Monday, April 25, 2016

Chickens, Chickens, Chickens

This year we decided to take on chickens. It has been one of the funnest and most rewarding experiences. I really do love my little chickens, even if they're not so little any more!

I bought my chickens 3 different ways. I picked up a couple of unsexed bantams at our local Tractor supply store, picked some up from a local breeder, and split a batch that my sister ordered and had delivered via the US Postal Service. I'm sure every post office is different, but that was definitely my least favorite way. We got all kinds of conflicting information from the post office from "we don't do chickens", to "we don't hold them, we just deliver them per usual with the rest of the mail", to "they're here please come pick them up." For us, it was a matter of talking to the right person, which seemed odd. We can't have been the first ones to order chickens! Also, I think the journey was a little hard on the sweet little chicks. Thankfully all of them made it alive and stayed alive.

Of the three ways, I would definitely recommend meeting up with a local breeder. Although, I will say my experience with the Tractor Supply sales staff was excellent! As with beekeepers it's always easy to find chicken owners who are willing to share helpful hints and tricks. I lucked out at the Tractor Supply Store and found a lady who happened to keep a flock of her own. She gave me all kinds of helpful information and even helped me collect all of my supplies and answered any questions I had with enthusiasm and personal experience. Most of the chicks were either unsexed or in a container with other breeds so as a novice it was hard to pick out the variety I was looking for with any certainty. It was also hit or miss. They weren't exactly sure which breeds they were getting and when they were getting them. They got new shipments in every week, so it was more like a stop by and see thing. I've since done a lot of research about which traits are considered good and bad within the breeds that I have purchased. If I could go back, I would have done that research first and been a bit more knowledgable when picking my chicks out, instead of going with the cute factor. Overall I'm pretty happy with what I have. I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of going to a local breeder. The one I went to had her chicks clearly labeled, sexed, and separated. I also had a choice of age, anywhere from newborn to 6 weeks old, with the older ones being more pricey. I wanted to raise mine from chicks and have the opportunity to bond with them so I went with the newborns. Another advantage of going with a local breeder was that the chicks seemed a bit healthier and less stressed than the mail ordered chicks. Baby chicks will get something called "Pasty Butt". Pasting up is a condition caused when the chick's droppings stick to the down around it's vent. The dropping can cause a build up forming a blockage which can be fatal to the chick. It's usually caused by stress to the chick in shipping, being to hot, too cold, or improper diet. They have to be watched carefully the first few days or they can literally die from this condition. If you notice a blockage starting to form you need to gently clean the blocked up area. Never pull on it to get it off. Soften it with warm water and gently rub it off with a washcloth or tooth brush. Some people will just let warm water run over their chicks behind while washing it off. I preferred letting them soak in a bowl full of warm water just high enough to cover their vent. I also kept my chick separated with food and water near the heat lamp until it was dry and watched it closely. Chicks will peck at anything that looks different in any way!

Baby Chicks require a few supplies:

Chick Starter
Heat Lamp

Extras include probiotics and electrolytes for a good start or you can simply add a little sugar to their waterer. 

Brooders can be made out of just about anything. I have a neighbor lady who kept a few chicks in a cardboard box lined with paper towels. The advantage being that you can simply throw it out when you are done with it. I knew that I wanted to invest and have this be a long term project so I bought a big metal trough from the tractor supply store. Your chicks will grow amazingly fast in a very short time and be hopping over your brooder walls so make sure you have your next step figured out before you get your chicks. They don't last long in the brooder!

A good brooder should have several features. It should:

have adequate space
protect from outdoor predators or indoor pets
have good ventilation
have a reliable heat source
freedom from drafts
protection from moisture

We happen to have a lovely cat

Letting your cat watch you open the chicks lets him know that they are yours. I followed all the rules, made my introductions, but I still wasn't going to trust the cat even though he has a very friendly temperament. I was lucky to have an imaginative son who helped me create a top for my brooder.

Here Harrison is constructing our lid. I told him what I wanted it to do and he came up with the materials and design.

The cat was definitely interested.

A chick has very little way of protecting itself from the cold. It was still very cold when we got our chicks with snow still on the ground so I gave them several weeks in our house in my little girl's room.  She is a chick master with just about no fear at all :-)

There are also lots of options for the litter. My very favorite is pine shavings for several reasons. When your chicks are little the fine shavings work best. When they get a little bigger you can go with the regular sized shavings. Pine shavings work best for me because they are fairly absorbent. Paper towels, newspaper etc tend to be extremely messy and require frequent cleaning. Pine shavings also have a wonderful smell. It won't take those chicks long to funk it up, but it's nice while it lasts. You should completely clean out your brooder at least once a week, although for me it was more like every 5 days. After that I couldn't take the smell. Cleaning it out includes dumping all of the litter and waste, washing it out with some dish soap, and starting out with at least 2 inches of fresh litter.  As far as the in-between time, I added a fresh layer of pine flakes every morning and sometimes at night. If your waterer has leaked at all you will need to get rid of any wet bedding.

