A Guide to Getting New Chicks

Where and How to Get What You Want

Whether you’re starting a new flock or expanding one, spring is the time when people start to have baby chicks on the mind. It’s good to do some planning and figure out just what you need ahead of time. What breeds are right for you? Where do you get them? And what will they need when you get them home?

Selecting the Right Chicken Breeds

We wanted fresh eggs for our family but also wanted to sell eggs as a business. This meant we needed to consider chicken breeds that laid consistently. It was important that we could depend on production throughout the year. There are a number of sex-link chicken breeds, which have been bred specifically for the purpose of consistent laying. Another benefit of sex-link breeds is that sexing chicks is easy because of their coloring, which means less chance of getting roosters (males who don’t lay eggs) when we want pullets (female egg-layers). We added a few of these chicken breeds to our list of possibilities.

Since we were planning to sell our eggs, we needed to think about what our customers wanted. For this, we used Survey Monkey to ask friends, colleagues, and neighbors what they would buy. Most people wanted variously colored eggs in their carton, unlike the uniformly brown or white eggs at the grocery. So our flock would need to be a blend of different chicken breeds, perhaps including some heritage breeds for their uniquely colored eggs.

We have three young boys, so we also looked at the best chickens for kids. Our boys are rough and tumble; we needed birds they could handle without issues: calm, gentle, and sturdy. I knew that handling the birds from the start would be important, but the more I read, the clearer it became that breed, too, plays a role in chicken personality.

 

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Climate can be an important factor too. Some breeds do better with cold than others, and the same is true for an extremely warm environment. For example, a larger comb helps a chicken cool off when it is very hot, but also makes it more susceptible to frostbite when the temperatures drop.

Finally, chickens don’t lay eggs forever. That meant eventually they would supplement our diets with not just their eggs but also their meat. This reality inspired us to look at dual-purpose chicken breeds. These are chicken breeds which can be raised for egg production and meat. We learned over time that all healthy chickens can be consumed, but breeds like Silkies don’t give much return on the effort to process them; so it makes sense if you intend to eat your birds to consider dual-purpose chicken breeds.

Chicken Breeds for Us

You’re probably wondering which chicken breeds we finally decided upon. We chose several breeds to provide a variety of colors in our eggs.

Rhode Island Reds – These classic dual-purpose birds are popular for good reason; they are easy-going, curious, friendly, and consistently lay good-sized brown eggs. Our boys carry them around. When I go in the coop, they approach to see what I’m up to.

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A curious Rhode Island Red.

Easter Eggers – Though we ordered Ameraucanas, they are actually Easter Eggers — the mutt of chickens. They are hearty and resilient. These are some of our favorite birds because they are smart and curious. They bond to us like no other breed we’ve raised. My husband has one we call his “girlfriend” because whenever he comes outside, she follows him around. One broody hen raised a duckling when its mother wouldn’t. Their eggs vary in color from turquoise to pale blue to violet to nearly white. But the trade-off for these interesting colors is their production drops significantly in winter.

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My husband’s “girlfriend.”

Welsummers – We added this heritage breed for dimension in our brown eggs as theirs are a deeper, richer brown. The birds are beautiful. Hens have golden feathers around their necks that look like a burst of sunshine and roosters are straight off the Corn Flakes box. They are a little more standoffish than the other chicken breeds we have and don’t like to be held. They lay eggs most days.

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Welsummer rooster.

Golden Comets – These sex-link hybrid birds round out our flock and add consistency to our brown egg production. They love people and actually follow our five-year-old like he’s mother hen.

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Golden Comet pullets.

Chicken Breeds for You

I shared how we decided which chicken breeds were right for us. These may not necessarily be the breeds that will be best suited for you. Carefully reflect on your goals for raising chickens, then research which chicken breeds will serve you best.

Where to Buy Baby Chicks

There are three main options for where to get your chicks: a local hatchery, a mail-order hatchery, or a local feed store. Let’s look at the pros and cons of each of these options.

A Nearby Hatchery

If you happen to have a hatchery nearby, you may have the option to directly pick up baby chicks. This is the case for us in Cincinnati. Mt. Healthy Hatchery is our local source for where to buy baby chicks, ducklings, and game birds.

Hatcheries such as Mt. Healthy accept the bulk of their orders online so expect limited delivery dates for rarer breeds such as the Easter Eggers. We found if we place orders over the phone, they offer a wider choice of delivery dates. Orders are usually placed on a first come, first served basis. So place your order sooner rather than later.

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An Easter Egger chick.

