Not only are chickens truly fun and amazing animals to raise they also provide a host of benefits to the family. The obvious benefits are fresh eggs and meat. Additionally, they provide manure for fertilizing the garden, loads of entertainment, as well as companionship. Raising you own food source will also restore a close connection to your food supply, the realization of which is often lost in our modern culture. But, if you are new at this, then this post will help you to get started with chickens.
Having grown up with two working farms in my family, raising and processing our own food was a way of life. In fact, I never really gave it much thought. I figured this was what everyone did. It was not until I was in my teenage years that I realized it was actually more common for people to purchase their meat and other staple items from a supermarket. In fact in our modern culture, people think their meat comes from the supermarket, not the farm. Consequently, it never occurs to most people to raise their own meat and they never think much about how to get started with chickens.
Most people these days are completely separated from where their food actually comes from. That said, at the very heart of self sufficiency is having some means of control over your food source. If this is not what you are accustomed to, then I have good news. Even if you live in suburbia, raising chickens is one of the easiest steps to take toward self sufficiency. But if you are inexperienced, have no fear. I will show you how easy it is to get started with chickens.
But just in case you did not know, there are several choices for getting started with backyard farms animals. For example, chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, pigs, and goats. However, chickens are commonly the first choice for most people. This is because they are easily available and start up cost is low. If you are not convinced yet, then continue reading and see if I can convince you to give chickens a chance.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
There is an old proverb that states “When planning a trip, never take advice from someone that has never left home.” In my opinion, it is always best to learn a new skill from an experienced person. It is even better to learn things from an expert.
For most of my life I have raised various animals for food. In addition to that, I’ve been a practicing veterinarian for over 25 years. Not only do I know animal husbandry, but I am also familiar with the medical aspects of raising my own animals. I’ve also spent many years dealing with client owned animals. Based on that, I think I can provide you with a definitive guide on raising chickens.
First and foremost, know the local laws on keeping backyard farm animals. Even if you live in an urban area, you may be surprised what type of farm animals you are allowed to keep. That said, it is also important to know what is not allowed. For example, you may be allowed to raise chickens but not a rooster. If you are allowed to have chickens, there may be a limit on the number you can keep.
Fortunately, chickens are generally quiet, peaceful animals. When I had chickens while living in an urban area, my neighbors never knew they were there.
My best advice, contact your local municipality. I would even contact your local animal control officer since they are the ones that enforce the rules. They can give you some guidance. Also, if your neighbors are close at hand, talk to them and let them know your plans. It does not make any sense to start unnecessary conflict.
Just a quick word from my personal experience. On one particular occasions, I ordered some chickens from a hatchery that I commonly use. This particular hatchery gives you a “mystery” chick if you order enough birds. Months later my mystery chick started crowing. Where I was living at the time it was illegal to have a rooster in the city limits. I spoke with all of my neighbors one of which was an animal control officer. No one had any issues except for one neighbor. He was literally irate that I had a rooster. So, I found another home for the rooster which happened to be a farm. All ended well.
At first you need to decide why you really want chickens and you need to weigh the pros and cons. This is important because it makes a difference in what type of bird you acquire. For example, if you simply want egg laying hens, purchase birds that pump out lots of eggs. This is also important if you have and aspirations of staring an egg business. Often times, the best egg layers are also not the best meat birds. When they are older the best you are going to get is chicken soup.
Likewise, the birds that have sufficient mature weight for butchering are not always the best egg layers. If your goal is to produce your own meat, then purchase birds that have a mature weight greater than the average egg layer.
There are also dual purpose birds. These guys reach a mature weight in about 20 weeks but are also moderate egg producers. So, if you want both meat and eggs and you are not trying to start an egg business, then go this route.
If your desire is to hatch your own chicks to grow your flock, then be sure to have birds that are good brooders. This means they will actually sit on the eggs until they hatch.
Here is a list of different types of chickens to give you some ideas. This list is by no means complete. But it is a good place to start.
Best Egg Layers
Best Meat Production Birds
Best Dual Purpose Birds
Before making you final decision on what birds to purchase, it is just as important to purchase birds that are appropriate for your geographical region. Mostly this has to do heat and cold tolerance. Additionally you have to consider your elevation. I point this out only because I live at 10,000 feet and have learned the hard way that heavy bodied birds DO NOT tolerant high elevation. If your chickens are not tolerate of your particular environment they will fail to thrive, potentially develop congestive heart failure, and at the very least have a diminished life span.
