Category Archives: Poultry


images[2]Chirp… chirp… chirp… do you hear it? I was just heading in for some goat feed and their cute little chirping lured me over to them like a siren’s call. I was hypnotized and before I knew it I was signing my name in the ledger and walking out of the feed store with a box of chicks. Minimum of 6… I thought I better play it safe and get 10. Who does the minimum anyways? I have always been taught to go above and beyond so I assume this applies to chick buying as well.

I drive home talking to my little box of chicks… promising them a great future and lots of cuddles. And then… reality hits me… I was ill-prepared to bring home chicks. It’s mid February and the weather is still fluctuating wildly in southern Indiana. One day it’s 70 degrees and the next day it’s 30… ugh!

So this was me the second year we lived on our little homestead. The first year I had ordered some lovely cochins from Murray McMurray (hatchery that I HIGHLY recommend and am absolutely giddy about when I get their catalog!) and had everything ready for them when the post office called and told me my chicks had arrived. Yes, you read that right… companies MAIL chicks and they actually arrive in great shape (depending on the company and postal workers). I had a nice plastic baby pool with pine shavings and small square wire fencing making a nice round 2 foot high wall set up in a closed off room so the cats couldn’t get at them. Heat lamp was secure so there was no chance it could fall, waterer was set up with electrolytes and feeder was completely full with feed and a bit of chick grit mixed in. That was 7 years ago and those chickens are living happily on friends’ homesteads as we went through the great chicken purge in 2015 (totally got rid of ALL of our chickens!)

So then this second year of homesteading I had many adult cochin hens and a rooster who were doing great! Why would I add more chicks to the farm? Ummmmm… they are so cute and like I said, they hypnotized me. So, I had to come up with something fast to prevent these chicks from dying due to my crazy impulsiveness (could not be helped… hypnotized, don’t judge me). I’m going to hook you up with the basics needed to prevent chick death and even make them happy! You’ll see the “great way” and the “make do” way. Whenever possible do the “great way.”

Want a quick list, here you go…

Brooder (bin, box, playpen, or whatever  to put them in)

Food dish and food

Water dish and water

Heat source

Grit (you can buy it or put some clumps of grass with dirt attached in brooder)

