So, you decided you want to raise backyard chickens. Now what? You realize you know nothing. You want to be prepared and responsible. Books and YouTube can be great places to start. One thing to remember about YouTube is anyone can post a video and it doesn't mean that they are an expert. I'm not claiming to be an expert, but I've learned from some veterans and my own mistakes. Raising chickens in Ohio is a different game than raising them in Florida for instance, so keep that in mind when watching videos. Certain breeds do better in cold, while others are made for hot weather. Chickens also have different uses. Some are mainly for meat, (eighteen weeks then it's time for the freezer), some are great layers and others are a combination of both. After her laying days are over, she can be harvested for meat. Before you go any further check your city ordinances. There may be total bans or a ban on roosters. You don't need a rooster to get eggs. The hens will lay an egg every 24-36 hours with or without him. You should get 1-2 more birds than you think you want. I wanted 8, but the wife talked me into 6.
Preparing the space for Your New Chicks:
Now you have decided what breeds you want and how many. It's time to order chicks or go to a local farm store and pick them up. Before your chicks arrive, you need to have ready a brooder, feeder, drinker, feed, and heat lamp.
Brooder aka. Brooding Box:
Your brooder doesn't have to be some extensive setup. I got some small pallets, screwed them together, lined the floor with cardboard, and covered it with wood shavings. If you set up outside line the floor with some layers of cardboard is essential. Concrete floors are very cold, and this is insulation from that. You can set up your brooder indoors or inside a garage. I set mine up in the garage. Just be aware that it will be dusty so you may want to do it in the garage. Provide 2-4 inches of suitable litter. Pine (or any untreated wood) shavings are ideal. Do not use cedar as it is chemically treated and could be poisonous. Litter must always be kept dry. Avoid using straw, newspaper, or other slick surfaces as they will cause leg problems. It will also get a bit smelly. When it does just change out the shavings and put them in your compost. The chicks will also appreciate a pile of dry dirt to dust bathe in and dig through. As they get older, they will realize they can fly, so have some chicken wire or some sort of garden fencing ready to use as a lid. Start with clean quarters. The environment should be free of drafts and rodents.
Chicks need to be kept at 95°F for the first 10 days. This is extremely important. Decrease the temperature by 5°F every week thereafter. The ideal temperature for a 6-week-old bird is 70°F. The most common heat source used is a 250-watt heat bulb. ALWAYS use a thermometer to gauge if your temperature is appropriate. A thermometer should be at a midpoint between the heat source and the barrier - not directly under the lamp. Within the first 10 days, it may be necessary to provide a barrier to keep chicks near the heat source. Do not rely on just the clamp on the heat lamp to hold it up. Have a second means to hold it. Heat lamps are dangerous and pose a fire hazard. Have the heat lamp on a few hours before your chicks arrive home so it's nice and warm for them. Chicks are very fragile and sometimes not everyone makes it. Keep an eye on them. Notice how they are acting. If they are trying to avoid the middle of the light and staying along the edges, they are too hot, move the light up. If they are in the middle huddled up, they are too cold, move the light down. They should be moving around and exploring, peeping softly.
Feeder, Drinker, & Feed Care:
Keep the water and food out of the light. Make a spot for the brooder that is not under the light. The drinker should have some marble or stones in it so they cannot get in the water, they can drown. Check them often for "pasty butt". Manure can get caught in their fluff and block their vent. A warm wet paper towel and light wiping will cure that. I had one chick that constantly had this happening. It can kill them. She is now my dominant hen so it's all good.
Preparing Your Chicks for the Outdoors:
Your coop and run should also be ready or very close to being done when you get your chicks. The girls will be ready to move outside when they are fully feathered out and day and night temps are consistently above 60. As they feather out you will ween them off the heat lamp. I went from turning it off for an hour or two at a time to only having it on at night. Use your judgment and consider the number of feathers they have coming in and the temp inside the garage. Your coop should be about 2 sq ft per bird, draft-free, and well-ventilated. The coops you can buy at the farm stores are not very good. The materials are cheap, and they tend to run very small. They are also not very predator-proof. Raccoons, skunks, and possums are the biggest threats at night. During the day it's hawks. An elevated coop is best. It shelters them from hawks and the hot summer sun. An elevated coop gives them protection from both and a little more room in the run. It's also good for keeping their water out of the sun in summer. In the wintertime, it can shelter them from the winter wind. In the winter you do not want to have a heat lamp in the coop. Not only is it a fire hazard if the power goes out the temperature can drop faster than the chickens can acclimate, and they can freeze. In the fall they will molt their feathers and regrow a winter coat.
When I was researching it seemed like I was trying to take a sip from a fire hose. Mostly, they are pretty hardy (other than when they are chicks) and only need a little help from us. Proper preparation will make this easier for you and your chickens. I can honestly say it's so much fun watching them grow up, develop their personalities, and establish a pecking order. There is so much more to prepare for, some good and some not so great but not so bad that it would make me not want chickens. Stay tuned for the best and worse things about owning chickens.
Written By: M. Mastroberardino, Struthers Garden Club & Sunstone Garden Groupies
Helpful Links: Care - Mt Healthy Hatcheries