Have you ever thought of raising chickens as a way to supplement your family food? It's a good idea that can work well for you in the country or in the city.
If you like chicken meat, you'll be able to raise some of the biggest and best. If you like chicken eggs, then you'll be even more pleased at the potential outcome of raising your own flock.
In addition to meat and eggs, chickens provide entertainment, fertilizer, natural composting, and a great way to recycle your kitchen scraps.
Let me shed light on my experiences with nurturing chickens from day old chicks to mature birds that can largely operate on their own. I'm a big fan of chickens because they're easy to care for, and they tend to be very hardy. Just use common sense, make the necessary preparations, and don't do anything unusual, and you'll do just fine.
Okay, let's start learning about raising chickens from day old chicks. In my view, it's the only challenging part about having chicken. Once they get beyond this stage, it's really quite easy to care for these animals.
If you're going to be raising chickens, you might as well start at the beginning of their life cycle so you learn more about the birds and enjoy some of the fun associated with day-old chicks.
You can buy chickens by mail order or at a local farm and ranch store. They come in relatively small packages so the chicks can keep one another warm. The chicks don't need food right away, so they usually can survive the day or two in transit without a problem.
When you first get them, be sure to offer them five things right away:
Baby chicks aren't too demanding. They just need a little care.
I use large cardboard boxes or stock tanks to get the young birds started. You can also just use a type of corral to keep them all together on a suitable floor. The flooring can be paper, cardboard or wood shavings, and water and food should be dispensed from suitable containers.
I generally start my chicks off with a medicated chick starter as a preventive measure, but you can do just fine with a non-medicated starter. Just don't use regular chicken feed to start with because it's too large and it doesn't have enough protein for the chicks to grow on.
Spread some food on the ground so the chicks can see it. Dip their beaks in the water so they know it's there, and keep them warm with heat lamps.
Measure the temperature inside their enclosure at their shoulder level. If they regularly huddle together, they are not warm enough. If they regularly avoid getting under the heat lamp, you have them too warm.
If they mill about and generally use the entire area, the temperature is just right.
As the chickens get taller, raise your point of measurement. I use an indoor/outdoor temperature monitor that has a wired probe. That way I know exactly where the temperature is being measured because I can see where the probe is hanging.
You can lower the temperature after a week by about 5 degrees each week. This should get the chicks used to a lower temperature gradually. Even after you transfer them into a holding pen or coop, keep the heat lamp on them until they are fully feathered and it's clear that they no longer desire external heat.
Just watch their interest in staying by the heat lamp, and that should tell you when it's no longer necessary.
Photo above shows how I was raising chickens in a shallow stock tank on the left, and ducks, geese and turkeys in the larger stock tank on the right. Cardboard and sheets were placed over much of the top of the tanks to retain some of the heat inside the tanks until the birds were fully feathered and transferred to the larger pen in the corner of the building.
(This structure was later converted into a small greenhouse, a much better use of this structure.)
Indoors is a good place for raising chickens for the first few weeks. The mess and smell might persuade you to move them outdoors after a while, but they should always be inside an enclosure to prevent drafts and keep predators at bay.
Allow plenty of room for the chicks as they will grow fast. You can almost see a difference each day in the chicks' development. Photo below shows a chick a few days old on the left, and one week old on the right. Notice how quickly the wings have developed.
Keep an eye on their food and water. Refill food before it gets too low. Replace water when it gets dirty. I think chicks poop in their own water just to get you to change it. Who said chickens were stupid?
Take care with heat lamps and flammable materials. Make certain the lamps are secure so they don't droop or drop down and heat up flammable things like cardboard, newspaper and chickens with feathers. Raising chickens is what you do first - cooking them is something you do later, after they're matured.
At some point you'll want to transfer the young chickens to a larger area such as a pen or coop, or just an outbuilding of some sort. Be sure to keep the area warm enough for their comfort, and make certain they aren't exposed to predators.
Remember, you're raising chickens for you, not Mr. Wily Coyote.
The problem with moving young chicks outdoors is the traditional season for transporting chickens is in the early spring, so colder temperatures and winds outdoors can be challenging for your young birds, even when they're inside a building.
Photo to the right shows the holding pen inside the coop that keeps the chickens close to sources of food and water as they grow to a size where they can be released outdoors.
Notice that there is still a heat lamp available to keep them warm if they so desire. Food is also elevated on blocks for easier reach by the older and taller birds.
Photo left shows an example of a coop where my young birds have recently been placed. Before relocating my growing flock from a stock tank to their own home outdoors, I make sure the coop is ready, complete with chain link fencing on vents to keep predators out, chicken wire to keep birds in, roosts for sleeping, straw on the floor, and a heat lamp in the event they still need supplemental warmth.
As your flock grows, so will it's need for food and water. Larger dispensers will be necessary as will a larger area for the flock to mingle. Make sure there is sufficient room for your growing flock, and this will keep them from pecking on one another.
Starting with day-old chicks is a bit like watching seeds sprout. It's an ever changing landscape of little ones growing up.
I like to watch them fall asleep while standing. They'll close their eyes and simply lean forward on their beak. It's a little like the chicks have narcolepsy, but I know it's just because they can't stay awake for long because they just don't have the stamina. Their stamina quickly increases as the days go by, so if you'd like to watch them fall asleep on their feet, you'll have to pay attention during the first few days.