Brooder bedding/paper towel

  1. Shelter: chicks need to be free from drafts, wetness, and kept relatively warm. When they are with mother hen they tuck up under her feathers for warmth so when you can provide something similar to that they will be happy. Chick shelters are called “brooders”. A “great” brooder is a large round/oval plastic bin of some sort. Many people use empty water troughs(50 to 100 gallon size are great for 20 or so chicks) because they have nice high sides, are easy to disinfect/clean, and provide no holes for drafts to come through. The “make do” shelter can be a plastic tote for a few chicks or even a large box. Just watch out that the chicks don’t all huddle in one corner and squish the poor chick unlucky enough to be on the bottom.
  2. Water: chicks need clean fresh water at all times. Chicks will dehydrate quickly and die if they don’t have access to water. The “great” waterer is the simple plastic water containers sold in the chicken section of your feed stores (or online). If you have 10 or more chicks save yourself the hassle of refilling little waterers nonstop and go ahead and get the 1 gallon waterer. The “make do” waterer can be any shallow pan (pie pan or whatever) with water in it and some rocks so the chicks won’t climb in and drown. **IMPORTANT** when you bring your chicks home and take each one out of the box to put in the brooder check their bottoms for pasty butt (see below for what to do about that) and then dip their beaks into the water source in the brooder. This lets them know where the water is! It is always a good idea to provide some electrolytes in chick’s water for the first day when you bring them home to help combat the stress of travel. Feed stores sell special chick electrolytes but you can also just mix 1 Tbs (that’s tablespoon) of regular sugar in with a gallon of water for them.
  3. Food: If you have dual purpose or typical chickens for egg laying feed them the regular chick starter food. Often you see “starter” food and starter/grower” food in the chicken section. Check the back of the bag for recommended ages as brands differ on what they recommend. If you have meat chicks (cornish rocks etc.) try to find the meat bird chick food. No big deal if you can’t. DO NOT feed the meat bird chick food to chicks that you don’t plan on butchering within 6 months.                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Medicated or unmedicated? Medicated feed is formulated for chicks to help them combat coccidiosis, a disease that is found just about everywhere in the environment. Most medicated starter feeds contain the medication amprollium. If your birds have been vaccinated against coccidiosis, feeding them medicated feed will nullify the coccidiosis vaccination, although it will not hurt them. You certainly don’t have to feed medicated food! I usually feed medicated chick food as the amprollium is well out of their system by the time they start laying eggs 5 or 6 months later (they are on a different food at that age).
  4. Heat source. “Great” option, they make these super safe little rectangle chick warmers (I’ve seen them in magazine and online) that sit low in the brooder and allow the chickens to huddle under them all cozy and happy. “Make do” option is the classic super dangerous and inexpensive thin metal heat lamp with red heat bulb. Why is it super dangerous you ask? Well, because it gets quite hot and can catch something on fire if it gets too close to something burnable. I’ve seen many barns and hen houses burned down because of the ol’ heat lamp. With that being said, I have used heat lamps for 7 years now and take extra precautions to make them safe as possible. I clip my heat lamp (often comes with a clamp) at the proper distance above the chicks and attach two safety chains to the lamp and a support above. If the clamp fails and the lamp falls it will be stopped by the chain about a foot from the base of the brooder.                                                                                                                                                                                                                            When deciding how far away from the chicks you should put the heat lamp let the chicks tell you. Place the heat lamp about 2 feet over the chicks, towards one end of the brooder. If they all huddle directly under the light and are chirping loudly they are too cold and it needs to be lowered. If they are on the far end of the brooder trying to escape the light it is too low and too hot. You may need to change the height depending on temperature in day and night etc. What you are looking for is chicks slightly spread apart (maybe little groups of 2 or 3) all around the glow of the light laying quietly and happy. Place their food on the edge of the light circle towards the middle of the brooder if it is larger. If you have a very big brooder or a long brooder you may need more than one heat source.
  5. Grit: So let’s talk chicken physiology for a moment… Chickens do not have teeth to grind up their food. Instead they use grit in their gizzard to grind the food. Grit is just hard rocks or sand. If you buy grit, it will probably be granite because it is really hard and works well, plus it is a cheap by-product of granite quarrying. But about any rock will work as grit. The harder it is the longer it will last. Good granite might last a month. Softer rocks could be gone in days. “Great” method is buying the small bag of chick grit in the chicken section of the feed store… it will last you FOREVER! “Make do” method is grabbing some dirt and putting it in the brooder. If all the chicks eat is the prepared chick feed, they do not need grit. It has already been ground up real fine, then formed into crumbles using water. Their gizzard can handle that just fine. I add a nbit of grit to my chick food because I do put garden weeds, clover, mealworms, etc. in for my chicks. If you feed them about anything else (other than just the chick feed), they should have grit. It’s not that they are automatically going to die if they don’t have grit, but it is a possibility. Remember that just because something can happen does not mean that it will each and every time. What can happen with some foods, like grass, is that it can form a wad in their gizzard and cannot pass on through their system. It can block the exit from their gizzard so nothing can pass through and cause a condition called impacted gizzard. Don’t freak out because you gave your 3 day old chicks some grass without having grit for them. They will probably be fine. Just know it can cause a problem. What I like to do is pick a clump of grass or weeds (make sure they have not been treated with pesticides!) and just make sure some of the dirt is still attached on the bottom and I lay it on its side in the brooder, they love it, especially if they find a worm in the clump!
  6. Brooder bedding: If your chicks have already been on pine shavings in the feed store then go ahead and use those if you want in your brooder. If you are getting new chicks from the hatchery mailed to you put down paper towel instead of shavings for the first couple days so they know to eat the food in your feeder rather than the shavings. Don’t sue newspaper as it tends to get slippery when wet and can cause splay leg in chicks. Besides, we don’t want to depress those chicks with our world news.




Pasty butt: Often the stress of traveling, over-crowding, sickness and just stress of life itself can cause chicks to have “pasty butt.” It is simply when droppings stick to the down by the chick’s vent (booty) and get crusty and hard after time. If left to go too long it blocks other droppings from exiting and the chicken will die. I have heard expert after expert tell people to take a nice warm cloth and gently wipe the area until it is clean. Ok, that is great… in fact we will call that the “great” method and I have tried that over and over again but have had mixed results. Sometimes the vent stayed clear and sometimes it got all pasty again.

My other method, we’ll call it the “make do” method requires some tough love but it has 100% effectiveness and takes literally 1 second. I simply hold the chick firmly, grab the clump at the base and pull off the hardened droppings (only works when the pasty butt has hardened). Yes, it pulls the down/fuzz out with the clump of droppings and yes the chick usually gives a little chirp like, “Hey, that hurt, you jerk!” but none of my chicks have ever had a recurrence of pasty butt after doing that because there is nothing for the droppings to stick to.

