Last weekend Jeff and I took the rather monumental step (for us) of jumping out of the intereweb research and taking action.
We got chickens.
More specifically, we got eight chicks of the egg-laying variety
If you’ve thought of getting chicks and don’t have prior experience, you likely read a lot of the same posts and web sites that we did. There’s a LOT of information out there! So much that it really can weigh you down to the point of non-action.
I totally get it. After reading all the do’s and don’ts it’s totally reasonable to assume you’ll likely kill the chicks on the way home from the chick shop. Because chicks should come from hatcheries, direct. With minimum orders and a string of US Postal Service nightmare stories littering the googles, so you’re pretty sure that the way to start your flock is to order a box of chicks that will likely end up at your front door, mostly dead. Right? That’s what you’ve learned from reading… right?
I’ve been mired under that. I get it. So we decided to just jump in and figure out the whole chicken thing as we go.
If you’d like to see more about where the chicks will live and what breeds we have, then hop over to this post on our B&B site. Right now I’m going to delve a bit more into the quick-n-dirty details that I kept looking for during my incessant chick-research and what’ I’ve learned so far.
Choosing the Chicks
I’m going to preface this by pointing out that I own a purebred basset hound. She’s my third purebred basset and likely not my last. While I love fostering, adoption and all the work being done to give good dogs homes, I love my purebred bassets.
So with that in mind, it was really easy to get sucked into researching chicken breeds and fly off the handle in that direction. I mean, first, it’s the breed. Which must come from a hatchery. But which one? Which breed? I love the look of Blue Laced Wyandottes but read that the breeders have been sloppy with that breed on account of the wild popularity. My first basset, a sweetie, was technically purebred, but very badly bred and I know the trouble you can get into with poor breeding….
And on and on and on….
Jeff came home one day from picking up dog food at L&M, which is our northern Minnesota equivalent of Fleet Farm or Tractor Supply. He mentioned passing by people with boxes full of chirping chicks.
I realized it might be time to stop the research, stop the obsession and just. get. chicks. I’m not setting out to breed show quality birds, I just want to have a small flock here at the farm that will give us some eggs.
So here was our experience buying from L&M. I know a lot of the country is served by Tractor Supply and I assume it’s pretty much the same, although I have to admit that I was suprised over the variety available to us.
Buying Chicks at a chain Feed/Fleet Supply Store
At L&M new chicks arrive sometime in April and new shipments are in the store every Tuesday through the end of June. At our L&M in Virginia, Minnesota, there are chickens, geese, turkeys, ducks, wild fowl and guineas — or at least, tanks for them. The chicks are situated in the back of the store in large galvanized stock tanks. Depending on the week there will be one or more varieties in each tank with an informational sign describing the breed, how ‘personable’ it is, whether it’s a broiler or egg chicken, egg production and more. There are usually little pictures of the chicks and the adult chickens.
There is also a full schedule of what breeds are arriving when, so if you want something special, ask.
If you’re getting ready to buy, I highly recommend visiting once to see what’s in stock, then going home to see what breeds might work for you and returning the next day to buy. Or bring your smartphone for some quick research if you’ve been looking at breeds. If you don’t do that there are some serious mistakes to be made. For instance, the week Jeff and I got our chicks there was a very appealing tank of feathered legs bantams. The sign/description sounded perfect for us… good personalities, quirky feathered legs… what’s not to like?
One thing we wanted, in addition to friendly chicks for the B&B, was eggs for us. Bantams, while fun and pretty, are smaller chickens with eggs that are correspondingly smaller. With a small flock of under 10 chickens, we just don’t have room for chickens that are completely for fun!
Our chicks ranged between $3.50 and $6.50 per chick. There are a few other breeds/options that were significantly less. The week we got our chicks, there was a tank labeled as ‘brown egg layers’ that were around $1.50 each and I recall a tank that was buy one/get one, but don’t remember the breed. If you are just looking for chickens to give you eggs, you can probably get set up at a feed store for $1.50 to $2 per chick. Ours were more because we wanted ‘fancy’ breeds.
Hens or Roos?
Most breeds of baby chicks are notoriously difficult to ‘sex’ (identify gender) at birth. There are specialists who work at the hatcheries and will determine the sex by looking at the chick’s vent (where all their business is), but that’s more of an art than an exact science, from what I understand. Some breeds are more definite based on color and genetics — think of how most orange tabbies are male, it’s the same sort of thing. The hatchery that supplies L&M guarantees a 90% rate of correct gender, but an overall 90% rate isn’t all that helpful with a small eight chick flock.