If you are new to raising chickens, it is easier to stick with one plan such as egg layers or meat birds. Start small. As you gain more experience then increase the size of your flock, add different breeds, and try raising meat birds.
I would encourage you to visit the website of a major hatchery. They have loads of information on the different breeds of chickens. Most websites have statistics on egg production, heat and cold tolerance, mature body weight, etc. This will provide you with all the information you need to make a decision on the right breed of chicken. The hatchery that I use most frequently is Murray McMurray. They have a lot of great information on their birds and it will help you to decide on what breed is best for your particular goals.
Proper housing and suitable space for each chicken is key to preventing numerous husbandry problems. Cramped living space can cause stress and disease. Additionally, it can cause pecking, cannibalism, unnecessary competitive behavior and even death.
Housing will be somewhat dependent on the goals of your chicken operation, local climate conditions, and how many birds you decide to purchase. Are you going to raise meat birds or only egg layers? Different types of chickens have different mature body weights. Bantams, which are smaller birds, need less space than a Jersey Giant.
But before choosing your housing, it is also important to decide on the location. Place the coup in a convenient location with easy access. Can you run water to the coup if needed? Do you need electricity in the coup? If the coup is further from your residence what are your options for water and electricity?
At any rate, housing needs to provide protection from inclement weather, proper ventilation, heating or cooling as needed, nest boxes, perches, and protection from predators. Additionally, there should be room for waterers and feeders in the event your birds spend a lot of time indoors in the winter.
At an absolute minimum, coup space must be 2 to 3 square feet per chicken. Yard space or outdoor run space must be 8 to 10 square feet per chicken. Free range space should be 250 to 300 square feet per bird.
When most people first start to raise chickens, they under estimate the space requirements. People tend to err on the side of too many birds. I would encourage you to first determine the space that you have, then decide on how many birds you can acquire. I would also encourage you to leave yourself some flexibility. For many reasons you may decide at a later time to add more chickens to your flock.
The bottom line with housing, the more square footage you can allow the better. It is better to have fewer birds that are happy and healthy than to end up dealing with illnesses related to over crowding and poor husbandry. If you are going to raise chickens, keep them happy.
Whatever housing you choose, keep in mind that it can be mobile or permanent. Mobile chicken housing is often in the form of a “chicken tractor”. This is simply a housing unit with wheels that can be moved by hand or with some type of equipment. The point is that the chickens are allowed to range on a particular area for a designated period of time then they are moved to a different location. It is the same concept as pasture rotation for cattle except on a much smaller scale.
I would also advise that you set a realistic budget for yourself. The less expensive route is to look at various coups and build something yourself. You can also purchase kits and assemble them at home. Just be aware that if you purchase a pre-made coup you are going to pay top dollar. Take your time, plan ahead, and save yourself some money. After all, this is supposed to be a self sustaining project.
Here are some pictures of my chicken barn and out door run. I started small and enlarged this enclosure as I purchased more birds. I have about $2000 invested in this set up. But that cost was spread out over a couple of years. It is more like a chicken fortress than a chicken barn. This is because at high elevation my birds have to deal with some severe winter weather. Additionally, I have to provide protection from numerous predators such as hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes, bear, and bobcat. My property backs up to thousands of acres of national forest so I’ve learned some hard lessons when it comes to predators.
Bedding for the chickens serves multiple purposes. In planning proper housing to raise chickens, it is just as important to consider the proper bedding. Bedding serves as a place of comfort for chickens to rest and lay eggs. It also provides a method of absorption and odor control. When choosing the type of bedding to use, ease of cleaning needs to also be considered. A dirty, humid coup serves as an excellent breeding ground for parasites and disease. Use of the proper bedding keeps chickens clean, healthy, and odor free. If you use a type of bedding that is easy to clean up you will be encouraged to clean more frequently.
There are several choices in the type of bedding to use to raise chickens. Each type has its pros and cons. Here are a few things to consider.
A) Straw and Hay
This is likely the least expensive option and is typically the first thing people decide to use. I typically use straw on the floor of the coup and grass hay for the nest boxes. For some reason, the chickens prefer nesting in the hay as opposed to straw.
Inexpensive: These products are very inexpensive in the grand scheme of things. Buying in bulk is easy.