Feather duster: I tried this a couple years ago and the chicks LOVED it. I got one of those ostrich feather dusters and hung it upside down in the brooder somewhat close to the heat lamp (keeping safety in mind because wow, I bet those feathers are flammable!) and all of those chicks huddled under it like it was their mama, they loved it. I even freaked out one day because I thought something had gotten them but they were ALL tucked up under that feather duster! I have it hanging about an inch or two above the brooder floor/shavings.

There ya go… just my quick little chick 101 for these awesome chick days that are upon us! Show me your chicks or tell me all about how they hypnotized you too!

Signing off… for now…


Itchin’ for a chicken!

Katja and chickens

Katja hanging out with a buff cochin and black cochin.

Stephanie asked a great question just the other day and I bumped this topic to the top of my “gotta blog this” list immediately. What kind of chickens should we get and what basics do we need to know?”

Chickens are the perfect starter livestock for any hobby farm, homestead, and even urban backyards. I get the following questions a lot about chickens and am so excited to share what has and hasn’t worked for us…

  1. What is the best kind to get
  2. What basics do I need from the start
  3. Where is the best place to get my chickens


What is the best kind to get? Chicken breeds/types are a lot like dog breeds/types. No matter what the breed is known for there will always be exceptions and a lot of your outcome depends on how the animal is raised. Basically, you need to ask yourself, “Why do I want these chickens?” and that will determine what type you get.

  • Do I want great egg layers?
  • Do you want meat birds (dinner table)
  • Do I want dual purpose (decent egg layers but also good for butchering)
  • Do I want good free rangers/pest control
  • Do I have extreme winters/summers
  • Do I want my kids (and me) to be able to easily handle them?
  • Do I want certain color eggs (brown, white, blue, green, pink etc.)
  • Do I want quick egg layers (chickens can start laying anywhere from 17 to more than 26 weeks old)
  • Do I want heritage breeds or hybrids?
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Delaware chicken searching for yummies to eat


This may seem a bit overwhelming and an awful lot of questions to just get a couple chickens but it cetainly helps guide one in the purchase of the best flock.

What is the best kind to get?  I absolutely have preferences on breeds based on what we have had. At one time I kept a flock of over 200 chickens which had the freedom to roam the entire hobby farm (including our front porch which did not make my husband and kids very happy). We had 23 different breeds of chickens and they all had their pluses and minuses but one breed certainly stood out amongst the others. The great cochin! We have had bantam (miniature version) cochins, standard cochins, and even frizzle cochins (their feathers are all frizzled and stand out on end) and I have loved them all for their gentleness, great egg production, ability to withstand cold and hot temperatures, beautiful looks, and great mama skills when we wanted to hatch out some chicks.

Some other great all around chickens for any type of environment are the orphington, brahma, australorp, cornish, polish, ISA browns, and golden comets, Rhode Island whites, Plymouth Rock, and New Hampshires.

We love the look and color of eggs (rich dark brown) we get from cuckoo marans but I have to say these ladies are not very friendly. We also had a Cuckoo Maran rooster, Stanley, who was pure evil. He would even chase our German Shepherds around the farm, horrible guy. The boys wouldn’t go out the door when Stanley was out. He got his own pen because we needed him to raise other cuckoo marans from our hens but I really really really did not like him. Needless to say I was not all that sad the day old Stanley kicked the bucket however I was scared to death to go in the pen to get his body to bury because I thought he might be faking it to lure me in to attack me.


On the flip side there was Meathead, the most amazing (and HUGE) rooster you could ever find. He even visited grade school classes for kids to learn about chickens and hobby farming. He loved to be held and everyone loved him. Sadly Meathead passed away last fall and he will serioulsy be missed!


Meathead by Casey Braden

Meathead…photo by Casey Braden

Next item to consider is whether you want:

  • chicks (male and female)
  • pullets (female less than 1 year old)
  • cockerels (roosters less than 1 year old)
  • full grown hens
  • full grown roosters

I’ve always preferred chicks because they are so darn cute and we could raise them up accustomed to being handled and returning to their coop at dusk. In spring you can get chicks from many feed/farm stores (around here it’s Tractor Supply Company and Rural King), mail order (my favorite is Murray McMurray Hatchery, link below), and from local breeders (check out Craigslist or local farmers).

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What basics do I need from the start? This depends on what age you get.

Full grown egg laying chickens:

  1. Coop or hen house with nest boxes
  2. feeder
  3. waterer
  4. feed  (at least initially so you can entice them to return to the coop each night if they are free ranging. Make sure it is NOT “meat bird” feed if you are raising egg laying or dual purpose breeds), protected run (depending on predator level and which, if any, livestock guardians you have) and chicken first aid kit. Pretty easy right? Yup, which is why they make great starter critters for any homestead.
  5.  If your birds do not have access to dirt ( I highly encourage as much access to “foraging as possible) then you need to provide grit for their digestion. A small bowl or feeder of it is sufficient as they will eat what they need.
  6. Calcium of some sort. Some people provide this with oyster shell (we do) given freely as the grit would be. Others crush up egg shells and give it to them (we also do this).

