Clean and disinfect the area where the chicks are going to reside. Lysol is good, bleach makes terrible fumes. I used a plant mister to get a fine mist into all the cracks and crannies. One time I did not disinfect and the coccidiosis stayed in the room and the new batch of chicks started dying.
Turn on the heat lamps (See Heat Needs) at least a day or more before your chicks arrive, so the walls and floor have a chance to warm up, as well as the air, and the disinfectant has time to dry.
Make sure there are no drafts.
Make an area (See Space Needs) for the chicks with cardboard walls 2 feet high and round corners, if they are in a large chicken house or barn. If they get frightened, they will try and huddle in the corners and some often get smothered. If there are no true corners, it is harder for them to do this.
You will need some litter for the floor. Wood shavings, chopped straw, or chopped corn husks will work. If you leave the straw too long to start with, they may find it hard to walk on. Don't use anything slippery. They are not strong enough while they are small to keep their legs from slipping in opposite directions, and they get straddle legs. Their legs go sideways and there is no cure. They can no longer walk.
Put a few inches of litter on the floor, covered with an old sheet. You can get these at a thrift store for a couple of dollars. The chicks peck at whatever is at their feet, so if you don't cover the litter they will eat it and die. After about 3 days they will have learned what is feed and what is not, and you can take the sheet away, leaving the clean litter underneath. As the litter gets dirty, you can add more on top, or if you start with about a foot deep, it can be stirred very slowly each day with a rake to keep the dry litter on top. Be very slow about your movements, especially with the meat birds. They frighten very easily and are prone to heart attacks. If you want to remove the litter and replace it, again, be very, very slow about your movements.
Add 1 tablespoon of molasses to 1 gallon (4 litres) of warm water. Give this to the chicks for the first day or so. It will help them to recover from the journey. They are able to survive for 3 days on the yoke sack that they draw into their bodies just before they hatch, but they need water on their arrival. You can usually buy chick waterers at the local feed store. Some screw onto the neck of a quart canning jar. I dipped each chick's beak into the water when they arrived to let them learn faster where the water was.
NEVER LET THE FEED GET WET AT ALL. Ergot fungus grows rapidly (overnight) on wet feed, and the chickens literally drop dead. If you clean up all the wet feed, and disinfect, they should stop dying within a day or so. Don't let them eat the disinfectant either.
Put the feed on the lids of the shipping boxes to start with, or make your own. The shipping boxes are made of cardboard, about 24 inches x 24 inches x 2 inches high. Keep the feed on the cardboard for the first few days, until the chicks know what they are looking for. After the chicks have had a drink, stand them on the feed. They instinctively peck at whatever is at their feet.
Check on them regularly to see that they are not too hot or too cold.
Remember to make them round so that the chicks cannot huddle together and smother each other.
When they arrive, give them luke warm water with molasses in it. Keep the water away from the feed to stop the feed from getting wet.
About heat lamps
I always used a minimum of 2 lamps in case one of them burned out.
I bought a ceramic light socket with the heat resistant wires already attached. Make sure the socket is rated for the wattage of heat lamp you will be using. I used 250Watt, infra-red heat bulbs. I attached the heat resistant wires to a plug and plugged it into an extension cord. You can then hang the bulb from the ceiling at the appropriate height to get the right temperature. Don't put the feed or water directly underneath the heat lamps.
Use crumbles to begin with. The pellets are too large for the chicks.
Stand the chicks right on the crumbles, with the crumbles in a flat cardboard lid, so that they can find the food.
Hens, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, need 2 square feet of floor space per fully-grown, mid-size laying hen. I, personally, find 3 square feet per bird is more comfortable.
Day old chicks 100 chicks arrive in a box about 24 inches x 24 inches. I give them a space about 30 inches x 10 feet because of the way I set up the heats lamps, feed and water.
New born to 1 month - 1/4 square foot per bird.
1 month to 2 months - 1/2 square foot per bird.
2 months to 3 months - 1 square foot per bird.
3 months to 4 months - 2 square feet per bird.
4 months to adult - 3 square feet per bird.
Measure the temperature at the edge of the heat circle created by the heat lamp, at the height of the backs of the chicks.
Ideally, the chicks should spread out around the edge of the heat circle. If they huddle under the lamps, they are too cold. If they go as far away as possible, they are too hot.
They must have ventilation without drafts to allow the escape of the moist air that they create. They also create a tremendous amount of very fine dust as they grow.
