Chicken Keeping for Beginners

Are you considering getting some chickens? Fresh eggs are the best! Most places will allow backyard chickens, but always check your local ordinance before shopping.

CHICKEN MATH

You might as well learn about chicken math right now. Once you get sucked into chickens, with the thought of only getting three so you’ll have fresh eggs, you’ll end up with ten. Once you have ten, four more won’t really make a difference. Then you’ll find another breed that is really cute and get a couple of those. Then a friend of a friend will have to get rid of her six hens because she’s moving. And so on… chicken math is a chicken-community joke, but it’s a real thing! With that in mind, while you’re shopping for a coop or building a coop, always choose the larger one.

WHERE TO PURCHASE CHICKENS

You can order chickens online, with shipping usually between April and November, at Hoover’s, McMurray, Meyers, or you can pick them up in person at your local Tractor Supply during “Chick Days.” You can also check your local homestead and farming groups for local purchases. Chicks cost between $2-6 and young hens, called pullets, can cost $10-25 each. Considering the time and food-cost to raise chicks, $10 isn’t the worst price in the world, but it’s so much fun having fuzzy chicks around.

HENS VS COCKS

Most chicks you find will be “straight run,” meaning they are 50/50 chance of being female or male. Again with the local regulations, many urban places that allow hens do NOT allow roosters. If you purchase “straight run” chickens, you’ll have to dispose of unwanted roosters, and they are NOT easy to give away. If you want to be sure you have all hens, there are two ways. 1) You can order “female only” from your supplier at a higher price. 2) You can purchase Golden Comet, Red Comet, or Black Sex Link. These chicks are sexed by their color at hatching time. Either way, there is always the off chance that someone sexed them incorrectly and you might end up with a Roo, but the chances are pretty low.

ROOSTERS?

Do you need a rooster to have hens or to get eggs? Nope and Nope. Roosters are kept for a couple reasons. 1) They guard the flock. If you have your hens in a protected environment, you are the guardian and no rooster is needed. 2) Roosters fertilize eggs in case you want to hatch more chicks. Hens will lay eggs regardless of a rooster being around or not. 3) The “pecking order” is a real thing, and roosters will be the head of the flock. If you have no rooster, a bossy hen will step into that role. You can spot her by her ability to push everyone else out of the way while she eats first. She will also stand guard while the others eat, keeping an eye on the flock.

FERTILIZED EGGS?

If I have a rooster, how do I know if the eggs are fertilized, and can I eat them? If you pick up your eggs from the coop every day, you’ll never know if they were fertilized, and yes, you can eat them just fine. Eggs take a high temperature for 21 days to grow and hatch, like sitting under a hen or sitting in a warm incubator. It is impossible to crack open an egg and have a half-formed chick inside, unless you pulled that egg out from under a broody momma hen.

BROODY?

Broody is the term for a hen who has decided to hatch eggs. She will sit on a nest for three weeks, rarely coming down for food or water. Sometimes a hen with no rooster present will go broody. It’s a sad sight to see a hen sitting on eggs that aren’t fertile. She will sit and sit and sit. You can remedy this by removing her from the site for a few days, maybe placing her in a dog crate until her broodiness goes away. You can also wait three weeks and place some baby chicks under her while she’s sleeping. She’ll think she hatched them herself, and you won’t have to raise them! (Note: If you don’t have a broody hen, DON’T put chicks in with grown chickens. Chickens will kill small chicks. Only babies of broody hens are protected by the broody hen.)

SPEAKING OF BROODY, LET’S TALK BROODERS

Back to our topic of raising chicks, the place for baby chicks is called a brooder. It can be as fancy as a store-bought pen or as simple as a cardboard box. Your chicks will be contained and safe while in the brooder and the small area is perfect for maintaining temperatures.

