Getting Started with Chickens: Picking Your Chicks
March 1, 2016
Spring is in the air and it’s finally time to start your backyard chicken flock! So how do you get started? This month I’m doing a 5-part series on picking your chicks and how to care for them once you bring them home. (I promise it’s easier than you think!) You’ll be cuddling your hens and enjoying your own fresh eggs in no time.
Pick Your Breeds
There are countless of articles online outlining the “best” breeds of chickens for your homestead or backyard. Everyone has their personal favorites (I know I do!), but what’s really important is that you consider some important factors when selecting a breed:
1. Meat bird, egg layer, or dual purpose?
The first thing you should determine is what type of chicken you want to raise. Do you want chickens for meat, for eggs, or (potentially) for both purposes?
Popular meat birds include the Cornish Cross, Freedom Ranger, and Red Ranger. These birds tend to be eating-machines and mature VERY quickly, reaching their harvest size in only 8-12 weeks. Keeping them past that age can be cruel, as these birds can develop such large breasts and heavy bodies that their legs can’t support their own body weight.
White Leghorns are used commercially as egg layers, but aren’t the greatest foragers and can be very skittish. For a backyard homestead or family farm, typically dual purpose birds are your best investment. They aren’t quite as prolific at egg laying, but they come close enough, and have the advantage of being better at foraging (in many cases), healthier, and friendlier birds. They’re also heavier-bodied and once their most productive years as egg layers have ended (at about 2-3 years of age), they can be harvested for the stew-pot too.
2. Heritage breeds or hybrids?
Hybrid breeds include Production Reds, ISA Reds, Red Sex-Links, Golden Comets, Red Stars and others often with names trademarked by the hatcheries where they’re bred. Hybrids have some advantages: They tend tend to lay through the winter even without supplemental lighting, whereas many heritage breeds taper off or even stop laying when the days get short. Many hybrids can be easily sexed at birth based on their color, unlike heritage breeds which are extremely difficult to sex until they’re much older. This is a huge advantage for suburban farmers who can’t keep roosters in their backyards.
So why would you ever go with a heritage breed? It tends to come down to health, personality, and sustainability:
Heritage breeds tend to be calmer, friendlier, and healthier than industrial breeds. These are the family farm chickens that your grandparents or great grandparents might have kept. Heritage breeds are all dual purpose, making them cost-effective for a homestead. They tend to live longer than their hybrid/industrial counterparts, so you can easily have 2-3 years of productive egg laying, then put them in the freezer once their production declines. They’re also typically better foragers which reduces your feed costs and gives you healthier, happier birds and richer-tasting eggs.
If you want your homestead to be sustainable, you’ll want chickens that can breed naturally, and ideally a chicken that will raise their own young for you. Many of the hybrid egg layers have had broodiness bred right out of them so that they can focus on egg production instead of raising chicks. Meat birds like the Cornish-X can’t breed naturally at all due to their unnatural size. Heritage breeds are much more likely to go broody. While you certainly still collect their eggs and use an incubator, it’s much easier to let mama-hen do the work! She’ll take care of the heat and humidity, teach them to eat and forage, and introduce them to the flock and help sort out the new pecking order.
3. Do you need birds that are hardy in extreme temperatures (cold OR heat)?
Chickens are incredibly adaptable and can live pretty much anywhere in the US. That being said, choosing breeds that are well-suited to your climate will reduce the amount of work you’ll have to do in order to keep them happy and healthy. Generally, heavier-bodied birds with smaller combs are best for cold climates. Their smaller combs are less prone to frostbite, and their heavier body size insulates them from the cold. Popular cold-hardy breeds include Australorps, Orpingtons, and Wyandottes. Conversely, heat-hardy birds tend to be smaller bodied and include Silkies, Easter Eggers, Golden Buffs (Red Stars), and Welsummers.
We currently have a mixed flock of Production Reds (hybrid egg layer), Buff Orpingtons, Australorps, Barred Rocks, and Easter Eggers. If I had to pick just ONE to recommend to a first-time chicken owner, I’d recommend the Buff Orpington hands-down. They can only be described as the “golden retriever” of the chicken-world (both in color and temperament). Ours are extremely friendly, always willing to be held and petted, follow us all over the yard, and come when they’re called. (Come to think of it, that’s probably better behaved than a lot of golden retrievers that I’ve met…)
Where to Buy Chicks
When deciding where to buy your chicks, you typically have three options:
1. Buy from a local farmer
If you’re lucky, you might find a local farmer or hatchery close to you that is selling spring chicks. Check your local classified ads (newspaper, penny saver), Craigslist, and bulletin boards at your feed store.
2. Buy from your local feed store
Tractor Supply usually begins their “chick days” event at the end of February or early March. Plan to call or stop by the store regularly, as many of them sell out certain breeds quite quickly. If you have any local co-ops or feed stores, check with them to see if they’ll be getting in chicks as well.
A note on minimums: Tractor Supply and many other feed stores require a minimum purchase of six chicks. Chickens should never be kept alone, but sometimes six is a few too many for a suburban backyard. Ask around and find a friend willing to divide the chicks with you — three or four each is a good number, and will get you past the minimum purchase.
3. Buy via mail-order from a hatchery
Day-old chicks can be safely shipped in the mail (here’s why) and there are lots of hatcheries you can order from. I recommend doing a Google search for “chicken hatchery” and your state name, or the names of states closely adjacent to where you live. Shorter shipping distances tend to be less expensive and are easier on the chicks. If you’re on a hatchery website and not sure where they’re located, check for an address in the footer of the page, or on their “about us” or “contact” page. Also be sure to look into minimums — many large hatcheries require a minimum order of 25 or more birds. If Google doesn’t yield results, Mother Earth News also has a hatchery directory you can check or you can pick up almost any poultry or farming magazine and look for hatchery ads in the back.
I can’t give a recommendation on specific hatcheries because all our chickens have been purchased locally (either from Tractor Supply or direct form a farmer). Do your research and ask questions! (I recommend the Backyard Chickens forum.)
Strait run or sexed?
When purchasing your chicks, you may be able to buy them already sexed. Hatcheries have staff trained to vent-sex young chicks and separate them. Expect to pay slightly more for pullets (females) than for the cockerels (males). Keep in mind there is still a small margin for error, and even if you buy pullets there’s a small chance you’ll end up with a rooster.
Sometimes chicks are sold strait run, meaning an unsexed group of males and females. Strait run chicks tend to be less expensive, but the risk is having several of roosters to deal with later.
The first year that I bought Buff Orpingtons, they were only available strait run at our local Tractor Supply. I used the method in the video below to wing-sex them, and I was lucky enough to end up with all four being pullets as I’d hoped! (Who knew I had this hidden skill?!) Keep in mind, this method only works for chicks 1-3 days old.
Picking Healthy Chicks–What to Look For
There’s really no exact science to picking a healthy chick, but there are a few common-sense things to check:
Look for chicks that are alert (not “droopy”)
Choose chicks that are peeping happily, but not loudly in a distressed manner
Eyes should be clear
Check their vent to make sure it’s not red, bleeding, or blocked
Look closely at the beak to be sure it lines up correctly and isn’t scissored (like a cross-bite)
Examine their toes to make sure all are strait and none are missing
If you’re able to hold the chick (some feed stores won’t allow this), they should feel solid and squirm slightly in your grasp
This is the first in a 5-part series I’ll be doing this month on bringing home your first baby chicks. I’d love to hear your feedback and questions in the comments so that I can address them in the next parts!
What breeds are your favorites? What breeds do you hope to add to your flock this year?