At the feed/fleet store, the chicks will be sold as pullets (90% likely to be a hen) or a ‘straight run’ which is a mix of eventual hens and roos. Oh, which reminds me, female chicks are called pullets until they are one year old, then they are referred to as hens. Young male chicks are referred to as cockerels before they are roosters.
By the time chicks are 4-5 weeks old, they will start identifying features that will help you determine if you have hens or roos, most notably around their combs and a few other developements. Of course, you’ll know for sure when you start seeing eggs or hearing cockadoodledoos.
I’m hoping we get at least one roo (Jeff is not in agreement) because they will protect ‘their’ hens from predators and the like. Of course, the trade-off is early morning greetings that some of our B&B guests may not enjoy. My thought, though, is that the protection is valuable and that most guests who are staying at a farmhouse B&B will be charmed by roosters. And then go back to sleep!
Bare Bones Shopping List at the Feed Store
Jeff and I have decided to take a more iterative approach to building up our chicken strategy. Our brood box (more on that below) is cardboard and we’re still plotting out our coop. Here’s what you will absolutely need — or at least, what we absolutely needed.
Chicks — $1.50 – $6.50 per chick at the feed store
Chick food — $9 (organic)/$6 (non-organic)– one bag to get started. We splurged and got the organic food for $9 for a smallish bag (five pounds?)
Chick grit — $6 — chickens need rocks in their gullet to digest food. You can feed them their chick food, yogurt and scrambled/boiled eggs without grit. Anything else (spaghetti, fruit, veggies) will require grit so they can digest it. The packaged chick grit is literally ground up granite. They love it. But sand/dirt also works from what I’ve read. We got grit and are sprinkling it on their food. The grit was around $6 for a five pound bag.
Chick waterer — $5 — we went with the galvanized base and plastic one quart jar (you can see in the photo). They are sold separately and were around $5. I’m pretty sure (but haven’t checked yet) that a mason jar would fit too and is better because BPA.
Chick feeder — $5 — we went with the galvanized chick feeder and like it, although we didn’t put the cover on for the first day or so. They had the cover at the feed store, but one of our chicks wriggled through a hole and was stuck inside almost right away, so we took off the cover. BAD idea. Without the cover they hang out IN the feeder, kick all the feed out and use it as a chick litter box.
Heat light — $16 — we use a 250-watt red heat light and the el cheapo (for chickens) hanging/clamp fixture with the metal hood. The chicks really need to be warm. I considered a whole bunch of other options because the heat lamp freaks me out, but the chicks do better with red light because it’s less jarring and they are calmer and able to sleep. Most red bulbs these days are either the 250-watt heat variety or a LED decorative type. We saw in a forum that someone had gone with the LED light in the brooder, but those light bulbs do not give out heat, so are not the right option. Note on the lamp from Jeff: when setting up your brooder box, get the light fixture from the chicken section. While it’s the less expensive option when it comes to brooder lights, there are even LESS expensive versions of the fixture in the regular light section but they are less safe to have around your fluffballs.
Electrolytes and Probiotics — $2 per envelope — these additives are around $2 each for trifold envelopes (like how yeast comes). One envelope is enough for a gallon of water, so if using the quart waterer, these bags last a while. It’s good to have these on hand right away to pep up the chicks and to have on hand for first aid going forward.
BlueKote — $8 — BlueKote is an antibiotic treatment (kind of like Neosporin) that you can use to treat wounds. Chickens have a tendency to peck at red/bloody spots, so BlueKote is helpful because it not only treats the wound, but it’s also blue which will cover up the red color and protect the hurt chicken from getting pecked. We haven’t used yet, but I wanted to have on hand for my chick first aid kit since we’re 30 minutes from any shops and in a rural area so things close up early.
PolyViSol (no iron) and Vitamin E soft gels — $20 — This is a ‘stretch’ item that we didn’t get but ended up needing and it was really stressful that we didn’t have. Chicks can come down with something called ‘wry neck’ which is really difficult to watch. Their little necks get floppy and they can’t stand up well. It’s caused by a vitamin deficiency and easily fixable, but heartbreaking to watch your little fluffy baby unable to stand and not be able to do anything. If funds are tight, I highly recommend that you pick up these two things at Target (or Walmart, if you must :-)) and keep on hand with the receipt. You can always return if you don’t have to bust in!