Easy to find: Most feed stores are going to have plenty of bales of straw and hay.
Entertainment factor: Chickens will spend hours scratching through the long strands looking for something enjoyable to eat.
Good Insulation: Air is actually a good insulator. Since straw is hollow, it provides good insulation.
Poorly absorptive: Straw does not absorb fluids very well. Consequently, it can make cleaning more difficult.
Lack of odor control: This is related to the poor absorption. Since it is not very absorptive, it does not control odor very well.
Potential pesticides: Grass and hay may have been treated with pesticides. This is a bad combination for chickens and especially if you are trying to stay as natural as possible.
Dust: These materials are often very dusty, especially bales of compressed straw. The high dust content can predisposed chickens to respiratory diseases.
B) Wood Shavings
Wood shavings are also inexpensive. Most pet supply, feed supply, and even the big box stores will sell wood shavings in large quantities. The most popular forms are either pine or cedar. Pine shavings are going to be less expensive and still have a nice odor. Cedar shavings smell wonderful but are more expensive. There are also some concerns about the strong scent and oils causing respiratory issues in chickens.
Easily available: Can be easily found at most feed supply places.
Great odor control: Wood shavings are much more absorptive compared to straw. Consequently, they provide good odor control.
Cost: more expensive relative to hay and straw. Find an outlet where you can purchase in bulk.
Crop impaction: Some chickens will consume enough wood shavings to actually cause crop obstruction.
Dust: Smaller shavings are actually very dusty.
C) Saw Dust
This is a material that is easily available. If you have a lumber mill close to you they will likely give this stuff away by the truck load.
Inexpensive to free
Good odor control
Dusty: Saw dust is very fine material and easy to aerosolize. Too much dust in the coup can predispose chickens to respiratory diseases.
This is another material that is easily available. Those that use sand seem to prefer it. However, it is a little time consuming and more difficult to maintain. Sand is widely used in the so called “deep litter” method. It tends to clump similar to cat litter. Sand is simply turned so that the clean sand on bottom ends up on top. Some chicken keepers like to remove the fecal material much like scooping a cat litter box. But this tends to be very time consuming.
Great for a chicken dust bath
Good odor control
Clumps similar to cat litter.
Does not compost. Due to this it is impossible to use the litter as compost.
Does not provide cushioning. When chickens jump from their roost a soft landing is better. Sand is not going to provide that.
Lack of odor control. Some people feel that using sand does not provide sufficient odor control.
E) Grass clippings
If you have a sufficient source of clippings this can be a great way to save money. You can also get clippings from other people. However, if you decide to use this, be sure to get clippings from a yard that has not been treated with pesticides.
Absorbs moisture easily
Retains a lot of moisture
Breaks down easily
Odor: As clippings break down, they can cause a lot of odor.
F) Recycled paper
There is a host of recycled paper products that are available. Shredded paper is best used in a brooder box because it is very soft and easy on the chicks.
Very soft and provides good padding
Ink can be toxic to chickens
Office paper is often heavily processed and treated.
Save Money By Using a Dropping Board
Chickens produce most of their droppings while roosting at night. By adding a dropping board or tray, pure waste can easily be transferred to the compost area. Using a board or tray will also reduce the amount of waste that ends up on floor of the coup. Consequently, you will save yourself some time and money when is comes to clean up.
I purchased these cement mixing trays at a local hardware outlet. They were very inexpensive and are very durable.
Deep Litter Method
This is a method of coup maintenance that is gaining popularity. If used properly, the coup gets a “complete” clean out about once yearly. If employing this method, you must use the right type of bedding. It is a little bit of a process to set up initially, but in the end it will save you time and money.
The basic process goes something like this:
The idea behind the deep litter method is to allow the chicken manure and older bedding to break down slowly, essentially composting. Fresh chicken manure is too “hot” to place directly on the garden due to the high nitrogen content. The manure needs to age a minimum of 45 to 60 days.
Fresh water daily is an absolute must. If you are an urban homesteader then this may not be an issue. Either run a hose to the coup or fill the waterers and carry them to the chicken coup. If you are in a rural location and the chicken coup is some distance from the house, you may have to carry 5 gallon buckets.
On the other hand, if you are off grid you may have to be a little creative. For example, my chicken barn is about 75 yards from the cabin. I fill a 75 gallon Rubbermaid stock tank with water. This way I do not have to carry buckets and fresh water is convenient and plentiful.
