Chickens are pretty much the gateway “drug” for growing your own food. You want to save money (and time) and live a more healthy, freedom filled life.
I get it.
Welp, what’s stopping you?
I know…. time and money and lack of knowledge.
Well, “little grasshopper”, you’ve come to the right place.
I’m pretty much the “apron wearing permaculture chicken ninja”. …
Which means, I can teach you everything you need to know for getting started with Chickens.
Consider this article your definitive guide.
…..Cuz, it will be.
It’s an epic one (pretty much a Gigantuous chapter from a BOOK).
I’ll answer 18 of the most common questions asked for getting started with Chickens.
Then, I’ll give you a step by step Action plan on how to get started this week.
Finally, towards the end of the article, I’ll offer my “Getting Started Checklist” as a quick reference for all the supplies you’ll need to get started.
Question #1: What Do Chickens Need?
Item #1, Coop: Housing can be mobile and/or permanent such as a chicken tractor or coop.
Inside spacing requires at least 1 square foot per chicken, if it’s ONLY their “hotel”, and they have access to the great outdoors during the day.
If your chickens are confined 24/7 (highly, and especially NOT recommended), I’d offer a minimum of three square feet per chicken.
Housing should include nest boxes for laying eggs, and perches for them to sleep on.
If your chickens sleep (and poop) in their nest box, you’ll have to create a “nest blocker” to place in front of the nests in the afternoon (after they’ve had time to lay their eggs) to prevent them from going into the nest at night. Do this for a couple of weeks to break the habit, then it shouldn’t be necessary anymore.
More on coops (including how to build them in questions below).
Item #2, Fencing: Mobile and/or permanent. Plan for at least 3 square feet outside area.
Item #3, Waterer: Large enough to provide about 1 quart of water each day for every four chickens.
Item #4, Feed: Plan on ¼ – ⅓ pound of feed a day per chicken.
If possible, source an organic mix or at least non-GMO.
Since you’re just starting out, I suggest a commercial pre-mix available at your local feed store and table scraps.
In the future, you may want to experiment with more creative food sources like the garden, worms, other farm products like milk, veggies, etc.
For those of you ready for more “adventure”, you can check out my article, “19 way to avoid pre-mix commercial feed”.
Certainly don’t get medicated feed. Medicated feed (and vaccines for that matter) were developed for industrial chicken farming where there is absolutely no natural approach to chicken raising.
Medicated feed is designed to prevent Coccidiosis which only occurs in extremely stressful situations and through bad genetics.
These kinds of problems should not occur when using the clean and natural methods that I teach.
Item #5, Grain Feeder: Large enough to hold a day’s ration for your flock.
Item #6, Feed Pans: Large enough to hold any liquid feeds, like milk.
Item #7, Grit: These are small rocks/stones the chickens will eat to help break down their food.
Item #8, Dust Bath:
An open box filled with dust for the chickens to “bathe” in to keep off irritating critters.
I know it may sound strange, but trust me, they love to bath in dirt.
It helps keep any tiny mites at bay.
Mites are like you and I, they don’t like taking baths in dirt.
Building a box around 2’ x 2 ’x 16” will do for the bath. It doesn’t have to be exact; anything around this size is good.
I like a plastic bin (see the pic below). More on that in a bit.
Item #9, Calcium:
You’ll need to provide calcium, preferably by crushing their eggs shells and feeding them back to the chickens.
You may have to supplement with oyster shells or store bought egg shells from time to time.
Add the crushed egg shells to your kitchen scraps or offer them free choice in a feed pan.
Plan for one pound of crushed shells per 100 pounds of feed.
Remember that chickens that aren’t laying eggs don’t need calcium (young chickens, roosters, and broody hens).
Item #10, Brooder: For starting chicks (1st three weeks).
A brooder includes a heat lamp, small feeder, small waterer, and a “catch trap” to keep the feeder/waterer clean. Like this homemade brooder we built:
Item #11, Bedding:
Bedding for their nesting boxes: Wood shavings, straw, and paper shredding material work great for this.
Item #12, Deep Bedding:
For the floor of their coop (if their housing stays in one spot).
Include at least 8” of organic carbon material like leaves, wood chips, straw, hay, etc.
Item #13 Brushes: Hard bristle brushes for cleaning waterers, feeders and pans.
Question #2: Where Do I Get What Chickens Need?
- Buy new chicken tractors or coops online.
- Buy used chicken tractors or coops on Craigslist.
(Note: These are the tools I actually use and truly suggest. You may like to know that some of the links are affiliate links, which means I’ll get a commission if you purchase)
- Fencing: I suggest using mobile fencing until the tractor/coop has been in the same spot for three years. I’ve been using Premiere 1 fencing for years. It’s very high quality and will last for years!
