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I find it best to get my birds as babies as I can hand raise them and socialize them so that they are tame and manageable as adult chickens. You can do this through several hatcheries that will mail you day old chicks. Or you can go to your local feed and grain store and often times they will have fluffy little chicks there in the spring. There are pros and cons either way.
A couple things to consider when ordering directly from a hatchery are that many (if not most) of them have 25 chick minimums. They do this primarily to ensure a higher survival rate as when you buy in bulk they keep each other warm in the shipping box so you are less likely to lose chicks to cold and draft (which is a major killer of day old chicks).
Also, another thing to consider is that if you are ordering just females there is a good likelihood that you will have a male or two or three in the bunch as sexing isn’t quite an exact science. If you do order from a hatchery that will sell in individual numbers (small amounts) of chicks, you are almost guaranteed an extra male or two in the box. They don’t charge you for the extra males, they just throw them in the box, again, to keep the box temperature up (males’ temperatures run a tad higher and they are more expendable so are used to help keep shipping temps up.) So either way you may have to find homes for your roosters or raise them for a couple months till they become a crowing nuisance to your neighbors then stew them.
Not to mention the issue of receiving your order. The hatcheries do their best to alert you to when the order is shipped and approximately when it will arrive, but nothing is exact. So you will get a call from your local post office stating that your “live shipment” is in and that you need to come pick it up IMMEDIATELY. So you have to drop whatever you’re doing and go pick up your chicks. When you pick them up from the post office you’ll want to open the box right there in front of a post office worker to have them witness any dead chicks (of which the hatchery will refund you your money). Be sure to have the postal worker write a statement about how many chicks were dead upon arrival if you hope to receive a refund. Just another unpleasant aspect to consider if you want to order hatchery direct.
If you are lucky enough to live near some feed and grain stores you will most likely have the luck of live chicks in the spring. The drawback to this is that you don’t have a wide choice in breeds, particularly if you are looking for heritage breeds. They usually get the most common breeds in; most often based on high egg yield. So you’ll see lots of White Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks and Buff Orpingtons. And there is nothing wrong with these breeds. If nothing else you will be guaranteed lots of large eggs on a very consistent basis. But I am more interested in helping keep the numbers of threatened breeds up where I can. And I am also interested in sweet, sociable chickens of which the White Leghorn and Rhode Island Reds do not particularly qualify.
Now, if you’re really nice and the store manager is in a good mood, you can do what I did and place an order to be shipped with the order your feed store puts in. They order from the same hatcheries that we would, but are just able to do it in larger numbers. So ask when their next order is and if you can put in an order for specific chicks. My local feed store, Double S Feed in El Cajon, CA, was more than happy to accommodate. That way no order minimums, the feed store receives the order so no running around to the post office, they’ll take care of any refunds for any unfortunate DOAs, and best of all they’ll stabilize the chicks (water, feed and warm them up) before sending them home with you so you don’t have to keep a vigil over them when you first bring them home. The only drawback to this method of acquiring your chicks is that it may cost you a couple dollars more per chick than if you ordered direct, but really in the end I think it’s worth it. And I don’t mind supporting my local feed stores.
RECEIVING DAY OLD CHICKS
Heat: You will want to prepare for the arrival of your chicks the day before they get there. Preheat your brooder the night before with the heat lamp 18 inches above brooder keeping it at a toasty 95°F.
Bedding: Be sure to have your brooder well bedded. This is good for comfort and warmth. But for the first week make sure to put thick paper towels on top of 2-3 inches of your bedding of choice (I use pine shavings.) This keeps them from eating the bedding. Do not use newspaper.
Feed: Only feed your new chicks chick starter crumble (do NOT feed them layer ration as the high calcium content can seriously damage their kidneys.) Feed them within 3-5 hours after they had their first drink (if you received them yourself from the post office, otherwise offer feed straight away.) Be sure to sprinkle the chick starter on the paper towels. This will help them find feed and learn to peck. Also have it available for them in a shallow lid or tray.