As a general rule, three to four chickens will consume about 1 quart of water per day. Chicken waterers are inexpensive and come in a variety of sizes. Visit your local feed store or shop online and view all of your options.
Some waterers are made to sit on a flat surface. If you use this type of waterer, be certain that it is absolutely level. If it tips to one side, it will have a tendency to drain excessively and your birds may run out of water. Also, waterers that are closer to the ground get soiled much easier. Personally, I prefer hanging the waterers. They have a tendency to stay cleaner, stay level, and it is easy to adjust the height as the birds mature.
It is preferable to have multiple waterers, both outside and inside. If one of them gets spilled for some reason, there is still plenty of water. Multiple waterers also ensures that the less dominant birds have easy access without competition.
If you are just starting out, feed a balanced commercial ration that is species specific. Protein and nutrient requirements vary depending on the type and age of bird. For example, chickens, turkeys, and ducks have different nutritional requirements. Keep in mind that it is much more difficult to make a “homemade” diet for any animal. Consequently, in the beginning I would stick to commercially prepared feed.
There are a variety of factors that are going to affect the amount of feed consumption per bird. Weather, ambient temperature, and access to other food sources such as pasture, as well as worms and insects from free ranging. Below are some general guidelines of what to expect. Included are several different types of birds just for the sake of comparison.
Feed Consumption for Newly Hatched Birds
Feed Consumption for Laying Birds
Keep in mind that feed costs can be reduced by free ranging and access to pasture. To produce the best quality eggs, hens need a variety of things in their diet. This can be a combination of commercial feed, grit, greens, bugs, high calcium oyster shells, and even occasional diary products. A varied diet such as this will produce eggs with strong shells and dark yolks with excellent flavor.
Baby chicks need to be started on a proper grower feed. There are approximately 38 nutrients that they need every day. To support early growth, chicks need 18% protein, vitamins and minerals for development, as well as probiotics and prebiotics. Starter-grower feed needs to start at day one and continue through week 18 or when the first egg arrives. Medicated versus non-medicated feed depends on the vaccine status of the chicks.
As a practicing veterinarian I have repeatedly seen animals die from preventable infectious diseases. I am sure you have heard the old saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Numerous clients that I’ve dealt with in my career have spent thousands of dollars treating a disease that could have been prevented with a $15 vaccine. That being said, I will explain the pros and cons of vaccinating chickens versus the use of medicated feed. After that it is up to you to make your own decision.
Chicks should be vaccinated for Marek’s Disease. It is one of the most common disease that infects small flocks. It is a herpes virus related disease and is highly contagious. Birds can carry this disease and never show symptoms. Once symptoms develop it is not treatable. Additionally, the virus is very hardy and will remain in the environment for months to years even after the birds are gone. This disease is very preventable through vaccination.
For further information, the University of Pennsylvania have a very nice article on Marek’s Disease in Chickens.
One other very common disease in chickens is Coccidiosis. Coccidia is an intestinal parasite that is ubiquitous (every where) in the environment because it lives in the soil. It can be carried on equipment, people, as well as other birds. It causes diarrhea, weight loss, anorexia, weakness, ruffled feathers, and failure to thrive. Do not be convinced that this is only a disease of production birds. It can affect any flock.
There are three ways to deal with Coccidia. The first way is to not do anything. Put the chickens in the environment and let them take their chances. The second way is through the use of medicated feed. This feed contains Amprolium. This is a substance that reduces the growth of Coccidia and allows the chicks to slowly develop immunity on their own. Feed this type of feed through week 18 or until the first egg is laid. The third method is through vaccination. Chicks can be vaccinated before leaving the hatchery.
Chicken feeders are very inexpensive. The size of the feeder is going to depend on the mature weight of the bird and the number of birds. New born chicks need smaller feeders relative to pullets and mature birds. The number of feeders you have depends on the size of the flock. Review the feed consumption rate above compared to the volume of the feeder and this will give you a good estimation of what you need.
Feed pans can be used for grit, greens, grains, worms, or any liquid content that you feed. Personally I do not feed liquid supplements so I do not use feed pans. I spread grit, greens, and grains on the ground so the chicken also pick up a natural source of grit.
