Prices Are Eggstraordinary Right Now: A Quick-Start Guide to Chicks
With egg and poultry prices rocketing through the roof, you, like many others, may be considering raising some chickens of your own. Raising these endearing little animals is as rewarding as it is tasty, but knowing where to start can be a struggle – especially if you’ve never raised chickens before. This quick-start guide is not meant to be comprehensive, but it will give you a great starting point to raising your first flock and knowing where to find more information.
Step 1: Can I have chickens?
It’s genuinely surprising how many places allow chickens. There are three levels of law that you should look at to find out if chickens are allowed in your own back yard: County, city, and HOA or covenant. At the county level, you’ll usually find general requirements for chicken ownership. This would be things like how many chickens you’re allowed to have per acre, animal health regulations, and general zoning laws. If you’re outside the city, this may be all you need. At a city level, you’ll find more specific zoning laws, noise and nuisance ordinances, and sometimes more detailed animal health regulations. Then, many properties either have a covenant that specifies what animals are or are not allowed on the deeded land, or an HOA that regulates what is or isn’t allowed in a neighborhood. These often have regulations regarding chickens and other livestock.
Keep in mind that roosters may not be allowed where hens are due to the amount of noise they make – but don’t worry, your flock can still be delightfully productive without a rooster so long as you’re not planning on incubating chicks. Further, keep in mind that laws about the sale of eggs, slaughter of chickens, and preparation of chicken as meat are likely to be different than the maintenance of an egg-laying flock. Double check the laws and regulations for these things if you have bigger plans for your flock than just enjoying their delicious eggs.
To find out what your local laws and regulations are, you can ask your local library, call your county or city clerk, or reach out to your local extension office. Your local extension office will also have wonderful information on raising and caring for your flock, growing lovely fruits and vegetables, making your yard native pollinator friendly, and a host of other fantastic information.
Step 2: What chickens should I get? How many?
There are an almost overwhelming number of chicken breeds out there. There are fluffy ones, skinny ones, ones bred for laying eggs, others for high quality meat, and some that are just for show! What chickens will best fit your lifestyle depend on what chicken products you’re interested in, what your local laws and regulations allow, what your climate allows, and what’s available in your area.
For egg-laying chickens, usually called “layers,” a few of the most popular beginner breeds are: Australorp, Rhode Island Red, and New Hampshire. Keep in mind that egg production tends to slow down in the winter because of reduced sunlight. If you’re in a more northern climate, you may enjoy Rhode Island White or White Leghorn chickens for their improved winter egg production.
For meat chickens, usually called “Broilers”, a few of the most popular beginner breeds are: Delaware, Bresse, and Orpington. Another breed we love to dork out over is the red dorking, which has fantastic meat quality, lovely eggs, and a very fun history to read up on.
All of these chicken breeds can also be dual purpose – that is, they make wonderful broilers as well as layers. There are many places that offer chicks in many different breeds for pick-up or to arrive by mail. You can even order hatchable eggs and older chickens, depending on your needs. Many hatcheries offer to vaccinate chicks before you receive them, which is recommended over using medicated feed, but may also be unnecessary. Regardless, vaccinated animals can still qualify as organic, but not those with medicated feed. Your local poultry veterinarian will have more information on whether or not getting vaccinated chicks will be right for your family. We also recommend looking up several articles on these and other breeds, their health habits, space requirements, and etc., before making any definite decisions.
Step 3: What do these chickens need?
There are three stages to raising chickens: Starting, growing, and maintenance or adult. Starting is the most intensive part of a chicken’s life, so we’ve written this article just for that stage.
For starting you will need: chicks, of course! You’ll also need a brooder, which is comprised of a pen, heat source, and bedding, as well as a feeder, some starter feed, starter grit, and a waterer.
a.) A pen: You want your pen to be round so that your chicks don’t get crowded into corners and stepped on by their flockmates. Expandable pens are best because they can grow as your chicks grow. They only need about seven square inches per chick to begin with for most chicken breeds, but you may need a larger pen to move the chicks into once they’re a little bigger. In general, you want it to have enough space so the chicks can run back and forth between the warm and cool parts of the pen, so they can stay nice and comfortable.
b.) A heat source: You’ll want a heat source because chicks aren’t able to make enough of their own heat until they’re about 6 weeks old, and even then only if outside temperatures are right. Your chicks will need to be kept at 95 degrees Fahrenheit for the first week of their lives, then 5 degrees less for each week older they grow with a minimum of 55 degrees at the end of their brooding period. The best heat source is an adjustable heat plate, which the chicks crawl under to enjoy the heat radiating from above. If you find your chicks crowding under the plate constantly, it’s too cold. If you find them crowded away from the plate or trying to hover nearby without going under, it’s either too hot or too close to the ground. These plates are also much less likely to start a fire than other options, thanks to their sturdy feet and more precise distribution of heat. If you find you must go with a lamp, however, red-bulbed lamps are recommended since these have been shown to reduce aggression in young chicks. Heating pads or space heaters aren’t recommended because these can be too intense for chicks, causing burns on their little feet and bodies.