BEFORE THEY COME HOME – Prepare your brooder. Fill the bottom with pine shavings, a couple inches. You can pick up shavings at your local Tractor Supply. Do not use cedar shavings. Yes, they smell good, but they contain an oil that is not good for little developing chick lungs. Warm up the area with a red-bulb heat lamp or a heat panel. Both available again at TSC or any online livestock retailer. Add a chick waterer. Add a chick feeder filled with chick food. You do not need grit as the chick food is super dissolvable. We’ll talk more about grit later. If you’ve purchased your chicks from an online source, they will come USPS and the mailman will NOT deliver them to your house. You will get a call early in the morning to come to the post office and pick up your chicks. If you check the email you received from your supplier, you’ll know roughly when your chicks will arrive. Go pick them up and get them in the warm brooder as quickly as you can. Don’t wait until after lunch or maybe tomorrow. The chicks have been in that box for 2-3 days and are tired and hungry and thirsty. Somewhere in the back of your mind, file away the fact that as with any animal, you’ll lose a few, so don’t be dismayed if your shipment arrives with a deceased one in the box or one dies within the first day or so. I’ve found that happens about 1/2 the time. You can notify your supplier, who may offer to include an additional one in your next order, or you can simply know that there is about a 5% loss rate when it comes to shipping chickens and move on with your life.

WEEK 1 – Your chicks need a warm temperature of about 95 degrees for the first week. Your heat lamp does NOT need to be way down close to the chicks. Those things get HOT. If you want to check the temp, use any thermometer on the bottom of the brooder and adjust your heat source as needed. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can simply watch the chicks. If they’re spread out comfortably, your temp is great. If they’re all moved away from the heat source, they’re too hot. If they’re all bunched up under the heat source, they’re too cold. Watch them, they’ll tell you what they need. Supply chick food and unlimited fresh water.

WEEK 2 – You can raise your heat lamp a couple inches as chicks only need 90 degrees this week. Keep unlimited food and water available. You will notice their little wings getting feathers on the tips. You will want to clean out their bedding as it now has lots of poop and pee in there. Using a large spoon, spatula, dust pan, whatever you can scoop with, scoop all old bedding out and replace with new bedding. Move the old bedding to your compost pile. Do not put it on your garden plants as it’s very hot with nitrogen and will burn your plants. Chicken poop needs to compost for many months, up to a year, before using as fertilizer.

WEEK 3 – Your chicks only need 85 degrees this week, so move your heat source accordingly. The same as last week, unlimited food and water are needed, and you’ll want to clean their bedding again. You’ll find they have more little feathers growing, and since they are getting bigger, you may find you need to change their bedding more frequently now, maybe twice this week. If you find they’re making a mess with their water, try putting it up on a brick or an old book. Are they getting too big for your brooder? Don’t crowd them in. Get a different brooder if needed. (The first year we got chickens, we started with a large cardboard box and by week 3, we had emptied out our giant Christmas tote and put them in there. Whatever you have to do is fine!)

WEEK 4 – Your chicks need 80 degrees this week. If you live someplace warm, you may be able to turn off the heat lamp during the day. You may also be able to take your chicks outside in an enclosed pen and let them peck around the grass. Keep in mind, EVERYONE, including the neighbor cat and the overhead hawk LOVES chicken! You must keep an eye on them. Don’t leave them unattended, and don’t let them spend a long time without fresh water available. You will notice they’re beginning to jump around a little more. If your brooder doesn’t have a top, and no homemade brooders do, you can use a window screen or a sheer curtain across the top. Place a weight on the screen or clip down the curtain with cloths pins or office clips. These little buggers will find a way to jump right out of that brooder if they can.

WEEK 5 – Your chicks are becoming pretty feathered right now and starting to look like awkward teenagers. They still need some warmth, and 75 degrees will do it. Their bedding is soiled more frequently and requires fresh bedding probably every other day. You have your coop together outside, right? They are pretty close to being able to live outside, so if you don’t already have your outdoor coop ready, you have about a week to do so.