Start at 95° F for day old chicks. I found hanging a 250Watt infra-red heat lamp 18 inches above the floor was about right.
Start at 85° F° for day old chicks. I found hanging a 250Watt infra-red heat lamp heat lamp 24 inches above the floor was about right.
Layer Chicks and Broiler Chicks
Reduce the heat by about 5° F per week (raising the lamps about 2 inches each week seems to acomplish this) until you get down to 70° F. After that, they should be fine on their own.
What follows here is a general discussion on sizes and uses of breeds.
For information on individual breeds, check out
Oklahoma State University site.
Chickens come in different colors and sizes. Backyard, free range chickens are probably safer if you choose ones that are not white, because they blend with the background better, and are not so easy for the predators to spot. Chickens that are crosses of two breeds are stronger than a pure breed.
These are the meat birds. They don't lay too many eggs, but grow to a large size with plenty of meat on them.
Cornish Giants and Jersey Black Giants are giant breed birds.
The meat birds that the commercial growers raise can grow to 8lbs - 10lbs in 6 to 8 weeks. They are often a Cornish Giant / Plymouth Rock cross. They are just called "meat birds" when you go to buy them.
Mid-size (heavy) Breeds
These are the dual purpose birds. They do not have as much meat as a meat bird, but you can still eat them. My Barred Rock roosters weighed around 3 to 4 lbs, dressed, at 16 weeks. They do not lay as many eggs as a small layer bird, but they still lay a respectable number. Most of these breeds will stop laying when the weather is cold and the days get short. They will start up again in the spring, or when you give them artificial extra hours of daylight with a light bulb. If it's very cold, you may also need a heat lamp to keep them laying. If you keep them laying through the winter, you run the risk of burn-out. Some of them will live 6 to 8 years if you don't burn them out. The number of eggs that they lay goes down as they get older, but the eggs get quite a bit bigger. I think they only have so much egg making material in them, so they either lay a lot of small eggs or fewer large ones. That's my own theory, anyway.
Among these breeds are the old fashioned ones. Barred Rocks, Red Rocks, Columbian Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons and Black Australorps. Most of the breeds have had the desire to go broody bred out of them. Broody means they sit on the nest for three or more weeks until some eggs hatch and will take in any other hens eggs and sit on those as well as their own. The Buff Orpingtons will still go broody, which is good if you want chicks, not so good if you are trying to get eggs for yourself all year round.
Small Layer Breeds.
These breeds are basically not much more than skin and bone, so unless you plan on soup you probably would not want to eat them. However, they are wonderful egg laying machines. Some of the small birds are a bit pecky, although they produce lots of eggs. I could not go near one batch I had while I was wearing shorts because they pecked my legs to bits. Among these breeds are the Leghorns, Araucanas and Anconas.
These are miniature hens. Some of them are very showy, with leg feathers and crests. They lay smaller eggs than you would find in the small egg boxes in the supermarket. They are very alert, very aware of predators, and do good service as bug eaters in the garden. Since they are so small, they do not do quite as much damage in the garden as the larger birds. Among the banties are the Cochins, Mille Fleurs, Brahmas, and Silkies.
I should probably put in a word here about the commercial crosses. The commercial layers are often a cross, or multiple crosses, between a Rhode Island Red and a Leghorn. They get the fantastic laying ability from the Leghorn, and the brown eggs and nicer temperament from the Rhode Island Red. The commercial hatcheries have spent years improving the blood-lines by careful selection. They are bred to start laying at 18 weeks old (an old breed will probably not lay till 6 months old). Once they start laying, they lay all through their first winter (when the old breeds stop laying because of the cold and dark), and don't stop until the following winter. They lay almost one egg a day for about eighteen months. By the second winter they are burnt out, and the commercial egg producers get rid of them and start again with a fresh batch. They actually don't necessarily die. I had a couple of Warren Sex Links for 4 years and they were still fine, and laying reasonably well for me, but not as well as a comercial producer would want. I was keeping them free range, and unfortunately they met an untimely death when the neighbour's rotweiler jumped the 4 foot fence and left a trail of dead birds down the driveway.
Another reason for wanting a cross is to get sex-linked chicks to save time and error when sexing the chicks at birth. You can tell the sex of a sex-linked chick by its color.