- chain or rope rather than its cord so you don’t accidentally start a fire. If you’re hanging the lamp by a flammable rope, make sure it doesn’t rest on the lamp or its housing where it gets hot. Also, make sure the lamp isn’t too close to anything flammable as it hangs, and check its surroundings after a while to make sure nothing is getting too hot.
c.) Quality bedding: There are many good options for bedding. Pine shavings, newspaper, paper towels, chopped straw or hay, coarse sand, and hemp beddings are all commercially available. Our favorite is AubiChick hemp chick bedding for its wonderful absorbency, color, and composting ability. When choosing a bedding, it’s important to choose something that you won’t mind the chicks nibbling on. Fine sands should be avoided because they can clog your chicks’ noses. Cedar should be avoided until the chicks are older because it needs good ventilation to be the most effective.
d.) A fan: This really depends on where you’re keeping your chicks. If there’s plenty of ventilation, you may actually need to enclose the chicks’ environment a little more to better retain heat and air moisture. Drafty areas tend to chill chicks and pull moisture out of the air, and just like any other baby a little bit of humidity can go a long way. On the other hand, if you don’t have much air movement at all, ammonia and moisture can build up to dangerous levels. In this case, it’s best to have a gentle fan blowing through the chicks’ area to reduce harmful vapors and keep their environment from getting too moist, which can lead to problems like mold.
e.) Feeders: There’s many kinds of feeder on the market. The best feeder will depend on how many chicks you have, and how much time you want to put into cleaning up. Hanging feeders require the least cleanup, since chicks have a harder time climbing into them to knock them over, kick out the feed, and shovel their bedding in. However, when chicks are very small this will be hard for them to access. Ground feeders require more clean-up, but they’re a must for young chicks that aren’t old enough to reach a hanging feeder yet. Things that are red colored also instinctively drive chickens to peck, so if you have a picky eater consider getting a red feeder.
f.) Food: There are a lot of considerations you can make with starter feed – and ultimately it all comes down to providing the best health for your new chicks. New Country Organics offers certified organic, non-medicated, traditionally milled, super-premium, soy-free starter feed. We also offer as soy- and corn-free starter feed for anyone who prefers corn-free options. These feeds are perfect for starting a new flock right, with all the nutrition your chicks need to grow up strong and healthy and ground to the fine texture those little beaks need. We also just released out new line of pastured feeds: Pastured Perfect is perfect for flocks with access to foraging. Even better, our feeds are formulated with kelp for added omega-3 fatty acids, known to help with feather quality as chicks grow into their adult feathers, as well as probiotics to encourage healthy digestion for growth and development. We offer these in a mash and a crumble, and which of these you choose is largely personal preference. Just keep in mind that you may have a couple picky eaters in your flock who take more time to adjust than others if you decide to switch later.
g.) Grit: You may have noticed that chickens don’t have teeth. We hope this revelation doesn’t rock your world too hard. They make up for not having teeth by swallowing little rocks that hang out in a big muscular pouch called a gizzard. These rocks mash around in the pouch with the chicken’s food, essentially chewing it before it passes onto the stomach. Starter chicks will need starter chick sized grit. If their grit is too large, it will block the flow of food through their system. New Country Organics offers Flock Perfect Starter Grit, which is the perfect size for your baby chicks to get their digestion going.
h.) Waterer and water: The biggest consideration with a waterer is making sure it doesn’t get knocked over, and can’t soak your chicks. Wet chicks are cold chicks, and cold chicks are sick chicks. While you can use very shallow (less than one inch of water), heavy baking dishes and the like for this, they aren’t the best option because they allow the chicks to hop into the water, dragging whatever is on their feet with them. Nipple style bottles, the kind that look a little like hamster bottles, make much less of a mess, but may be hard for chicks to figure out. If you choose this option, press their beaks to the nipple to give them an idea of what to do and give the chicks a couple days to adjust to the new watering system before having them rely on it entirely. Gravity fed waterers usually limit a chick’s ability to jump into the water while leaving it open to them, and can often be hung up as they grow larger and more messy. Just keep in mind a good chick waterer will usually be too small for older chickens, and will still need to be sanitized much more often than a nipple bottle. As for the water itself, cleanliness is the most important thing to preventing illness. If you wouldn’t drink the water your chickens are drinking, it’s probably not clean enough. You might also consider adding a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar per gallon of water to help their digestion and help keep the water free from bacteria.
Chicks can be moved outside to their teenage and adult house as soon as 6 weeks so long as outside temperatures are above 65 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point they will be considered growers or broilers. We’ll be publishing another quick-start article soon with more information on growing and laying chickens. Keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive guide by any means – there are plenty of other considerations to raising chicks and keeping chickens that haven’t been discussed here. Below, you’ll find a list of books and media we’ve enjoyed that dive deeper into those considerations, and hope you’ll enjoy, too!
City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-recyclers, and Local Food Producer, by Pat Foreman
This book takes a no-fuss, to-the-point approach in teaching you about chickens and how to care for a flock in an urban setting. It’s shockingly comprehensive and a fantastic place to start your journey, with the added bonus of tips on convincing your community to allow chickens.
The Small Scale Poultry Flock, by Harvey Ussery
This is a super-comprehensive guide to raising poultry, from incubating your own eggs to processing your chickens, this is for both the homesteader looking to increase production in the garden and the flock and small scale farmers looking to increase efficiency while making a tidy profit.
Chicken Tractor: The Permaculture Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil by Andrew W. Lee and Patricia Foreman
Learn how to use mobile chicken pens to feed your chickens and utilize their potential as natural pest control, fertilizer, and food source.
Feeding Pasture Raised Poultry, by Jeff Mattocks
This is a perfect beginner guide to understanding what should go into a pastured feed and why, with special consideration to keeping birds healthy.
Pastured Poultry Talk, by Mike Badger
Not only does this podcast have a multi-part guide to raising and processing your own pastured poultry that you can listen to on your morning commute, it also delves in to all sorts of other current events and issues in the poultry community and best management practices to help.