Getting started with chickens is actually quite easy, and not at all expensive. At least it doesn’t have to be. What happens to you next, when you decide to sell your house in the suburbs and move to five acres in the country so your chickens have room to roam and your property has room for a few dozen more…well, that part can get expensive.
Before you get your first chicks.
The first thing you need to do is figure out why you want chickens. For show? For eggs? For meat? I’m guessing most beginners are looking for eggs and an interesting pet. Layers are a little a less fussy to care for, but they are a time investment. You will have to care for them for approximately six months before they lay their first egg and then they lay productively for about three years. The average chicken can live seven years, however, so you will need to figure out now what to do with your retired hens. Many people just keep them on as pets, some give them away (where they likely end up in the stew pot) and some put them in the stew pot themselves. I promised our children that we’d keep the first four on like pets, but to get used to the idea now that subsequent chicks were destined for the table when their laying days were over.
We’ll see how mom handles that one when the time comes.
Know the law regarding chickens.
Before starting chicks, know what the law is in your area. Your state Department of Agriculture should be able to help you, and it is only a matter of a few phone calls or emails. It is quite common for residential areas to limit you to three hens and to restrict roosters, but it varies widely.
Selecting your first chicks.
When you are sure you are ready for the commitment, it is time to figure out exactly which chickens you want. Henderson’s Breed Chart is an excellent resource for figuring out what breed will work for you. It gives you information about how many eggs to expect, what color the eggs are, how friendly the birds are, how flighty, how well they do on pasture, and how cold hardy they are and more, all in a nice chart that allows for easy comparison. Availability of chicks is something to consider as you look at the chart, however. If you’re ordering from a hatchery, you can get pretty much anything but expect a minimum order of 25 (or the inclusion of extra roosters for packing peanuts). If you’re purchasing from a feed store, you will be limited to a few breeds. Know what they are and compare them.
At the store, make sure the chicks look healthy before buying them. Baby chicks actually have a high mortality rate, and there is no sense bringing sick or pitiful looking ones home to “rescue” them. It almost always ends badly. They should be lively, and a bit skittish, running away when you try to catch them. They should also be clean, and their food and water should be relatively clean. I say relatively because you will find out very quickly that it is impossible to keep the bedding out of their dishes, so you have to forgive a bit of bedding.
What to buy for your chicks.
Chicks, chick starter (medicated or unmedicated…we start them on medicated and switch to unmedicated when they feather out. All the medication is out of their system long before they begin to lay.), a feeder, a waterers and a heat lamp. You do not need grit so long as your chicks are fed chick starter exclusively.
Setting up the brooder.
OK, so really you should have thought about this before you bought your chicks. Your brooder should be sitting in a warm, draft free place complete with feeder, waterer and heat lamp, all ready for your baby chicks. But who does that? I didn’t for my first four, nor for the 18 we just purchased last week. Brooders can get expensive. A nice one ordered from the hatchery can run you over $250, and it will be a long time before you have enough eggs to justify that kind of investment.
But essentially all you need is somewhere to keep your birds warm and protected, and you can easily make your own or repurpose something else you have lying about the house. Our first brooder for four chicks was an old guinea pig cage. We’re using a dog kennel for the 18 we have now, which works as well for keeping dogs out as it does for keeping dogs in. It can also double as a chicken tractor later when you set it on the lawn while you clean the mess they make on the garage floor. Rubbermaid storage containers are a popular do it yourself brooder, and you can even use cardboard boxes.
Finding the right temperature.
Chicks need to be kept at 95 degrees their first week, with temperature needs lowering each week until they feather out. You can get a thermometer, and this is what is nice about commercial brooders. They come with a thermostat, taking some of the guesswork out. But you can also just ask your chicks. They’ll tell you whether they are too hot or too cold.
If all your chicks huddle together under the heat lamp, they’re cold. Try lowering the heat lamp or providing insulation. I have a quilt over our kennel to keep some of the heat in, and the first week we had them in a box inside the kennel. This was mainly because some were small enough to fit through the bars, but the sides of the box also warmed under the heat lamp, helping to hold the heat in more. You may need to move them to a warmer location, like your basement or laundry room.
If your chicks are all as far from the heat lamp as they can get, they are too warm. Try raising the heat lamp or moving it to the side so they can get away from the heat.
Ideally, when you look at your chicks, they should be all over. Some under the lamp, some at the feeder, some at the waterer, some resting in another corner. This is harder to see if you only have a couple chicks, but if even a couple are always under the heater or always as far from it as they can get, you know the temperature is a little off.
Once their down is replaced with feathers, you can remove the heat lamp and put them in their outdoor coop. If protected from the wind in a small area where their body heat can warm the air, they can withstand temperature down to zero without any ill effects. Below that and you really need to consider some supplemental heating.
What to watch for in your new chicks.
They’re really good at it. I’ve read that you should figure on losing up to 20%, but fortunately am yet to lose a chick. There’s a thousand things they die from, but essentially there are a few things you can do to increase your chances. Keep them warm, but not too warm. Keep them out of drafts, but be sure air can circulate. Clean their brooder regularly so they aren’t continually pecking at their own filth. Clean their feed and water dishes regularly. Remember that it is 95 degrees in there and there is no way you’re keeping chicken poo out of the water. It turns gross fast. I change their water and rinse out the container several times a day, wash it daily, and disinfect it regularly.
Also watch for what is known as “pasty butt.” It can be fatal, but is so simple to fix there’s no reason it has to be. Basically, a bit of poo gets stuck to their bottom, covering their vent and not allowing more poo to come out. You just need to get it off. Most things I’ve read suggest dipping those tushes in warm water and gently cleansing the area. If the chick loses a bit of fluff back there, it may peep in complaint but it won’t do any long term damage and that is far better than just letting it die!
Get to know some people with experience.
My favorite source of information is the forums at Backyard Chickens. It has 50,000 members, many of whom are self-professed chicken addicts. They have a wealth of experience and are more than happy to answer your questions. You usually even get a response within fifteen minutes or so if you are having a problem.
Enjoy your chicks!
Watch them often, and hold them daily. Feel their soft down, and take pleasure in the constant peeping. Let your children hold them, but be cautious with this. You don’t want to get your children sick! My children are allowed to hold them pretty much whenever they want. I try to keep them from kissing them and I give them a bit of hand sanitizer when they’re done. The children have never had any adverse effects, and it sure makes for tame birds. Two of our hens even follow me around, let me pick them up and seem to enjoy the occasional scratch behind the head.
There is nothing like a curious and affectionate child to tame the entire flock.
We’re getting ready to make a more proper chicken tractor for our birds that will be large enough to house all the layers and I’ll share that process when we get to it!