01 February 2009

Chickens: The Basics

I've had several posts, over the years, about chickens (click on the subject word "Chickens" below to pull up all of those posts). But as chickens are among the most basic of homestead livestock --- and can even be raised stealthily in an urban or suburban environment --- they are always worth another mention. This post is prompted by a recent reader email:

We are wanting to get chickens this spring. I have checked out Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens from the library, but I need to go ahead and buy it. I guess a couple of my big questions at this point are what kind of chickens to get, when to get them and where to get them from. We are wanting layers this year. I have checked a few places online for chickens and it seems most of them require a minimum of 25 chickens. I don't really want 25 chickens!

Any advice you could give me would be most appreciated!

I sent her a personal reply, but we both decided that my response would be worth sharing with the wider blog readership. Here it is, with some modification and embellishment:

Storey's Guides are definitely a good investment. I have a link to the Amazon pages for several of these books, over in the right margin of the blog. (The only Storey's Guide we found unhelpful, and are glad we didn't buy, is the one about turkeys. That book seems to assume an industrial production model, with fairly little about heritage turkeys or pastured/free range models.)

25 chickens is the absolute minimum you can mail-order. They don't stay warm enough if there are fewer bodies in the box. And it's not a bad idea to start with more than you think you'll need; we killed many baby birds when we were learning how to care for them.

But if you want to end up with, say, 10 layers, there are a few routes you can go:

1) The local feed store, or Big R, or Rural King, Tractor Supply, Family Farm & Home, Farm & Fleet (whatever you have in your area). Call and ask when they'll have chicks; you can usually buy any number of chicks you want --- but sometimes they insist on a minimum as well. Just ask. If you want to try getting a few turkey poults, or ducklings, this is also a good way to get started. And, as a bonus, the babies may be as much as a week or two old by the time you take them home --- that's all the less you need to feed them, and the less exposure you have to their most fragile/vulnerable time period. (We find that brooder deaths decrease rapidly after the first week or so. The weaklings don't tend to make it past the first several days.)

2) Mail order a "straight run" of 25 chicks of a decent dual-purpose breed, and butcher the cockrels once you can tell the difference between the sexes. They don't make the best eating birds, but they're not bad. You really can't go wrong with any of these breeds: Buff Orpingtons, Black Australorps, Barred Rock, New Hampshire Red, Rhode Island Red. We've had good luck with all of them. We color-code our flock, buying different breeds in different years so we can tell which ones are older. You can expect two laying seasons from a hen, and then they go downhill pretty quickly. With all the work getting our new farm in shape, we didn't buy any pullets last year; we're going into the second season of laying with our Barred Rocks, so we'll definitely be getting more pullets this spring. We will be getting Buff Orpingtons, which are easily distinguishable from the black-and-white Barred Rocks. Once the former start laying, we'll begin filling the freezer with the latter (and then enjoying chicken soup all of next winter).

3) Place an order for 15 pullet chicks and 10 Cornish Cross meat bird chicks. The Cornish Cross will grow much faster, and will be ready to butcher in 6-8 weeks. They are an outstanding, meaty bird --- there's a reason they are the industry standard. Once you taste your own home-grown ones, you'll never want to buy chicken from the grocery store again.

In terms of timing: do yourself a favor and get your first batch of chicks in later spring (May, if you're in the upper Midwest like we are and the questionner is). The somewhat warmer weather will give the birds an easier time, and make the transition from supplemental heat all the faster. In good spring/summer temperatures, we've gotten babies out from the brooder and into a pastured poultry pen in as few as 10-14 days. When you start earlier in the spring, at least in the upper Midwest, they need more brooder time to get ready for the colder temps.

For suppliers, the very best (though a bit more expensive) is McMurray Hatchery. I usually recommend people get their first few orders from them. Their website is a tremendous resource, and they have an excellent guarantee on their birds. If any die in transit or in the first day or two, they refund that cost. One time our package got delayed in transit, and a whole bunch of birds died. McMurray didn't question it or grill us about it; the customer service rep expressed genuine sympathy about how hard it must've been to see all those dead birds, and asked if I'd prefer a refund or a new (free) order to replace them.

A lower-cost alternative is Cackle Hatchery. They don't have as wide of a selection, and we've seemed to have had more deaths with birds from them, and the website isn't as professional. But Cackle does have all the basic breeds of chickens and turkeys; unless you're looking for something really exotic, they probably have it. When you compare their very basic website and catalog to McMurray's, you'll understand why McMurray has to charge more for their product. Anyhow, with Cackle I've found it's best to call them and place your order over the phone, once you've figured out what you want, so you can be certain they know which day you want your birds. McMurray lets you nail down the shipping date right on the site.

(Warning: when you load the Cackle site, it has REALLY annoying chicken noises. I always turn my speakers off.)

If you've been thinking about taking the leap and trying some chickens...go for it! And don't hesitate to email me with any questions of your own.


Jeff Culbreath said...

A good and informative post, Chris! Thank you. I didn't know that cockrels were less than ideal for eating. What's the difference? Taste? Toughness?

By the way, we ordered 12 hens from Ideal Hatchery in Texas, and they sent us 5 cockrels in addition just to keep the pullets warm. There was no 25 bird minimum.

We received them in December and can tell the cockrels apart now, but we're waiting for them to get a little bigger.

A question: at what age can you begin to deprive chicks of a heat lamp when temperatures are below freezing?

TYF said...

Jeff - a hatchery that allows less than 25 birds is news to me; I had the impression that 25 was almost the law. Perhaps they made an exception because you and they are in the southern part of the country? I doubt they'd send a box of 12 chicks to Michigan or Maine any time but July or August. Those 5 cockrels were probably surplus that would've been killed/discarded, so that was very thoughtful of them.

In terms of cockrels being less than ideal for eating: I mostly meant that by the time a standard breed cockrel gets big enough to eat, and big enough to easily differentiate from his pullet sisters, they are usually quite a bit older than the six-to-eight weeks in which Cornish Cross chickens are butchered. And they're still going to be much smaller than the big meaty Cornish Cross that most people are accustomed to.

I've never raised baby birds in freezing temps. If I was, I wouldn't withdraw supplemental heat until they were fully feathered. Even then, I'd step the heat down: from a 250 to 125 Watt infrared heat lamp, then a plain 100W incandescent bulb, making sure that the chicks remain happy and are not bunching up/shivering for their lives.

benedictus said...

Thank you for this post. We are planning to get our first flock this spring and every bit of info helps! I would like a mix of layers and meat birds, so your "option 3" sounds pretty good.