Since I have started keeping chickens a few years ago, I have noticed the HUGE increase in people who are interested in keeping their own chickens. I think that this is fantastic, one way to get further away from the highly flawed modern day food system, and closer to nature and sustainability! Whether keeping them for meat or eggs, or simply as pets, chickens are a great addition to any home. Starting out with chicks is easier than you might think!
Start out shopping for your chicks by doing a little research into what kinds of chicks you’d like to have. Base the breeds you want on things such as your geographical location (ie. cold winters need more cold hardy breeds while hot summers may call for more heat tolerant animals), purpose that your birds will fulfill (ie. meat vs eggs vs dual purpose), size of your property, budget (many specialty or rare breeds are much more expensive per bird), and location relative to neighbors (some neighbors do not appreciate chickens hopping the fence or roosters crowing in the early morning hours).
– Originally, for our first batch of chickens, I had only wanted to purchase three, and I wanted a “pink egg layer,” a “blue layer,” and a “green/olive layer.” The lady we purchased from helped us decide on some easier to care for/more friendly breeds for us first-time chicken owners, and we ended up with all brown layers – a black sex link, production red, colombian rock, and buff orpington.
Once you’ve decided on the breeds you’d like to have, start shopping around. There are MANY ways to acquire chicks. Many local and commercial feed stores sell chicks in the spring. You can also turn to Facebook or Craigslist. Shopping online and having chicks shipped is also an option. Regardless, look for producers who are NPIP certified, or at the minimum, have healthy stock living in good conditions (you can always ask them to see pictures of their animals if you can’t see their property in person). When you find a breeder or source that you like, decide on the number of birds you’ll be getting, and if you prefer straight run (unsexed) vs pullets or cockerels. Some breeds, such as silkies, are very difficult to sex until they reach sexual maturity and therefore can only be bought straight run. It is usually best to buy at least 4 chicks at a time, they will keep each other company and use one another for warmth, especially when they move outside and roost at night. Additionally, it is not uncommon to lose one or two chicks due to failure to thrive, so having those extra there is a good idea.
Before you go to pick up your chicks, set up your brooder. I have seen hundreds of THOUSANDS of brooders, from cardboard boxes to kiddie pools to specialty built wooden brooders, to bathtubs (which is where my chicks currently reside). A brooder needs to have the following things:
– a heat lamp: this is especially important because chicks can’t stand cool temperatures until they are fully feathered, and therefore need a source of warmth in order to survive. Heat lamps can often be purchased at farm supply stores or off of Amazon
– bedding: when I raised my first batch of chicks, I bedded my brooder with pine shavings, this time around, I laid down paper and then put a layer of fresh, clean hay. Brooder bedding is really personal preference, however cedar shavings should not be used because they can cause respiratory issues, I know people who shred paper, people who use dried grass clippings, use whatever is clean that you have on hand.
– feeder & waterer*: chicks are wasteful, especially when it comes to their food. They will scratch in their feeders and dump food EVERYWHERE. I elevate both my feeders & waterers so that they are above foot level to where the chicks can still reach them, but they can’t scratch in them.
*Chick food & probiotics: buy whatever chick starter feed you feel is best for your birds, I personally buy unmedicated, organic, non-GMO chick starter crumbles. Also make sure you have some source of grit for them to help them break down their food. Additionally, if you feel the need, you can add probiotic to their water. I do this, however I don’t buy store bought probiotic, I instead use raw, unfiltered ACV (apple cider vinegar), about 2 tbsp in their waterer.
Chicks don’t need much more than this for the first week or so of their lives. I prefer to enrich mine by giving them live mealworms, which they go nuts over. They establish their pecking order going after the worms, as well as are encouraged to behave like adults foraging and scratching for their snacks. After a week and a half to two weeks, I add in some semblance of a slightly elevated roost, and generally the most dominant chicks will take to it fairly quickly. They will begin to roost to sleep usually when they can handle being out from under the heat lamp and have really found their legs.
Make sure that from day 1, you are desensitizing your chicks to you and your family. Get your dogs used to them and make sure that your pets know the chicks are OFF LIMITS! If you can, associate your presence to the chicks with food. My chicks are learning that when I come into the bathroom, I handle each one, and then they all get mealworms as a treat. This will make them infinitely easier to deal with when they are older if they think that you = treats. My adult chickens come when called and it makes checking everyone’s health very simple and easy.
If the weather is warm (at least 80 degrees typically) I will take my chicks outside to the garden for some “play time” to let them scratch and forage for bugs and greens. I usually limit this outdoor time to no more than 30 minutes, and I have to keep a VERY close eye on them, especially watching the sky for hawks and other predators. Young chicks are highly susceptible to predation.
I will begin feeding kitchen scraps (ie. kale, watermelon, corn, etc.) in small amounts around 1-2 weeks old as long as they are thriving on their chick starter and no one is showing any signs of GI issues (diarrhea, etc.).
Once your chicks are fully feathered, which depending on the breed is usually between 4-6 weeks of age, they can be moved outside. If it is still getting cool at night, they should be either brought in at night or provided a heat lamp (be cautious, heat lamps in coops are HUGE fire hazards and can be very dangerous, proceed with caution). When you go to move them outside, gradually introduce them to their coop, and pen them in the coop itself for a couple days so that they associate the coop with home. I then allow my chicks to move outside of the coop into a small fenced run for another few days before fully turning them loose to free range the yard.
If you are introducing young chicks to your already established flock, take it SLOW, especially if your chickens are in a coop & run instead of free ranging. Older chickens will often pick on (sometimes to death) younger birds. Keep your chooks separated from one another until the older birds have gotten used to the new ones. Free ranging birds have space to get away from one another and generally have fewer issues when introducing new birds.
Chickens are a fantastic way to make your life a little more sustainable. They are fun animals to watch and interact with. I call mine “little velociraptors,” and watching them run about the yard is one of my favorite activities. Whatever your reasons, you won’t be sorry that you added chickens to your home!