It’s almost that time of year again: when crocuses begin to nudge through the frozen ground, and birds begin their annual migrations northward. Can chicks be far behind?
Certain as spring follows winter, your local feed-n-seed store will soon offer baby chickens for sale: stock tanks softened with sawdust, warmed by heat lamps, and populated with downy fluffballs on legs, otherwise known as spring chicks. But for first-timers (or even for experienced chicken enthusiasts), selecting, purchasing, and preparing for your flock can seem like a daunting task. After thirty years of raising chickens, here’s my personal guide to ensure your new flock remains safely tucked beneath your wing.
Preparation comes first, and that means having a clean, secure place for your chicks well before you purchase (or hatch) them, commonly known as a ‘brooder.’ Now, it’s your job to think like a mother hen. Will the chicks be warm enough (a steady 95-98 degrees)? Will they be secure from predators (this means rodents, as well as the family cat or dog)? Do they have a steady supply of fresh water, abundant food, and clean bedding?
Brooders can be as simple as a large cardboard box with a heat lamp, or four half-sheets of plywood screwed together with a large hover. But unless these important details are settled in advance, things can quickly go awry.
When a chick hatches from the egg, it remains nourished and hydrated for a day or two, but quickly needs additional sustenance. As soon as you get your chicks home, dip their beaks into the water source to ensure they get an immediate drink. This gets them hydrated, as well as familiarizes them with the location of their water. Newborn chicks are both hungry and curious, so be sure to already have their feed (preferably a 21 percent starter mash) available in a small, shallow pan or trough. If possible, avoid purchasing a starter formula with antibiotic; it’s not necessary if you practice a routine of cleanliness, and I’ve never used them in 30 years.
Finally, keep feed constantly available for the first two weeks, reducing to twice-per day feedings thereafter. Also, introduce a fine granite grit (available in a separate pan, or sprinkled over their food) on day three to help aid digestion.
At roughly one month of age, your young birds will be feathered out, much larger, and eager to venture outdoors. Now, cleanliness and security are even more important… notice a theme here? Whether you’re raising chickens in your backyard, on a homestead, or farming miles away from your nearest neighbor, one thing remains a steady constant: everything likes to eat chicken. From raccoons and hawks to neighbors’ dogs, be sure to have a secure place for your chickens, especially from dusk till dawn.
There’s an old saying out here in the country: “Chicken wire keeps chickens in, not predators out.” Despite its name, it’s far better to use rabbit wire to fence your coop, a heavier, more reliably predator-resistant material. Commonly sold at hardware stores, I recommend purchasing a galvanized variety, and taking the additional step of burying the first 3 inches beneath the ground. This discourages predators from trying to dig beneath the fence (and they will!).
Additionally, be sure to frequently remove all the bedding from inside your coop, at least once per month. Throughout the course of the week, add a few handfuls of pine shavings (my preferred floor material), and thoroughly aerate it with a common garden claw or heavy duty rake. This will reduce buildups of pathogens, ammonia, and keep your hen’s feet much cleaner. It’s also great exercise for the farmer! By the way, old bedding makes superior compost, so keep a compost bin handy near your coop to reduce chores.
Start small, and start slowly. Like all living creatures, chickens enjoy company (I’d suggest always raising at least three or four together, never just one). But that doesn’t mean you need to have a flock of fifty to have a wonderful experience. You should, however, be prepared for some hard work, many mistakes, and yes, even the loss of a few hens. This is how we gain experience, and become better flock managers in the future.
It seems silly to remind ourselves of this, but with all this hard work, take my word— it becomes easy to lose sight of why we started our flock to begin with! Spend time with your flock each day, enjoying their antics and their funny ways of communicating. Take a moment to appreciate those amazing eggs at breakfast time and the incredible compost that’s fertilizing your flowerbeds and garden.
More than anything, enjoy the simple grace of their presence and the shared connection to their fascinating world. At the end of the day, I’ve always found this is the greatest reward of all.
Forrest Pritchard is a sustainable agriculture advocate and author of the book Gaining Ground: A Story Of Local Food, Farmers' Markets, and Saving The Family Farm. Gaining Ground was named a Top Read by The Washington Post and NPR and is available in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store. Forrest's new book, The Farmer In Your Kitchen, debuts September 2015.
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