This is the place to start!
Chickens are so much fun, not to mention they provide delicious eggs (you'll never go back to store bought) and even meat if you're into that! (we don't use our girls for meat....they are our pets who give us eggs! But to each his own!)
This blog is just a summary of some of the things I learned when we started our mini farm; bringing home 5 baby girls (hens)! (we now have 21) This is by no means meant to be an end all be all blog/list on baby chickens, but certainly a great place for you to start! There are also awesome community forums out there for anything and everything chickens!
This blog will certainly help get you started on your chicken journey!
Supplies you will need for your baby chickens: (all available at Bucheits)
1. Brooder (we used a plastic container from Walmart)
2. Heat lamp (250 watt bulb)
3. Bedding (pine shavings)
4. Waterer & feeder
5. Baby chick feed
1. Before you bring your girls home:
You will need to set up a "brooder" for your baby chicks. A brooder is basically just their "house". We just used a large plastic storage container and instead of using the lid (because they need oxygen), we placed chicken wire across the top and just bent it over the sides to keep it on and flat.
Keep in mind they grow quick! So just because they are teeny tiny when you bring them home doesn't mean a small container is going to work! They need room to grow! They are going to need to be kept warm for a few weeks while they are babies (before they get their "real" feathers) and you can do this by placing a heating bulb/lamp at one of the brooder. We just laid ours on top of the chicken wire (please be sure it is stable and secure, you definitely do not want to start a fire). They want to be warm, not hot, just warm. If you see them huddling under the heat lamp all the time, they are cold. If they are always as far away from the heat lamp as they can get, they're too warm. If they move around a lot, they're just right! You'll keep them in the brooder until they're ready to go outside. If it's warm out, they can go out before fully feathered. If the temps outside are cooler, I would keep them in until they are fully feathered.
You will need to line the brooder with bedding, I used pine shavings (you can by a whole bag full at Bucheits for about $4). You will also need a little waterer and feeder (just a couple bucks each). You'll need to refill your feeder every few days and probably change out the water every other day (they make a mess in their water...but ducks are worse, way worse! lol).
2. Picking out your chickens:
When you purchase your chickens at the store they will already be "sexed" (sex determined) and they should all be hens. (you should only have 1 rooster per around 10 hens if you do want to get a rooster) Sometimes, the sex is wrong and it's possible you end up with a rooster in your mix lol, we did, three times! (I love to hear a rooster crow ;) )
Do some research in regards to the breed that best fits your needs. There are breeds that are prolific egg layers and breeds that are meant more for meat. Chickens don't lay eggs every single day, although some breeds come very close! A few of my favorite breeds are Buff Orpingtons (very friendly and great layers), Ameraucanas (great egg layers - blue/mint green eggs) and Silver Laced Wyandotte (very friendly/great layers)!
3. Building/ Setting up their Coop:
Once the girls are fully feathered (and even before they are fully feathered as long as it is warm out) your girls will be able to go outside! You want to be sure you have a safe and secure coop with enough room for all of your girls. Most commercial coops have 2-3 nesting boxes (where your chickens will sleep and lay their eggs). You can plan on 1 nesting box per 3 - 4 chickens in regards to size of your coop, depending on the size of your girls and how many you have.
Be sure that your coop is secure from predators! We've lost a several chickens to raccoons and possums one time while we were transitioning their coops! Chicken wire will not do the trick, you will need to be sure to secure your run with "hardwire mesh" (found at improvement stores in the gardening section). You can just use wire cutters to trim the mesh to suit your needs and secure it with small screws and washers. Your store bought coop will already have hardwire mesh, so any additions you add need to be the same! Also be sure that your coop has proper ventilation, even in the winter your girls will need proper air circulation to avoid condensation. Some people put a heat lamp inside their coops during the winter, but I do not. Your chickens will naturally adjust to the weather (most all chicks sold in MO are hardy to our weather already) and there's really no need to heat it. Plus, if the bulb or power ever goes out, your risk your girls freezing if they are not used to the temps.
Your chickens are going to either need a secure "run", or they'll need to be able to get out and "free range" as much as possible, especially during the heat of the summer as this is a way for them to flap their wings (provide their own air conditioning). A "run" is an extra space big enough for your girls to get some exercise! They love, love, love the chance to get bugs and weeds! You can see below my original coop and then the "run" that I built to give my girls more space! (there are 7 chickens housed in this coop, this is one of three that we have)
Chickens also need to be able to "bathe" themselves. They do this by giving themselves what's called a "dust bath". They will either use the dirt/ground in their coop, or in a dust bath that you build for them. You can see below one of the dust baths that I built for the girls. Peat moss and wood ash from your fireplace makes GREAT bedding for a dust bath. Chickens use this dirt to get in between their wings and feathers to keep mites away and "clean" themselves. It's like a spa for your girls, they LOVE it!
