Starting your own flock of chickens can be one of the most rewarding experiences as a hobby farmer or homesteader. Even though chickens are becoming as popular and common in households as hamsters, they are not the easiest animal in the world to raise and it is very important that you do your research up front. Chickens are not an animal that should be an impulse buy. I know it’s tempting when you walk into Tractor Supply and hear the *cheep* *cheep* sounds all the way from the door; but unless you already have an established coop and/or brooding area, taking little chickies home without advanced planning could be detrimental to the chicks, and possibly your sanity as well.
Firstly, there are a few key supplies you will need when starting a flock of chickens. If you are bringing them home as chicks and starting from scratch you will want the following items:
- brooder (this can be something as simple as box or dog crate; or you can purchase one)
- heat lamp and bulbs (make sure you have a couple extras)
- chicken waterer
- chick feeder
- chick feed
- electrolytes (optional)
Chicks (especially ones coming from stores like Tractor Supply or Murdoch’s; or even ones that you special order and have shipped) have traveled a long way to be where they are and been through a lot at a very young age. This perfect storm can mean that these chicks are more vulnerable to certain illnesses such as dehydration, freezing or overheating, and other ailments associated with traveling for multiple days without feed or water. Unfortunately it is “typical” to expect to lose 1 or 2 of your chicks during the first week they are home. The best thing you can do as a new chick owner to mitigate these problems, is to have a clean, dry, and warm brooder for them to come home to. Adding electrolytes to their water can only help them, so if you have any concern at all of potential dehydration I would recommend purchasing electrolytes for your chicks, such as these.
Setting up your brooder
When creating a brooder for your chicks you can purchase one that is pre-made for you like this one or you can build something on your own. For our first set of chicks we actually used a wire dog crate. The only issue we had with this was some of the bedding ended up being kicked out; but all in all it worked fine. Short version: you want something box-like for the chicks to be safe and enclosed within. If you do choose to use a wire dog crate, I would recommend wrapping the bottom on the inside with about 7 inch high card board all the way around. This was the best option for us because we raised our chicks in the house where we have a dog and a cat. We kept the chicks in their own room but we didn’t want to risk them being harmed if the cat somehow figured out how to open the door when we were gone during the day.
I found pine shavings to be the bedding that worked best for me while raising chicks. It is fluffy, smells great and absorbs a lot of moisture; which are all important factors in maintaining a healthy environment for your chicks. Replace the bedding when it gets wet or soiled as needed. I often used a cat litter scooper to remove certain dirty areas of bedding without having to change the entire brooder-this can be a life saver if you have a full time job or a busy day and are just wanting a quick way to clean the brooder. If you choose to do this, I would still recommend and entire overhaul of the bedding once a week. Before putting the pine shavings into the brooder, I would always line the bottom with newspaper. This way, when you are doing an overhaul of all the bedding you can wrap it up in the newspaper and stuff it directly into the trash.
When they are small, your chicks are going to make their water filthy no matter what you do, so it’s best to just reconcile that in your head immediately. There will be A LOT of changing their water. We chose a small waterer like this one that allowed the chicks easy access but was also simple to clean. When they are small you will want a feeder that is easy for them to eat out of but also limits their ability to spread the feed all over the ground. Chickens are natural foragers and they will scratch all of their food out of the feeder onto the ground if you let them; and then it will inevitably get pooped on. We used a free range feeder like this and had little to no feed waste with our chicks (I’m sure something like this would work just as well).
Last but not least, chickens, no matter the age, like to have something to roost (AKA sit up high) on. We had chicks who would roost on top of the feeder I listed above, but then we added a couple of split logs in their brooder and they shifted their roosting to those. Long story short, you probably don’t need to purchase anything fancy; just find an object that they can perch comfortably on top of.
Transitioning your chicks to the outdoors
Depending on where you live and the time of year, chicks typically need to remain in a temperature controlled environment (ie. a heated garage, barn, or in our case – our guest bedroom) until they are about 6 weeks old. If you live in a cold climate like we do, you will want to provide supplemental heat for them until the temperatures are above freezing overnight, or the chickens have grown out of their downy (fluff) and into their regular feathers. Typically they will have lost their downy and grown regular feathers by 12 weeks of age. Supplemental heat can be a heat lamp like you used in their brooder, or a heating mat like this one. I prefer the second option inside coops because it provides radiant heat and is significantly less likely to cause a fire than a heat lamp, but that is completely up to you.
We purchased a chicken coop that was large enough for us to walk into for cleaning. My fiance was a poultry science major in college and he mentioned how big of a pain it can be to clean a coop if you can’t completely get inside. I have found that I agree with this logic if you are planning to purchase or build a coop and leave it in one place. There are certain coops such as this one that are mobile and then it isn’t as imperative that you can enter them for cleaning because you can just move them to a new location when the current spot is played out.
If you purchase a coop with a ramp in it, just be aware that you may need to teach your chicks how to walk up the ramp. For the first couple weeks that we had our chicks outside, I had to go manually put them in the nesting area at night and then bring them out into the grass area of the coop in the morning. Once they realized that this was the agenda of their daily life, a few of them learned how to move up and down the ramp themselves, but the vast majority still had issues. To teach them how to use the ramp, we would hold them by their bodies and lightly lift them along the ramp as though they were walking. After about a week of this, everyone was able to figure it out.
A couple final things to note: If you are purchasing “straight run” chicks, meaning that they can be hens or roosters, you may not be able to tell which are which until they are 4 or 5 months old. The best way to tell if a chick is a rooster is when they start to crow. However, this can be misleading as some hens do crow as well.
For optimal health you will want to keep your chicks on a chick specific (or “starter”) feed until they are about 18 weeks of age, or until they lay their first egg. Then you can switch them to a layer feed and supplement with oyster shell so that they get enough calcium in their system to provide you with healthy eggs. Once your chicks switch to layer feed and begin producing eggs you have made it through the most difficult part of raising them. Keep in mind that your hens may initially lay small eggs or even rubber eggs (these are eggs that don’t had a solid shell and come out squishy), these quirks will likely work themselves out over time so don’t panic if you see irregularities in their initial laying.
I hope this information is helpful to you! If it is your first time raising chicks I highly recommend getting a good book like this one. I read the entire thing cover to cover when we were raising our chicks and I don’t know what I would have done without it. There was certainly a big learning curve for me having never raised chicks before, but now that they are full grown, friendly, and great layers, I wouldn’t trade them for anything.