Have you considered chickens as a means of producing your own food? Have you looked at the stores and seen the price of eggs, the price of chicken and wondered aloud why you don’t raise your own? Have you ordered poultry catalogs, but never ordered poultry because it seemed too difficult and complicated, or too time-consuming? Along with rabbits, poultry is one of the most kept food production animals on the homesteads across America.
Chickens can offer good, home-grown food in a short amount of time. Fresh eggs are much different than what is in the stores! For the creative, feathers can be used in many crafts as well. You have thought about it for some time. You think you have room. It’s time to decide and take the plunge!
First decide what you want exactly. If you are squeamish about butchering and don’t know anyone to do it for you, getting meat birds will end up being a waste of money, and you’ll end up with a lot of roosters that aren’t good for much of anything else! If you want eggs—how many eggs does your family consume on a weekly basis? Do you want to sell the overage? Keep in mind that if you just want eggs you don’t need a rooster. In fact, you’ll only need a rooster if you want to breed and raise baby chicks. If you want eggs, do you have a shell color preference? What size area do you have to devote to chicken production? Do you want extra birds able to be served for dinner? Do you care about skin color (Americans are used to yellow skinned birds while the UK prefers white skin)? Do you live in an area there are hawks and owls?
Most of these questions aren’t something you need a book to answer and there are no right and wrong answers! They will, however, help you chisel down what you want. If you want meat and eggs you can order “straight run”, which means there will be both males and females in the order. For just females order “pullets” or just meat birds order cockerels (this is usually the cheapest option! ).
For strictly meat birds, many hatcheries offer specials on cockerels. These may be “heavy breeds” or “egg layer cockerels”. The latter are the “unwanted” from hatches of Leghorn-type egg-laying chicks; the hens are in demand for eggs, but not all chicks are female. Compared to the heavy breeds, these will take a little longer to attain “fryer weight” but they can be good cheap eating. Heavy breeds can be butchered as fryers or grown a little longer for “roasting” birds.
Recently, Cackle Hatchery in Missouri advertised a “frying pan special” of heavy breed chicks—25 for $8.50; 50 for $13.95 or 100 for $24.95—for most families the latter will be too much unless you REALLY like chicken! Suppose you pick out the batch of fifty, even if a few die, you have chicken several times a month for a pittance, but don’t forget to also figure in your feed costs. With chicks it’s very important to not let them run out of feed or water.
For egg layers, you’ll want to order pullets—which will cost you a bit more but you are guaranteed to get females. There may be the occasional missed cockerel but most of the order will be females, sexed at hatching. If you have a lot of hawks around you would be best advised to get colored, not white, birds…which don’t stand out as well. Decide how many eggs you want also. A dozen hens will provide plenty of eggs for most families—a half dozen for many. Keep in mind good hens at maturity will produce roughly an egg a day. If you have a dozen you’d best plan on finding a way to eat or use 6-7 dozen eggs per week! If you don’t have a particular breed in mind but just want fresh eggs, Murray McMurray has a package of 25 egg layer pullets for about $40. Day old chicks are delivered by post office mail.
Before you order birds you will need to get some basic supplies. A watering fount is the first thing; these vary from plastic to metal waterers to a gadget you screw a canning jar in to. To start small numbers of chicks the latter will work fine and will cost you a couple dollars at a farm supply store. For larger numbers of chicks get a gallon fount which runs a couple of dollars more. Remember chicks MUST have plenty of water. The more they eat and drink the better and faster they grow…and the healthier they will be! If you plan on having a couple dozen layers your next purchase will be a five-gallon steel waterer; these will run about $20-25. For starting you’ll need one gallon for each 50 chicks—the first few days add a couple tablespoons of sugar to the water. This gives young birds a little boost. Once you have your watering system figured then get feeders. Chick feeders come in various sizes, many are metal with a slide in top and holes chicks can reach through. You’ll need two feet for each 50 chicks. Adult birds should have a steel feeder which will look similar to your waterer but is open on top. Starter feeders are a couple dollars; the bigger ones will run more but will be needed as your birds grow. The other thing you will need for starting is a brooder light. This is a hooded bulb – for small numbers a regular 100 watt lightbulb will do. The lights can often be found for about $5. You will also need a closed, tight area to start chicks in. For small numbers a large dog crate can be used. It is best, however to allow about a half foot per bird. Overcrowding can be deadly.
Now you have all your supplies, you’ve decided which chicks you want, you’ve ordered your chicks, waited anxiously and finally… they’re here!
The morning of arrival you should fill waterers and feeders, and turn the light on. Ideally, you’ll start out placing the light in a large box or other means of containing heat. New chicks must be kept at 90 degrees for the first week. If they get too cold they can pile on each other and kill each other. Often the one killed is the strongest…as they get under the pile to stay warm then are smothered. Later, you can reduce the heat by 5 degrees per week. Once the chicks have feathered out, they become very hardy. You’ll need to keep them from getting wet in spring storms, and protect them from cats, dogs and other animals that would consider chick nuggets a good snack.
When your chicks arrive…take each chick individually and dip its beak in the water. This immediately gets each chick drinking. When you dip the beak they should then throw their head back and open and close their mouth quickly…as soon as they do this let them go. Most will then go back and drink more! The first day sprinkle starter feed on the floor as well as offer it in troughs. This makes it very easy for the chicks to find food. The faster they get eating and drinking the better. Most chicks, once they had a drink, will automatically start looking for food so have it already there for them. You may waste a little putting it on the brooder floor, but it’s very important in seeing that they get a good start. Again (and this can’t be stressed enough!) never let your chicks run out of feed or water. Most chick loss happens when they don’t get a good start eating and drinking.
Also, leave plenty of space… chicks are cannibalistic. They will turn on weaker members if they are too crowded. Larger breed chicks will need a good quality high protein starter. Be prepared to part with $8-10 for a 50-pound bag. If there are a few chicks not getting to the feed, separate them out in a smaller group so there is less competition for food/water. A kiddy wading pool or stock tank makes a good brooder…just be SURE it doesn’t get water collecting in it. A storm or unseen leak overhead can drown your chicks. If the chicks start laying too closely together, or on top of one another, they are too cold. If they stay far apart they could be too warm. Observe your chicks daily; spend 5-10 minutes minimum after feeding and watering just watching them. Note which ones are bossy and which are the lower ranking ones and how they are all eating? Do they appear comfortable? The first few days chicks are apt to get under the heat bulb and sprawl out sleeping.
Make certain that the heat bulb is hung securely. Especially don’t let it fall and touch anything, as this can be a fire source, especially within conjunction with bedding materials. If the room is open and not heated, it might be better to use a regular heat lamp rather than a light bulb. The important thing is to keep a circle of appropriate heat for the number of chicks you have.
There are many sources for birds and equipment. A check at your local farm-supply stores such as Farm & Fleet or Big R will be the best place to get equipment as well as starter feed. A good feed salesman familiar with your area is a valuable asset.
Raising poultry is a great way to put food on the table. It takes minutes per day and not a lot of expense. Once grown, chickens love goodies like garden scraps and kitchen waste. Most of all, you’ll find that store eggs don’t begin to compare with eggs from your own hens.