Baby Chicks to Chickens 101
I am going to start off with a few basic rules…
- Chickens are NOT hard. But just like anything else, you can make it as easy or as complicated as you want.
- Everyone on the internet has an opinion, me included. Just because someone has had chickens for a long time, and they write it in a post, doesn’t mean it is the only way or the gospel truth.
- Everything that walks, crawls, or flies eats chicken. The only reason sharks eat fish is because chickens don’t swim! So protect those girls!
- When you buy pullets, you always run a chance of getting a rooster. The hatcheries say they have a 90% success rate at sexing.
Which comes first… the chick or the egg?
For beginners, the incubation process can be discouraging, so I typically recommend that for your first chicks, start with baby chicks and avoid the incubator. But for the sake of completeness, if you want to learn more about incubation and hatching eggs, Backyard Chickens has a very comprehensive guide on it.
You don’t need anything fancy to raise your chicks in. You could use a large plastic tub, a stock tank, a pet kennel, a kiddie pool, a cardboard box… the options are endless. Chicks like it warm, so use a heat lamp for at least the first couple of weeks, but placement is important. What you don’t want is to cook your chicks. 90-95 degrees is ideal, and I have found the best way to achieve this is to put your heat lamp all the way on one side of your brooder, this lets your chicks self regulate their temperature. If they are huddled under it, move it closer, if they are all on the far side, move it away. They will need some kind of litter to walk around on, the best being pine shavings. Paper towels or black & white news print (not shiny or slick newspaper) work well for the first few weeks as well. Avoid cedar shavings with chickens, cedar oils can cause respiratory problems. Most problems with baby chicks revolve around sanitation, so keep the area clean! I prefer mason jar type waters and feeders mainly because they are less messy, but there are lots of choices on the market. What you want to avoid is feeding or watering from a bowl. Chicks have a tendency to climb into dishes, which leads to poo in the food, or drowned chicks. Also keep in mind, to dogs and cats (even sweet ones), chicks look like little peeping chicken nuggets, so make sure they are safe.
There is no way I could pretend to tell you what the best chicken is because “best” depends on what you want out of them.
For just pure laying ability, you might look at Rhode Island Reds/Whites, Production Reds, Red Stars, Cinnamon Queens, Australorps, or Leghorns.
For the gentlest disposition, you might look at Plymouth Rocks, Speckled Sussex, Brahmas, Delawares, Buff Orpingtons, or Australorps.
There are also breeds with interesting egg colors like Americaunas or Easter Eggers for greenish-blue eggs, Cream Legbars for blue eggs, Or Marans, Wellsummers, or Barnevelders for dark brown eggs.
There are tons of other traits and reasons to select one breed over another, and just because one breed is typically gentler, doesn’t mean it isn’t a good layer too!
Just remember when you buy chicks, its fine to mix breeds, but make sure there is no more that 2 weeks age difference between the oldest and youngest chicks in the same enclosure until they reach 8 weeks old. Chicks like to peck as their social communication tool, just like dogs bark. The problem comes in when an older chick pecks on too young of a chick… this is when you can have fatalities.
If you have an IPhone, Pickin’ Chicken is a very handy and easy to use app for breed selection. I still use it all the time for specific breed information.
If you want to plow through a big chart, here is a breed reference guide from Livestockconservency.org.
Every feed manufacturer formulates their feed differently. Coyote Creek Organic Feed makes Chick Starter (Birth – 6 weeks), Pullet Developer (6 -16 weeks), & Layer Ration (16 weeks+). Texas Naturals Feed Makes a Chick Starter (birth – 10 weeks), Pullet Developer (10 – 16 weeks), & Layer Ration (16 weeks+). Most conventional feed mills make a medicated Starter/Grower (birth – 16 weeks) & Layer Ration (16 weeks+).
I often get asked about treats for baby chicks, and tend to recommend people be cautious about the quantity of treats before 6 weeks of age. Their stomachs are tiny at that point and you don’t want to fill them up on dessert when starter has all the nutrition in it.
With baby chicks, it is common, in the first week or 2, for them to get something called Pasty Butt… and it is exactly what it sounds like. As chicks poop, occasionally some clings to the feathers around the vent, then more clings to this, then more and so on. BE AWARE, this is life threatening to the chicks. It can kill them in as little as a day. Simply check your chicks bottoms every day and if you see any poop caked, use a wet paper towel or run slightly warm water over it’s butt and wipe it off.
What about my coop?
Your coop should be solid. Whether you build it or buy it, make sure the walls of the coop are made either solid or out of hardware cloth. No poultry netting on the coop, raccoons, possums, dogs, and foxes can all take it right apart. Here in Texas, you want to have good shade, and good airflow during the summer. You also want to be able to seal it off in the winter time. Cold doesn’t bother grown chickens much, but either cold and wet or cold and wind will chill them down in nothing flat and that is how you lose chickens in the winter time. Removable plywood walls or simply plastic sheeting works to stop the wind. During the winter, have at least the North and 1 adjacent wall, preferably North, East, and West blocked. Allow 5 square feet per bird in your coop if you are attaching it to a run or 10 square feet per bird if it is their total living area. Remember, there is no such thing as too much room, the bigger it is, the less messy it gets.
When can my chicks go outside?
It depends. First, make sure the coop is solid enough that nothing can get in and the chicks can’t get out. We are in Texas, so most of the year, it’s a suitable temperature for chicks. In the summertime when it doesn’t fall below 90 degrees, you can get them out to the coop in the first few weeks. Otherwise, you might wait till they are at least 3 weeks old. In the colder months, I would wait till they are 6-8 weeks before I let them brave it out in the elements.
When/How can my chicks go in with my older hens?
I have found this to be the best method for introducing new chicks/chickens: Any time after your chicks reach 8 weeks old, move them into a cage or pen either within or next to the coop, where the older chickens can be “around” the chicks without being able to peck them. Leave them in this enclosure for at least a few days up to a week. Then go out late at night and put the chicks in the coop with the grown chickens making sure you are moving slow and being quiet in order to not disturb the older hens. In the morning they will start readjusting the “pecking order”, which means everybody is going to peck on each other… this is normal chicken behavior, not aggression. Unless you are seeing major damage to the chicks, such as blood, don’t remove them, as when you put them back the readjustment will start again. This pecking order readjustment will last a few days to a few weeks.
At 16-18 weeks, chickens go through sexual maturity and can begin laying eggs. Be aware, this does not necessarily mean whey will start laying then, it just means they can. Average age for the first egg is around 5 – 6 months. It can be as early as 4 months and I have seen some wait till 8-9 months. You will not get an egg every day, you’ll go through periods where you get nothing, and periods where you can’t give them away fast enough. By 3 years old, their laying will start dropping off fairly quickly, and by 5-6 years old, they will probably be totally done. Although the occasional egg at that age does still happen.
Give chickens a shot! You will not be disappointed!