Having chickens for livestock is a great way to get eggs, meat and, as we explored last time, when discussing a chicken tractor, their other outputs, like their nitrogen-rich manure can make great fertilizer.
Getting hens in their early adulthood or in the prime of their laying years is one way to start laying chickens, but you have to figure that these animals would be highly valued. They can be found, but a productive, healthy animal on the farm is a valuable thing. You might pay more or purchase a bird on the downward slope of her laying abilities.
You might, then, want to consider buying chicks and raising them into adulthood. Here’s a quick look at how to do that.
One place to find chicks is from your local feed store (they’re usually available in the spring), or checking classified or local farmers. You probably don’t need to be told, but female birds (hens), will lay eggs and males (roosters), will mate with them to fertilize eggs and generally protect the flock. Only one rooster is necessary per flock, so you’ll want to make sure you don’t get male birds. Most male chicks are culled (killed), once their male sex is determined. They may be raised for meat production, but largely, they’re unnecessary to egg production and once they reach maturity, they will crow and fight one another.
You want the chicks to be sexed, so you can be assured you’re getting female livestock. Chicken sexing can be difficult to the beginner, especially when birds are young and there’s almost imperceptible difference in genitalia, as secondary sex differentiation happens at around four to six weeks after hatching. Someone should have done this at the farm where the chicks were hatched on, or at the store where you’re purchasing them.
You’ll want to select alert, lively chicks. Lethargic or sickly chicks have a less likely chance of living. Make sure to select the breed you want, if you have a preference. Make sure to ask questions when picking up your chicks. The people who sold you your birds should answer any questions and give advice when you’re raising your chicks.
Incubating chicks from fertilized eggs is one way to go. If you plan to have a rooster present in your flock, you’ll have plenty of fertilized eggs, so this can be an economic option. There isn’t proper room to get into it here, but here’s (http://www.backyardchickens.com/LC-hatch.html), a great introduction to hatching chicks.
The brooder is a simple enclosure (it can be a cardboard box), that has a heat lamp, bedding (like wood shavings), feed and water for young chicks. The idea is to keep them as warm as they need to be and keep them from running off. They’re very small and fragile at this stage, so this is the stage where they’ll need the most attention. Litter needs to be clean to prevent common diseases and the chicks need enough room to move around and to lay down and sleep. You’ll want to handle them a bit to acclimate them to human beings.
The temperature of the brooder needs to be kept at 32 to 37 degrees for the first week, using a 100 watt bulb with a reflector, which are commonly available at hardware stores, or you can use a heat lamp. Finding the correct height for the lamp is very important. If the chicks are clustering together, they’re too cold. Move the lamp closer. If they’re around the edges of the brooder, or panting, move the lamp up; they’re too hot. Decrease the temperature to 29 or 32 degrees after the first week the chicks are in the brooder, and then incrementally each week. The chicks will live in the brooder for a month. After this period, less attentive care is okay for your birds and it will be time to move them towards sleeping in a coop or eventually join your existing flock.
Water can be kept in a low, shallow dish that chicks can’t knock over, or custom dispenser. Fresh, clean water always needs to be present. Feed can be dispensed in custom troughs built for chicks, or in a low dish that they can eat out of, but can’t topple. Chicks eat a specialty mix, made for them and available at feed stores.
This will be a little rough. A flock of chickens has a “pecking order” that governs their society. They are usually also hostile to newcomers, as they are quite territorial. You can give juvenile birds their own separate enclosure or partition your existing one, to give your juveniles some range while they get ready to join the flock. (They’ll need their own food, water and shelter, if they’re separated from the flock).
Waiting until your chicks are nearly mature is one way to minimize this conflict. Waiting until night time and sticking new birds into the coop (while the flock is asleep), is a great trick that seems to somewhat trick your flock into accepting new members, as they won’t immediately be able to discern that the flock has gotten larger. Some pecking and fighting is inevitable. It may be hard to watch, but you’ll get used to it, as this is all just a part of life for chickens.