Proper feed storage
It is imperative to keep feed clean and dry. Damp feed promotes the grow of mold which can potentially be toxic to chickens. Insect invasion can potentially ruin the feed and result of losses. Also, keeping feed secure can prevent loss due to rodents, squirrels, deer, bear, and wild birds.
Five gallon plastic buckets with lids make great, inexpensive feed storage. These can easily be purchased at your local chain hardware store. If you prefer to use food grade buckets, visit the bakery in your local supermarket. They typically have a large supply of food grade buckets that you can get for free.
I use a combination of buckets and ammunition containers (ammo cans). The buckets are used to store feed in bulk which sits on the floor of the barn. The ammo cans easily fit on shelves to save space. The ammo cans are mobile and I use them to quickly and easily fill feeders.
In general chickens need grit in order to grind up food for digestion. Natural grit consists of fine sand, small pebbles, or similar hard objects that chickens consume naturally by pecking on the ground. The grit accumulates in the gizzard which is a strong muscular organ used to grind food. This is the pre-digestion phase. Over time, even the grit in the gizzard gets ground up. Consequently the grit needs to be replaced on a regular basis.
There is some debate as to whether or not chickens need grit supplemented in their diet. Birds that are confined and fed only crumbles and pellets do not really need grit. Their saliva is enough to soften the food for digestion. Confined birds can even be fed grains and will manage without grit. Chickens that are allowed to forage naturally pick up grit from the environment to help grind up any fibrous plant material they consume. In my opinion, it is best practice to offer grit as a free choice option.
Commercially available grit comes in two forms. Calcium grit, in the form of ground oyster shell, is a mineral grit. It serves as a time release source of calcium carbonate which laying hens need to produce strong egg shells. Inert grit is usually granite or washed river sand. It is not ground as easily by the gizzard as oyster shell and does not offer any dietary mineral supplementation. Grit is supplied in several different sizes depending on the age and size of the bird.
For growing chicks, older chickens (little if any egg production), and roosters, the grit should be inert. Calcium grit should not be offered to birds unless they are near the age of egg production.
Additionally, baby chicks will peck and eat almost anything. So it is possible for them to fill their gut with inert ingredients instead of feed. When baby chicks start eating food other than starter ration, they can be fed sand sized grit as a supplement.
Ca supplementation is important for birds that are near or at egg laying age. The Ca is needed for them to form strong egg shells. There are several options for supplementing Ca.
Recycled egg shells are a great way to feed back the Ca. Once the egg yolk is used, rinse the interior portion of the shell and allow it to dry for several days. Crush the egg shells in any manner you wish but make certain the particles are small enough that the chickens will not recognize it as an “egg”. If chickens recognize the egg shell they may start eating freshly laid eggs because it is a tasty snack.
Commercially prepared crushed oyster shell is an excellent choice for Ca supplementation. Plan on about 1 pound of oyster shell per 100 pounds of feed.
Commercially prepared layer ration is the best way to supplement Ca. Egg laying birds that are fed a layer ration free choice have not need for additional Ca supplementation.
When Not to Supplement Calcium (Ca)
Too much Ca can be toxic. Over supplementation can lead to renal (kidney) failure, cause growth disorders, and interfere with bone development. As stated above, Ca should not be supplemented for roosters, growing chicks, or older chickens that have little to no egg production.
Most people would never think that some animals have to get dirty in order to stay clean. There are numerous animals that do this including elephants, horses, pigs, numerous types of birds, as well as chickens. When an animal takes a dust bath it is their version of a shower.
For chickens the dust bath serves several purposes. It helps to remove excess dirt and oil and control external parasites such as lice and mites. It also helps their feathers to maintain water resistance.
Chickens naturally scratch around in the dirt. While doing so, they will also hallow out a small depression for dust bathing. They crouch in the small depression, wiggle around, flap their wings, lay and roll around creating a big cloud of dust. And sometimes they lay in their dust bath to take a nap in the sun. It is really entertaining to watch.
Chickens that free range, or have a large outdoor fenced area, will find any area with loose dirt and make their own dust bath bowl. But if your chickens are confined to a coup or they have mostly grassy areas, you will need to provide a dust bath.
Choose a dry area is a nice sunny spot. You can provide a large box of dust bath material made out of lumber or use an old plastic bin. But the dust bath area can simply be surrounded by logs, blocks of wood, fencing, or pretty much anything.
