When you think about it, buying chickens can be quite a different experience for most of us who are not accustomed to buying a living creature. After all, chickens are live animals, and other than a pet, when do we go out and buy a live animal? It's really something unusual for most of us, but it doesn't have to be intimidating in the least.
Let me give you some pointers to help you make your first purchase of chickens when you're ready to start your flock. I'll assume you're primarily interested in buying baby chicks, but I'll also address buying adult birds as well. Here's what I think is essential to know:
So, let's get started with where one might find a source of chickens for starting their own backyard flock.
The local farm, ranch and feed stores are likely the easiest way to buy baby chickens when you're ready to start up your flock. Typically, they'll carry a good selection of chicken breeds so you can pick from meat birds to egg layers to dual purpose birds. Usually they'll be in shallow heated racks or in deep tubs warmed by heat lamps.
If you're looking for fancy show birds, bantams or specialty birds like feather-footed varieties or a silkie, you might have to request that they special order it for you. Most will be happy to do this and your birds will come in with one of their regular shipments.
Keep in mind when buying chickens that it's a short season. This is especially true if they have to make special room for the birds. The retail outlet will want to get the bird sales over with and get back to their regular store configuration.
To be sure you get the chickens you're interested in, ask ahead of the traditional season for ordering birds. Ask about buying chickens some time around January, as February and March will usually be the earliest times when stores will start ordering and have chickens in stock for purchase. When the weather warms up a bit, the season usually draws to a close because of the risk of baby chicks overheating in transit. Look for May to be the last month for buying chickens at your local feed and farm outlets.
Mail order hatcheries are another good source for buying chickens. You can use the phone or the Internet to contact a hatchery of your choice. It doesn't much matter where the hatchery is located, as long as they have what you're looking for. My rule is not to order from a hatchery that is more than halfway across from country from my location. Doing so could delay your order and jeopardize the health of your chicks.
Chicks are shipped the day they're born or the day after, as they have at least a couple of days food reserves stored inside their bodies. They're also shipped in minimum lots so there are enough of them to keep one another warm. Minimum orders are likely 15 to 25 birds.
When buying chickens through the mail, they come packed in a vented box that keeps the birds crowded up. Be sure to have all of your facilities ready ahead of time as you'll likely get a call late at night to come pick up your birds at the post office.
You'll want to get them right away so you can provide them with water, food and warmth in their new home.
Photo above right shows the UPSP priority mail package that contained my order of 15 Black Australorp pullets. They're a good and gentle laying breed that I recommend if this is your first time buying chickens.
Private parties are another source of birds, but they'll likely be adult birds and not young chicks. This isn't a problem, in fact, it's a bit of an advantage as you'll likely get a chicken that is through the "infant mortality" stages, and if they're sick or injured, it should be easy to spot.
Often times, someone will have too many birds or they've grown tired of the birds and would just like to get rid of them. More often than not, the bird are given away, so you'll have to act fast if you'd like to take advantage of the situation. Watch your local trading paper for such notices. Also, put the word out that you're interested in chickens, and perhaps your network of friends and associates might scare up a few birds for you.
A small local hatchery is another option to consider when buying chickens or other poultry. This entails showing up at someone's farm and buying the young birds directly from them. I don't recommend this approach because it usually means driving for hours with peeping chicks in the car. I've done this before when buying ducks only because the hatchery was just a little ways off of my travel route, and I was having a hard time getting the particular birds I wanted.
The gent pictured to the right sold me the duck breed I was looking for. I was happy to get the breed I wanted, but I'd likely not do it again.
In addition to traveling with noisy birds in the car, you need to time your travels to coincide with when the birds are hatched. Usually, that can be timed within a day or so, but if the hatchery holds the birds for a few days after hatching, then you'll be buying chickens that aren't day-old, and that means you'll have to stop periodically to provide them with food and water. Make sure whatever you fetch in this manner is well worth your effort.
You're probably well aware that a hen is a female chicken and it's the female that lays eggs. When we buy young female chickens, they're called pullets. So, if you're looking for eggs, you have to buy pullets when you go about the business of buying chickens.
Roosters are usually more brightly colored and quite vocal members of the flock. They're the male counterpart to the hen, and when they're young chicks, they're called cockerels. It's easy to remember this term if you think of cock fighting and the expression cock of the walk.
It's not necessary to have a rooster in your flock in order to obtain eggs from your hens, they'll lay eggs even if they've never set eyes upon the male of their species. Roosters are only necessary if you'd like to have fertilized eggs. The roosters will mate with the hens to make their eggs fertile, but having a fertile hen isn't required for them to lay eggs.
For those unaware, roosters can be aggressive as well as noisy, so unless you need fertile eggs, or you especially like the beauty of a rooster, I'd suggest you skip the rooster and just get hens.
When you buy a straight run, you're getting a mix of male and female chickens just as they're hatched. There is no time spent sexing the animals before they're shipped. If you're looking to purchase a dual purpose bird (for both meat and eggs) and you want to have some layers and some roosters to harvest for the grill or stew pot, a straight run purchase might interest you. It's a bit less expensive per bird, but you'll have no idea as to how many of each sex you have until they start to mature.
The number of chickens you buy will depend on several factors. Let's take a look at each.
The minimum order for shipments mailed to you might very well define the number of chickens you're going to purchase. If 15 or 20 birds is too many, try getting together with others who wish to have a few birds, but aren't interested in so many, and perhaps you can share the cost of purchase, shipping and getting them raised to the point where they can be released into your chicken yards on their own.
If you're looking for egg production, a good number to keep in mind is hens at full production ought to provide roughly five eggs every seven days. So, if you have six laying hens, you'll get about 30 eggs each week, or about four a day...during summer months. Egg production will decline considerably in the winter for most breeds as days become shorter, temperatures drop, and there is less natural forage available.
If you're feeding just a few people in the family, and after a couple days of egg production your pile of eggs looks like the photo below, then you might have too many chickens. Or, you might simply need to start selling some of your eggs.
When your goal is meat production, you simply have to determine how many chickens you want for the year and go from there. Be aware that high production meat birds like the Cornish Cross are table ready at roughly nine weeks of age, so you might want to start a new batch of chicks every week or so, or harvest the birds over several weeks, just so you don't have 50 to 100 birds to butcher all at the same time.
Other considerations are infant mortality and loss due to predators. I generally don't have much trouble in these areas. My last order of birds was a minimum of 15, the hatchery sent me 16 and all turned out healthy. As of this writing, my chicken yard still has 15 healthy birds trotting around in it...I only lost one hen to a raccoon, none were lost to sickness or unexplained death as young chicks.
So, there you have it, a simple overview with respect to buying chickens. It's not too much work to get them raised to be adult birds, and once you do, they'll likely prove to be hardy animals that give you years of eggs and amusement.