Peep Prep: What to Expect When You're Expecting Chicks

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Like any gardener knows, spring is a busy time. And, as any parent knows, spring is an insanely hectic time. Now, factor in a nursery business, plus a new garden addition and upcoming garden/farm tour, three kids and their myriad activities, school commitments...and my favorite season is gone in a blink of an eye.
 

I've been a bit sentimental about the passage of time lately. April is also the birthday month for two of our children: Kristen, a.k.a. "Chicken Mama," and Mikey. Truly, my babies are growing into independent young people too quickly. Just six months ago, Kristen still looked like a little girl, but now she's turned into a pre-teen, with long, long legs and sassy, cute outfits. 
 

 
(My sanity saver is that she's still climbing trees in her sassy outfits. And she just ripped one of those sassy shirts this afternoon while stuck on a branch. Yeesh.)
 
 
 
Plus, of course, she talks about chickens non-stop. I'm hopeful this trait will continue through her teen years, as the incessant chicken-chatter may deter the boys.
 
Honestly. The girl talks about chickens in her sleep. I'm not kidding. She also has been known to bark in her sleep, too, but that's another story...
 
So, because I'm a firm believer in keeping kids busy with their interests so that they can't get into trouble, Chicken Mama is now a member of the 4-H Poultry Project.
 
 
 
She's beyond excited!
 
When I was young, I thought you had to live on a farm to be involved with 4-H. Not true. We live in a suburban subdivision, on .8 acres.
 
The 4-H Poultry Project is a terrific program developed for kids to teach them how to raise and care for a small flock of chickens. The 4-Hers raise day-old chicks to 24+ weeks for egg production. Then, at the end of the 24-week time period, the student selects his or her best pullet to be shown in competitions. Integral to the program is a project book, where the 4-Her records important information learned while caring for the flock.
 
Frankly, I think there should be an adult version of the 4-H program for all of the backyard chicken enthusiasts. While it's easy to impulsively stop in your local feed and seed during “Chick Days” and pick up a few fluffy lovelies, there's much to learn for the first-time chicken-owner.
 
Chicken Mama, of course, is an expert after raising her first flock of girls. She read more than a dozen books on raising chickens, pounces on Chicken magazine at Barnes & Noble, and is a constant member on the BackyardChickens.com forum (with my supervision, of course.) She'd rather play with her chickens than play Wii.
 
 
In fact, she was a guest panelist at our local showing of Mad City Chickens, a movie featuring individuals who raise chickens within city limits. My little semi-shy girlie introduced the audience to Saltine, one of her new pullets, and answered questions from chicken-owner wannabes.
 
I was a proud mommy. 
 
 
And—I was amazed at the number of people who turned out to talk chickens! Who knew? Every seat was (eventually) filled.
 
 
 
Much like a "Toddlers and Tiaras" mother, Kristen is prepping her new babies—Saltine, Sugar and Spice--for shows, one of the primary reasons she wanted to join 4-H. Among the materials she received from Clemson University's Extension Service, the sponsor of the 4-H project, is a guide to Poultry Showmanship.
 
But rather than focus on the showmanship aspect of chick rearing, I thought I'd share some of the more basic requirements: 
 
“What to Expect When You're Expecting” chickens.
 
 
Before becoming a chicken owner, check your city's ordinances or home owner association's rules to determine if you can add a small, backyard flock. Next, consider:
 
What type of chicken will you raise?
Do you want fresh eggs? Plan to have your chicken for Sunday dinner? Want to win blue ribbons at shows? Most backyard chicken enthusiasts opt for egg production. Still, depending on your needs, there are four types of chickens from which to choose:
 
Layers
Layers, as the name implies, are your good egg-producing girls. The most popular and prolific layer is the Single Comb White Leghorn. (Ours is named Meggy.) That girl can lay some eggs—about one per day! Most good layers average four to five eggs per week. However, there are numerous varieties to choose from, with our Ameraucanas producing the beautiful greenish-blue “Easter eggs.”
 
Fun fact: did you know that the color of the hen's earlobe will help you determine what color egg she will lay? A white lobe indicates a white egg layer, while a red-lobed girl will lay brown or colored eggs. (Now, you can astound your friends with chicken trivia!)
 
Meat Birds
Also known as “broilers” or “fryers.” Enough said. We don't raise those.
Dual Purpose
Varieties that are good for both egg laying and Sunday dinner.
Fancy (exhibition)
Personally, I adore these fluffy, frilly chickens. Feather pattern, comb types, skin color, plumage—these are the prima donnas of the chicken world, raised for beauty rather than practicality. Bantams are about one-third the size of a standard chicken and are very popular in this category.
 
Once you determine what type of chicken you want to raise, the varieties are seemingly endless. 
 
Do you live in an extremely warm climate? Do you want birds that lay well so you can start a small egg selling business? Are you looking for a sweet pet for the kids? Kristen selected her girls by researching the various breeds she liked, then determining which ones possessed the attributes she wanted. For instance, one breed she considered was lovely. But once we learned that it didn't fare well in extreme heat, we knew it wasn't an option for our South Carolina backyard.
 