Water: When you first put your chicks into their new home, be sure to dip each chick’s beak into the water source and make sure it swallows before releasing. If you received your chicks from the post office rather than the feed store having stabilized the little guys for you, you will want to mix heaping cup of sugar per quart of water and give this to them for the first 3-4 days until they seem perky. It helps give them a boost extra energy until they are feeding normally.
Light: When they first arrive keep the brooder lit for the first 48 hours. This helps them orient themselves to find their feed and water.
Heat: From here you’ll raise the lamp 3 inches every week for the next 6 weeks (reducing the temperature approximately 5°F each week until the brooder temperature is the same as room temperature.) These are just rough guidelines. Let your chicks tell you by observing them. They cannot regulate their heat well so chill easily, hence the heat lamp. But at the same time you don’t want to cook them alive. Cold chicks huddle together peeping loudly – need more heat, closer lamp. Hot chicks pant and really spread out to the edge of the brooder trying to escape the heat source – less heat, raise lamp or change to a lower wattage bulb. Happy contented chicks are warm and cozy, wandering freely about the brooder, emitting musical sounds of contentment. They sleep peacefully side-by-side.
Light: Light affects the growth rate of chicks so never keep them in the dark. After the first two days, if your brooder gets natural sunlight you can turn the lights off. Even if your light is also your heat source, you’ll want to turn it off for a ½ hour each day (preferably not during the coolest hours of the day) so the chicks will learn to not panic in the dark.
Bedding: Do not use newspaper or other smooth paper as it will be too slick to walk on and will cause leg injuries. Change the paper toweling as often as necessary to keep it clean (at least once a day, more if possible). You’ll only need this for 4-5 days, then you can remove the paper towels. Be sure to stir up the shavings at least once a day to keep it from packing down. I prefer to use pine shavings as you can buy them in BIG bags (horse bedding) so it lasts longer and is cheaper, very absorbent, and it’s light and fluffy for them to cuddle in to sleep. But you can use other materials such as peat moss, crushed corncobs, crushed cane, shredded hemp, vermiculite. Do NOT use hardwoods such as cedar. Straw for bedding is difficult for them to walk on. As the chicks soil the bedding, be sure to sprinkle a little fresh bedding over it to keep it clean, fluffy and absorbent. Remove & replace any moist bedding that develops around waterers since damp bedding quickly turns moldy causing pneumonia.
Feed: When the chicks start vigorously scratching at their feed, dumping out of the tray or shoe box lid in which you put it, switch them to a proper chick feeder, available from your local feed stores or poultry supply websites.
Sanitation and hygiene are of the utmost importance. It may not be in your romantic idea of “farming”, but it really is what separates the humane poultry enthusiast from the crack-pot intensive battery farms. I would never want to buy my eggs from somewhere where they allow the hens to wallow in their own muck. Too many diseases or respiratory issues can be caught by chickens or possibly passed on to the eggs either inside the shell or coating the outside of the shell. Unnecessarily so when just an hour or so a week can keep them happy and healthy. I spend about 20 minutes twice a week keeping my coop/run/yard clean. It’s all about cleaning poo. At the same time I wash and rinse their waterers and fill their feeders. Apart from that I spend about 5 minutes each day picking up or spraying down poo in the yard. I no long become obsessed over it as the fact is chickens poop – and poop a lot! But if you make a bit of effort to pick-up the obvious stuff, you’ll help to keep a healthy balance in your yard. When people come over to see our chickens they are surprised that is doesn’t smell of chickens and that there are few flies.
Don’t forget to spend a few minutes every couple weeks doing a physical inspection of each chicken. Pick them up and really check them over, going through feathers, checking for any skin conditions, mites, lice, wounds, cuts, pecking wounds, scrapes, missing feathers. Check the vents; look closely for tiny critters. Even if I don’t see any mites or lice I still periodically dust the girls with Sevin dust. If you notice one of your chickens bleeding, even if just from an innocent nick on the comb, try to clean it up and stop the bleeding (styptic powder) or isolate them from the rest of the flock till you can remedy the situation. A bit of shiny blood will attract the other chickens to peck at the injured bird, making the situation much worse.