How to Start Your Chickens Off Right

Raising chickens means taking care of them from the time they’re little puff balls with feet. To start your chicks off right so that they grow into healthy adults, make use of the following tips:

Raising Backyard Chickens

Brooder: Confine the chicks in a brooder with solid sides about 18 inches high to keep out drafts. Make sure the brooder is near a heat source, probably a heat lamp. Give each chick 6 square inches of floor space and put the brooder somewhere dry and safe from predators.

Brooder floor: Cover the floor of the brooder with pine shavings or other absorbent bedding. Do not use cedar shavings or kitty litter. Do not use newspaper. For the first two days only, cover the litter with paper towels or a piece of old cloth to keep chicks from eating the litter until they find the food.

Temperature: For the first week chicks must be kept at 95° F at all times. Drop the temperature 5 degrees a week until you reach the surrounding room temperature outside the brooder or 60° F.

Feed: Use baby chick starter feed for all chicks except meat bird chicks, which need meat bird starter feed. For the first day or two, sprinkle feed on a white paper plate or some white paper towels to make it easy to find. Also have feed available in feed dishes.

Water: Baby chicks need water in a shallow, narrow container so they can’t drown. Dip their beaks into the water gently as you put them into to the brooder so they know where it is. Always have water available.
Handling: Don’t handle baby chicks too much. It stresses them, makes them grow poorly, and may kill them.

Troubleshooting: Contented chicks are fairly quiet, spread out over the brooder eating, drinking, and sleeping. If chicks are peeping loudly and continuously, something is wrong (they're probably too cold). If they are against the brooder walls spread out and panting they are too hot.

Daily Chores to Keep Your Chickens Healthy

If you’re raising chickens, whether for eggs or meat, you want your fowl to stay healthy. Healthy chickens need attention and care every day. The following, simple measures, taken daily, help to keep your chickens healthy: Keep water available at all times. This may mean a heat source to keep water from freezing in winter.

Provide chickens with a quality feed formulated for their needs. For example, meat birds need a feed with lots of protein and layers need a feed that addresses their need for additional calcium and other minerals. Feeding chickens scraps and odd grains usually leads to nutrient deficiencies.
Keep chickens dry and protected from weather extremes. Their quarters should also be well ventilated to prevent lung problems.

Give chickens enough space. Crowded conditions lead to stress and injuries from fighting. Each chicken needs a minimum of two square foot of shelter and three square foot of outdoor run area.

Collecting Eggs

You’ll collect eggs every morning; hens cackling loudly are a sign or clue that they’re laying. I usually had another look in the afternoon, as well.

Chickens like to eat eggs as much as we do. Most egg-eaters learn on broken eggs and then begin to break eggs themselves. Chickens are opportunists and will pick at whatever looks edible.

If you clean up broken eggs immediately and throw out any “eggy” straw or shavings, you can prevent egg-eating. A chicken that learns this habit can’t be cured, and others may follow her lead. You don’t want the chickens eating your eggs—you want them yourself!

You can tell what color eggs a hen will lay by the color of her ear. Yes, her ear. Birds don’t have external ears like humans do, so look for a small circle or oval of skin on the side of the head, next to the ear hole. If it’s white, your hen will lay white eggs; if it’s red, she’ll lay brown ones. There’s no difference in flavor or nutrition, but white eggs show the dyes more brightly at Easter!

Cleaning and Storing Eggs

Eggshells have a “bloom,” a natural coating that protects the egg from bacteria. Avoid washing if you can; instead, a wipe with a dry, rough cloth.
If the eggs have a little manure on them, you can wipe with a damp cloth for small spots. A really dirty egg can be submerged and scrubbed with a vegetable brush. Always use warm water; cold water will make the egg shrink inside the shell and will draw in bacteria.

Let eggs air-dry thoroughly before putting them away.

Put them in dated egg cartons, and store them in the fridge on a shelf, not the door, where they will get jostled with every opening/closing. For partial cartons, I marked each egg in pencil with the day it was collected. Fresh eggs are good for a month in the refrigerator.

A cooking tip: To make deviled eggs, use week-old or older eggs, not this morning’s. The shells of really fresh eggs stick rather than peel cleanly.

Hatching Eggs

If you want chicks, you’ll need a rooster. As a rule of thumb, 10 to 12 hens per rooster is a good ratio. While you could build an incubator and supervise the development of the eggs, it’s easiest to let the hens take care of hatching.

A hen that is getting ready to nest becomes “broody.” This means that she wants to hatch her eggs. She’ll sit “tight” on the nest and resist having her eggs collected, whereas a non-broody hen will let you reach under her to collect eggs.

A broody hen may even peck or screech at anyone coming near. There are ways to discourage broodiness, but why would you? The hen does the work of hatching and raising, and you get free chicks!

Farm chickens can live 4 to 7 years and lay eggs for most of that time. Every year they go “off-lay” (stop laying eggs) for several months. This happens over the winter, when there’s too little daylight to trigger egg-laying. They’ll begin again in the spring.

Chicken Breeds for Laying Eggs

Egg laying chicken breeds have been selected for high egg productivity and usually have small bodies that make them undesirable as meat producers.

The benefit of having small bodies in egg laying chickens is that fewer nutrients go into producing body muscle and more goes into producing eggs.
Chicken breeds for eggs can be divided into white egg layers and brown egg layers. There is really no difference between the two except color of the egg.

Most white egg layers come from the Leghorn lineage while the brown egg layers come from the Rhode Island Red lineage. Some popular egg laying breeds are White Leghorns, Black and Red Stars. You can expect 320-340 eggs a year from a quality egg layer breed. Thank you!

 

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