Itchin’ for a chicken!
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…
- What is the best kind to get
- What basics do I need from the start
- 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?
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!
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).
What basics do I need from the start? This depends on what age you get.
Full grown egg laying chickens:
- Coop or hen house with nest boxes
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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: http://www.mcmurrayhatchery.com/index.html
Mother Earth News did an interesting survey all about different breeds and chicken management techniques. The results can be seen here… https://www.surveymonkey.com/sr.aspx?sm=Ng1SFU0PmWjHUT7ofHi5hKvyLiYkduQuX0GzIJnw6z0_3d
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!