Because we are raising egg-layers, we only want pullets. Many hatcheries give you the option to order pullets, cockerels, or “as hatched”(unsexed). If you don’t know how to tell the sex of baby chicks, it’s nice to have the hatchery do this for you — whether you pick them up locally or mail order. Not all hatcheries or breeders offer this service, but in our case Mt. Healthy does, and they also guarantee 90 percent accuracy in sexing. On one order we received too many cockerels so they applied a credit toward our next order.

When you order from a local hatchery, they will give you a pick-up date. We pick up our chicks the morning they are hatched, take them immediately home and place them into the brooder. That means that they go from the hatchery and into the brooder in less than two hours.

We have had fantastic luck with maintaining good health in our chicks with this quick turnaround time from birth to the brooder. We have only had one chick in more than 200 raised that exhibited sick chick symptoms. It turned out that she had Wry Neck, which is a vitamin deficiency thought to be inherited from parent chickens, not an illness. We have never had any cases of pasty butt, another common chick illness.

A downside for ordering from a local hatchery may be selection. Mt. Healthy offers 23 varieties of chicks with a focus on the most popular chicken breeds. If you want an unusual breed or a more pedigreed lineage, you may need to seek out a specific hatchery or breeder that raises what you want. Chances are this won’t be local and will require mail-ordering your chicks.

Mail Order

A second option for buying chicks is mail order. If you live in a remote area this may be your only option. Once you have determined the chicken breeds you want, do some research into hatcheries that offer that breed. Do they sex chicks? What’s the minimum order size? What shipping options and customer service guarantees are offered? What’s the cost? Look for reviews online from previous customers, which could sway your decision. Pay particular attention to any comments about the health of chicks and customer service provided if issues arise.

One of the reasons why we chose Mt. Healthy Hatchery is that they voluntarily participate in the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP), which means they meet a recognized standard for health and quality of their chickens. In choosing a hatchery, you may want to ask what they are doing to combat the spread of illness in their facility. Because birds are flock animals, illness can spread quickly and devastate your flock in short order.

Depending on your purposes, you may be looking for birds bred to meet specific criteria or that come from a prize-winning line. For example, if you want breeding stock or chickens to show, you may want a long-established and proven hatchery that raises purebred poultry. Check into their history and ask for some references from previous customers.

You will either order online or call them directly. There will be a minimum order size to ensure the baby chicks maintain warmth in their travels. For most hatcheries, the minimum is 10 chicks. Some may offer a mix-and-match option so you can choose different breeds to make up your order.

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Different breeds together in our brooder.

Once you’ve placed your order, your chicks will usually be shipped next-day mail on the day they hatch. The hatchery will notify you when the chicks have shipped. The chicks will be sent to the closest post office and held there for you to pick up. Notify the post office to expect chicks and ask them to let you know immediately when the chicks arrive so you can retrieve them and get them into the brooder.

Just before a chick hatches from its egg, it takes in all the remaining nutrients that were sustaining it as it grew. This is what makes it possible to ship chicks. It is generally accepted that chicks can survive three days after hatch without food or water. That said, you want to get your chicks into the brooder with water as soon as possible. I mentioned we have never had a case of pasty butt; this can be a problem with chicks who have gone without water for several days. To avoid pasty butt, be sure to give chicks just water for their first couple hours at home. Let their bodies rehydrate before you provide food.

In summary, mail ordering chicks can give you access to a wider selection of chicken breeds. If you live in a remote area it may be your only option for buying chicks. It may be a better choice for finding chicks from a pedigreed line or with a specific trait. Prices may be slightly higher for mail-ordering, especially if you have to meet a minimum order and pay for quick shipping. Because your chicks have gone longer without food and water, you must pay closer attention to health issues when they arrive.

Your Local Feed Store

A third option for where to buy baby chicks is a local feed store. This will, of course, depend on if you have a feed store nearby. We have a locally owned store and a Tractor Supply within five miles of us; both carry baby chicks every spring.

I asked Richard Mann, store manager of Louiso Feed and Seed in Batavia, OH what he saw as the benefits of buying chicks from a feed store versus a hatchery. He pointed out that your feed store is probably close to home and easy to reach. You save money by not having to pay for shipping. You can buy as many chicks as you like, and mix and match breeds. You can even watch the chicks and pick out the individuals you want, which will not be the case at most hatcheries. When you get your chicks, you can pick up supplies to get them started such as heat lamps, feed, feeders, and maybe even a pre-made brooder or coop. Finally, the employees may be a source of good information if you are new to raising chicks. Louiso offers a seminar on raising chicks each spring, which coincides with the arrival of the chicks in late February or early March.

