Have you considered
chickens as a means of producing your own food? Have you looked at
the stores and seen the price of eggs, the price of chicken and wondered
aloud why you don't raise your own? Have you ordered poultry
catalogs, but never ordered poultry because it seemed too difficult and
complicated, or too time consuming? Along with rabbits, poultry is one
of the most kept food production animals on the homesteads across America.
Chickens can offer good,
home-grown food in a short amount of time. Fresh eggs are much different
than what is in the stores! For the creative, feathers can be
used in many crafts as well. You have thought about it for
some time. You think you have room. It's time to decide and
take the plunge!
First decide what
you want exactly. If you are squeamish about butchering and don't
know anyone to do it for you, getting meat birds will end up being a waste
of money, and you'll end up with a lot of roosters that aren't good for
much of anything else! If you want eggs—how many eggs does
your family consume on a weekly basis? Do you want to sell the overage?
Keep in mind that if you just want eggs you don't need a rooster. In
fact, you'll only need a rooster if you want to breed and raise baby
chicks. If you want eggs, do you have a shell color preference?
What size area do you have to devote to chicken production? Do you
want extra birds able to be served for dinner? Do you care about
skin color (Americans are used to yellow skinned birds while the UK
prefers white skin)? Do you live in an area there are hawks and
of these questions aren't something you need a book to answer and there
are no right and wrong answers! They will, however, help you
chisel down what you want. If you want meat and eggs you can order
“straight run”, which means there will be both males and females in the
order. For just females order “pullets” or just meat birds order
cockerels (this is usually the cheapest option! ).
For strictly meat birds,
many hatcheries offer specials on cockerels. These may be “heavy
breeds” or “egg layer cockerels”. The latter are the "unwanted" from
hatches of Leghorn-type egg-laying chicks; the hens are in demand for
eggs, but not all chicks are female. Compared to the heavy breeds, these
will take a little longer to attain “fryer weight” but they can be good
cheap eating. Heavy breeds can be butchered as fryers or grown a
little longer for “roasting” birds.
Recently, Cackle Hatchery
advertised a “frying pan special” of heavy breed chicks—25 for $8.50; 50
for $13.95 or 100 for $24.95—for most families the latter will be too
much unless you REALLY like chicken! Suppose you pick out
the batch of fifty, even if a few die, you have chicken several times a
month for a pittance, but don't forget to also figure in your feed costs.
With chicks it's very important to not let them run out of feed or water.
For egg layers you'll
want to order pullets—which will cost you a bit more but you are
guaranteed to get females. There may be the occasional missed
cockerel but most of the order will be females, sexed at hatching.
If you have a lot of hawks around you would be best advised to get
colored, not white, birds...which don't stand out as well. Decide
how many eggs you want also. A dozen hens will provide plenty of
eggs for most families—a half dozen for many. Keep in mind good
hens at maturity will produce roughly an egg a day. If you have a
dozen you'd best plan on finding a way to eat or use 6-7 dozen eggs per
week! If you don't have a particular breed in mind but just
want fresh eggs, Murray McMurray has a package of 25 egg layer pullets for
about $40. Day old chicks are delivered by post office mail.
Before you order birds you will need to get some basic
supplies. A watering fount is the first thing; these vary from
plastic to metal waterers to a gadget you screw a canning jar in to.
To start small numbers of chicks the latter will work fine and will cost
you a couple dollars at a farm supply store. For larger numbers of
chicks get a gallon fount which runs a couple of dollars more.
Remember chicks MUST have plenty of water. The more they eat and
drink the better and faster they grow...and the healthier they will be!
If you plan on having a couple dozen layers your next purchase will be a
five gallon steel waterer; these will run about $20-25. For
starting you'll need one gallon for each 50 chicks—the first few days
add a couple tablespoons of sugar to the water. This gives young
birds a little boost. Once you have your watering system figured
then get feeders. Chick feeders come in various sizes, many are
metal with a slide in top and holes chicks can reach through. You'll
need two feet for each 50 chicks. Adult birds should have a steel
feeder which will look similar to your waterer but is open on top.
Starter feeders are a couple dollars; the bigger ones will run more but
will be needed as your birds grow. The other thing you will need for
starting is a brooder light. This is a hooded bulb - for small
numbers a regular 100 watt lightbulb will do. The lights can often
be found for about $5. You will also need a closed, tight area to
start chicks in. For small numbers a large dog crate can be used.
It is best, however to allow about a half foot per bird.
Overcrowding can be deadly.
Now you have all your supplies, you've decided which
chicks you want, you've ordered your chicks, waited anxiously and
finally... they're here!
The morning of arrival you should fill waterers and
feeders, and turn the light on. Ideally, you'll start out placing
the light in a large box or other means of containing heat. New
chicks must be kept at 90 degrees for the first week. If they get
too cold they can pile on each other and kill each other. Often the
one killed is the strongest...as they get under the pile to stay warm then
are smothered. Later, you can reduce the heat by 5 degrees per week.
Once the chicks have feathered out, they become very hardy. You'll
need to keep them from getting wet in spring storms, and protect them from
cats, dogs and other animals that would consider chick nuggets a good
When your chicks arrive...take each chick individually and
dip its beak in the water. This immediately gets each chick
drinking. When you dip the beak they should then throw their head
back and open and close their mouth quickly...as soon as they do this let
them go. Most will then go back and drink more! The
first day sprinkle starter feed on the floor as well as offer it in
troughs. This makes it very easy for the chicks to find food.
The faster they get eating and drinking the better. Most chicks,
once they had a drink, will automatically start looking for food so have
it already there for them. You may waste a little putting it on the
brooder floor, but it's very important in seeing that they get a good
start. Again (and this can't be stressed enough!) never let your
chicks run out of feed or water. Most chick loss happens when they
don't get a good start eating and drinking.
Also, leave plenty of space...chicks are cannibalistic.
They will turn on weaker members if they are too crowded. Larger
breed chicks will need a good quality high protein starter. Be
prepared to part with $8-10 for a 50-pound bag. If there are a few
chicks not getting to the feed, separate them out in a smaller group so
there is less competition for food/water. A kiddy wading pool or
stock tank makes a good brooder...just be SURE it doesn't get water
collecting in it. A storm or unseen leak overhead can drown your
chicks. If the chicks start laying too closely together, or on top
of one another, they are too cold. If they stay far apart they could
be too warm. Observe your chicks daily; spend 5-10 minutes minimum
after feeding and watering just watching them. Note which ones are
bossy and which are the lower ranking ones and how they are all eating?
Do they appear comfortable? The first few days chicks are apt to get
under the heat bulb and sprawl out sleeping.
Make certain that the heat bulb is hung securely.
Especially don't let it fall and touch anything, as this can be a fire
source, especially with in conjunction with bedding materials. If
the room is open and not heated, it might be better to use a regular heat
lamp rather than a light bulb. The important thing is to keep a
circle of appropriate heat for the amount of chicks you have.
There are many sources for birds and equipment. A
check at your local farm supply store such as Farm & Fleet or Big R will
be the best place to get equipment as well as starter feed. A good
feed salesman familiar with your area is a valuable asset.
Online there are many sources for birds. A few of
I have personally ordered from the first two, and I highly
recommend them for beginner birds.
For additional information in much more detail there are
several free email lists at
www.yahoogroups.com - among
There are experienced people on all these lists who can
help you with questions and any problems that come up. I
moderate the first two.
Raising poultry is a great way to put food on the table.
It takes minutes per day and not a lot of expense. Once grown,
chickens love goodies like garden scraps and kitchen waste. Most of
all, you'll find that store eggs don't begin to compare with eggs
from your own hens.