4. Gathering Eggs/Feeding, Watering and Bedding for the Coop:
You will want to collect your eggs daily in the summer and at least every other day during the winter (depending on how often they are laying). Fresh eggs can sit out on your counter (America is one of the few countries who refrigerate eggs!) You only need to refrigerate your fresh eggs if you wash them because once you wash them you remove the protective layer on the outside of the shell, which means bacteria could seep in if not refrigerated. I don't ever refrigerate my eggs. They'll stay good on your counter for WEEKS, and if you're ever unsure, set them in a cup of water to do the "float test". If they float, throw them out! If they sink, or still touch the bottom, they're good!
There are several options that you can use for bedding inside their coop (where they sleep and lay eggs). You can use pine shavings or straw, some people even use sand. I use straw! (you'll clean out their coops - change out bedding - probably about twice a month, just depends on how dirty your girls are - and this soiled bedding makes AWESOME compost by the way!)
You'll need a waterer and a feeder; there are also all types out there for you to choose from, so whatever floats your boat! I like the metal waterers because I use the metal water heating discs in the winter to keep their water from freezing. (we have electric by each coop) Your girls need and LOVE fresh water! (add a little apple cidar vinegar to keep them healthy)
As far as feeders, we made our own out of PVC pipes. We fill them about once a week with chicken crumbles, they eat less of the crumbles the more "outside" time they get to snatch up weeds and bugs. We have to be cautious with letting our girls out of the runs and they are only out if we are out (which is often) because of all the hawks we have around us. You'd be surprised at how quickly a hawk realizes your girls are out!
The PVC feeders are easy to fill and take up less space...and they're cheap to make! If you have a coop that is on concrete or other hard surface, be sure to provide them with scratch. Scratch helps them digest their food and even lay eggs (scratch can be found naturally in the dirt and soil; it's hard pieces of soil, pebbles, etc) You can buy scratch at Bucheits, but if your girls get out to free range, there's no need. Our girls are not fed additional scratch, just what they get naturally from the ground. But scratch can be a great treat for them too, they love it!
5. Training Your Girls
It's easy to train your chickens! You just need treats! I use dried meal worms (I buy them at Bucheits or Lowes, although you can grow and dry your own). Chickens love black oil sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, scratch, etc. I just suggest something that makes a noise when you put it in a container and shake it.
You need to first get them used to associating the sound of you shaking the treats in a container and the treat itself. So start by going into their coop and shaking your container and then throwing some treats on the ground. You will only need to do this once a day for a week or so, and you'll notice as soon as they hear it....sometimes they will SEE it in your hand...they'll come RUNNING to you! Once they do this, they are ready! Now when you let them out to free range and you're ready for them to go up (you need to be able to let them out for at least 45 minutes or it will be very hard to get them back in....even when they're trained) all you have to do is shake the container and walk over to the coop. They'll come running! Sprinkle them inside their coop and they'll go right in!
A Couple Things to Note:
- When you approach a chicken and they "squat", they are allowing you to pet them! Always pet a chicken by stroking them WITH their feathers, not against their feathers.
- When chickens are very hot or beginning to overheat, they will walk around with their mouths open (this can also be a sign of sickness). If it's extremely hot out and they are doing this, be sure they are able to get around so they can move their feathers and flap their wings. Also be sure they have fresh water.
- Chickens LOVE watermelon rinds. Every time we eat a watermelon in the summer (which is a lot), I give the rinds to my girls. They love to eat the remnants of watermelon off the rinds!
- Chickens LOVE worms, but they might also eat a snake! I know, it's weird, but one of my girls ate a small black snake once! I thought it was just a huge worm until I realized it was a snake! I tried getting the snake from her but before I could, she gulped it down! I immediately googled it and found that this is actually a tasty treat for them! Yuck! (you can google "treats for chickens" and get a huge list of scraps and treats you can feed your girls! They are like garbage disposals!)
- Chickens typically start laying eggs around 6 months old and will only lay for about 2-3 years.
- Chickens will "molt" (lose their feathers and grow new ones) usually once a year. Our girls typically do this with a major weather change (fall to winter or winter to spring). So if you go to your coop and see feathers everywhere and one of your girls looks "naked", no worries, their just molting!
- Once your flock has established their pecking order (figure out whose the boss!) and you want to add more chickens, please research how to add more chickens to your flock! You cannot just add baby chickens as it will throw off the whole pecking order! Plus your baby chicks may not last long as the others will bully them! (it can be done, you just have to slowly introduce them)
I hope that this blog gave you some useful tips for starting your first flock of chickens! I promise you that you will love having these girls around! My girls follow me around everywhere and some know even their name (all of my girls have names lol)!