NAME OF CROSS
Red Rock Cross dual purpose
Rhode Island Red
black feathers with red neck
like a Barred Rock
Red Sussex Cross dual purpose
Rhode Island Red
like a Rhode Island Red
like a Columbia Rock with slight tinge of red in the feathers
Brown mid-size good egg layer
Rhode Island Red
white-ish or pale brown
Barred Rock dual purpose bird
Black and tend to have smaller white spot on top of her head and darker legs Not 100% accurate
Black and tend to have larger light colored spot on his head Not 100% accurate
GRIT and OYSTER SHELL
Chickens need grit to grind up food in their gizzards.
Check whether or not the commercial feed you buy requires the hens to have extra grit. Too much grit will cause an impacted crop, so if you leave the hens to help themselves they should only take what they need.
Laying hens also need ground oyster shell in a feeder for calcium for their egg shells.
COMMERCIAL FEED, NEVER LET THE FEED GET WET AT ALL.
Ergot fungus grows rapidly (overnight) on wet feed, and the chickens literally drop dead. If you clean up all the wet feed, and disinfect, they should stop dying within a day or so. Don't let them eat the disinfectant either.
Use medicated or non-medicated starter feed as you choose, but if you decide to use non-medicated, coccidiosis is a real threat. (If you want more info on non-serious problems encountered in a backyard flock, my book How to Raise Day-old Chicks in your Back Yard has a section on it. For more serious diseases, see your local Government Agricultural Agent.) The chicks drop like flies once coccidiosis gets into the chicken house. If you use non-medicated feed (and even if you don't), make sure that you thoroughly clean and disinfect the chicks' area with a disinfectant before the chicks arrive. Lysol is good, bleach makes terrible fumes. I used a plant mister to get a fine mist into all the cracks and crannies. One time I did not disinfect and the coccidiosis stayed in the room and the new batch of chicks started dying.
Broiler Chicks only First Day start the chicks off on Broiler Starter Crumbles (23% protein). Again, use medicated or non-medicated as you choose.
At 5 weeks switch the chicks to Broiler Grower Crumbles.
At 6 weeks I switched the chicks to Broiler Grower Pellets.
They should be big enough by now to be able to cope with the bigger chunks. Any time from now on they should be big enough to be put into the freezer. Make sure that they have not had the medicated feed for the required number of days, according to the package, before you slaughter the chickens.
Meat Birds only
If you get meat bird chicks, and feed them on meat bird grower feed with about 23% protein, they will grow to around 8 lbs in 8 weeks, at which time you slaughter them. They have been specially bred to grow fast and furiously. Unfortunately, there is a down-side to all this fast growth. Many of them will break their legs and have heart attacks before they are 8 weeks old, because their legs and hearts cannot keep up with the rapid weight gain. I lost 30% of the birds the first time I tried raising them. My second attempt was much more successful. I slowed down the growth by using layer grower feed, which is only 15% protein, and cut down on the losses considerably to about 10%. This was still high when compared to the 3% mortality of the layer chicks. Note: Lowering the percentage of protein in their feed will definitely slow down their growth.
Layer Chicks only On the first day, start the chicks off on Layer Starter Crumbles (20% protein), either medicated or not. The pellets are too big at this stage.
At 7 weeks switch to Poultry Grower Crumbles (15% protein).
When they start to lay, switch again to Layer Ration Pellets (16% protein). By this time they are able to handle the larger pellets. They also need crushed oyster shell in a separate feeder for the calcium to build the egg shells.
Laying Hens only
If you keep the birds inside all the time, 90 layer hens, when fully grown, will eat 1 x 50lb (20kg) bag per day.
If you free-range them from 9am to 5pm, and still supplement their feed with commercial pellets, they will only go through 1 bag in 2 days.
FREE RANGE LAYER HENS
Hens are descendents of Indian Jungle Fowl. Their natural instinct is to scratch around in the dead leaves and twigs in the jungle looking for bugs. They also are partial to quite a lot of greenery. Wherever you let them outside, they are likely to scratch the ground bare, and eat lots of greenery. The smaller breeds are good for bug patrol in the vegetable garden. If you want to plant a mixed crop for them, such as grass mixed with alfalfa or clover, they would more than likely appreciate it. The clover and alfalfa are high protein crops.
I find that they always look for cover where they can "hang out" for part of the day. They will find a tree with low, dense branches, like cedar trees, or go under a building where they can still see out. They also like to hang out under my barn, which varies from 2 feet to 4 feet off the ground. It gives the hawks less chance to see them.
They also find themselves somewhere where they can have a dust bath. They go under the trees and find a patch of dry earth, and wriggle around until it is all through their feathers. They seem to know that it will clog the pores of the mites in their feathers, and get rid of them.
