Raising Chickens from Scratch

The first livestock most new homesteaders bring home to the farm are chickens—and rightly so.  Here’s how to start raising chickens from scratch.

They’re small, relatively harmless, provide both meat and eggs, and if they have to and are given the chance, they even rustle up their own grub (literally).

The majority of articles written about getting and keeping chickens start with “Buy your chicks”, and describe the pros and cons of hatchery vs. feed store and hatchery vs. another hatchery.  Of course, you have to start somewhere, so for your FIRST round of chickens, this is the first step.  Find chicks and purchase them.

If meat birds for yourself and for sale to others are what you are raising, they have a very limited lifespan before becoming a block on the food pyramid, and a lot of people prefer the breeds that are specifically used as dinner—Cornish X being the most popular.  For a large amount of meat in a short amount of time, they really can’t be beat.

If, however, your goal as a small homesteader is to have a flock of chickens for both meat and eggs, there are a number of “dual-purpose” breeds in an amazing array of colors (and that lay eggs in an amazing array of colors), and a lot of these birds have the added advantage of being prone to broodiness.

For your purposes, this is a good thing and does not include heavy sighs, hoarding of chocolate, or tearful outbursts on the part of the hens.  Broodiness in chickens is the tendency to WANT to sit (or set) on their own eggs, with the end result being more chickens.

Way back when, this is how chickens made more chickens.

Black Australorps (my personal favorites), Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island Reds, Hampshire Reds, Speckled Sussex, Barred Rocks, and the Brahmas are among these dual-purpose breeds, although there are certainly others.  These are the birds who made up the feathered backbone of the family farm—hens who laid eggs, sat on those eggs, hatched out, and raised up several clutches of brand-spankin’ new poultry every year.  These breeds are bulky enough (the reason they are referred to as Heavy Breeds) that the tiny roosters that get hatched out make darn good eating right before they become problematic teens.



And repeat.

The ultimate renewable resource.

Somewhere along the line, egg production became commercialized and hens who “went broody” became more of a bother than an asset—who wants to get bloodied every day when stealing a mother’s offspring?  Plus, all that extra weight and bulk just takes more feed to keep healthy.  Thus, the advent of the White Leghorns (which look nothing at all like Foghorn Leghorn, unless Ol’ Foghorn were to become anorexic and twitchy), hens that are ADVERTISED as “Non-Setters”; in effect, bad mothers who drop an egg every single day, go on about their business and never look back.

The average dual purpose laying hen will lay an egg every day or so, for about 2 years.  At that point, their production drops off and a lot of folks recommend making them all into stew and buying a fresh team.

But here’s the thing:

At the end of that 2 years, my average broodiness-prone hen will have given me at LEAST two dozen more chickens, AND at LEAST 350 eggs. If I purchase my little chicks at $2 each, and eggs sell for $2 per dozen, that hen has provided me with over $100, while costing me… chicken feed; and precious little of that considering that my personal flock free ranges.  I do offer up hen scratch once a day but it’s mostly ignored by them in favor of bugs, weeds, and other stuff chickens were made to eat, my hens just retire here.  They’ve earned it.

And if your flock is constantly being renewed from within, there won’t BE a time when you have all Old Biddies.

Renewing the Flock the Easiest Way = Raising Chickens from Scratch

Gather your initial flock.  Some people prefer to get all one breed of chicken, and some folks like a feathery-confetti-look out in their yard.  We have a yard full of confetti chickens, and each subsequent generation becomes more and more colorful.  My initial chick order was like Saturday morning at Dunkin’ Donuts.  Over the phone I placed my minimum order of 25 chicks: “I’ll take three of these, two of those, four of this other kind, and a little cream-filled one.”  Just kidding.  You can only find cream-filled chicks at Easter time, and those are wrapped in colorful foil.  I found out from that first order which breeds work in our situation (free-ranging = attrition by coyote unless the birds are dark-colored and very quick-footed), and which ones… weren’t.

My second order was something called the Ornamental Layer Collection, and I split the box of 25 chicks with a friend of mine.  Among my dozen, I received 2 Araucanas and an Egyptian Fayouma.  These two breeds are not supposed to go broody, and the Araucanas haven’t, but we’ve forgiven them since they lay gorgeous greenish-blue eggs.  One day the little Fayouma disappeared, and I feared she’d been served up for coyote breakfast.  I was surprised since she was the first to alarm when there were hungry predators about.  I was even more surprised when she showed up one fine morning three weeks later with three chicklets behind her.  Exceptions to the rule—I love ‘em.

