Dec 03 , 2019
Are you getting started with chickens this Spring? Here are some of our best tips for raising baby chicks!
Biggest Benefits of Keeping Chickens
The most common reason is the fresh, tasty eggs! You just can’t find eggs that rich and yolks that yellow in the grocery store. Raising chickens is a great learning experience for kids, and super fun, even for adults. They all have their own individual personalities, and your kids will love watching them interact with one another.
Keeping chickens is a great way to get back to basics, and an ideal first step into the world of homesteading and sustainable living. A backyard flock is also an ideal complement to growing a garden. Composted chicken manure is a fantastic, highly effective fertilizer.
What Breed(s) Best Suit Your Needs?
See our dedicated article on chicken breeds to determine what will work for you.
Different Ages, Different Strategies
Most people like to start out with day-old baby chicks. It is less expensive to start this way, and much more involved than starting with older birds, but this can be a really fun way to start if you have children at home. It is also the best way to really get to know your birds and handle them, so they are tamer when they are older. If you start with chicks, try to start as early in the season as possible. This timeframe will vary based on the region you live in. It takes about five months for pullets to start laying, so if you start in early March, you will have eggs by the end of the summer. Hens will stop laying in the Winter when daylight hours decrease, so if you wait until later in the Spring or Summer, you may miss out on eggs for an entire year. There is a way to supplement light to have eggs year-round.
It can be much easier to get started with older birds, called “started pullets,” who have just begun to lay. You’ll be able to start collecting eggs immediately. Older birds are hardier, and you’ll be less likely to sustain any losses. Getting into the chicken world this way is much less work, but because the birds probably haven’t been handled much, they may not be very tame. Hens will lay eggs reliably for 3-4 years before egg production drops off.
Getting Started: Supplies
This depends on what age birds you decide to start with. Younger birds require some slightly different items than older birds. At the very least, you’ll need an enclosure, a feeder, and a waterer.
Setting Up a Brooder
When raising baby chicks, you’ll want to start off with a brooder for the chicks to live in. A brooder is just a place to keep very young chicks. You can make it as fancy or as simple as you want. People have used cardboard boxes, plastic tubs, dog crates, fish tanks, and other like items that are often found in a typical household. Some hatcheries sell a roll of cardboard to use as the brooder wall. These are great to line existing brooders, and to use as a standalone wall for very young chicks before they start to use their wings. The best brooders are usually simple ones.
After you have your brooder, you’ll need a heat lamp, a feeder, a waterer, wood shavings, and chick starter.
Chicks must be kept very warm for the first few weeks, and this is particularly important in the first week. They will need to be kept in an insulated area free from drafts. Usually this means a spare room in the house (away from the kitchen) or an enclosed garage. The chicks will tell you if they are too hot or too cold by where they are in the brooder. If they are bunched together, they are too cold. If they are spread out on the edges of the brooder, they are too warm. Ideally, they will spend most of their time in or near the lamplight, but also venture to other areas of the brooder as well.
It is best to round off any right angles, so the chicks don’t trap each other in the corners. At the very least, avoid putting the feeder, waterer, and lamp in the corners. Make sure there is ample room around them, so the chicks aren’t overcrowded.
For your floor, you’ll want to use flake pine shavings. Avoid cedar; the oils that make it aromatic can be lethal to baby chicks. Do not use fine shavings, as the chicks will eat the small bits, which can also be lethal.
After 5-6 weeks, depending on their feathers and the outside temperature, they will be ready to move outside.
Constructing your Coop
For most chicken keepers, the coop is the biggest expense. Depending on your skills and access to tools and materials, you can spend anywhere from $0 to thousands on a coop. Coop design can be a lot of fun! If you are handy, you can build a coop from entirely reclaimed wood. Many have built coops out of recycled pallets. If you’d prefer something fancier, you can build from the ground up, or you can transform a storage shed. There are tons of creative coop designs on Pinterest to get your imagination going. You can make your coop as simple or as complex as you heart desires.
There are some design essentials to know before building a coop. You’ll want to have the option to air it out, but at the same time keep it tightly closed at night to avoid wind drafts and predators. Ensure that the predators can’t dig under or climb over or sneak through any cracks.
Keep the roost poles higher than the nest boxes, otherwise the hens will sleep in their nest boxes and poop in them, making for some very dirty eggs when you go to collect them. Of course, you will want to make space for your feeder and waterer, and also make sure the coop is free of any leaks.
Somewhat recently, several companies have designed an automatic coop door that opens, and closes based on daylight, keeping your chickens safe even if you aren’t home (or forget) to lock them inside at night.
Free range or enclosed run
For the safety of the birds (and the protection of your investment), it is best to have an outdoor run attached to your coop, rather than let them free range 100% of the time. Many chicken keepers will free range their birds under supervision. The best time of day to do this is in the early evening hours. This will give the flock enough daylight to forage, and then they will automatically go into their coop when the sun starts to set. The more rural, the more intentional you will have to be with predator proofing.
Your startup costs will vary drastically based on how many chicks you start with, how old they are, and how much you spend on your brooder and coop. Assuming you start with 25 day old chicks, and without factoring in the cost of the brooder and coop, you can expect to spend about $100 on chicks and $40 on starter supplies. Each chick will eat about 6 lbs of food over a six-week period. For 25 chicks, that’s three 50lb bags of chick starter, which should cost around $45 in total. 25 hens of a laying breed can produce about 1-2 dozen eggs per day. You can sell these eggs, give them away to friends and neighbors. Potentially just as valuable as eggs is their poop! Start a compost pile and add copious amounts of chicken poop to it along with kitchen scraps and other compostable goodies, and you’ll have the perfect garden fertilizer that you can bag and sell. Most backyard chicken keepers do not turn a profit, but it can absolutely be done.
Baby chicks should be fed a diet of up to 20% protein diet when they are very young. At around 8-10 weeks, you can change to a grower ration that has slightly less protein to sustain healthy growth to maturity. When the birds start laying, it is best to switch them to a layer ration. These are commonly 16% protein, fortified with calcium. It is wise to supplement their feed with free-choice grit, especially if you offer kitchen scraps and other goodies, but not necessary if you feed commercially produced feed exclusively.
Keeping chickens is fun! They are low maintenance and highly entertaining, especially for kids, and will provide memories and life lessons that last a lifetime.
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