I always kept my layer chicks inside until they were 8 weeks old. Apart from anything else, the weather was never warm enough for them before that age. They are also more aware of their surroundings and danger by 8 weeks, which is necessary since they do not have a mother hen to look out for them. I live in the middle of the bush, with bears, racoons, cougars (which I am assured do not like the feathers on the chickens), hawks and a marten (which is like a weasel), so there is danger lurking everywhere.
Once they were 8 weeks old, I let them out in the day-time and locked them in at dusk, after they had put themselves to bed. They know when the light starts to fade, and they start to congregate near the door of the chicken house. As it gets darker, they go inside. Then there comes a point where it is darker inside than out, and they all troup out again. Then when it gets darker still, they go back in and hop up on the roosts for the night.
I still leave a hopper of feed and water in the coop for them. They like to snack at dawn and dusk. They will go through about half as much feed as they would if they were locked in all day.
When they start to lay, I keep them locked in till noon each day for a few days, so that they learn that the chicken house is where they are supposed to lay eggs. Otherwise you will be on an egg hunt every day.
Most of the laying is over by noon.
FREE RANGE MEAT BIRDS
Trying to free range the meat birds was difficult, to say the least. Since my mobile/barn was off the ground, I gave them a 4 inch wide ramp to walk down to the ground, just as I gave the layer birds. The meat birds are not very bright at all, and they fell off the ramp sideways. Then I gave them a 4 foot wide sheet of plywood to walk down. They walked to the edge, peered over, and fell off again! To make matters worse, they then walked under the plywood, and could not find their way back up the ramp into the barn.
Another problem is that they have lost their instinct to be natural hunters and gatherers, as a result of the intensive breeding to gain weight fast. One day, there was a wood louse on the floor of the barn. The little meat bird chick was looking at it, first with one eye and then the other, wondering what it was. I went into the brooder, changed the water, and when I came out it was still looking at the same bug. There are very, very few bugs in the barn because of the cedar walls and floors, so I was certain it was the same bug. Along came a layer chick, and, quick as a wink, the bug was history. The meat bird chick was still wondering what had happened!
One option to get a semblance of free range meat birds is to raise them as Pastured Poultry.
I have not tried this since I have only rough bush and no flat grass, but I am assured it works. You make a moveable wire cage about 12 feet x 12 feet x 3 feet high with an open bottom and a roof over the top for the meat birds to be sheltered if needed. For the first 8 days you confine them to one corner, preferably a curved corner so they can not huddle and smother each other. When the weather is warm enough (see the section on heat) you set the cage on a patch of grass, put up to 80 meat chicks in it, and move it to a new patch of grass each day. They can't fail to find the grass, since they are standing on it. You still give them water and commercial feed in a feeder in the cage. Just make sure the feed stays completely dry, or the hens will literally drop dead overnight from the ergot fungus which grows on the wet feed.
CHICKS FROM EGGS
If you want to get chicks from the eggs, firstly you must have a rooster running with the hens! Secondly, you must give the laying hens a higher protein diet than if you just want the eggs to eat. The layer ration alone does not have a high enough protein content. Free range chickens will eat so many bugs that they do get enough protein.
ABOUT JENNY THE FARMER-ESS
I started raising chicks in 1997 and was raising between 100 and 300 of them on a regular basis, selling them at 18 weeks old as ready-to-lay hens. I tried meat birds a couple of times, and originally kept my first 200 hens as layers, until I was washing eggs in my nightmares. I was getting 15 dozen eggs a day, and washing that many every day by hand was, pardon the pun, for the birds!
Most times I was able to keep the mortality down to about 3 in 100 birds. I was raising them in an old insulated, cedar-lined mobile home, using the end bedroom (10 ft x 12 ft) as a brooding room, and expanding into the rest of the mobile as needed. To start with, all I had were 2 infra-red light bulbs in ceramic sockets, a couple of extension cords, a hanging feeder, a waterer, some cardboard, wood shavings, and an old clean sheet.
Unfortunately, my allergies to the chicks were getting worse all the time and I sold the majority of the hens in 2001. I'm not so bad with the mature hens, but the chicks give off a phenomenal amount of very fine dust while they are growing. I still have 14 left of my "old birds", two of which are from my first batch. Apart from those 14 birds, I am now left with only the memories, so I decided to share what I had learned with anyone who has the patience to read this web site.