For hens to lay eggs, you don’t need a rooster.

For hens to lay eggs that turn into more chickens, you do.

A good rooster is worth his weight in corn.  He’ll guard his hens, protect the chicks and eggs, and escort everyone back into the coop at night.  The trick is to find one that will do all the above without viewing you (or your children) as the enemy.  So far, my best rooster has been my Barred Rock/Hampshire Red, and my worst was a little Frizzle Bantam.  Even within breeds, this will vary, as my first roo was a Light Brahma purchased because they were reported to be calm and gentle.

He made a delicious soup.

Once hens and rooster are in place, it’s just a matter of time before you have the magic of more chickens.

I collect eggs every day at about lunchtime.  I know all the movies show hens laying a nice warm egg at the crack of dawn, but mine are slothful.  After sleeping in, rustling up a hearty breakfast and a few cups of coffee, they think about maybe laying an egg before lunchtime and Oprah.

When I first started with chickens, I built a beautiful bank of nesting boxes inside the coop.  The chickens loved them.  They slept in them.  They scratched bugs out of them.  They pooped on and in them.  Never once did they lay an egg in them.  Not once.  They chose their own places to lay their eggs, and at any given time there are two or three spots in which all the hens will lay.  Periodically, apparently according to some Secret Chicken Calendar, the hens will shift their laying spots, and it’s like Easter for a few days till I figure it out.

When a hen goes broody, she will sometimes do like my little Fayouma and disappear.  Most of the time she’ll just stop leaving one of the laying spots once the eggs are laid there.  And at that point, I leave her alone.

Once or twice a day, a setting hen will leave the nest for a very short time—just long enough to get a drink of water, something to eat, and to use the Little Hen’s Room.  She will never leave the eggs long enough for them to cool off, though, so when I’m egg gathering and come across a hen-free nest with WARM eggs in it, I leave them alone and just check back later to make sure she returns.

I’ve heard that chickens will sometimes break each other’s eggs or kill each other’s chicks.  I’ve never had this happen and I think free-ranging has a lot to do with this.  There’s not the territory stress related to being confined when you have the entire world as your hen house.  Of course, my hens have the stress of living next to coyote-infested woods, but life is full of trade-offs…

I have 2 pairs of hens who actually tag-team a nest.  One pair consists of a Black Australorp and a Rhode Island Red, and the other pair is a Black Australorp and a Silky Bantam. They set right up against each other and take their breaks at different times. When the chicks hatch, they split them up pretty evenly to watch and raise.

A word about Silky Bantams: they’re hysterical looking.  They appear hairy rather than feathered, they have feathers on their legs and a pincushion-ish topknot of feathers on their heads.  They always seem confused, startled, annoyed, or an amazing combination of all three simultaneously.  They are funny little chickens that lay funny little eggs.

As if that all weren’t enough to justify a few running around the farm, they are the world’s best setters of ANY eggs, not just their own or those of other chickens.  I know of silkies that have hatched and raised ducklings, turkeys, and guinea hens.

Hens will lay an egg every day or so, but will not start setting till they deem their nest full enough.  For some, that’s two eggs.  For others, over twenty.  Rarely will all the eggs hatch from a very large nest; about half is all you should expect.  So hatch day brings ALL the babies into the world at once.  When everyone has been hatched and led off into the world, I’ll don latex gloves and gingerly extract all the “leftover” eggs.  After three weeks of being kept warm, there will be a few real stinkers, and I’ve even had one explode as I placed it into the disposal sack, so be vewwwwwy, vewwwwwy careful when you attempt this at home.

Once the chicklets have arrived, the only thing you have to do for them is to make sure there is a water source low and shallow enough for the chicks to reach without drowning.  Mama Hen will teach them how and what to eat, where and when to sleep, and will protect them with every inch of her being till they are about 6-8 weeks old, when she’ll proclaim them Grown Up, and move on to laying another clutch.

