Are you ready to have fresh eggs every day? Then it may be time to raise backyard chickens. Chickens are easy to raise and care for. You will wonder why you didn’t start raising backyard chickens sooner!
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The thought of raising and caring for backyard chickens may seem a little daunting. I was very nervous to get started with chickens. Having had chickens for a couple of years now, I can tell you it is not scary at all. Having fresh eggs every day is worth it. Chickens do not take a lot of work and are really cute! Just be careful – once you start raising these adorable creatures, you may have trouble holding yourself back from expanding your flock!
Before you go to the store and buy your chicks, there are a few things you need to think about. It’s best to be prepared for raising your backyard chickens ahead of time.
Rules and Laws of your City or Neighborhood
First things first, check with your city or county ordinances to make sure that chickens are allowed. You may find that there are restrictions on how many chickens you can raise or whether roosters are allowed. If you live in a neighborhood, check the rules. It’s better to find out the restrictions ahead of time than have neighbors complaining.
Eggs versus Live Chicks
You have checked the restrictions in your area and are now ready to get on with acquiring chicks. You can order eggs, buy live chicks or buy full-grown chickens. Ordering eggs requires that you have an incubator. Since that is an added expense and takes more time, I recommend starting with live chicks. Another downside of hatching eggs is that you won’t know if they are male or female.
You can order live chicks online through a hatchery or go to a local farm store to buy day old chicks. If you don’t want to raise chicks, there are some places that will sell chicks that are a couple of months old or even full-grown.
It is really important to pick breeds that are meant for laying eggs, if that’s what you’re looking for. There are some breeds of chicken that have been bred to grow quickly and are used solely for meat. Don’t accidentally purchase meat breeds if you are only looking for eggs. You will have a hard choice to make since some of the meat breeds have health issues if allowed to live past 6-8 weeks.
There are also some chickens that are bred for show and may not produce as many eggs as those bred for laying. They will be pretty, but if you are looking for eggs, this probably wouldn’t be the best choice.
Look for breeds that have high egg production. Depending on if you want colorful eggs can be another determining factor in the chicken breeds you decide to keep. Right now, my flock lays all brown eggs. I am trying to diversify to add some other colors just for fun. In the end, the eggs all taste delicious. It’s just a matter of preference.
Straight Run versus Pullets
Pullets are female chicks. If you want a laying flock for your backyard, you want to make sure you get pullets. Hens will lay eggs whether you have a rooster or not. The eggs will taste fine either way.
If the sign at the store says “straight run,” you may be getting male or female birds. This can be risky. With straight run birds, you may get some roosters. Some roosters are nice to people and are good at protecting the flock. Some roosters are mean and will not get along well with people. Finding a new home for a mean rooster can be difficult.
If you want your hens to hatch out some of the eggs, you could get a rooster, but if you are strictly looking to collect eggs, no rooster is needed.
Picking Healthy Chicks
When you are looking at the chicks at the store, look for chicks that seem healthy. Pick out chicks that are running around and eating. If they are all sleeping, pick chicks that are bunched together. Don’t pick out any chicks that are on the outskirts away from the other chicks. If the chicks look lethargic or droopy, don’t choose those.
Once you get the chicks home, make sure to look them over to make sure everything looks good. If they have a pasty butt, make sure to clean that off first thing. Pasty butt, also known as pasting, pasting up or sticky bottom is when poop sticks to a chicks butt and seals the vent shut. It can be deadly if left untreated.
Luckily, pasty butt is easy to fix. I always try to look at the chicks’ bottoms in the store, because I don’t like cleaning a pasty butt when I get home. If you receive your chicks in the mail or if they get chilled, overheated or eat the wrong type of food, they could develop pasty butt.
You will want to clean the pasty butt as soon as possible. To do this, you can use moistened paper towels to gently dislodge the poop. You can also run warm water over the pasty butt to remove the poop. In either case, make sure that you are very gentle and loosen the poop without tearing the chick’s skin. Put the chick back in the brooder when it has dried.
