Spring is officially here, and with Easter just around the corner, you may be considering getting some chicks this year to start a backyard flock. Before you invest in chickens, here’s a few things you’ll need to know to get started.
Getting the Most Out of Your Hen-vestment
The first step in preparing for chicks is deciding what you will be buying. How many chickens is right for your family is usually based on how many eggs per week you would like your flock to produce. At the peak of their production, a healthy hen will lay between 3 and 7 eggs per week. Some breeds lay better than others, and some individuals are egg producing super stars. The amount of eggs will increase in the spring and early summer with the increasing daylight, and decline in autumn and winter.
Next you will need to decide if you will also be raising your chickens for meat. If so, you’ll want to be sure to select “dual-purpose” breeds, which produce large, meaty birds as well as plenty of eggs. Some favorites are Rhode Island Reds and Buff Orpingtons. Finally, you’ll need to select what egg colors you want to eat. Green eggs are fun (and don’t even need dyed when your hens are producing next Easter!); come from Easter Eggers or Ameraucanas. Blue Andalusians and Leghorns are good choices for white eggs. Marans and Welsummers lay chocolate-brown eggs. Salmon Faverolles lay pink eggs. Barred Rocks and Dominiques are popular brown egg layers.
Home Sweet Home
Before your chicks arrive, it’s a good idea to have their new home set up. For chicks less than 6 weeks old, this means a brooder. It is easy to set up a brooder for your chicks. You will need to give them 1 square foot each in order to prevent crowding (which can lead to illness and injuries among the chicks). Your brooder can be anything from a large cardboard box to a hamster cage or pet kennel to a livestock water trough (a clean and dry one, of course!). It needs to be situated in a warm and draft-free location that is safe from predators, including your pet cat. Inside the brooder, the floor should be lined with wood shavings or similar materials. Do not use slippery surfaces like newspapers, as this leads to leg injuries. Your chicks should have regular access to water from a “fount” designed for chicks, and 2” of space per chick at the feeder. You can also provide them a “practice perch” just above their head level, which most chicks like to play on and will eventually sleep on. Perhaps the most important part of the brooder is the heat lamp. You will need to provide enough heat to keep the area directly under the light 90 to 95F when measured 2” above the floor. For every week of age, decrease the temperature by 5 degrees, until you get to 70 to 75 degrees. This is not the same as ambient temperature, and in fact you should not keep the whole brooder at this temperature. A range of lower temperatures is important so the chicks can move to whatever spot is most comfortable for them. Once your chicks have grown their adult feathers, around 6 weeks of age, they can move to a coop. If it nighttime temperatures are still falling below 50F, it is best to provide additional heat until they are a little older – but be extremely careful if using any heat source in a coop! The exact timing for discontinuing supplemental heat depends on your climate and the size of your chickens. Adult chickens don’t need additional heat, even in very cold climates.
Balanced Nutrition for Healthy Hens
All chicken food is not created equal, and it’s important to pick the best one for your flock in order to keep them healthy. Chicks from 0 to 18 or 20 weeks old should be fed starter/grower crumbles. These have the correct balance of protein and other nutrients for growing chickens. Once your chickens reach 18 to 20 weeks of age, they should be fed layer pellets. These have somewhat lower protein, and higher calcium to help the hen make strong eggshells. You can expect your hens to eat about 2lbs of feed per week during peak laying season. Grit should be available to chickens of all ages. Birds need this in their diet to help them digest their food properly. It acts like teeth in their digestive tract, to grind down their food since they can’t chew it themselves. Oyster shell should also be provided free-choice to laying hens. Make sure you are using layer-grade oyster shell which is suitable for hens to eat, and not oyster shell powder for fertilizer.
Chickens love treats (who doesn’t?) and chicken scratch is just the thing. Kitchen scraps are often excellent choices. It is best to avoid feeding them raw eggs or eggshells, as this can lead to your hens eating the eggs being laid as well. Also avoid very salty foods, green potatoes, undercooked beans, avocado, chocolate, cat food, and spoiled foods. Chickens are not fond of citrus, and there is some debate about whether it is safe for them to eat. For the happiest hens (and best tasting eggs!), provide your hens some pasture to forage in. They love eating their greens, and the occasional bug when they can catch one. If you don’t have an area that they can graze, you can bring the pasture to them by growing Omega 3 Chicken Forage Mix in a seed flat and giving it to them in their coop yard. With a little planning, you can raise a healthy, happy backyard flock this year!