Pullets/Cockerels: All of the same things above except you will not want to feed the egg laying feed. Instead get the starter/grower or grower/finisher feed depending on age of pullets. They will probably not be free ranging at this age (due to their size they make too easy of targets for predators) so you will be giving them more feed than full grown, free ranging chickens.


  1. Brooder of some sort. There are a million ideas on the internet for “homemade brooders” that range from super simple to complex. In the past we have used a baby pool with square mesh wire surrounding it or refrigerator boxes laid down with the “top” cut out. We now use a big stock tank with high walls similar to what you see the chicks in at the feed stores. It’s a bit of upfront investment but if you plan on having new chicks again it is worth it. If you only have a couple chicks feel free to make something or use boxes.
  2. Brooder light. Yes you need this even if it’s summer. Chicks need to be kept warm so you will have to adjust the height to get it just right. The chicks will let you know.

If they are all huddled directly under the light most of the time they are cold, lower it. If they are most often in the far depths of the far corners trying to get away from the light it is too hot, raise it.

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Maybe a little low but all in all this is fine

3.   Waterer. Do not use a bowl of water as they will probably tip it over and/or drown in it. Fresh water every day is super important for chicks. When you first get them home add 1 TBS of sugar per gallon of water and make it slightly warm the first time.

4.   Feeder. The round ones are great (pictured above). I have often found that my chicks get their food super dirty and icky with the long trough type.

5.   Feed. You will need chick feed (starter). DO NOT Get the meat bird starter (it is designed to grow chickens super fast to butcher sooner and that will be bad if your chicks are used for egg laying or dual purpose). You can get the medicated feed if your chicks were not immunized (Marek’s Disease) but only feed it for 1 to 2 weeks. You can also get feed with antibiotics but I have found I don’t need that as long as I keep the brooder clean and water refreshed daily. When we hatch out our chicks here on the farm I give the medicated feed (for Marek’s Disease) but if I get them from a hatchery I have them immunized there before shipment.

6.   Grit. If your chickens do not yet have access to the outdoors (dirt) put a bowl or feeder of grit out for them. THey will eat it as they need it to aid in their digestion.

7.   Bedding. If they came from a hatchery or someone’s incubator at first you will want to have paper towels down for the chicks (newspaper becomes slick when wet and they could easily hurt their legs). You can put hem on top of wood chips or just have it down on the floor of your brooder (I suggest the latter). Change this paper towel out daily. If you put them on wood chips when they have not been accustomed to them they often mistake them for food, eat them, get impacted crops, and could die. If they came from a feed store you can put them directly on wood shavings or chips as they are accustomed to them and shouldn’t eat them

8.   Chicken first aid kit. I will have more on this soon as I am working on a blog post all about general chick/chicken health and ailments. Basically you want scissors, antibiotic ointment, dressings, pressure tape, gloves, magnifying glass, and thermometer.


Last but not least, Where is the best place to get my chickens? I’ve bought them locally (breeders, farmers, fed store), ordered them, rescued them from inhumane conditions,and hatched chicks here at The Shepherd Hobby Farm. I love getting rare breeds and funny breeds from a hatchery but cannot help myslef in spring when I go into the feed store so I end up bringing a few home from there as well every spring. My all time favorite though is hatching them here at the farm… if you are ever able to do it I highly recommend hatching your own out.

Hey maybe I should start an “incubator rental” business, so fun!

When you get them from the feed store choose chicks that are moving around and curious. You may be tempted to “rescue” that one huddled by herself in the corner but you are setting yourself up for more work and probable heartbreak if she doesn’t make it. “Straight Run” means they haven’t been sexed (male and female) and you have no idea what you are going to get (hens or roosters). Pullets are female and cockerels are males as we stated before (though I’ve never seen a feed store sell just cockerels). You do NOT need a rooster for hens to lay eggs. Roosters are great but that is for a whole nother blog post!

Quick links that will help even the most seasoned chicken enthusiast!

Murray McMurray Hatchery:

Mother Earth News did an interesting survey all about different breeds and chicken management techniques. The results can be seen here…

Another tool from Mother Earth News is their “Hatchery Finder.” You type in what you are looking for and it comes up with the mail order hatcheries that have what you want, cool!

Questions? Comments? Ideas? Pics of your poultry friends? Let me hear it and see them, post here in the comments section and feel free to share our site!