Editor’s note: Midwest Messenger Correspondent Barb Bierman Batie has 52 years’ experience with raising poultry, starting on her parents’ farm in Northeast Nebraska as age 10. She has hosted workshops on raising and showing poultry for local 4-H clubs and taught a beginning poultry course at her area community college learning center.
With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping the country sequestered under stay-at-home orders, there has been a sudden surge in poultry orders, note a number of hatcheries and feed stores. Because of a rush for economical protein, there is a heightened interest in raising backyard chickens to ensure a reliable source of eggs.
Others with small acreages or backyard space are looking at using poultry as a type of live biology project for their youngsters needing homeschool activities. Keeping a small flock can be enjoyable, as long as one considers the basics of adequate, safe, secure housing; keeping the chicken house or shed clean, and keeping an ample supply of feed and water at hand.
When considering immersion in Poultry 101, the newbie poultry grower must first decide what type of birds to buy. Are you going to be raising chickens solely for eggs, just for meat, or for dual purpose? Just as there is a difference between dairy and beef cattle, there is a difference between birds bred for meat and those designed to lay eggs.
Any number of books and magazines geared toward novice poultry-raising are available to order online or pickup at local farm and feed stores. There are also online websites to help you decide what breeds will best serve your chicken ranching goals. Just be sure this is something you and your family are committed to, because those cute, fluffy baby chicks go through a series of awkward stages before they are fully feathered and egg-producing birds.
There are any number of hybrids that produce a steady stream of eggs. While there is virtually no difference in quality between brown and white eggs, it boils down to personal preference. The same goes for meat breeds. While some prefer the traditional white broilers, raised specifically to reach maturity in as little as five weeks, others prefer slower growing breeds that will reach meat maturity between seven and 12 weeks. Still others look for dual purpose breeds that can be used both for eggs and later meat.
If your goal is strictly to raise egg layers, purchase only female chicks. Roosters are of no use in a layer flock. However, if you want birds for meat, straight run chicks are more economical and those females you receive can be kept for egg-laying.
In years gone by, hatcheries were found in nearly every major town, but now many states don’t even have one. So for those living far away from a hatchery who don’t want to hatch their own eggs, there is an option. They can mail-order their chicks and have them shipped via the U.S. Postal Service (USPS).
Chicks have been a staple of springtime mail deliveries for a century due to a quirk of Mother Nature. While a chick is incubating within the egg, it feeds on the nutrient-dense yolk inside. As part of the hatching process, the baby chick ingests a bit of reserve yolk that is left. This is a natural survival feature that ensures the baby has enough energy for several days before finding food, giving hatcheries a 72-hour window for shipping chicks. As long as they’re mailed immediately after they’re hatched, they can survive the journey without needing food or water.
The USPS is still the only mail service that allows the shipping of live chicks, as well as day-old ducks, emus, geese, guinea fowl, partridges, pheasants, quail, and turkeys. Hatcheries do a great job of letting customers know what day they ship and what day to expect arrival at the post office.
Once they’ve arrived, baby chicks need plenty of special care for their first week outside the egg. Whether the new owner decides to house them in a small box, an adapted pet carrier or in a regulation brooder house, they need to be kept warm — very warm. For the first week, baby chicks like things nice and toasty — about 90 degrees. Depending on the weather, they will probably need a heat lamp to bolster the building temperature. Other basic necessities, depending on your facilities, are a draft shield, bedding, a waterer and small feeders.
It is important to get chicks to drink water as soon as possible. When moving them out of their shipping box, dip their beaks in the waterer so they know where to find it. Most chick waterers come with a red tray and many starter feeders are red, as well. This is because chicks are attracted to red and this color also helps them get off to a good start.
Most hatcheries also recommend mixing 2-3 tablespoons of sugar in each gallon of water for the first couple of days to give chicks an extra energy boost after their travels. In addition, since many feed manufacturers no longer medicate their feed, it is helpful to add 2-3 drops of oregano oil to each half-gallon of water to ward off infections, as the oil has high antibacterial qualities. It is important to keep birds healthy that first week as their little guts adapt to life outside the egg.
Your new best friend will be your feed dealer. Baby chicks start out eating slow, but as they grow can literally eat you out of house and home. There are all types of chicken feed, but there are usually formulations for three stages of life: A starter mix for the first month or so, a grower ration for the “teenage stage” of three-12 weeks and another for layers, a special high protein ration that growers start feeding between three and four months of age to prep pullets for laying and then keep them in high production.
While baby chicks like it warm, keep decreasing the heat after the first few days, as the older they get the more quickly they can overheat. Their growing feathers will insulate them quite nicely, even if it is a chilly spring. By three weeks they may not even need a heat lamp during the day. A cheap outdoor thermometer placed about six feet from the brooder lamps is a good investment in keeping birds comfortable.
Another important consideration when raising poultry is to have adequate space per bird. The rule of thumb is 2-3 square feet per bird if housed inside, and 8-10 square feet per bird in an outside run. If they get too crowded and too hot, poultry can start picking at each other and it can get quite nasty. If they start fighting, rub some petroleum jelly on the wounds. If another bird tries to pick at the blood (remember, they like the color red) he or she will get a nasty taste in their mouth and leave the poor victim alone.
If you are fortunate to have room for a fenced outside run, let them start exploring. But if the weather is cold or wet, a few grass clippings sprinkled in their space will keep them occupied.
Remember this checklist:
- Determine the type of use — eggs, meat or dual purpose.
- Select breeds that will meet those needs.
- Invest in proper housing with the proper amount of space per bird and determine whether you have enough room for an outdoor run.
- Purchase heat lamps, feed appropriate to the bird’s age, an appropriate-sized waterer and feeders for the number of birds you plan to raise.
- Keep the feed and water fresh and during the first three weeks carefully monitor the temperature of your shelter.
Check next week’s issue of Midwest Messenger for Poultry 101: Part 2, which will cover what happens between three weeks and 22 weeks when chickens will begin laying, and discuss how and when to determine if meat birds are ready to process.
Barb Bierman Batie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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