- Waterers: Find these used on Craigslist, new on Amazon, or at your local feed store. I like Miller Manufacturing. Do not use galvanized material as it tends to rust and can harm your chickens.
Small – 1 quart (enough for 4 chickens)
Medium – 3 gallon (up to 45 chickens)
Large – 5 gallon (up to 75 Chickens)
- Feed, Grit and Calcium: Purchase from a local feed store or buy online. You’ll have to call around for organic feed or see if your local store will special order the feed for you. You can source the grit from creeks and you can crush up egg shells for calcium. Chickens that are allowed to free range may be able to find enough grit on their own. You can certainly start feeding your food scraps right away, and you’ll soon learn more creative food options.
- Brooder: Buy used on Craigslist or new on Amazon. You can also DIY out of cardboard, plastic bins or wood. For more info, see the question below, “How do I get started?”
- Feeders: Miller Manufacturing has small and large feeders for grain, feed pans for your supplements (egg shells, grit), and liquid feeds like milk.
Question #3: How Much Do Chickens Cost?
- Housing – DIY from scraps for $0 or purchase housing from $200 to $2,000.
- Fencing – DIY from pallets or other scraps for $0 to $164. A role of Premier One electric fencing costs $156 – $204. Electric fence energizers cost between $115 and $800.
- Waterers – Miller Manufacturing has waterers between $3.83 and $52.
- Feed – $0 – $34. $34 is the price of an organic pre-mix 50 lbs bag. You can certainly feed your chickens for free by free ranging, offering compost, food scraps, growing worms, etc. Learn how I cut my chicken feed bill 100% by reading my article here.
- Grit – $0 – $1 a pound.
- Calcium – If you don’t do egg shells, oyster shells are about $15 for five pounds.
The time you spend taking care of your chickens will vary based on the size of your operation, your experience level, and other factors.
General set up can take one hour to one week depending on how much you opt to purchase and how much you do yourself.
To give you a general idea of daily requirements, I’ve included my current daily chore routine:
1st thing in the morning (less than 15 minutes):
- Wash and fill the waterers.
- Give chickens the daily ration of feed.
- Collect wild and domesticated greens and fruits for the chickens.
- Let chickens out of their housing.
Afternoon chores (less than 10 minutes):
- Feed kitchen scraps
- Collect eggs.
- Add nest box shavings when necessary.
- NOTE: These could be done during “After Dusk Chores” if needed.
After dusk chores (less than 5 minutes):
- Close up the chickens in the tractor/coop.
- Make sure the electric fence is working and adjust as needed.
Once a week chores:
- When on pasture, move the chickens (30 minutes).
- When tilling, move them every 4-8 weeks (30 minutes).
- When on compost feeding system, turn the 4 compost piles each week (2 hours).
- If systems aren’t mobile, clean out manure or add carbon material to floors and outside run (1 hour).
- When the hens are broody, save eggs and “set hens” (15 minutes).
Once a year chores:
- Butchering (a day and a half counting setup and cleanup).
Question #5: How Many Eggs Will a Chicken Give Me?
Four to six eggs per week, depending on the breed. A good dual-purpose breed (suitable for both eggs and meat) like the Black Australorp will lay about four eggs per week and a single-purpose egg-laying breed like the White Leghorn can lay up to six eggs per week.
Question #6: When Do Chickens Start Laying Eggs?
Pullets (female chickens younger than one year) will generally start laying eggs when they are around five months old.
Question #7: How Long Do Chickens Lay Eggs?
Hens (female chickens older than one year) will lay eggs for their entire lifespan of about eight years.
However, hens will slow egg production dramatically (up to 50%) after the two year mark.
I recommend butchering your laying hens in the fall, after their third summer.
Question #8: How Many Chickens Do I Need?
3 Things to consider to determine flock size:
Consideration #1: Discover your goals:
- Do you want eggs? If so, how many eggs do you need per week?
- Do you want meat? If so, how many pounds do you need per year?
- Do you want your chickens to work?
- Do you want your chickens to reproduce by themselves?
Make the connection to determine flock size.
When considering eggs: The chicken breeds that I suggest in the answer below lay at least four eggs per week.
They start laying around five months and produce until they are about 2.5 years old.
For example, let’s say you need two dozen (24) eggs per week. If one hen produces four eggs per week, then you’ll need six hens!
When considering meat: The dual-purpose (good for eggs and/or meat) chicken breeds I suggest are going to weigh around 3-4 pounds each after you’ve butchered them, and they’ll take about 16 weeks to mature.
If your family wants to eat a whole chicken once a week, or roughly 3.5 pounds of chicken, you’ll need to raise 50 chickens.
Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have the capacity to raise 50 chickens.
In fact, I wouldn’t suggest it at first.
Start small, with maybe 12-15.
Here’s some different ideas for raising your own chicken meat:
- Only order roosters, as they can be much cheaper (most people want hens, so there’s an excess of roosters).
- Consider free ranging, or at least offering extensive forage to a meat production run. The birds I suggest take much longer to mature than an industrial standard Cornish Cross. However, they can make up for that shortcoming in their ability to forage if you take advantage of it. The Cornish Cross is extremely limited in comparison and will rely on you for at least 85% of its feed.
- Take advantage of a dual-purpose breed. This is my favorite approach as I believe it’s the most advantageous for the self-reliant homesteader.
Here’s how to raise your own meat from a sustainable flock: Let’s say you want a flock of 12 laying hens, but you’d also like to grow some for meat. In this case, you would buy a straight run (which means they haven’t separated out the roosters) of 24 chicks.
Chances are that half of them are males and the other half are females. At about 4-5 months your hens start to lay and you can butcher the roosters.
After those first hens have had two summer seasons of laying, you butcher them and they can be replaced with an up and coming batch of chicks.
That up and coming batch will also be approximately half roosters, so not only do you have the roosters for meat, you have what we call a “stewing hen, which is all your “old retired ladies”.
Because the hen’s older, the meat is tougher and will need to be cooked in a slower manner (stews, soups, etc.).
How I produced “organic” chicken for 67 cents a pound! One year a local breeder friend had some extra chicks she couldn’t sell, so she donated them to me. I thought I’d run an experiment on those little guys. From day one, I let them range in a bottomless cage in my yard. When they were 4 weeks old, I let them completely free range. I fed them organic commercial grains for the first eight weeks of their lives, then I allowed them to get all of their feed off of the land. When I butchered them, I was amazed: the chickens weighed more than previous grain fed batches I had done!
Consideration #2: How experienced are you?
I recommend starting small and going from there. Here’s why…
* Learning curve: If you’re just starting out, it’s better to get the learning curve out of the way with a small number.
Smaller operations are much easier to manage and you have much less to lose when you make mistakes.
If you have a big need for eggs and meat, don’t worry about meeting those needs 100% right away.
* Self sufficiency: It’s much easier to be self sufficient with a smaller flock.
Think about it.
You only have so many kitchen scraps, but kitchen scraps can be a significant part of a chickens diet if they have enough of them.
Same goes for growing your own chicken vegetables or worms. Joel Salatin shared a story in Milkwood Permaculture Webinar… When he first started with laying hens he had just one hundred of them. He recalled with great humor that they pretty much survived off of the land on his pasture rotation system. Now that he runs 1,000 he’s noticed that the chickens don’t roam any further from the “egg mobile” than they did when the flock was smaller. In the latter case, the chickens eat MUCH more of the commercial feed because the 1,000 chickens wipe out the area’s natural food much faster than the flock of 100.
Moral of the story: it’s easy to implement self-sustaining techniques on a smaller scale: pasture/yard range, growing worms, feeding compost, biota (all life forms that live in the compost like worms, nematodes, and arthropods, etc.)
Consideration #3: How much space do you have? One square foot is the minimum a chicken needs for indoor housing if it has access to adequate space outdoors during the day.
Three square feet is the minimum a chicken needs if its outdoor space is limited.
Three square feet is also the minimum if your chicken must stay enclosed all day.
A good rule of thumb is to have at least three square feet inside and three square feet outside per chicken.
Are your neighbors cool? Don’t forget the golden rule: “treat others as you would want to be treated”.
Take your neighbors into consideration when deciding how big your operation will be and what it will look like.
Offering your neighbors some eggs every once in a while can go along way to stop neighborhood complaints AND get you a chicken “sitter” when you want to go out of town!
Question #9: Are Chickens Legal In My Neighborhood?
Unfortunately, keeping chickens may actually be illegal where you live.
Organized subdivisions and city limits can be especially vulnerable to laws forbidding you to raise your own chickens.
You can check with your local government organizations or you could just do it anyway.
In the latter case, be absolutely sure you proceed with respect to your neighbors by keeping your operation clean and quiet.
After all, it’s your neighbors who will call the authorities to complain.
For more info on legalizing chickens in your neighborhood visit Pat Foreman’s online resource here.
Question #10: What Kind of Chickens Should I Get?
Now that we have a general idea of your goals for your chickens, you can start looking at who might fit the bill.
In other words, which breed is best for you.
Since you’re reading this, you probably have an inclination to permaculture whether you know it or not.
In that case, I’m going to apply two of the fundamental principles of permaculture (diversity and multi-functions) and suggest a few breeds that make the cut.