Oddly enough, I enjoy the peeping sounds they make. It seems to last forever when they're young, but it's the only time you're going to hear it. Think of it as baby talk for chickens. When they're adult birds, they cluck, crow and cackle, and I like these sounds too.
If you're into hatching your own eggs, you'll probably enjoy watching them hatch. It's a slow process, but one that is very rewarding. They have a small "egg tooth" on the end of their beak that they use to make a hole in the egg. Shortly after hatching, the egg tooth disappears as if it was never there in the first place.
Perhaps the greatest joy of raising chickens from day-old chicks is their fuzziness. Like peeping sounds, you'll never see the fuzziness again. Soon the fuzzy critters get feathers, then they start to look rather awkward with full feathers and a half-grown body, then they graduate into fully grown birds in all of their beauty. It's hard to imagine all of that comes from a small ball of fuzz in the beginning.
Not everything about raising chickens is easy as pie. There are some challenges, so let's get those out in front of us for discussion.
There are a number of predators that would like nothing more than a free chicken snack, even if the birds are very small. Predators include domestic dogs (especially bird dogs), domestic cats, feral cats, fox, birds of prey, snakes, and even mice and rats. Yes, even rodents will chew off a foot or a leg of a chick if they can get at the little peepers.
Even a relatively brief power failure can give you cause for concern, especially if the chicks are very young. If the power fails, you'll need to keep the birds warm with a standby generator, hot water bottles, or other means like huddling them together and putting covers over the tank so what heat there is available is retained within the tank as best as you can.
If you crowd the birds, they'll peck at one another and it will also increase the likelihood of trampling. If it looks too crowded for your birds, chances are it is. If you can give a half a square foot per chick, this ought to be plenty of room to start.
The odor of baby chicks can be a bit offensive if you're raising them indoors. I like raising chickens in my sun room because it's handy, and it seems to keep the odors isolated from the rest of the house.
Changing water is a never ending task. If there is a way for baby chicks to poop in their water, they'll find it. If there is a way to flick food into the water dish, they'll do that too. Changing water a couple times a day is probably a good idea, and I think you'll find that twice a day isn't too often.
If you have fertile eggs from your flock or you've purchased them, you can try your hand at incubating your own eggs. It takes 21 days from the laying of the egg to hatching. If you're using your own eggs, you'll need to be sure that you have a rooster in the flock as the females need to be fertilized, which in turn makes for fertile eggs.
Follow the instructions on the incubator and be sure to turn the eggs or get an automatic egg turner that matches your incubator. If the eggs aren't turned, the embryo will soon die. If you watch a hen sitting on her nest, she'll periodically turn the eggs.
You can "candle" the eggs to monitor development, but don't take them out of the incubator for too long...they need to stay warm.
It's fun to see the young chicks peck their way through the shell and listen to their first peeps. They come out to greet the world all wet and matted together, but they soon dry out and turn fuzzy.
Notice in the photo above, the chick on the left has been out for a while, the chick on the right just freed itself from the shell, and the egg in the middle foreground has signs of its chick starting to crack out of the shell. Raising chickens from young chicks can be entertaining and educational.
When your flock is capable of being on it's own, you can consider allowing them outdoors. The key here is to let them go outdoors. Don't take them outside or they won't necessarily be able to find their way back inside. Just open a door and let them explore on their own.
If you let them go outside on their own, they'll be familiar with how to get back inside when they need to for food, water or shade.
They will also naturally return to the coop when it gets dark as long as they wandered away from it on their own. If you move them to an outside location, they probably won't find their way back, and you'll have to wait until they hunker down or roost in the evening before you can collect them and take them back inside. It's a pain, so just let them do it on their own.
Once outside, your young birds will discover grass, bugs, loose dirt and lots of other things that need to be investigated, pecked at and scratched at. Chickens love to scratch up the soil, especially if it is freshly disturbed. Of course, they're looking for bugs, worms and other goodies.
If you want companionship in the garden, just start digging and toss your birds the worms you dig up. They'll follow you from then on.
A dust bath is a chicken behavior pattern you will see, even with young birds. They'll scratch themselves a depression in the soil and then fluff up the dust and dirt all over themselves, then shake it off a bit like a dog would shake off water.
Photo left shows a young chicken shaking off after a dust bath. Supposedly the dust bath offers protection from mites and other parasites. I'm not certain, but in any event the dust baths are just fine with me so long as I'm not directly involved in the activity.
In this regard, chickens are a lot like little boys, they love to get into the dirt. Raising chickens should be much easier than raising little boys however, as you don't have to wash behind their ears...even if you could find them.
Enjoy raising chickens from newly hatched chicks. The joy doesn't last very long, so you'll want to spend time observing them every day. Before you know it, you'll have scrawny looking young chickens, and you'll need to be patient as it's quite a while before they start to give you eggs or can be considered a source of meat.
Hens will start to lay eggs at between five and six months, but it will seem like forever. Hybrid meat birds can be ready for consumption in about nine weeks...that's a little over two months. Those are the extremes one will find when raising chickens...getting hens to lay eggs seem to take forever and the hybrid meat birds almost double in size every week, and they're ready for the table before you know it.