Bust bath ingredients can be a combination of the following:
Dry loose dirt: Choose an area where the dirt is already very dry and loose. This serves as a good base. One side of my chicken barn is always exposed to the sun and there is lots of loose dirt which is perfect for the chickens.
Wood ash: This is a great addition to the dust bath area. Wood ash is much finer than dirt and sand. Additionally, it contains Vitamin K, magnesium, and calcium. Chickens will consume wood ash as a dietary supplement. Be sure to use only pure wood ash. Do not use the ash from burning old lumber, plywood, or any other type of treated wood products.
Sand: This is another great addition. Fine play ground sand can be purchased at any of the large chain hardware stores.
Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth (DE): Some folks will refrain from using DE due to the potential health risks to humans. If inhaled, if can cause lung irritation. That being said, it is an excellent way to kill mites, lice, fleas, and ticks. Just be cautious when adding it to your dust bath area. I would advise wearing a face mask.
If you have a plentiful source of herbs then add some to the dust bath. Several herbs have health benefits. Herbs such as rosemary, mint, and lavender, and thyme act as natural insecticides and anti-inflammatories.
Dust bath maintenance:
A brooder is used to raise small chicks. This is where you can get a little creative. Brooders can be made of almost anything. A small wooden box, livestock water container, livestock feed containers, pet carriers, dog kennels, or any other enclosed container of your choice.
Whatever you choose, keep in mind that there must be adequate ventilation and the brooder must be enclosed to help with heat retention and to prevent escape. There must be adequate room depending on the number of chicks. Space is also needed for feeders and waterers.
There must also be room for a supplemental heating source. The type of heat source depends on the size of the brooder and the number of chicks. The brooder must be large enough to allow the chicks to warm themselves and move away as needed in order to cool off. It also is very beneficial to set up the brooder in a room that is at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Baby chicks need supplemental heat for the first 4 to 6 weeks of life. That being said, a mother hen does not sit on the chicks 24/7 for 4 to 6 weeks. So, to a certain degree you need to think like a mother hen.
There are several options for providing supplemental heat for chicks:
Keep them in a warm room: This is what I did initially. It is very easy to put the brooder in a small room and turn up the thermostat only for that room. Keep the room temperature around 70 degrees.
Since I live off the grid I put my brooder in the same room of the cabin with the wood stove. I blocked the door with a blanket in order to keep the room as warm as possible. A inexpensive thermometer makes it easy to monitor the temperature.
Use a heating lamp: Heating lamps are 250 watts. They get very hot very quickly. This is the type of supplemental heat that most people think about. They are certainly easily available but must be used with caution.
Obviously these lamps are high wattage and consume a lot of electricity. They are also a fire hazard. Placing a heating lamp in close proximity with flammable bedding is not a good idea.
At one time, I was very fortunate that my barn did not catch fire due to an accident with a heating lamp. Now I joke about how my chickens tried to commit suicide. Ha!! But I was using a heat lamp in the barn for supplemental heat for some younger birds. Apparently one of the birds knocked the heat lamp to the floor. The lamp burned a hole completely through the floor of the barn. Fortunately the excess heat shorted out the bulb and the electricity turned off and nothing happened. I simply had to patch the barn floor. That was the last time I every used a heating lamp.
Radiant heating plate: Personally I think this is the best option. These heating plates vary in size depending on the number of chicks. They have adjustable height and are low wattage, which is perfect if you live off grid and produce all of your own electricity. In addition to that, you greatly reduce the danger of fire relative to a heat lamp.
Time needed: approximately 15 to 30 minutes
Time required: approximately 10 minutes
Time needed: approximately 10 minutes
Time needed: approximately 4 hours depending on the size of your flock.
Baby chicks are inexpensive to order from a hatchery and relatively easy to raise. Chicks are typically shipped when they are a day old. Once hatched, they can survive up to 3 days without food and water because they are still living off the nutrients from the yolk.
This is what you get:
When ordering chicks from a hatchery, be sure to have them vaccinated for Marek’s Disease and decide for yourself if you want them vaccinated for Coccidia or if you want to use a medicated feed.
Supplies Needed for Baby Chicks:
Small feeder: a quart feeder is sufficient depending on the number of chicks.
Small waterer: a quart waterer is all that is needed.
Starter feed: Chick starter feed is higher in protein than adult food. It supports rapid growth. Starter feed comes in smaller chunks relative to adult food and it crumbles much easier.