What to look for in a “permaculture” chicken:
- Food production – Able to produce four or more eggs per week and will weigh at least six pounds as an adult.
- Hardy – Naturally heat and/or cold tolerant and are in general good health. Adapt to climate and naturally resist disease.
- Productive – Naturally active throughout the entire day hunting their own food, chasing bugs, and scratching through the soil.
- Reproductive – Naturally inclined to reproduce easily. The mother hens haven’t lost their genetic desire to go “broody” for hatching chicks. No hybrids, as they cannot reproduce themselves.
- Economical – Widely available and priced accordingly. They add value bby producing more than they require.
- Other considerations – A certain look, egg shell color, nostalgia (“grandma’s chickens”), temperament, winter production, ability to withstand extreme heat or cold.
Top 5 permaculture chickens: I recently sent out a survey listing my 12 favorite chicken breeds based on my permaculture criteria above. Out of 185 responses here at the top 5 Permaculture Chickens, with percentage of respondents indicated, along with approximate number of eggs laid per week and pounds of meat produced.
1.) Buff Orpington (43%) – 3 eggs/week, 8 Ibs
2.) Rhode Island Red (41%) – 6/week, 6.5 Ibs
3.) Black Australorp (40%) – 4 eggs/week, 6.5 Ibs
4.) Plymouth Rock (32%) – 3 eggs/week, 7.5 Ibs
5.) Wyandotte (24%) – 3 eggs/week, 6.5 Ibs
Egg birds: If you just want chickens for eggs, consider these lightweight egg producers:
1.) Leghorn (most productive and popular egg layer) – 6 eggs/week, 4.5 Ibs.
2.) Ameraucana (famous for colored eggs) – 4 eggs/week, 5.5 Ibs.
3.) Ancona – 4 eggs/week, 4.5 Ibs.
4.) Hamburg – 4 eggs/week, 4 Ibs.
5.) Minorca – 4 eggs/week, 7 Ibs.
Meat birds: If you’re interested in raising meat birds that can easily sustain themselves through reproduction consider one of the following:
- Brahma – 16 week butchered weight is 4-5 pounds.
- Cornish or Indian Game bird – 16 week butchered weight is about 4 pounds.
- Naked Neck – 16 week butchered weight is about 3-4 pounds.
If you’re interested in quick and economical meat bird without the benefits of easy reproduction you might consider the extremely popular Cornish Cross.
A Note on the Cornish Cross: Whether you know it or not, the Cornish Cross is the chicken you’ve grown accustomed to eating.
It’s famed for its phenomenal growth rate and economical feed conversion ratio. Cornish Crosses can easily dress out at more than six pounds in just eight weeks.
It’s not only the industrial-meat bird of choice, pasture-based farmers like Joel Salatin, Primal Pastures, and countless others use these birds for the customer familiarity and the price point.
There are certainly some drawbacks to consider and some special tactics to incorporate before proceeding with this breed.
Consider the drawbacks of the Cornish Cross:
- Cardiovascular dysfunction – Selection and husbandry for very fast growth means there is a genetically-induced mismatch between the energy supplying organs of the broiler and its energy-consuming organs.
- Skeletal dysfunction – Breeding for increased breast muscle means that the broilers’ centre of gravity has moved forward and their breasts are broader compared with their ancestors. This affects the way they walk and puts additional stresses on their hips and legs. The older a bird gets the more you’ll notice it. They’ll begin to lay around more and when they do walk, it’s more like waddling.
- Withheld food – Adult breeders are genetically wired to grow fast so they’re always hungry. This amazing growth rate can also be a detriment because if you give them access to food all the time they will eat themselves sick or dead! As a solution, the adult breeder birds are given rations throughout their entire lives, resulting in chronic hunger stress.
- Mortality rate – According to Wiki, mortality rates are seven times greater than that of layer chickens. Closer to home, in our own natural chicken community, Paul Wheaton of Permies.com has experienced mortality rates from 15-30%!
Tips for Growing Cornish Crosses:
- Raise them on rotating pasture using chicken tractors, electric nets, or completely free range. Fresh grass helps with digestion and overall health.
- Train them them to enjoy bugs and worms by feeding these thing early on and giving them plenty of room to forage.
- Consider raising them with other, more vibrant chickens.
- Arrange it so they run out of feed for a few hours each day so growth rates slow and they are forced to forage for their food. “A hungry birds is a foraging bird,” according to permaculturalist Jay Green.
- Try different hatcheries. Jay Green reports good success with Central Hatchery in Nebraska.
- Ferment your feed to increase good bowel flora which will increase nutrient absorption.
- Avoid growing them in weather extremes like peak summer.
