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Would you like to add chickens to your homestead? In addition to laying nutritious eggs, they also provide so much entertainment. For your daily dose of cuteness, start by raising baby chicks. Here’s a beginner’s guide to bringing up baby—from buying baby chickens to getting you chicks the right food to eat and keeping them healthy in their brooder to transitioning them to their coop.
Where to Buy Chickens
There are a number of ways to go about getting chickens! Most often, chicks can be bought locally in the spring, from farm supply stores or small farms themselves. These days, you can even go online to order chicks and get them shipped to your door (or local post office). Then there’s always the “ask a friend with chickens to hatch some for you” approach.
When to Buy Baby Chicks
You can purchase chickens at several stages of development—it all depends on how long you’re willing to wait for eggs.
Day-old chicks are available from hatcheries. Most farm suppliers do one or two chick orders a year, so you can get your chickens where you plan to get your feed. They’re usually under $3 each. You’ll have to wait about six months for eggs.
Ready-to-lay pullets are 20 weeks old and just about to start laying. They’re more expensive than day-olds, but of course, you get your eggs sooner. They can go straight to the coop and are all females. These, too, can be ordered through your farm supplier from the hatchery.
Mature laying hens are harder to come by. Unless you have someone with a small flock nearby who wants to replace older hens and will sell their “old girls” to you, chances are, you’ll have to buy pullets or chicks. (“Battery hens” are not good candidates for a farm flock—they’re confined in tiny cages, debeaked, and made to produce so hard that they’re “laid out” at 2 to 3 years of age.)
If you already have chickens (or know someone who does), there’s always the option of hatching your own chicks. Of course, you’ll also need a rooster to get fertile eggs. Check your zoning regulations; some places allow hens, but not roosters. Hens will lay perfectly well without one, but the eggs won’t ever develop or hatch.
You’ll also need a broody hen. Broodiness—the instinct to sit on eggs until they hatch—has been bred out of a lot of chickens, but we always had one or two who would begin to sit tight on the nest and peck if we tried to remove their eggs. Bantams are famously broody; a bantam hen will even hatch other hens’ eggs.
You can hatch replacement chicks yourself with a home incubator. Chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch. An incubator must be monitored diligently; chicks left too long after hatching will die of dehydration or pecking. On the whole, we find it best to leave hatching to the hen. Read our guide to hatching chicks at home.
Tending baby chicks isn’t difficult, nor does it need to be elaborate. First, they need a draft-free brooder pen with a red brooder lamp on at all times. This keeps the temperature at 92°F (33°C) at 2 inches above the floor. (It also reduces pecking and cannibalism among chicks.) When the chicks have feathered out, reduce the temperature by 5°F per week until they are 6 weeks old.
What Baby Chicks Eat
For simplicity, most owners of small flocks buy commercial rations from their local feed stores.
Young chicks will require “starter” feeds, and you may have a choice of medicated or non-medicated versions. (If you can keep a healthy flock with the non-medicated rations, do so.)
Fresh water should be a constant supply.
Once the hens reach laying age, at approximately five months, you’ll want to switch to layer rations with at least 16 percent protein.
Chicken feeds can be supplemented by homegrown or home-mixed rations of grains (oats, corn, barley, wheat, etc.), various brans, fish meal, alfalfa meal, and bonemeal.
You can add scraps from your table, such as fruit and vegetable peels or leftover breads. However, avoid offering raw potato peels (hard to digest), garlic or onions, (which may alter the way the eggs or meat taste), or anything spoiled.
Feeds bought from the store contain all the phosphorus and salt your hens will need, and they eliminate the need for grit.
If You Free-range Your Hens or Supplement Their Diets
Be sure to offer a hopper of grit to help the hens grind up any grains or plant matter they eat.
Hens also need a hopper of ground oyster shells or other calcium source to prevent soft-shelled eggs. Keep refilling the oyster shells as the hens will only eat what they need.
Many sources say that you can’t keep a flock of mixed ages. We never had a problem with older chickens picking on younger ones or vice versa. Our hens raised their chicks happily in the flock. Most picking is the result of overcrowding. Give your chickens lots of space.
Young chicks need to be close to water and food at all times. Spread a 4-inch layer of pine shavings on the floor, then lay several layers of newspaper over that. Scatter lots of chick feed on the paper and also have feeding troughs filled in the pen. Remove a layer of paper every day, and by the time the last layer is gone, the chicks will have found the feeding trough.
Always use red bulbs; injury doesn’t show under red light. Under white light, any bloody spot immediately attracts pecking. Chicks will cheerfully and efficiently peck each other to death.
Block corners of the pen with cardboard to make wider angles that are harder for chicks to pack up in. (You could also make a circular pen.) This prevents suffocation.
Ensure that waterers are shallow and cleaned daily to avoid having chicks drown. My hatchery recommends one gallon-size waterer for every hundred chicks. I always had two or three, even for fewer chicks, so that they wouldn’t crowd.
With pullets, I used one waterer for every six to eight chickens and a feed trough long enough to accommodate all of them at once.
More of Raising Chickens 101
See more of our beginner’s guide to raising chickens: