Birds & Bees: Raising Chicks

photographs and text by Sharon Kitchens

I decided to keep chickens, because (a) I want the fresh eggs (great nutrition) and (b) they were a much simpler alternative to larger livestock i.e. pigs. The fact that my new (old) farmhouse came with a chicken coop just made the decision that much more obvious. Hey, you give up the city life you should embrace the country life – right?!

I’ve pulled together everything I’ve read and heard and condensed it into this BASIC list of how to get started raising chickens.

State laws – in Maine you do not need a license if you produce less than 3000 eggs a year. Check with your local town office, neighbors who keep chickens (or other farm animals) or if by luck your state university has a poultry science department check with them. *The university might even have an Egg Producer School like the one I went to in late March via U. Maine Extension.

Education – once you have learned you can keep chickens start reading what is involved with chick care from time to materials. While potentially less expensive than beekeeping (at least initially), there are the primary costs: shelter and food. Chicks themselves are surprisingly inexpensive as is the equipment. Books I recommend: Chick Days by Jenna Woginrich (a friend gifted this to me and it has been the single best resource for information) and Storey Publishing’s Guide to Raising Chickens (I do not have this book, but a friend does and I’ve got plenty else by Storey to know they are a consistently excellent source for practical information).  Both are available on Amazon and can be ordered via your local bookstore or farm supply store.  Visit and spend some time at their Learning Center. *This website is probably the first place you should go as it is free and from there you can decide whether to invest in books. As for magazines, Backyard Poultry is something you might want to pick up after you have committed to the idea of chicks (the ads alone for supply companies are worth the $4.99 for the publication. I could not have been less impressed with Hobby Farms Chickens (where the author of a story on keeping chicks learned to keep chicks by losing 20 of the 25 to stupid mistakes his first time out).

Do not underestimate the importance of talking to people who keep chickens – ask them about what kind of birds they have, securing their hen area, what equipment they use…. When I went to bee school I learned about the importance of bee mentors, well folks chick mentors will save you a whole lot of lost sleep and birds! Best to learn from other people’s successes and losses and have someone to phone to confer with (as I did with my mentor the other night after dealing with a sensitive venting issue – we’ll get to that later). Of course, make sure if you want to use organic methods you talk to people practicing them.

Selecting the appropriate breed – order the Murray McMurray Hatcherycatalog (it’s free). A long-standing reputable resource, the Iowa based hatchery requires a minimum order of 25 birds (you can mix breeds up and share an order with a friend as I did). Likely you will want to order your chicks in February or March and have them delivered in April. This might depend on where you live, but I keep hearing about people getting their chicks in the spring and that’s when I did. **There is stress involved for chicks by mail-ordering, so if you can go to a local trusted seller (you might have to wain on the type of chick you want).

I chose Australorps and Buff Orpingtons, because they are docile, cold hardy and heavy. They also lay brown eggs, but that was not an important factor for me. Other considerations: do you want to preserve an endangered breed, breed purpose (egg layer or meat bird), egg productivity, and egg size. *Australorps and Orpingtons are considered Meat Breeds, but they are also steady layers. Some might argue the sense in my choice (these ladies like to eat and I’m raising them for eggs), but their temperament and tolerance to Maine like weather won out.

How many chicks and do you want a rooster – It could be keeping a rooster is illegal in  your area, so check. Hens do not need a rooster to be happy or lay eggs. Raising chickens takes time, these ladies (and maybe dudes) will be reliant on you year-round a few minutes each day for food, water, etc. Originally, I was going to start with six when a chicken expert (yes, Maine has one) advised me to consider doubling or quadrupling that number as taking care of six would be the same roughly as taking care of 24. The expense might be a little greater, but considering I have the room why not. Well, I spoke to some friends who keep chickens and everyone advised me – start with 12, you can always increase the number the next year AND chickens only produce eggs for a couple years so this way if I bring in more next year I’ll have my pet chickens in a couple years and layers for  year or two longer. How much space you need is dependent on whether you want to have them be free range or not. I have an acre, but am way too in love with these gals to let them become snacks for the foxes, fisher cats and occasional bobcat that happens onto my property. I’ve opted for an outdoor run attached to my chicken coop so the gals have ample room to explore and exercise.

If you have 1/10 acre you have enough room for 1/2 dozen chickens.  Chicks need one-half square foot of space for the first two weeks. They grow fast and after two weeks, should have one to three square foot per bird depending if they are a layer or heavy breed.

Arrival of chicks/brooder management – Here we go!  Before you pick up your two-day old chicks or they are delivered, their new home should be waiting for them. Keep this in mind – the first four to five weeks of a chick’s life are the most perilous. They need constant attention!