Ask where the chicks came from. They may be ordering from a local hatchery. If this is the case, you might save money by going directly to the hatchery yourself. For many feed stores, chicks are simply a way to bring in customers and the markup is negligible. If so, you may save time and gas by going to the closer feed store rather than traveling to the hatchery.

Louiso usually gets nine to 11 breeds in their first order in late February/early March then fewer in subsequent orders over the next couple weeks. Check with your local store early to see when their chicks will arrive and what kinds they will carry. Also, ask if they will have sexed pullets if that’s important to you, and do they have any recourse if the sexing is incorrect. Chances are you will have more customer service guarantees directly from the hatchery.

If you are looking for something specific or for large quantities, you may need to go directly to a hatchery. One consideration is that breeds are sometimes mixed in a large brooder once they arrive at a feed store; be sure to find someone knowledgeable to pick out the chicks for you so you end up with what you asked for.

Brooder Ideas

Once you’ve selected your chicken breeds and figured out where to buy baby chicks, you need some brooder ideas. The brooder will be the baby chicks’ home for their first month or so. Setting up the brooder is one of the most important factors in learning how to raise baby chicks successfully.

Caring for baby chicks isn’t terribly complicated, but they do have particular needs. If a mother hen is brooding chicks, they stay under or very near her most of the time, providing warmth and safety. When you purchase baby chicks, you take on this role.

Essentials for Setup

One of the most important parts of a brooder is heat. We have always used a simple metal heat lamp that can clamp to the side of the brooder or hang from a bar above it. We purchase bulbs that give off heat but not light so they can be on all the time without disrupting sleep. You can also buy heating plates — panels that produce heat on the underside. They are adjustable to raise as the chicks grow. This method is supposed to more closely simulate nestling under a mother hen.

Whichever heat source you choose, start it off just over the heads of your chicks. Watch them closely. If they are panting or avoiding the heat area, raise it up. If they huddle together all the time under the lamp, lower it.

The other feature of a mother hen which you must provide is protection. As the manager of my local feed store, Richard Mann put it like this: “The biggest issue with birds is everyone eats them. If your neighbor gets hungry enough, even he might eat them. Before you worry about getting birds or anything else, secure your coop.” The same is true of your brooder, perhaps even more so since baby chicks are particularly vulnerable. We have always kept our brooder inside a locked building. This ensures predators will not harm them.

What else does your brooder need to provide a safe and warm home for your birds? We make ours from a sheet of plywood formed into a 4′ square (for up to 60 birds). On the bottom, we staple a sheet of heavy plastic to keep the bedding in and off the cement floor in our workshop. We fill this space with medium wood chips.

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We like simple plastic feeders and waterers made to accommodate a chick’s smaller size. Because the trough is narrower, there is less possibility that the babies can drown or walk in them contaminating the food and water. As the chicks begin to grow, we put scraps of wood under the feeders to raise them up. That way, they are always at a height where the birds must raise their heads up slightly to reach in. That helps keep the feeders clean.

Your chicks will eat a special starter feed that’s higher in protein to help them grow. Chick feed is commonly medicated to combat common illnesses. If you want medicine-free chicks, ask your feed store if they carry a non-medicated food. If not, we have used a high-protein crumble feed for babies in the past and it worked just fine.

After the first week, I usually add a small perch into the brooder. Ours is made from small branches screwed into scrap wood to make a ladder, which leans against the side.

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Our small roost for the brooder.

As the birds grow and test out their wings, you may need to add a mesh cover to your brooder to keep them from flying out. This usually happens here at about three weeks. Also, if it is particularly cold you may wish to use sheets of insulating foam to cover your brooder at night. We only do this if we are raising babies in the dead of winter in Ohio.

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A peek inside our brooder in winter.

Make sure to keep the bedding clean by adding fresh bedding every few days. Cleanliness in the brooder will go a long way to keeping your birds healthy.

Have a plan for what to do if a chick is getting picked on. The pecking order is real and begins to get established immediately. We always keep an extra heat lamp and feeder/waterer so we can make a small brooder for a chick that needs to be separated. A large plastic storage container works well.

Also, plan next steps as your babies grow. They can move from the brooder when they are fully feathered, usually at four to six weeks depending on the breed. Your plan will be different if these are your first chicks or if you are integrating new chicks into an established flock. We have a section of the coop where we move our chicks after the brooder so they can see and hear the rest of the flock before they mix. They spend a month or more in this area until they are closer in size to the adults. This minimizes pecking when they do finally integrate with the flock.

Originally published in the April/May 2017 issue of Backyard Poultry.

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