Chick grit: As mentioned earlier, grit comes in different sizes depending on the size of the bird. Visit your local feed store and purchase commercially prepared grit for chicks.
Brooder with supplemental heat source: Set up your brooder as stated above. Chicks are going to need a supplemental heat source for 4 to 6 weeks depending on the outside temperature and/or ambient temperature of the brooder room. Most people are taught that chicks need to be kept at 90 -95 ℉ for the first week. Then you reduce that temperature by 5 ℉ each week thereafter. But, the reality is that chicks do just fine in a room that is 60 to 70 ℉ as long as there is a supplemental source of heat such as a radiant heating plate.
Bedding: Pine shavings work great as bedding for small chicks. I buy this stuff in bulk at a local feed store.
Energy boost: If you order chicks from a hatchery, I recommend purchasing a high energy gel along with your chick order. Once the chicks arrive, feed this to them and they get an instant energy boost. Then they can relax and have plenty of energy to get oriented.
Corner or perimeter boards: Since I use 2 ft by 4 foot collapsible dog kennels for brooders, I line the bottom edges with card board to prevent accidental escape. You may need to do the same depending on your brooder set up.
Pre-arrival set up: Once you have decided on the birds you want to order, get all of your supplies and set up the brooder prior to their arrival. Once they arrive, the brooder is nice and warm, and they have immediate access to food, water, and fresh bedding.
Three to five weeks in the brooder: At three to five weeks of age, depending on the outside temperature, the chicks can be moved to your barn or the chicken tractor.
Valuable tip: Raise chicks in the Spring, Summer, or early Autumn when temperatures are more moderate.
How many egg layers should I get?
Chickens in their prime are going to produce 3 to 5 eggs per week. Based on the number of people in your household and your average egg consumption, do the math and calculate the number of egg layers you need.
When do chickens start laying eggs?
Chickens first start laying at approximately 16 to 20 weeks.
How long do chickens lay eggs?
Chickens have maximum egg production the first two years of laying. After that their production drops by about 10% each year. So, by year 7 they produce only about 30% of what they did their first year.
How many chickens should I start with?
If you are new to raising chickens, start small. Eight to 12 birds is plenty. You can always expand your flock later. Keep in mind that a small operation is easier to manage and you have less financial loss if you make mistakes.
How much meat do you get from a chicken?
For their size, chickens have a higher average meat yield relative to other farm animals. For example, the meat yield of a cow is about 50% to 63% of live weight. The average meat yield of a chicken is closer to 75% of live weight. So, if a meat bird is 6 pounds at mature weight, the dressed weight will be about 4.5 pounds.
How long does it take to get meat birds to a butcher weight?
This varies with the breed, but generally 16 to 20 weeks.
What are the best meat birds?
This depends on your goals for meat production. If you simply want meat quickly, go with the Cornish cross. They gain weight rapidly and have to be butchered sooner. If you want a sustainable flock, go with a dual purpose bird that will give you meat and eggs.
As far as economics is concerned, while the dual purpose birds do have less meat yield relative to the Cornish Cross, they are able to free range. Consequently, this reduces feed cost. The Cornish cross does have a higher meat yield but they cannot free range and will depend on commercial feed 80% of the time. They are also not a suitable bird if you want a sustainable flock. These birds gain weight rapidly and literally have to be butchered.
Do I need a Rooster?
If your goal is to produce only eggs and meat, a rooster is not necessary. In this case, the hens produce eggs that are not fertile. If you want to produce your own chicks, then you need a rooster to fertilize the eggs.
Another advantage to having a rooster is that they tend to protect the flock. They will commonly be the first one out in the morning and the last one in at evening time.
But aren’t roosters mean?
Roosters vary in personality just like people do. Some roosters are much more aggressive than others. I used to have a rooster that was a great protector of the flock but he was also very aggressive. Sometimes he would attach a hen for no reason. Then he started attacking us when we went into the barn.
My goal is to always have a personable flock where everyone has their place and everyone gets along. In my opinion, overly aggressive animals are not welcome in any herd or flock. They should not be bred and they should be the first ones on the dinner plate. This may sound harsh, but the last thing you want is to get injured while trying to have a self sufficient lifestyle. Not to mention that dealing with an overly aggressive animal is just not fun. So, if you have an overly aggressive rooster, butcher him and find another one that is more amiable. Keep your chicken experience fun and enjoyable.
