As the snow continues to pile up outside my window, it’s hard to imagine that in less than a month one sure sign of spring will emerge — spring chickens.
Right around the beginning of March the local farmstores will start to get their first deliveries of chicks. Cute, chirpy, endlessly entertaining to watch… they’ll sell hundreds of them in a short period of time. I’ll be one of the people lining up to get a few, to add to my small flock.
But don’t let all the cuteness and the chirping lull you into a false sense of cuddledom. I’m a big advocate of the “chicken in every backyard” concept, but raising chickens from day-old chicks has some tricks to it.
Here’s a few tips for people who are thinking about raising chicks:
Buying your chicks: How many and what type? If you are starting out, get no more than 6, and not less than 4. There’s a huge variety of chickens available. I’d start out with some of the more reliable and hearty types — Plymouth barred rocks, Rhode Island reds, buff orpingtons, golden comets, and Ameraucanas. These are large and calm birds that are easy to manage, and Ameraucanas will produce something that many people find interesting — colored eggs, usually green or blue shelled. Many people also buy leghorns, because they produce a tremendous number of eggs when young. I’m not a big fan, as they are very skittish and they “burn out” on egg production at an early age. Also be sure that you buy from a trustworthy dealer, and that the chicks are indeed hens — you don’t want any roosters around.
What you need: You’ll need to spend about $20 or so on essential equipment — an infrared lamp and bulb, a watering station (the best option is a 1-gallon plastic watering station), and a covered feed trough (the plastic ones are fine). You’ll also need a brooder — basically an enclosed area to keep the chicks safe and contained. You can get by on the chirp, I mean cheap, with a plastic container such as a recycling box. Keep in mind that the infrared lamp is very hot, so you’ll want to have a fireproof setting (voice of experience here). You’ll also need feed for chicks (usually a 25- or 50-lb bag will do for 6 chicks for a month or 2). Eventually you’ll also want something to cover the bottom of the brooder, such as pine wood shavings (don’t use cedar as these are toxic to birds).
Where to do it: Chicks are incredibly messy and loud, and stinky. Put them in a garage, or better yet, a shed. As they mature they create an incredible amount of dander/dust. It’s nasty stuff, gets all over everything.
Daily care: You’ll want to check on them frequently — a few times of day to start. Chicks require a strong and hot light source to keep them warm, and access to plenty of clean water and food. Your brooder needs to be large enough to allow them to race around without knocking over the food tray and water (or the light). Keep it as clean as possible. Also, keep an eye on their temperature — if they are huddled under the light they are too cold; if they scatter far from it they are too hot. Adjust the light accordingly. As time goes on, their need for heat will diminish.
Timetable: Within a week of buying your cute chicks, they’ll morph into fairly ugly/gangly teenagers. So enjoy those handful of chick days. Their growth rate will astound you. By the time they are 4 months old, they are close to being full adult size. At about 5.5 to 6 months, they are laying eggs. The brooder will be needed for about 2 months. After that, you’ll need a coop for your birds. We’ll get into the henhouse requirements in another blog.
Are you thinking spring (chicken?) If so, start researching your breeds and check in with your local farmstore. Come March 7 or so, the store will be peeping like crazy.
John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood organic farm in Amesbury.