Now that all of the preliminary concerns are out of the way, it’s time to get those chicks home! You will want to set up a brooder box for the baby chicks. This is a safe place for them that will keep them warm and cozy for the first couple of weeks of their lives.
What is a Brooder?
A brooder can be any kind of box or container that can hold the chicks. Make sure that the walls are at least a foot high so the chicks can’t jump out. Also make sure that the box or container allows for about ½ square foot of space for each chick until they are a month old. After that, they will need about 1 square foot of space per bird.
I’ve always used a stock tank, but a cardboard or wooden box would work well. Plastic containers can work as long as they are big enough to accommodate all of your birds. Even a kiddie pool can work if you make sure the sides are tall enough.
Why Use a Brooder?
Chicks need to stay warm during the first few weeks of their lives. As they grow, their feathers will come in. At about 6-8 weeks old, they will have most of their feathers and will be ready to head out to the coop. Until then, it’s important to make sure they don’t get chilled.
I have always kept my brooder in a heated garage, but some people keep their brooders in the house or basement. Some people keep the brooder in the barn or chicken coop area. Just make sure that wherever you keep the brooder, it is fully protected from predators and pets. Make sure it stays warm enough during the day and at night.
Get the brooder set up before you get the chicks home or before they arrive in the mail. You will want to be able to place them directly into the warm brooder to avoid them getting chilled.
Inside the Brooder
Once you have a big enough box or space for the chicks, you will need to provide them with the essentials. First, put some bedding in the brooder. My preferred bedding is pine shavings. Make sure if you use wood shavings that you use pine. Other types may cause lung issues for your chicks.
I put a layer of newspaper underneath the pine shavings. Don’t use newspaper as your only bedding, though, because it gets slippery, and the chicks may slide and fall or break their legs. You can also use rubber drawer liner to avoid slippery spots.
Next you will need a heat lamp. There are different options for providing heat for your chicks, but the main thing is that you start with a temperature of about 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week or so. After that, you can decrease the heat by about 5 degrees each week. Once you reach 70 degrees, you should be able to keep the temperature steady there.
To make sure you are providing the right temperature, take a look to see if the chicks are huddling together under the heat lamp. If that’s the case, they are cold and need more heat. If they are far away from the heat lamp or around the edges of the brooder, that means they are too hot. In this case, the heat lamp can be moved up. If they are panting, that is also a sign they are too hot. If the chicks are going about their business and spread out in the brooder, you can assume you are providing the correct amount of heat.
You can put a thermometer in the brooder or use an infrared thermometer to make sure that you are providing chicks with the proper heat.
Chicks need to have a special diet. They have a higher protein requirement than full-grown layers. There are many options for feed depending on how much you want to spend and if you are concerned with non-GMO, organic, soy or corn-free options.
I don’t personally ever feed my chicks medicated food. I like to use an organic, non-GMO option. Just make sure that you are getting a feed that is specifically formulated for starting chicks. Check to see when the food you choose recommends that you switch them over. Some chick food can be fed up to 4-8 weeks. Some chick food can be fed up to 16 weeks
Feed should be fresh and available to chicks at all times. One of the biggest issues I have is the chicks flicking litter and bedding into their feed. Keeping the food off the ground can help with this.
Grit is another thing you will want to consider with your chicks. Chickens don’t have teeth, so their gizzards grind up food so it can be digested. Grit is simply small pebbles or rocks that help the gizzard grind up the food.
Baby chicks don’t usually need grit if you are only feeding them a specially formulated chick food. This food is ground finely enough that they can digest it. If you decide to give your chicks any treats or introduce them to regular foods, you will need to provide them with grit at that time. There is grit that is specifically made for chicks. It is just smaller pieces to make it easier for chicks to eat.
Water is essential for chicks. When you first get your baby chicks, you will want to dip their beak into the water so that they know where it is. Water shouldn’t be too hot or too cold. Make sure to give them fresh, clean water, and make sure that the litter and bedding material is kept out of the waterer. Again, raising or hanging the waterer can be helpful.
Chickens roost on a roosting perch at night when they are full-grown. Even young chicks like to have a place to perch. You will most likely find your chicks sitting on top of the food and water at some point. If you don’t have a lid on your brooder, you may find them roosting on top of the brooder or somewhere in your garage or basement. I like to put something in the brooder where the chicks can perch. You can use a wooden dowel or piece of wood or buy something more fancy.
Time to Move
When your chicks are about six weeks old, they should be ready to go into the coop. When moving the chicks to the coop, make sure that you continue to provide heat for the first few days to weeks.
At this point, I would probably not introduce the chicks to the rest of your full-grown flock if you already have an established flock. I have an interim coop for chicks from about 6 weeks to about four months. When they are four months, they are about full-size. This is when I introduce the chicks to the rest of the flock.
You will notice that pecking order is a real thing. When you introduce chicks to an established flock, the new chicks will end up at the bottom of the pecking order, especially if they are smaller than the full-grown birds.
Just be aware that you will need to account for the time that the chicks outgrow their brooder until the time that they are ready to be introduced to the rest of your flock. It’s good to have another coop area or chicken tractor that will keep your chicks safe.
When your chickens reach about four months, they should start laying eggs. Let me tell you, the very first egg is a time of celebration. All the hard work and the care that you have given these little chicks has paid off. Now you get to reap the rewards of having your very own hens. Fresh eggs every day is well worth the effort that it took to raise your chicks. And, next spring, I guarantee you are not going to be able to stop yourself from getting just a few more chicks!
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There are a few things that you will have to buy if you decide to get chickens for your backyard. You can spend a little or a lot, depending on your budget. The good thing about raising chickens is that a lot of the purchases can be reused over and over.
Baby Chick Starter Home Kit I just bought this little set-up, and I really love it. You could put it in the garage on the floor or in a kiddie pool to keep the chicks corralled for the first couple of weeks. It even has a place to hang the heat lamp. It’s definitely less expensive than a stock tank.
Stock Tank Brooder I use a stock tank for a brooder. I bought mine at the farm store a couple of years ago.
Rubber Shelf Liner I either use newspaper or rubber shelf liners under the wood chips in the brooder. The rubber shelf liner could be used without the wood chips to create a non-stick surface for the chicks.
Roost Chicks and chickens like to have a place to roost. You could buy one like this or make your own.
Heating Plate I don’t have one of these heating plates yet, but I really want one. They are great for little chicks to crawl under, just like a mama hen.
Heat Lamp If you’re not ready to spring for a heating plate, this kind of heat lamp works. Just be really careful with these, because they can be a fire hazard.
Heat Lamp Bulb You can use a red or white light bulb in your heat lamp or this ceramic bulb. I like to use something that doesn’t have light so that the chicks get used to being in the dark at night. The red bulb is not supposed to disrupt their sleep cycles either.
Food and Water
Waterer There are so many to choose from. This is a metal one that can use a mason jar on top. If you want plastic, something like this feed and waterer combo would be good. I have a plastic waterer. I like to use one a little bit bigger because of the number of chicks I get and how fast they grow!
Feeder Again, you have a lot of choices with feeders. Here is a metal one that will last forever. Just use a mason jar on top. I am currently liking the flip top feeder which you can get in plastic or galvanized. I also have one of these feeders for when the chicks get a little bigger.
Grit If you are going to feed your chicks anything other than the chick mash, you will want to make sure they get some grit so they can digest their food properly.
Food I always opt for organic, non-GMO. I really like the corn and soy free options.
For the Chicken Parent
Chicken Shirt This is a really cute shirt for a chicken lady.
Clogs It’s good to have a dedicated pair of shoes for walking into the chicken pen or area. You don’t want to track chicken poop inside the house, and it is hard to avoid it all at times. I have shoes for winter and summer that I wear to do my outside chores, including feeding the chickens and gathering eggs.