The benefits of dual-purpose breeds: Do you want both eggs and meat? Then you’ll want dual-purpose breeds. A straight run gets you half roosters and half hens. A good plan here is to figure how many layers you want. Let’s say 12. Then order a straight run of 24. That most likely get you around 12 layers and 12 roosters. You’ll butcher the rooster around 16-18 weeks and keep the hens. For a more exhaustive list of chickens see the Henderson’s “Handy Dandy Chicken Chart”.
It’s not necessary to have a rooster for hens to lay eggs.
Egg production is a natural cycle that occurs in the female regardless of the male’s presence.
In some situations, however, it may be better not to have a rooster. If you’re keeping chickens in the city, your neighbors might be disturbed by the crowing. Remember hens only cluck, they never crow.
However, advantages of a rooster include:
- They fertilize the eggs if you want to breed and hatch your own chickens.
- They complete the natural social structure of a flock.
- They help to protect the “ladies” from predators.
- They dig up food for the ladies and notify them of a feed source.
- They are attractive to look at.
- They crow (which is nice noise for some people).
Note: If you are breeding, I suggest at least one rooster per eight hens.
That will ensure every egg gets fertilized and keep him busy enough that he’s not abusive in his frequency.
However, if you start noticing hens losing their back feathers, it’s a sign that the rooster has favorites and needs more competition.
I once had one rooster for 30 hens. He ended up having a few favorites and they looked terrible. I introduced more roosters and the added competition kept him more at bay.
Jim Adkins (of the sustainable Poultry Network) doesn’t mind the bare backs. He’s thrilled to see that the flock is breeding and is assured the feathers will grow back in the fall (before winter).
Question #12: Where Do I Get Chickens?
1st choice: Local Breeder. The benefits of using a local breeder include: seeing the chicks for yourself, learning from the breeder, seeing the setup and the owner’s management practices, and checking the adults for lice or mites. Even non-experts can tell if a bird is bright eyed and active.
Try the Sustainable Poultry Network for a reputable breeder near you. Craigslist can also be great way to find local sources. You can always go to the feed store and look on the message board or ask a manager if they know anyone who sells chicks.
If you must, Tractor Supply Co. and other stores are starting to carry chicks. Go late in the spring and you might even get a great deal. Be careful buying from a show breeder, as they aren’t selecting birds for their meat and egg-producing capabilities.
2nd choice: Shipping Breeder. Perhaps you can’t find a local breeder but with a little luck you might just find one that ships. I know some of the Sustainable Poultry Network folks ship and I’m fairly certain you can find a reputable breeder that ships.
3rd choice: Hatcheries If need be, look to the hatcheries. Hatcheries are businesses that artificially hatch chickens (and poultry) for commercial purposes.
From my own experience, these birds don’t perform as well. You can find them through Google search or get a suggestion from an online group or friend.
Try a few and you’ll soon discover a favorite.
What to look for in chicks? Vibrancy, wide open eyes, fast moving, responsive.
Question #13: Do I Get Straight Run or Sexed Chickens?
A straight run includes both males and females (rooster and hens). Sexed means they are separated by gender so you buy either all males or all females.
Question #14: Should I Debeak or Get Vaccinated Chickens?
Debeaking is inhumane and absolutely unnecessary if you follow my advice for raising chickens naturally.
Chicks are debeaked by the industry to prevent pecking damage, but pecking only occurs in extremely stressful situations.
Vaccinations are unhealthy and completely unnecessarily if you use good management.
Healthy chickens develop the necessary immunity and DO NOT NEED vaccinations.
This can be done with good management as described in my other articles and film.
Marek is the most common disease they are trying to prevent with vaccinations.
Question #15: How Do I Get Ready For Chicks?
You can get ready for chicks in 3 easy steps:
Step #1: Get the Supplies!
- Small waterer – I like pressure-sealed quart jar waterers
- Small feeder – I like the quart jar feeder
- Chick starter feed – This is a higher protein feed. You can get this at your local feed store. Call ahead if you want organic to ensure they can get it for you on time.
- Small grit – Tiny rocks to help the chickens digest their food. Try your local feed store or source some out of the creek. You can use a small plastic container such as a sour cream container for containment.
- Natural Boost (Day 1) – Add 2 cloves of garlic, 2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar and ½ cup of honey to their water.
- Brooder – See Step 2 below.
- Heat lamp – With a 250 (non coated or colored) light bulb with an appropriately rated outlet.
- Pine shavings – For the bedding (at least 4.5 cubic feet for my brooder below)
Step #2: Setting up your Brooder
Source the brooder. Common brooder options include:
- Store bought
- Rubbermaid bins
- My DIY “porta” brooder
- Hover brooder
- Large DIY brooder
Brooder size: Needs to be one square feet per four chicks for the first three weeks. The brooder should allow up to 8” of bedding, especially if you continually raise chicks.
