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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Get Started With Chickens

By Jenna Woginrich

Tags: chickens, country skills, livestock, poultry, Jenna Woginrich,

baby chicken 

If you’re new to raising chickens, you might be a little intimidated setting up house for your new flock. After all, this is a big step. Chickens aren’t pets: They’re livestock. That word seems to carry a sense of import not bestowed on our humble cats and dogs. And rightly so — these girls have a job to do! In a few months your little fluff balls will be producing eggs so rich in omega-3s and energizing, wholesome protein you won’t be able to remember a time in your life without hens in the backyard.

But before you can start learning how to make your own Hollandaise sauce, you need to learn how to raise those birds. Here’s my recipe for the perfect chick-brooding environment. Follow these basic rules of warmth, safety, care and feeding, and you’ll be home free.

Preparing a Safe Brooder 

Chicks need a warm, clean, draft-free place to start off in the world: a large container that allows enough room for the birds to walk, scratch and get the space they need to stretch their wings. You can create a brooder out of something as basic as a cardboard box or as complicated as a large stock tank. I know someone who once used her downstairs shower to raise laying hens, lining the bottom with newspaper and then washing it down between regular cleanings.

adult chickens 

You don’t need to share a shower stall with your chickens, though. The classic cardboard brooder box is perfect for a few laying hens. Line it with newspaper or pine shavings (which I prefer), and set it in a draft-free area of your home or garage that curious cats and toddlers can’t get near. After the brooder is in a safe, quiet corner, above it place a heat lamp that is clamped safely. These powerful, 250-watt bulbs become your foster mothers, and will make the brooder a comfortable 90 degrees Fahrenheit for your little ones. To be sure your box is a safe temperature, place a thermometer in the base and check on it in a few hours. If it reads higher than 90 degrees, lift it up a few inches and take another reading a while later. If it reads 70 degrees, drop it an inch or two, and do the same. You want that magic number of 90 degrees.

Feed and Water 

When your brooder is set up with proper temperatures, location and bedding, you can set up your cantina. Choose water and feed bases designed with chicks in mind. These are usually made to screw onto the bottom of quart canning jars and are inexpensive. They allow chick feed and fresh water to flow out all day by the grace of gravity, letting you leave for the office worry free. Just make sure you have them set up on sturdy bases so none of your new charges plows them over and makes a mess.

lamb with chick 

Feed your chicks a medicated starter feed, which prevents the early onset of such diseases as coccidiosis, which can easily kill an entire brooder box of chicks. If you want organic eggs, you can always switch to organic feed when they are laying age, but to prevent unwanted disease in so fragile a creature, I suggest the medicated starter or paying for immunizations on any laying-hen chicks you plan on raising organically. It really is the best insurance for a healthy start.

With this combination of a warm place to crash, good food and clean water, you’ll have yourself some truly happy hens on the way. The care and attention you put into their upbringing will shine forth in your future adventures together on the farm, in the backyard, or on your condo’s roof. Welcome to the backyard poultry club, and good luck with your very own livestock!

Have a question about raising chickens or anything chicken-related? Chime in on’s “Chick Days” forum. Jenna will be answering your questions for the rest of April! 

Jenna Woginrich is a Pennsylvania native who’s made her home in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, northern Idaho, rural Vermont and, most recently, upstate New York. She is the author of the memoir Made from Scratch and Chick Days. She is on the blogging staff of the Huffington Post, in addition to keeping her own blog, Cold Antler Farm. Jenna shares a home and garden with her gregarious sled dogs, chickens, a hive of bees and some amicable rabbits. 

Through an array of how-to books, Storey Publishing serves its customers by publishing practical information that encourages personal independence in harmony with the environment. With expert authors on a range of do-it-yourself topics including gardening, cooking, home brewing, crafts, backyard building, animal care, farming, home improvement and traditional skills, Storey has helped millions of readers enjoy simpler, more satisfying lives. For more information and to view the entire Storey catalog, visit the Storey website. 

Join Storey’s Chick Days Facebook community. 

Check out the InsideStorey blog. 

george roberson
4/28/2011 11:06:32 PM

I have raised chickens for the last two years. I buy my chicks from the local feed store, bring them home, keep them penned for the first month or so. I have never used lights or incubator on my chicks. I do handle them a lot so they become used to me. I do make sure they have been medicated before I get them, because after a month or so of being cooped up, they are turned loose. One of the advantages of living in the country is letting the chickens out, free ranging them, and allowing them to return to the coop each day to lay and to roost. Not a big problem with varmits or stray animals now, most have been taken care of. We are pretty fortunate in this area, not too many folks turns their unwanted pets loose here. I get fantastic brown eggs, with no chemicals. Once the hens get used to freeranging, my feed bill normally drops by two thirds. I do have a couple of roosters, and have some hens that like to nest. Good results with letting the chickens breed naturally. If I start to get too many rooster or when a chicken starts to become unproductive, then I have a steady supply of folks willing to take them off my hands. Pretty good for someone who doesn't eat chicken or eggs, lol, but I find that the chickens do have a personality of their own. Good, cheap way to get into raising your own food animals, though. A great benefit is that the bug, flea and tick problem has disappeared around the house. Plus, the droppings and old hay make good compost for the garden

frank kling
4/14/2011 8:46:30 AM

If your chicks were immunized for coccidiosis, for example, be certain NOT to give them medicated feed or you will negate the immunitive effects of the vaccine. Also, give them lettuce and other veggies with their chick starter. Make sure the 250 watt bulb you use is colored red or you will create problems- try living your life with a 250 watt clear bulb blasting you in the face 24/7. Make sure the brooder is sufficiently sized to allow each of the personal space and the ability to stretch their wings. For bedding pine shavings work the best. After five or six weeks or after the guys are fully feathered they can be moved to the coop and you should keep them confined to the coop for a couple of days so they know this is home. Be sure to include a supply of grit along side the food. Chickens have no teeth so the grit is deposited in the gut and used to break down food. For an innovative way to feed adult birds check out Grandpas Feeder (not for chicks)