5 Important Tips to Starting Chicks

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASpring is near and for many that means the peeping of chicks being started inside. Selection of a breed that works for you is important, but once your research finds those birds, a good hatchery and your order is placed there are some important things to have in place when the chicks arrive. Ideally this will be set up so it makes the transition easy.

Chicks absorb the nutrition from the yolk before hatching, which allows them to be shipped the first day without food or water. However, on arrival they will need a good start to stay healthy and thriving. You’ll need a clean brooder to start with. Hold off on bedding at first, simply having a clean bare floor. The brooder need not be fancy – a commercially made one can be used or you can adapt from many options. I’ve used a rabbit carrier inside a box as an effective way to start small batches of chicks, with 12-15 in each section of the carrier. Once the chicks identify food then bedding can be added to help keep a solid floored brooder dry.

Safety. Too many times those heat lamps are not properly hung, or a cord is frayed or worn. This is critical as too many fires result from such simple and relatively inexpensive fixes. Make sure the light doesn’t come in contact with flammable materials. Temperature is important! You want the temperature at the chick’s level to be 95 degrees. If chicks are too cold they will pile in a corner or on top of each other…often the strongest ones push underneath to the center and are then smothered by the others. Make sure the chicks have enough heat – if they’re avoiding the heated area then it’s too warm, but they shouldn’t be crowding on top of each other either. A good balance is the ability to retreat to food and water and a cooler area if they want to but plenty of warmth. The temperature should be reduced by five degrees per week until the chicks are feathered out, when they can begin transitioning outside.

Feeders should be easy to find and filled with a good starter. This gets the birds started with all the vitamins and nutrition they need to thrive and become productive layers. It also supports muscle growth for meat birds. Make sure there is enough space for all chicks to have room at the feeder. A general rule of thumb is an inch of linear space per bird. Initially, because the brooder has no bedding, you can spread several small piles around the brooder. This makes it very easy for chicks to find feed and start eating.

Waterers should be cleaned and filled on arrival. Some people prefer a little sugar in the water for an energy boost, some prefer electrolytes and some prefer just plain water, but have it filled. As you pull each chick from the shipping box quickly dip their beaks in the water before letting them go. This shows them where water is, as well as the normal reflex of raising their heads to swallow. Quick introduction to water is important to combat any dehydration from their journey. Once bedding is put in the brooder, I like to (before bedding) but a small block, just a couple inches tall, to raise the waterers up. This helps keeps bedding out of the water, but be sure chicks can reach the water (no more than back high).

These five basic things can be provided many ways from reused materials to new name brand equipment. The important thing is attention to detail for healthy birds!

Keeping Chickens as Productive Pets

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChickens are among the most productive of pets, and if numbers are an indication the back yard poultry movement is booming. Chickens are no longer cast in the barnyard to fend for themselves nor strictly farmed in volume – there are more options including pastured poultry and those with a dozen or less birds for eggs.

For most people interested in raising chickens for their own use it comes to whether you want to raise meat birds or keep hens for eggs. This can make a difference in the choice of breeds or the time from hatching to the table. The commercial industry uses white feathered birds but for home production there is no standard restriction.

Those interested in raising some meat chickens would do well to keep it at 25 or 50 in the order. That’s a chicken a week if they all survive, for the freezer. Many hatcheries will run specials sometimes a “frying pan special” which you can get a good deal price wise. Most of the birds will be cockerels, the less valued side of the quest for hens. Leghorn type are cheap but take a couple extra weeks to get to weight; larger birds can also take slightly longer maturing.

Most people looking for chickens for the back yard will be looking at ordering pullets and raising them for egg layers. Depending on the room available you can choose from white, brown or colored egg layers in a wide range of colors. Generally they will begin laying in about six months or so depending on breed. Some popular breeds for brown egg layers have been Plymouth Rocks, Wyandottes, Orpingtons, Dominiques and Rhode Island Reds.

Those with more room may enjoy the larger breeds such as Orpingtons, Brahmas or Jersey giants. Those with less room can still have the bantam varieties of many of these breeds or silkies which take less room and feed, produce smaller eggs but are still completely edible.

Chickens are often thought of for eggs and meat but another factor when you’re keeping chickens is manure. This can be added to the compost pile for fertilizing the gardens. Typically chickens will scratch dry any wet spots looking for bugs…which reduces flies and other pests.

Confined to a portable or stationery pen they are low maintenance pets that don’t bark all night, can let themselves out of the shelter in most areas and don’t need vaccinations. They don’t need daily walks or expensive toys, eagerly make use of many kitchen scraps and while they aren’t often “lap pets” they’re no less entertaining to sit and watch.