Add up to 8” of bedding. Pine shavings work the best.
Put in your waterer and feeder.
I suggest setting them on wood platforms or on a wire mesh platform so the chicks don’t track manure and shavings into the water or feeder.
Sprinkle it on the feed for the first few days and free choice after that. For free choice, offer it in a small container (I use old sour cream containers).
Hang or attach the light.
Keep this at least 18” from a flammable surface.
It is best to put the light at an angle.
Watch your chicks…since you’re not raising them with a mama hen, you’re the mama!
If they huddle up under the light, it’s too cold and you need to lower the light so it is closer to them.
If they scatter about kind of lethargic, raise your light as it means they’re too hot!
They like the temperature to be about 90 degrees at first and less heat as they grow bigger.
You can lower the temperature by 3-4 degrees every day. By the time they are 3 weeks old they can handle freezing temperatures.
Use corner boards to prevent injury.
If chicks are crowding in the corner, and you’re afraid of injury, set up corner boards so you only have 45 degree angles as opposed to 90. If desired, you can use a round brooder such as a kid’s plastic swimming pool.
Turn off the light at night if it’s warm enough and cover with cardboard or lid and make sure they have good ventilation so they can breathe.
The first couple of weeks, when their real small I actually cover them for the night with a cardboard box inside their brooder.
If you use at least 8” of deep bedding you shouldn’t have to add any. If you’re not using deep bedding, you’ll need clean it out and replace as you go.
Leave the litter in place to become more alive with beneficial microbes, even between batches.
Keep them in the brooder for 3-5 weeks, then graduate them into a chicken tractor.
If they’re meat birds, they might stay in the tractor until they’re ready for processing. If they’re layers you may want to keep them in the tractor until they start laying their first eggs.
Step #3: Receiving the chicks!
- It’s best if you can buy your chickens from a local breeder, but if that’s not possible you might just have to mail order from a hatchery. See question above “Where do I get chickens?”
- Turn on your heat source before they arrive to get the place warmed up.
- Chicks will arrive unfed. They can last up to 3 days without food or water, but once you feed them or give them drink, they will need it from then on.
- Create a healthy boost by combining ½ gallon of warm water with ¼ cup of honey, two pressed garlic cloves and two tablespoons of Apple Cider Vinegar. Just do this for the first day or until they need more water.
- Dip each chick’s beak in the water to make sure they drink.
- Add a live feed like grass, weeds or table scraps every day or provide a cage area outside (if it’s warm and the grass is extremely short).
Problems and solutions in the brooder:
- The bedding gets wet – Add more bedding on top of the wet stuff or remove it.
- Smelly bedding – Let your nose be your guide. If you smell ammonia, add litter!
- Cannibalism – This is only caused by severe stress or bad genetics. Make sure they have plenty of room and aren’t too cold or hot. If one chick continues to be too aggressive, you may have to cull it in order to protect the rest of the flock and rid yourself of bad genetics.
- Chicks aren’t eating the fine powdery feed at the bottom of their pan – Mix it with milk, whey or water to make a mush that they can easily pick up.
- Pasty butt – Poop that dries and sticks to the vent preventing future poops. This is caused by stress and/or poor diet and is common in hatchery chicks.
Pull it off immediately, and use warm water if needed. Raw corn meal or fine oatmeal can help clear it up. Pasty butt is telling you there’s a problem. Check over your operation for stress sources (too cold, too hot, too crowded, often scared) and eliminate them asap.
- Messy waterer/feeder – Chicks will poop and track shavings into their feeders and waterers. You can change their supplies 2-3 times per day and/or use a “catch” to prevent the mess in the first place. Some folks place boards or cardboard under the feeder and waterers to keep the immediate area clean. I like placing a frame ½” wire mesh over a feed pan that’s dug into the shaving. I place the feeder and waterer on the mess “trap” and all the shavings and manure fall through the mesh before they can be tracked into the feeder/waterer.
Question #16: How Much Meat Will I Get Out Of a Chicken?
Chickens “dress out” between 3-6 pounds. A good dual-purpose breed will weigh about 3-4 pounds going into your freezer while a meat specific chicken, like the famous Cornish Crosses, will weigh six pounds or more!
Question #17: When Do I Butcher My Chickens?
- Butcher dual-purpose breeds between 16-18 weeks old for a 3-4 pound bird.
- Butcher pure bread meat birds 16-18 weeks old for a 4-5 pound bird.
- Butcher hybrid meat bird (Cornish Cross) at 7-8 weeks old for a six pound bird.
- Butcher egg-laying hens at the end of their third summer for a five pound bird.