WEEK 6 – Your chicks need about 70 degrees right now. If they are still in your house, you can probably pack the heat lamp away for your next batch. Depending on your weather, your chicks may be able to spend the days outside in their new coop. If your nights are cool, you should still bring them inside, back to their brooder at night.

WEEK 7 – Do your chicks have all their feathers? If so, you can leave them outside in their coop at night. They will snuggle together for warmth. They still need unlimited food and water daily. Congrats, you now have backyard chickens!!

SO, WHAT ABOUT THE EGGS?

Your hens will begin laying anywhere from 16-24 weeks of age. Check your specific chicken breed on the internet and you’ll find your answer. Gathering your first egg is really egg-citing!! (See what I did there?) Depending on your family size and how many chickens you purchased, you may be about to roll in unlimited eggs for a while. You should brush up on your quiche recipes.

QUESTIONS

Can I keep my eggs on the counter? Yes, as long as they haven’t gotten wet, you can keep them at room temperature on the counter for six weeks. Fresh eggs have a “bloom” on them that prevents bacteria from entering the shell. Once you’ve wash them or they’ve gotten wet, you need to put them in the fridge. They will stay good for the same length of time. You can freeze them for up to a year, so when you’re drowning in eggs, look into that process.

How do I know my eggs are still good? You can tell when you crack open an egg how old it is. As it ages, it’s less springy. It becomes more watery. That does not mean it’s not good. If an egg is NOT GOOD, you will know the moment you crack it. You will also be running outside for fresh air while you’re husband laughs at you for gagging. There is absolutely NO DOUBT when an egg is bad.

Do my chickens need heat in the winter? NO, they don’t need a heat source, but you should make sure their coop is dry and draft free. You can staple up some plastic in the winter. A $1-store shower curtain liner will do.

Why did my chickens stop laying? Hens do not lay continuously. It takes 18 hours of light to create an egg, so they slow down considerably in the winter. They also stop laying completely for a few months while they molt on occasion. They will molt in the spring or the fall beginning at 18 months of age, and as they are re-growing feathers, they don’t produce eggs. They will also stop laying if they don’t have enough water. Make sure to check their water supply daily. Back to the winter, some folks like to put a light on a timer in the coop in the winter so they keep getting eggs. I say, dang, give the poor girls a break. It’s like their winter vacation. You don’t really need two dozen eggs every day in the winter, do you?

Do my chickens need grit? If your chickens don’t have access to the outside where there are little pebbles and rocks in the grass for them to pick at, then YES, you should supply your hens with grit. Chickens don’t have teeth to pulverize their food, so they collect little pebbles and grit in their gizzard, which breaks down food as they move around.

Can my chickens eat table scraps? Yes, yes, and yes. Chicken used to be the garbage disposal of the old farm. They will eat just about anything. Personally, I don’t feed my chickens anything that is super salty. Just seems to me they don’t need that much salt. I also don’t feed them potato skins. I’ve seen potato skins back up a metal garbage disposal; I can’t imagine grit in a gizzard would do any better grinding those up.

Do I need to keep my chickens in an enclosed area? Yes and No. If you live in a suburban home with a fenced in yard that no animal has ever breached, you’re probably okay to let your chickens out for a few hours. Keep in mind, they will destroy your grass rather quickly as they dig for bugs, and they will dig up anything in your garden. Even in the safest environment, you will still get a stray cat or a raccoon that would love to have your chicken for supper, so depending on your bond to your chickens, you may want to only let them out supervised. If you let your chickens “free range,” you will eventually lose one to a predator. That is the cycle of life.

Do my chickens need to be locked up at night? Again, yes and no. Your chickens will be nearly unresponsive at night. It’s funny how soundly they sleep. They will be prime targets for night predators if they are not locked in their coop. There is no worse feeling that checking on your girls in the morning only to find there has been an over-night massacre. It will ease your mind to do a head-count every night. That one time you missed that one chicken will be the one night an owl decides to hang out in your tree.

Enjoy your new chickens, and as always, message if you have any questions. We’re happy to help!

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