Tips for Beginner Chick Care (and the Best Chicken Breed for Backyards)

Reader Contribution by Corinne Gompf and Heritage Harvest Farm
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The shirt read: How to pick up chicks, with a cartoon stick figure bent down to pick up a baby chick and hold it. Now, once my son, Fletcher, and I stopped laughing, I snapped a picture of the T-shirt to post on my Facebook page.

The family and I were at our local farm-supply store to pick up a few new poultry feeders and waterers for our new baby chicks. And, of course, that meant we just had to take a look at the troughs of chicks and ducklings the store usually has during the spring.

Those cute, little, peepin’ fuzz balls scurried in the red glow of the heat lamp, causing all kinds of havoc among their sisters. It’s always fun to watch, no matter how many chicks we’ve raised over the years. (So many, in fact, that I’ve since lost count.)

Choosing the Right Breed

Fast-forward a few weeks to the preschool pick-up line, when a mom friend stopped to tell me that she had bought a few chicks from the farm-supply store. (I have since realized that I have a reputation for poultry advocacy among the preschool moms and teachers.) She was very excited to tell me all about her experience buying and caring for the chicks, and I couldn’t be happier that my passion for poultry was spreading among the pick-up line.

“So, what breed did you get?” I asked my friend.

“Golden Comets, Barred Rocks, and a Cornish Jumbo,” she replied.

Well, I must have made a facial expression because she instantly added a concerned, “Why?”

“You know that the Cornish will be ready to process in eight weeks, right?” I asked. I explained that that particular breed is raised for meat production, and that once mature, it would risk dying of a heart attack or suffer from broken legs from its heavy weight if it weren’t butchered.

I could see other moms turn around to listen to us discuss the fate of the Cornish chick she had purchased.

“I had no idea what to buy,” she said finally. My friend seemed deflated.

I felt like a jerk. Here I had been talking up my chickens and turkeys to the suburban moms at preschool, not really thinking that they would be so inspired to buy their own. I had to think of a way to build her confidence back up.

“Just keep caring for your chicks. You’ve got eight weeks to decide what to do, whether sell it, process it, or just get rid of it (wink, wink).”

On the way home, I started thinking about other people who are just starting a flock for their families and purchase chicks from the local farm-supply store. They, too, may have limited knowledge about raising poultry.

Tips for Beginning Backyard Chicken Keepers

So, if you have no experience raising poultry, but would like to give it a whirl, here are a few easy-to-follow tips to help your flock thrive.

1. Prepare a brooder before you buy chicks. A brooder is a small box or crate heated to maintain a constant temperature. I’ve used a cardboard box, a plastic tub, a fiberglass tub (removed from a bathroom remodel), and my father-in-law’s antique metal brooder. All have worked, and whatever you use will work, too. Just be sure to purchase a heat lamp, which you can find online or at a farm-supply store.

Line the brooder with wood shavings to absorb moisture from the chicks’ droppings. A dry bird is a happy bird.

2. Buy feed that is formulated for chicks. You may feel overwhelmed by the choices of poultry feed, because, let’s face it, there are a lot of options. The feed you want will say Chick Starter, and is usually medicated. I have always used medicated chick starter for both layer chicks and broilers (meat) chicks, and usually switch to a layer or broiler pellet by five weeks of age, three weeks for broilers. It suppresses poultry illness, which is especially important if you have other poultry on your property. A healthy bird is a happy bird.

3. Finally, decide what purpose you have for raising chicks. Do you want chickens for eggs, meat, pest control, or companionship? Do your research on chicken breeds before going to the store. Many breeds can be selected for each of these purposes, and I’ve had a lot of different breeds over the years, but I find one breed is best for beginners: The Golden Buff (and the angels sing Hallelujah).

Best chicken breed for backyards. Also called Golden Comet, Red Sex Link, or Cinnamon Queen, the buff is by far the best chicken to get your flock started. Easy-going and gentle, buffs are perfect for families with young children. They are early maturing, usually laying at just 16 weeks, versus 20 to 22 for heritage breeds. Buffs will lay six to seven eggs a week, and will continue to lay into the darker months of the winter. Every layer flock I’ve had has included buffs, and I can’t recommend them enough.

So, if you want to raise poultry, please consider these tips before you purchase chicks. I will be posting more advice on poultry care in upcoming blogs, so stay tuned.

Corinne Gompfis a producer for farmer’s markets in rural Ohio, where she raises pastured poultry and Boer goats, grows organic produce and educates her customers on sustainable agriculture. Connect with Corinne on Facebook atHeritage Harvest Farm.

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