- Mites and Lice – Chickens fight mites and lice naturally through dust bathing. Be sure to provide a simple dust bath at all times. With severe infections you can liberally apply Diatomaceous Earth (DE) yourself (use a dust mask) to take care of the problem.
- Scaly Leg Mites – DE won’t work for these mites. In this case, I suggest a mix of of un-petroleum jelly, mineral oil, tree oil and oil of oregano. Use an old toothbrush and wear disposable latex glove.
- Worms – Worms are caused by overcrowding, stress and poor feeds. Follow my instructions in this article and you won’t experience any worms.
- Pecking – A minimal amount of pecking is totally natural. Pecking that causes damage is normal when introducing new adult roosters to each other. Other than that, excessive pecking is caused by stress or bad genetics. If you’re sure you have a stellar operation, it may be time to cull the culprit.
- Blocked Crop – Food is first collected in the crop to be mixed with saliva. It then passes through to the gizzard to join with small pebbles to be broken down to a digestible form. Blocked crops can occur if the chicken doesn’t have enough grit. You’ll notice continually swollen crops (on the right side of their necks) and the loss of appetite. You can prevent or heal this by offering continual access to grit.
- Broody Hen – This is not a health problem! In fact, you could look to it as a blessing. A broody hen is one that will begin to lay on the eggs in a desire to hatch them. It’s a pain in the butt if you don’t want to hatch eggs with mama hen.
If you don’t want a broody hen, you can try putting her with another flock or kicking her out of the nest box in the early afternoon after everyone has laid their eggs, then put a nest blocker in and repeat for several days. If that doesn’t work, isolate her in a cage with food and water (no nest) for 3 days, or until she’s no longer broody.
- Egg Eating – If your chickens are eating their eggs, they’re either very hungry or calcium deficient. Make sure you’re feeding them enough and giving them plenty of calcium through egg shells or oyster shells.
To break a chicken of eating egg shells, make sure your nests are set above their eye level from the ground. This discourages loiterers from getting the eggs. You can also implement a nest blocker early in the afternoon after everyone has laid their eggs. Another preventative measure is to collect your eggs more often. One more option…place a fake egg like a golf ball, avocado pit or similar in their nest. They’ll peck at it and soon realize “eggs” aren’t worth pecking!
- Molting – This too is not a health problem. Every fall, chickens begin to lose their feathers to grow more for the winter. As they grow more feathers they send most of their protein resources to re-growing feathers (not eggs).
- No eggs in the winter – This is totally normal due to the seasonal lack of light. You can supplement with artificial light (no more than 14 hours a day) if absolutely needed, but it’s best to let the hens rest. For more info on keeping your chickens productive through the winter see my article, “48 Ways to Keep Your Chickens Happy This Winter”
- Mating wounds – Sometimes a rooster may be too hard on the “ladies”. He may play favorites and cause a spur injury or, more commonly, wear out the feathers from her back. If this is the case, your rooster needs more male competition. Try to maintain a balance of one rooster per eight hens. If the problem still persists, you may need to cull the problematic individual.
- Broken Leg – Several times I have accidently injured a chicken’s leg while moving their chicken tractor. In all cases, I isolated the bird with another, weaker flock member (as they are flock animals and do better with a mate) and give them time to recover. If the injury is minimal and they can hold their own with the flock, leave them there.
- Open Wounds – If this occurs and the other flock members see blood, they may make the problem worse by pecking at it. Isolate the injured chicken, if needed. You may also try a thick salve like un-petroleum jelly scented with balsam of fir to discourage pecking.
- Disease – Under good management, disease will be rare. Since I am establishing a breeding flock for sustainability, I choose to cull diseased individuals. Apparently, their immunity hasn’t developed like the rest of the healthy flock and they have succumbed to illness. This is a genetic trait I don’t want to continue on my homestead.
In the extreme case where much of the flock has succumbed to illness due to my mismanagement, I might institute a treatment plan. Our mixing of age groups, and even species, helps young chicks develop their immune systems. If you do opt to treat a bird for infectious disease, it’s crucial that you isolate it.
Your Action Plan:
Now that you’ve got the basics, let’s put it all into action with a plan…
Before you get the birds, get some stuff:
– Build my Chicken Tractor if 12 dinos or less.
– Build my ChickShaw for 12 -36 dinos.
– Don’t want to build? Buy sometime similar new or on Craigslist
Feed – Starter feed (for chicks under 8 weeks old)
– Grower feed (for dinos 8 weeks old until they start laying eggs)
– Layer feed (once they start laying eggs).
– You can get feed at a local farm store, preferably organic or at least non-gmat.
– Crushed egg shells fed to laying hens. Throw it on the ground or put it in a mineral feeder, free choice.