Waterers can be the most annoying thing about having chicks. You will most likely end up buying at least two sizes. The big ones are too big for baby chicks. A chick could easily drown in one. In fact they are constantly falling asleep with their faces planted in their feeders. It is quite funny! But, the small ones won't last long at all. The chicks will outgrow their little waterers rather quickly. Both the little waterers and the big waterers will need to be refreshed daily and cleaned out with dish soap at least once a week. The little ones tend to get clogged up rather quickly with bedding so it is extremely important to check on them frequently. The little waterers sometimes need to be refreshed several times a day. I would recommend checking on them hourly for the first couple of days until you get a feel for their patterns of behavior and needs.  Here is an image of the waterer and feeder that I used in the beginning. Once your chicks move to a bigger waterer you can solve a lot of the clutter in the water by placing it on a stand of some sort. I used a large paver stone that was about 3 inches high, and then moved up to a stump several inches taller once my chicks got a bit bigger. The important thing is to make sure your chicks can get to their water. Your water will still need to be refreshed daily, but at least you can count on them having clean water for a whole day! Another problem I had with the little waterer which seems to not be unique to me is that if I didn't get it on just so it would leak. This caused two problems: one it saturated the bedding nearest to it and two, the chicks went thirsty. I could tell they were because when I realized what had happened I brought them fresh water and they all came running to guzzle down some water.

Feeders come in all kinds of varieties. The small one in this pic with the holes worked great for me. As with the waterers you will most likely need to buy two sizes, one for when they are just chicks, and one for when they get a little bigger. Both the waterers and the feeders will be labeled with how many chicks they can reasonably accommodate. Having two of each is also recommended so that chicks low on the pecking order have a place to get a drink or eat. As with the waterer your feeder should be thoroughly cleaned out about once a week.

It's also important to buy the correct feed. Laying hens can be given chick starter in a pinch, but chicks should never be given layer ration. There is an overload of calcium in layer ration that could cause serious problems for your chickens later. Every bag of feed will be labeled with what it's for and the appropriate age category.

Heat lamps are a must, but be careful! The brooder temperature should be 95 degrees F for the first week of life. Heat lamps with a red bulb are best. They discourage the chicks from pecking each other. Chicks will peck at anything that looks even slightly out of the ordinary, but especially red. The idea with the red bulb is that it makes everything look red. The temperature can be dropped 5 degrees F each week until the brooder reaches ambient temperature. The chicks must be able get away from the heat lamp if they are too hot. They can die if they get overheated. Also, it's not a good idea to keep the feed or water too close to the heat lamp. If the chicks are all huddled together shivering under the heat lamp your brooder is probably not warm enough. Conversely if they are all huddled at the furthest corner away from the heat lamp it is probably too hot. You should see them freely walking around, not too clustered, with some of them enjoying the heat of the lamp, some of them scratching around and some of them at the waterer and feeder station. The one exception I noticed to this was at night when they were all sleeping. They'd form little rows and dog piles of happy sleeping chicks, one of my favorite sights!

First Things First

The very first thing you do when you get your chicks is to dip their beaks in water. Whether they come in the mail or from the store the most important thing is that they know where their waterer is. They will die without it, and in the case of mail order chicks they've been about as long as they can without it already. Watch carefully and make sure that all of your chicks are drinking and eating. Here they are a bit bigger.

It's so fun to watch their feathers come in. Some of them will look quite straggly and you may be temped to think something is wrong, but they're fine. They just look a little weird for a while. After about 20 days they should get their feathers in and will be capable of maintaing their body heat.

Mine loved going on walks and scavenging for treats when the weather was nice enough. Be prepared for them to run straight to a tree line or row of bushes. They don't especially like being out in the open at first. Mine made a B-line straight for the bushes where I watched them eat spiders and worms and all kinds of tasty bugs.

One of Livy's favorite things to do was dig up some worms for them and watch them play keep away with them. It's called food running and it's super fun to watch.

They are so much bigger now. They love being outside, dust bathing, and scratching for bugs. They will eat just about anything! But avoid giving them uncooked potato skins or avocados. These can be poisonous to a chicken. The happiest I ever saw them was after I had given them the rinds of watermelon I had cut up for a snack for my kids. I love Twofors!

Here they finish off a bit of yogurt I was snacking on. It was a little messy, but they couldn't get enough!

They are still getting used to being outside so every time a truck passes by or a dog barks they go running. They have a favorite corner of the back yard behind the garage that they run and huddle to.  They sure do keep me entertained.

I enjoy letting them free range while I am outside with them. They always have access to feed and water, but letting them scratch for bugs and eat grass cuts down on the amount of feed they go through. It's also so much better for them and the eggs they will be laying!

No comments: