One option for starting a flock of chickens is by getting chicks by U.S. mail. There are a number of excellent hatcheries that will ship directly to you. One of the great things about this is that you can choose exactly what breed(s) you want and the date you want them. The downside is that there is usually a minimum of 25 required to keep them warm enough during shipment.
Most first-time raisers don’t want that many. Ask around and see if anyone wants to split an order with you. Keep in mind though, that you need not get all egg-layers. You can have half your order (or more) made up of cockerels for your freezer.
A variation of this is buying a half-dozen or so from a local feed store. In March and April, they often get several shipments from hatcheries to re-sell. They typically only have a handful of breeds, but they are usually the most popular ones also.
Prior to getting your chicks, have a brooder set up and getting warm for them. You will need a draft-free area that will allow them room to grow a while. A very easy choice is a stock tank (large metal oval tank that cows and horses drink from). It is already rounded so that there are no corners for startled chicks to pile up in and get crushed. They are a good height also. You can clamp a heat lamp to the side and cover the whole thing with screen or something similar.You want your chicks to have plenty of fresh air, but keep cats out and chicks in.
Put a layer of pine shavings in the bottom and a layer of paper towels on top of that for the first few days. This helps to keep them from eating shavings and to develop strong legs by having something easy to walk on.
Get a feeder or two (depending on the number of birds) and fill with chick starter (we prefer non-medicated since we want to raise ours as organically as possible).
Make sure they have plenty of clean water. Chicks will often foul this up by wading in it (or worse). Dirty water can spread disease through your chicks, so wash the water founts frequently. For the first few weeks, I also usually add a water-soluble vitamin and electrolyte solution to give them a boost. Many people will add a couple of teaspoons of sugar to the water for the first day to give them quick energy after their stressful travel and to encourage them to really get hydrated.
Bringing Home the Babies
When you get your new cheeping fuzzballs home, take each out of the box and check it over. It is common for a few to be stepped on in the box. Any that appear droopy will most likely not survive no matter what you do. Most hatcheries will offer refunds for chicks that die within a few days of receiving them. Mark any that die on your packing slip and call with a tally when the 72 hour period is over.
It is very important to dip each chick’s beak into water a couple of times before setting it under the light. What they need most is a drink and to warm up. After they have had a while to rest, they will usually pop up and begin to investigate their new surroundings, often returning to the water. Before long, they will be eating and dozing again contentedly.
It is important to know that comfortable healthy chicks make a happy chorus of peeps. Stressed birds are loud and plaintive. They are often cold or scared when you hear that kind of sound from them.
They should have constant access to food and water for the first several weeks, so be sure you are checking on them at least twice a day. The more often they see you, the more comfortable they will be with your presence. Move slowly and calmly around them. Speaking to them to announce your presence will often avoid startling them when you reach in from the other side of the light.
As the weeks pass, either move the level of the light up or decrease the wattage of the bulb so they do not overheat. Birds that are hot will be as far away from the light as they can get and may run out of water and stop eating. Cold ones will be crowded beneath the light. Red bulbs seem to reduce the incidence of picking at each other but they will sometimes do this when they are too crowded even with a red light.
Once they are feathered out (by about 6 weeks), you can probably move them outside if the weather is nice. Be sure you have their next home ready for them.
In the next installment, I will explain how to hatch eggs.