Instead, she selected a breed that is becoming rare. Much as I propagate endangered plants, my girl is hoping to encourage others to raise heritage breed chickens.
 
You can find information about breeds here. And, to make life even easier—do you know there's a “Pickin' Chicken” app offered by Mother Earth News?
 
Once you've selected your breeds, you need to determine where to find these perfect chicks. Mail order is very popular—but hatcheries typically require a minimum order of 25 chicks. A local breeder is ideal—but if you want only pullets (female chicks), make sure that breeder can determine the sex...which is no easy task. A few websites offer small orders due to the popularity of pet chickens.
 
We chose to use the resources of our local feed and seed store. They order from the big hatcheries, and Kristen could select the breeds she wanted, with 98% confidence that the chicks are pullets. (Please oh please oh please don't let us fall into that 2%!)
 
Honestly, can you imagine if one turns out to be a rooster?
 
Drama and trauma.
 
Home Sweet Home.
Your babies' first home is very important. During the chicks' early growth phase, they can't maintain proper body temperature without supplemental heat. They need a place that's warm, secure from drafts and predators. They need a brooder.
 
A brooder can be as simple as a cardboard box with a cover and lightbulb. Our brooder is an old dwarf rabbit cage with a heat lamp attached to the top.
 
Temperature is critical during chick days. The Small Flock Manual provided by Clemson 4-H provides the following guidelines:
 
Age of Birds     Temperature
1 day                95 degrees
7 days              90 degrees
14 days            85 degrees
21 days            80 degrees
28 days            75 degrees
35 days            70 degrees
 
If your chicks are huddled together close to the light, it's an indication that the brooder isn't warm enough. Likewise, if they are at the far end of the brooder, away from the lamp—they may be too warm. Keep an eye on the temperature and adjust the height of your heat lamp as needed.
 
In addition to the heat lamp, you'll need to cover the entire floor of the brooder with litter, approximately four inches deep. Litter can be wood shavings, sawdust, peanut hulls, or pine straw. We use wood shavings, which then go into the compost pile. Another benefit of chickens - a boost to the compost!
 
Meal time
...is all of the time. Make sure your chicks have food and water available at all times. The chick's body is more than 50 percent water, and it needs water for all body functions. Provide two, one-gallon water fountains for 50 chicks. Keep the water clean at all times. We have a smaller waterer, which is approximately a liter for three chicks—but which is cleaned and filled often.
 
Likewise, chicks grow quickly—and they need continuous access to food. 
 
In just two weeks, Saltine went from this...
 
 
 
...to this:
 
 
...the awkward teenage phase, where chickens show their true relationship to dinosaurs.
 
(And yes. That is a teddy bear in the brooder. Chicken Mama gave it to Saltine when she was in the brooder alone, before her sisters arrived. Kristen feared Saltine would be lonely.)
 
Begin by offering your chicks starter chick feed, which we buy at our feed and seed store. Depending on the number of chicks you raise, there are different feeder options. Ours is a simple metal, circular feeder with a lid and open feeding stations. (The lid helps prevent the chicks from using their feeder as a litter box.)
 
As your chicks grow, you'll move them into an outside coop with an area for them to forage. There are numerous options available for coops, from the most basic plywood, self-built design to repurposed dog kennels and playhouses to elaborate, expensive gorgeous structures.
 
The most important factor to consider with your coop is safety. We learned the hard way. With our first flock, I purchased a small, cute coop online. While it looked predator-proof, it wasn't. A raccoon entered the coop after opening two sliding locks.
 
We lost Salt, a Barred Plymouth Rock. We were devastated.
 
Now, we've built a chicken fortress. The door requires two hands to open, and we're vigiliant to ensure the girls are safely locked away as soon as dusk hits.The girls forage in a large, fenced area behind our pool during the day. Even then, though, we've installed crisscrossing strings above the area to deter hawks. Must keep the girls safe!
 
Chicken Mama's new babies are slowly becoming introduced to the outdoors. Yesterday, they spent the afternoon outside in a small run, exploring the grass. In our case, we need to carefully introduce them to the older girls to ensure peace among the flock. (Yes, there really is a pecking order.)
 
For now, enjoy your little peeps. Our family spends an amazing amount of time outside, playing with chickens. The kids' friends come over and play with chickens. In fact, at Kristen's most recent birthday party, we celebrated chickens--chicken cupcakes, chicken t-shirts for the girls to decorate, and chicken-themed presents galore.
 
Remember—the more that you handle your chicks, the more tame they will become.
 
 
Just ask Chicken Mama.
 
 
Enjoy your babies--they grow so quickly.
 
~Julie
 

Julie is the owner of Garden Delights, an organic heirloom plant nursery specializing in edibles. She writes about growing gardens, growing green, growing locavores, growing kids, and growing one day at a time at Growing Days.

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