Make sure zoning is not a problem to keeping them, and do strive to keep them contained, odor free and well kept. There is a wide range of colors, feather type, sizes and appearances available from fancy to ordinary.

Did you know – A typical layer hen can mature at standard 5-9 pounds, smaller for bantams. Some crossbreds can be “sex linked” – or have colored females and white males at hatching. Pullets (females) eliminate having to deal with roosters and crowing.

Good Choices for Homestead Chicken Flocks

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen selecting chickens for home food production it makes a difference if you are seeking eggs, meat or both. For most homesteaders and small farmers there is little more enjoyable than chickens that produce eggs for Sunday breakfast as well as growthy fryers for dinner. This leaves the choices mostly to the larger breeds developed for doing both.

Some people have a preference for white or brown eggs or for the skin color on meat. Here in the US it’s said yellow skinned birds are more favored than the white skinned “English” breeds. Another consideration if raising meat birds and hatching eggs to do so is the temperament of the roosters. There is no excuse for a mean rooster and those that are can easily become Sunday dinner themselves!

For the purposes of dual purpose with a focus on not only producing eggs and meat but also foraging for part or most of their food, these are the breeds I recommend and favor.

Sussex chickens are white skinned brown egg layers that are hardy. Difficult to find in the “light” or “red” colors here in the US they are more easily found in the speckled variety. These are unique and personable birds that have wonderful temperaments, straight combs and each one is unique due to the dots on their feathers, seen as they mature. Often young chicks can look as if “iced” with white drizzled on them. Eager foragers that were developed for the farm the darker colors help protect them from predators during the day as they seek food in the farmyard. They are a “threatened” breed with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Plymouth Rocks come in several varieties that sometimes are represented as breeds including barred rocks or white rocks for example. Among the other varieties are buff, partridge, blue, Columbian and silver penciled rocks, each with distinctive and beautiful coloring. They are hardy birds that grow well and lay brown eggs. These are more numerous than many of the other breeds but many have been “industrialized” so the original farm type is less common. Large size is needed with many of the breed being used as a crossbred for “Cornish rock” or game hens.

Wyandottes are another breed that have a long history in the US as a medium weight bird with rose combs that are less susceptible to freezing then the Rocks. Occasionally a single combed bird is hatched from rose combed parents but these should not be kept as breeders. For those who like a rainbow of colors these come in white, buff, Columbian, golden laced, silver laced, blue, silver penciled, black and partridge. They’re fast growing normally docile birds.

Brahmas are a delightful large bird with hens up to 9-1/2 pounds. Brown eggs and a small comb with feathering in light, dark and buff this is a bird that photos just don’t do justice. They are feather footed, often not favored for farm settings, but their gentle nature allow withstanding cold weather well. They do mature somewhat slower as they are a large breed at maturity and often favored for heavy roasters for the table. Not quite as prolific in the egg laying department as the other breeds these are still a nice large breed to have even if just a few to enjoy in the flock!

New Hampshire is a somewhat new breed with a deep body that has room for meat production as well as brown eggs. They are red in color with a little black in the tail. Long a favorite on small farms these are lighter colored than the Rhode Island Red.

Rhode Island Reds and white offer two colors that may be single or rose combed and have long excelled as a good layer of eggs for a family. Some roosters can be aggressive but normally these are quiet birds that may show traces of black in the tail and occasionally on the wing or body. From a breeding standpoint these should be not used in a program.

Araucanas and americaunas are distinctive for their “ear muffs” and sometimes beards that are visible from a young age. Their appearance is not the only distinctive quality about these birds as they also lay colored eggs in green and blue shell colors! These are hardy birds in a rainbow of colors that are active foragers and quite willing to do for themselves.

Orpingtons are a white skinned brown egg layer that matures at larger weights, about 8 pounds for hens with roosters a couple pounds heavier. Available in black, blue, buff and white these excel as a meat bird and were brought from England over 100 years ago. There was a boom for the breed when the commercial broiler ad roaster market demanded the larger sized birds but when that tailed off so did the popularity of the Orpington. Chicks can be somewhat passive and if raised in a group with other breed care needs to be taken to insure they all eat.