If you are striving for some level of self sufficiency producing a certain amount of your own food is necessary. Raising chickens is an easy first choice especially if you are new to this idea. If done correctly, they take very little time, have few health problems, and are generally low maintenance.
The largest up front cost is initial set up. Housing, fencing, feeders, waterers, bedding, and feed. Once you are past that, then your ongoing costs consists of bedding, feed, and health care. Some of this cost can be reduced significantly by allowing the chickens to free range.
From the perspective of self sufficiency, raising chickens for meat and eggs is the best idea. In order to reduce cost as much as possible, there are a couple of things you can do. If you look at the cost of chicks from a hatchery, you will note that roosters cost much less. This is because most people want laying hens. Also, if you order sexed chicks, they also cost more because someone has to take the time and effort to figure out if they are male or female. However, if you order “straight run” they are less expensive. This means the chicks have not been sexed. Statistically, straight runs are going to be approximately half male and half female.
Let’s say you want to have a flock of 15 laying hens. If you order 30 straight run, you are going to roughly get 15 males. Depending on the breed, males are going to be at butchering weight at about 20 weeks. This is about the time the hens will start laying eggs. Butcher the males for meat and now you have 15 laying hens left. If you eat one whole chicken per week, then you have meat for 15 weeks.
Hens consistently need about 14 hours of light per day to continue laying. Give supplemental light in the winter to encourage ongoing egg production.
The following Spring, order only males which will again be butchered at about 20 weeks for their meat. At this time the laying hens are toward the end of their first year of egg production. The next Spring, order 30 straight run, which will be about half and half. By the time the new hens start laying, the older hens are reaching the end of their second year of egg production.
At this point, the egg production of the older hens is going to be down by about 20 %. This reduced efficiency means it will cost you more to produce eggs. At this time, butcher the new males and the older hens. Now you have 30 chickens in the freezer and you are again left with a flock of 15 laying hens.
The following Spring, order only roosters and start the whole process over again. By doing so, you have a sustainable flock and an ongoing source of home grown meat and eggs.
The idea here is to produce some level of self sufficiency for you and your family. My suggestion would be to start small. You are going to makes mistakes and have some losses in the beginning. With a smaller flock, it is easier to deal with the cost of your mistakes. Trust me on this. Start small, learn as much as you can, and grow your flock a little at a time.
Despite the fact that I grew up with working farms in the family, when I started raising chickens at the cabin I made my share of mistakes. I live at 10,000 feet, the winters are long, and there are plenty of predators. This produced a number of challenges. In the beginning I lost a few chickens here and there but it was no big deal. They were mostly egg layers.
But I also wanted to produce meat. I tried raising the Cornish crosses due to their rapid weight gain and early butchering age. That was a mistake. Heavy bodied birds do not do well at high altitude. I lost a lot of birds due to congestive heart failure as well as sudden death of unknown cause. The ones that did survive to butchering, the meat was the worst tasting chicken I’d ever had. This was likely due to the fact that it was very difficult to keep these birds clean. All they do is eat, poop, and get fat. It was almost impossible to keep them free of fecal material. After that experience, I decided no more “fatties”, which is what I had come to call them.
I continued on with the egg layers and also started raising turkeys. If you have never raised turkeys, I highly recommend it. They are very gentle, personable birds, and easy to deal with. I purchased 12 turkeys initially. All was going well, until I lost 1o turkeys in one night due to a bobcat getting into the pen. Needless to say, my chicken barn is now a small fortress.
The guy got relocated and released.
Presently, I focus on egg laying hens and meat production by taking advantage of the characteristics of the dual purpose birds. I also keep a smaller number of turkeys. I focus on having a sustainable flock using the techniques that I describe above. But, this was not without losses as you can see from my personal experience. I should have started with a much smaller flock than what I did. But, I learned some valuable lessons and I keep going. Bottom line, start small and grow as you gain more experience.
If you follow the steps in this post, you will be well on your way to having a successful and sustainable flock. Raising chickens is an enjoyable, family friendly way to produce both meat and eggs. Raising chickens can be incorporated into your life whether you live in an urban area or out in the country. I hope this post convinces you to give chickens a chance.
If done properly, things will only get bigger and better.
Go off grid and live well,
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