maybe even double-yolked. Birds are mostly white. A definite “to order” bird to try out.
- * Orpington – (third-friendliest in my experience. One was my first layer, and she laid an egg nearly every day to date since beginning to produce late November. Even though I don’t have extra light in the coop.) Most common is the buff plumage; some other colors are pricy. Idril, this prime layer to date, is also the least likely to accept newcomers immediately to her flock.
- Rhode Island Red – brown-red in coloration. Apparently a very desirably-flavored chicken. A very dark red, brownish chicken.
- Rhode Island White – Lays less eggs than the Red. A white bird, brown eggs. I probably won’t pursue this breed.
- * Wyandotte – (least human-friendly of my four in my experience. My one rooster is very solicitous of the harem, however). The silver laced and the golden laced varieties are affordable, and beautiful. However, I will probably not acquire more; I’ve eliminated this breed from my future consideration. Beauty is after all, not everything! I admit I chose this breed in part due to the Fabio factor.
I will consider the following two breeds, although I understand despite winter-hardiness, their combs may be vulnerable to frostbite. (One can use Vaseline in the coldest of weather, and the combs are likely to be more of an issue on the males. Well, larger combs!)
- Dorking. A neighbor here just purchased dorkings; I will find out how they do here this winter. They are supposed to lay well even in winter, and are prized for meat.
- New Hampshire. New Hampshire’s climate is pretty much like here, so I’m thinking that the combs are not likely to be that much of a problem. They’re a beautifully-colored bird, especially the rooster. Rapid growth. Mixed reports on friendliness.
- Sussex. They do tend to go broody, so a definite consideration for when I start to rear up my own.
Breeds NOT in the Livestock Conservancy I am considering for the future:
- Amerucana. It’s an actual breed, but will make various colored eggs – each bird retains its own color for life, so you want several for that Easter egg effect. Note, some chickens named Easter Eggers are not a true breed, but hybrids. However, baby chicks currently cost more than I can justify when there are so many other choices.
- Amber Link. A hybrid another neighbor raves about. However, they are hybrid and not really a “breed”, and thus will not breed true. (Then again, if my Wyandotte breeds my Australorps, the result there will be a hybrid, too…) Eggs would be white. I am informed they are VERY friendly.
- Marans. They’re a breed rather than a hybrid; I am considering them for their deep chocolatey eggs, especially the copper Marans. They will cost a bit more. I do understand they may be less hardy than the other selections here.
- Plymouth (Barred) Rock. Very popular in my town, with no complaints from keepers. One neighbor did say hers can be a bit pushy, we shall see.
- Welsummer. Another dark brown egg layer, and hardy.
So.. the main things I considered when picking my first year birds was the Livestock Conservancy (and My Pet Chicken) recommendations for easy-to-maintain birds, winter hardiness for Zone 5b, decent reaction to the heat of summer, ability to forage as well to be cooped if needed, egg laying ability, full-sized rather than bantam (smaller eggs, less winter-hardy), no feathered legs (pretty but I wasn’t sure that would be practical), docile and not flighty, did My Pet Chicken carry them, was the price reasonable for a beginner, and in the case of the Buckeyes… potential dark meat? (I don’t plan on eating my current Buckeye hens, but if I go full out raising them on my property, something will have to happen to excess males, and I’m not a vegetarian.)
At this point, just looking at the four breeds and my requirements, I’d choose Australorpes and Buckeyes for my farm, though I’d consider buff Orpingtons due to Idril’s laying habits. Thing is, I don’t really know who is laying most of the eggs right now, in most cases. But, my Orpingtons will be here for several more years, a-laying away. (I hope…)
Testing out four or five new breeds from the above lists is on my schedule soon.
NOTE: One of my neighbors orders her future laying chicks to arrive in late summer/early autumn. Her rationale is that spring-hatching birds won’t mature until late autumn/early winter arrives — and egg production drops. In her ordering plan, the hens will mature with spring, and she’ll get a full season of many eggs when the days are longer. Something to consider the more northerly you live, although there may be less selection if you go to a hatchery (or even neighboring farmers). But this may be why Tractor Supply also has an August/September chick season here in New England.
Past posts in this series:
Raising Chickens, Part I: Intro and Overview
Future plans for this series (which may modify):
Raising Chickens, Part III: Winter Has Come! (Accessing your coop in snow and ice!) – Yes, this one is a little out of order but it IS winter NOW here.
Raising Chickens Part IV: The Medical Kit.
Raising Chickens Part V: Good Online Resources.
Raising Chickens Part VI: The Chicken Coop and Run.
Raising Chickens Part VII: Free-Ranging and Electro-Netting and Predators.
Raising Chickens Part VIII: Feeding When Free-Ranging.
Raising Chickens Part IX: TBD! (Maybe even quail!)
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