Dominiques were the bird of choice 100 years ago for their ability to raise a good meat bird, forage for food instead of relying on expensive grains and lay enough brown shelled eggs for a family. They were also expected to set and raise their own chicks to insure a steady supply of young birds for the table as well as replacement layers for the following year.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABuckeyes are an American breed that has been likened to feathered cats of the barnyard for their fondness of mice. This is a breed that is critically endangered according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. This is a larger breed with a pea comb that leaves less to frostbite in cold weather climates. They are an active, free ranging breed with hens about 6 pounds and laying medium sized brown eggs. With a history dating back to Ohio in 1896 this breed has survived due to a handful of people who appreciate their hardy characteristics.

While many search for the dual purpose characteristics of meat and eggs it must be remembered too that these breeds serve another purpose as foragers. They help control bug populations as they seek morsels and should a mouse cross their path they will show you chickens are NOT vegetarians!

These are wonderful birds that can keep a family fed with basic care and TLC.

Raising Poultry for a Productive Flock

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany people can raise their own meat and eggs in a small area. Chickens, turkeys and waterfowl are common to raise but so often misunderstood.

A few basic needs – you’ll need a feeder with enough room for all chicks, a waterer that can’t be tipped over; and if you’re raising ducks or goslings it will need to be deep enough for them to submerge their bills in without being able to get *in* the water. A brooder light is needed – you’ll need to adjust this before hand. There needs to be enough room under the light for all chicks to be able to stay at 95 degrees the first week then reducing it 5 degrees per week until they are feathered. There should be room to get away from the lamp if a chick gets too warm but plenty of warm room is needed. Chicks will pile and smother, and it’s often the strongest chicks killed because they’re strong enough to burrow under and get warm, but are suffocated for it.

Good starter feed is needed – if you’re starting ducklings or goslings make sure it’s non-medicated. Fast going chickens and turkeys need extra nutrition to sustain growth and health. Keep feed stored properly.

Decide on your situation and what you want. If you’re not wanting to listen to crowing and have a secure fenced area you might consider ducks – but remember to have a VERY good predator system. Ducks don’t roost in trees or on perches, but will need to be kept cool in warm weather. Chickens are a traditional egg bird but many duck breeds can lay as heavy or nearly so as a chicken. Chickens are apt to get over fences, even some persistent hens with wings clipped. Anything outside at night unprotected can fall prey to owls and other predators.

Before hatching a young bird draws the yolk as a source of nutrient rich substance – and this allows them to sustain a one day shipping flight without having food. When they arrive you should have the brooder ready and at the proper temperature, the feeders filled and the water either treated with an electrolyte or sugar. Take each chick individually and dip its beak in the water – they’ll automatically in most cases tip their heads back to swallow. Some will drink quite a bit some are content with that first drip. Before totally letting them go place them over by the feeder and dip their beak near the feed. This shows the young birds where food and water is and gets them off to a good start.

Attention to temperature is crucial – this can’t be stressed enough. If babies start clumping too close together you will lose birds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you want eggs decide what color you want. Chickens can lay white, brown or colored eggs. Araucanas are known for their blue and green eggs and some believe the eggs to be higher in vitamins. Brown egg layers are often the “heavy” breeds – Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshires and Rocks (barred, buff, white, partridge are just a few varieties) are common. White egg layers it’s hard to beat the common Leghorn – but they are not just white! You can get silver, red, brown leghorns that are colorful but still produce white shelled eggs. If you’re interested in use and preservation of less common breeds check out Dominiques, Sussex, Brahmas, Anconas.

Ducks have fewer common breeds – many don’t realize ducks are anything but white. Anconas are spotted; Cayuga are solid black; there’s buff and Harlequins which are colorful. Campbell ducks – most commonly khaki but a few strains of white – are good layers. Many are fans of the muscovy ducks.

Geese have a variety of looks from the common Emden and Chinese (the ones with the knobs on their bills) to the Pomeranian, Pilgrim, Sebastopol (a frizzle breed) and Buff. Geese can be good weeders once they get started they’ll graze and a half dozen geese on a front fenced lawn can help “mow”. Be aware though if allowed to hang out on the porch or other entryway they will make a MESS.

Turkeys are often pictured as the wild or white – the bronze, Bourbon Red, White Palm and several other types of turkey offer a variety of sizes and types to raise for Thanksgiving or other meals or just enjoy. I had a Bourbon Red hen once who became something of a pet, following me around at feeding. Keep all birds protected – dogs can be deadly to a flock and the birds have little to no defense if they’re calm and gentle.

Any of these birds can be a good source of enjoyment as well as eggs. Chickens can “recycle” much in the way of kitchen scraps and love to scratch for bugs. Keep them protected and meet their needs and you will be rewarded!