– Aragonite to be fed free choice in a supplement feeder. This can be ordered at your local farm store.
– Kelp to be fed free choice in a supplement feeder. Order this at your local farm store.
– For Chicks (less than 12) grab a quart jar feeder like this on Amazon, or at your local farm store.
– For Chicks (more than 12) grab something like this on Amazon, or at your local farm store.
– For Dinos more than 3 weeks old grab a feeder like this on Amazon or at the farm store. Grab one of these feeders per dozen Dinos.
– Grab two of these supplement feeders on Amazon or at your farm store for adult Dinos
– Get a feed pan like this one for any liquid “food” scraps you might want to feed like milk, juice, broth etc… Start with one and get more if needed.
- For chicks, I like these quart jar waterers (one per dozen chicks).
- For adults, I like these vacuum seal waterers on Amazon or at your local farm store. As for size, realize that four Dinos will need one quart of water a day.
Brooder (for raising chicks until they’re weeks old):
Build one (3 square feet per 12 chicks for 3 weeks) or grab a large plastic tote like this one.
Small waterer – See waterers above.
Small feeders – See feeders above.
Live foods (Add fresh live food like grass, weeds, food scraps daily
Small grit from the creek or your farm store.
Natural boost (day 1 mix ½ gallon to 2 tablespoons Apple Cider Vinegar, ½ cup of honey and 2 cloves of crushed garlic cloves)
Pine Shavings from your farm store (at least 8” for bedding inside their brooder)
Feeder/Waterer “mess catch” (piece of cardboard under their feeder/water or ½” framed wire mesh over a feed pan (catches fallen manure and shavings).
Dust Box (for adult Dinos): Build you own 2’ cube or buy this 14 gallon tub. Fill it halfway with dirt, and your chickens have a bath.
Fencing – Electric Poultry Netting fence and energizer can be found here. Grab the 82’ role if you have less than 12 dinos. For more than 12, get one 164’ roll for every 50 Dinos.
Grit – Small rocks for the Dinos to eat (to help them break down their food). You can buy this at a farm store our source it out of a local creek. Yes, chicks need grit too.
Nesting material – Hay or Straw can be found at your local farm store or on Craigslist.
Bristle Brushes – for cleaning the waterers and feeders. Something like this will do.
Buy Some Chicks:
- Dual Purpose breeds (good for eggs and meat) are hard to beat on the homestead, even if you don’t plan on eating them. The three most popular breeds I recommend are the Rhode Island Red, Black Australorp and Buff Orpington.
- I make sure the chicks I buy haven’t been medicated/vaccinated (it’s unnecessary and can cause health risks to any other flock members who haven’t been treated).
- The #1 place to buy these chicks is from a local breeder found on the Sustainable Poultry Network. You can also try the American Livestock Conservancy. And, if that doesn’t work, try Craigslist.
- The #2 place would be from a hatchery because you have the option to purchase unmedicated chicks.
Action Plan Timeline:
Before Getting Chicks – Buy and/or build all your supplies listed above.
Right before you pick up chicks (or order them) – Set up the brooder.
Three weeks old – Move them out of the brooder into the Chicken Tractor.
8 weeks old – switch to “grower” feed.
12 weeks – You should be able to let them out of the Chicken Tractor During the day, and they will stay inside of an electric poultry net.
16 weeks – Butcher your males
5-10 months – Hens start to lay. Switch to “layer” feed.
2 years – Get two chicks to replace your aging hens.
2.5 years – In the fall, bucher you “old ladies” when your new chicks start to lay.
Tips (so you won’t kill everyone):
- Relax. I know, it’s scary… but, chickens are very resilient. And, know it’s not uncommon to lose a few… even 10% of your flock.
- When your chicks arrive you can dip their beaks in the water to ensure they get their 1st sip.
- It’s important that your chicks stay warm. It’s actually their #1 priority. But, you don’t want them to be too warm. If they’re cuddling constantly, then they’re too cold and you need to lower the heat lamp. If they’re sort of flailing about, panting then they’re too hot and you need to raise the heat lamp.
- Treating their water and providing some “real” foods like grasses and table scraps (as mentioned above) can really boost their health.
- Check their behinds once a day to make sure their butt isn’t getting clogged. If it does get clocked, simply put on a glove and remove the obstruction.
- Keep the heat lamp 18” from any flammable surface (it can be a serious fire hazard).
- Just remember… There’s no better teacher than experience. You may be stressed right now, but once you get the hang of things, it’s going to be really enjoyable.
This should be more than enough information to get you starting with chickens. This may seem overwhelming at first, but chickens are generally very forgiving and you’ll soon be on top of the learning curve.
Ready to get started?
Download my free “Getting Started Checklist” HERE!