For the first few clutches hatched here on the farm, I’d follow them around and make sure mama hen saw me pour out some special baby chicken food (that awful looking gray stuff) for her babies.  Finally, one hen watched me pour it out, gave me that one-eyed look of disdain only a chicken can manage, and scratched up a huge juicy grub for her babies.  With a final dismissive flick of her tail, she stalked away with her offspring in tow.  Thereafter, I’ve only used the special baby chicken food (that awful looking gray stuff) for those replacement chickens who come to the farm through the…………..

There’s really nothing hard about hatching chicks via incubation.  If you can follow an average cooking recipe, you can run an incubator.  The principles are the same—good ingredients, proper equipment, attention to directions, and the correct cooking temperature.

Incubators come in all shapes and sizes—from a tiny pod for 3 eggs, to a behemoth capable of hatching out hundreds at once.  For the average family farm wishing to hatch out a few batches of eggs per year, the Styrofoam variety available at the local Tractor Supply or Farm and Fleet is more than sufficient.  I’ve used the kind with a fan, and without, and can’t really say I’ve noticed a difference in hatch rate.  I turn the eggs by hand, not by automatic turner.  I believe in the tenet that the fewer moving parts a thing has, the more difficult it is for me to break it.

Your ingredients, of course, are the eggs themselves.  Clean (but not washed) eggs can be saved for up to a week at room temperature pointy end down in an egg carton.  This should give you time to amass the embryos of your future flock.  Once you have enough eggs, set up your incubator according to directions.

It should sit in a quiet place: somewhere it’s not likely to be jostled, bumped, or subjected to strong drafts either hot or cold.  Add water to the proper receptacles. Turn it on and give it overnight to make sure it’s holding the proper temperature.  The ideal temperature for chickens is right at 100F.  Once the incubator is holding steady at 100F, it’s time to add your eggs.

As you lay the eggs in the incubator, take a crayon and mark an X on one side.  Lay all the eggs X-up.  You’ll need to turn the eggs at least three times a day to keep the embryos from adhering to one side of the shell. Studies have shown that a hen will turn her eggs every HOUR, but clearly the hens don’t have laundry, cooking, or outside employment to take up their spare time, so my eggs make do with the thrice daily routine. When turning the eggs, turn OVER the ends, not just flipping from side to side.

That’s it.  Make sure the temperature stays correct, the water doesn’t dry up, and the pre-chickens get turned three times a day.

For 18 days.

The morning of the 19th day, fill ALL the water receptacles, remove both stoppers from the lid, and turn those babies one last time.  From here on, all you do is peer through the windows and make sure the temperature stays at 100F; baby chicks make a lot of heat getting ready to hatch.

I love hatch day.

I hate hatch day.

Hatching is hard work, and it’s supposed to be.  Don’t give in to the urge to help out…  It’ll end up badly… Trust me.

Don’t remove the chicks till they are fully dry, no matter how pitiful they sound and no matter how much they are rolling their un-hatched siblings around the incubator—the movement and sound of the other chicks actually encourages those still inside to get a wiggle on and get hatching.

My least stressful hatch day so far was this most recent.  I actually timed incubation so that the last turning coincided with our leaving town for a few days—the only thing my pet sitter had to do was check the temperature.

On day 21 we arrived home mid-evening.  I went straight to the incubator and lifted the lid to have 19 beautiful dry little chicks POUR over the sides.  What a welcome home!

Newly hatched incubator chicks need to be treated the same as newly arrived hatchery chicks (since they’re basically the same critter—without the airplane ride).  Once dry, they need a warm, Not Hot, place to live. Unless you’re hatching in the middle of winter (and why would you?), actual room temperature should be fine as long as there are no drafts. Our non-air-conditioned house stays right around 80 in the summertime, which is perfect for chicks.  Heat lamps are WAY too hot for my peace of mind—they are a fire hazard and it’s very easy to overheat chicks, which will kill them every bit as quickly as chilling.  If there’s a true need for auxiliary heat, please use a regular light bulb.

Make sure you dip each chick’s beak into the water and have it watch you ‘peck” at the food with your finger.  Free feed them the Special Baby Chicken food (that awful looking gray stuff) and all the fresh water they want for the first week or so, then start adding scraps/scratch a little bit at a time.

Congratulations!  You’ve just hatched out your very own next generation of poultry.


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