Pine Shavings — $6 — You’ll need bedding for the brood box and most sources recommend pine shavings. We bought a bale of shavings that came sort of shrink-wrapped. I think it was probably around 4 or 5 cubic feet. The size of the bale in the packaging was around two or three feet by a foot wide by 8″ or so. Once you open you’ll also need somewhere to store it OR a place to leave it open and protected. We put ours in a galvanized oscar the grouch can we had for kitty food (we rearranged our storage). The can is the one that’s around 3′ tall and 18″ across and cost around $10. You could also keep in a large plastic tote or even a plastic garbage bag, as long as it’s protected.
Cost to set up with five chicks
Chicks: $7.50 – $35
Brooder Box: $0-$50
Total: $81.50 – $151
There’s a lot to figure out when you bring home chickens. Where they will live, long term. Their outdoor run, what to feed them, how to feed them, How to protect them from bad weather and predators.
We decided to just focus on one thing at a time. We live on a farm, so we know we have a barn we can use for a coop and things like that, but the most immediate concern was where we would put them when we got them home and what we would feed them.
Feeding is pretty easy — just get a bag of chick feed at the feed store where you get your chicks. That leaves the brooder.
After obsessively researching the brooder, here’s where we started.
First is the actual container. There are a million ideas online. You can use a storage tote, a bathtub, galvanized washtub, laundry basket or aquarium… the list goes on. We decided on a cardboard box that we had on hand. Ours is 18″ x 24″ which is plenty of room for our babies now, although we’re likely going to size up in a week or two, likely to Peppermint’s dog crate or a plastic storage bin we saw at Walmart that’s quite large and only $20.
But cardboard is good for now, and there are a ton of tutorials online to connect two boxes if you need more space for your chicks.
We lined the bottom of the box with a trash bag for a bit of extra protection if things get gooey — although the shavings are super absorbent and if replaced, I don’t think there will be any gooiness.
The other thing to think about is how you will mount the light. We have a very inexpensive fixture that has a clamp on it, but I wasn’t comfortable clamping it to the box due to the heat. Also, the chicks will need to have the temperature adjusted and the only way to adjust is to move the light further/closer to the box.
We started out by creating a ‘truss’ to hang the light from using releasable zip ties. We just set a piece of scrap wood to rest on the table on the left and grabbed a foot stool to provide the ‘ledge’ on the other side. right now we can choose a few different heights by attaching the zip tie to different parts of the fixture and we can also adjust the exposure to the light by sliding the box from side to side. The chicks are happy, but as they get older we’ll have to figure out how to mount higher up to lower the temp more. I’ll probably pile books or something on the table on the left side and we’ll build up the right side using whatever is on hand. I’ve also seen people build trusses out of cardboard boxes, but that makes me nervous with the cardboard.
A Few More Considerations and Resources
Today the chicks were bugging me with their cheeping and after looking online, my only thought was they might be bored. So I added a few chicktoys for them.
Chicks like to roost on things. Our Black Sexies spend most of the day sitting on the feeder. I thought the rest of the chicks might like to roost too, so I went out to the yard and found a few short branches to add to the brooder box. I just set them right in and they got right to work, pecking and hopping up to set on them. I was a little concerned in what I chose — they are little birds and very delicate when it comes to chemicals that are bad for them. That’s why it’s best to stick with pine over cedar shavings (and I’ve also seen folks say that pine is bad, too!) I grabbed pine branches, figuring if the shavings were ok, then the sticks would be too.
Chickens like to bathe in dirt wallows and chicks as young as one week like to do it too. You can fill a small dish with dirt and your chicks will probably love it. Ours went insane. There are a bajillion ‘recipes’ for the best dirt bath on the interwebs including various portions of diatomaceous earth, sand, ash and more. I just dug up some soil from the rhubarb patch and it seemed fine.
Need more? This is my bike route for chick-related intel:
Friends. Obviously, asing friends is my #1 way to learn more. Ask your friends. they will tell you everything.
Scott’s Backyard Chickens – This is a Facebook group so be prepared for inane Facebook Drama. Nevertheless, there are 90K members and a lot of them are seasoned chicken folk, so this is a good place to glean lots of info on your new chicks. Be prepared: this isn’t a pet chicken group and many members are raising chickens purely for profit. A common response to “Help! What do I do with my sick chicken?” is “wring its neck.” Nevertheless, this is a great resource for chicken info.
Joel Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profits — OK, so we don’t own this book, but we lived in Virginia, near Joel’s Polyface Farms and are big fans. This is a well-regarded book that covers how to set up a chickmobile coop as well as how to deal with sickness and other chick-issues.
Backyard Chickens – This is actually not a site I intentionally visit, but it comes up so often in search that I’ve learned to appreciate — lots of forum based discussion with tons of info!
Again, with all of these suggestions, please use your best judgement.