The Brooder Box – chicks need a warm, dry, draft-free place where they are protected from house pets and loud radios, but have ventilation. I recommend purchasing one, if you can afford it, from Roots, Coops & More if you live in Maine. Mine cost just under $90 and I had to pick it up, but that was all worth it knowing my babies are safe and sound.  If you do not want to spend the money, you can convert a large plastic tub or cardboard box into a brooder by fastening chicken wire to the top of the box. The screen over the top of the brooder will prevent escape, allow for ventilation and deter the curious house cat. The container’s walls should be at least 18-inches high.  Line the bottom of the box with several layers of newspaper (some top with paper toweling and after a couple weeks add wood shavings (research what kind, understand when to introduce cedar shavings if at all) or pine needles to help absorb the droppings and any spilled water. *Practice scrupulous brooder hygiene for your chicks health. If not kept in check, disease can result. You should replace the newspaper daily and clean the brooder every 4-5 days (or more frequently if it smells). I replace the top layer of the newspaper two or three times a day, but that’s me. *Read about Coccidiosis, a common intestinal disease that causes droppings to be watery and sometimes bloody.  Have your chicks vaccinated  or feed them medicated starter, which contains a coccidiostat (do NOT, and I JUST learned this feed medicated starter to chicks that have been vaccinated, as it will neutralize the vaccine). While not contagious to humans, this is lethal to chicks! *While cleaning the brooder/replacing the bedding, relocate the chicks into a small cardboard box (I layer the box they came in with fresh newspaper) with a lid.

Equipment (heat lamp, feeders, waterers) – you should be able to get everything you need for your chicks from or the  Tractor Supply Company.

The heat lamp is critical to your chick’s survival as is temperature control of the room the brooder is in. Chicks do not develop their insulating feathers until 20 or 30 days of age. The heat lamp will be operating 24 hours a day so make sure the power/socket is reliable. A wire/metal guard should be between the lamp and box in case the bulb falls, as it could hurt a chick and start a fire. The recommended temperature of the brood floor at the start is 90 F. Rule of thumb is to reduce the temperature 5 degrees each week until the chicks no longer need heat (at five or six weeks). Observe the chicks’ behavior and if the chicks huddle close to the heat source you should raise the lamp a little, if however the birds are located in a circle outside the heat source you should lower it. Generally, the chicks should be wandering around the entire brooding area, with some chicks underneath the heat source. *Red bulbs impair visibility and prevents pecking (this is what I read in pretty much everything and it is what I am witnessing). I recommend purchasing an ultraviolet  heat bulb specifically manufactured to use for animals and your metal lamp with clamp from a reliable chicken source (i.e. mypetchicken).

Constant supply of fresh water and feed is also essential.

Water – sanitize the chick waterer with boiling water before filling with cool water for the first time for your chicks (**beginner mistake, I did not do this until after the first day when I realized I should and did and so far so good). Clean the water with mild (preferably natural detergent i.e. Meyer’s every other day). These are small and cheap! *You will need to introduce each chick to her water source. Do this by dipping the beak of each chick into the water.

Feeder – I recommend using a trough feeder (has little holes the birds stick their heads in) as chicks are notoriously messy (they poop on each other, their food, in their water and all over their bedding) so this will offer less contamination. Also inexpensive.

Do not use small dishes or plastic containers, purchase the regulation chick waterer and feeder. Trust me, they do not cost much and will prevent uncleanliness and spillage (a chick will stand in her water bowl if given the chance same as she will on her food). Would you want to walk around with a cold bottom outside in Maine in late April naked and end up with pneumonia? Nope, didn’t think so.

*Conventional vs. organic feed – I opted to go organic, but by all means research medicinal feed and if that’s what you feel most comfortable with (you can always switch to organic later) go for it (do not feed medicated starter feed to vaccinated chicks). I purchased Kreamer Feed’s Nature’s Best Organic Feed – fully fortified with all the nutrients a broiler needs from hatching to market. Promotes good livability, solid legs, and early feathering. This is a superior quality feed and works as a premium starter feed for pullets. Chicks need their protein!

Feed storage – I don’t like rats either (though my cat might considering the way she pursues the occasional mouse), so invest in a metal trash can (10 gallon size) to hold your feed.

Pasting up – no folks this is not scrapbooking (though, go ahead – lord knows I’ve got my camera tucked into the brooder a couple times a day). Otherwise known as “sticky bottom” this is a very serious condition that occurs when a chick’s bottom (“vent” or “all purpose exit chute on a hen’s bottom”) becomes crusted over with droppings. If not taken care of the chick will stress out, become dehydrated and die. Not pleasant, huh!?  Just check their bottoms (you don’t even need to pick them up to do this) a couple times a day – my chicks’ bottoms look like cotton balls. If you see something that looks like poop sticking to their bum, scoop them up and place them in a shallow area (I laid a dish towel down in my shallow kitchen sink) and with a damp washcloth wipe (gently) their bottom and then pick away the junk till you can see their pink asshole (yes, I really did just write that).

Don’t stress out and enjoy your girls!!!  They are adorable and so much fun!!

This post was originally published on Sharon’s blog, Delicious Musings.