We have had chickens for over a year now so we certainly do not know it all...but we have LEARNED SOOO much. I get quite a few questions about raising chickens and I thought I would start a little mini-series on raising animals, but i will focus on poultry. If anyone has ANY questions please ask me, if i don't know...i WILL find out lol. Keep in mind this is OUR experience and we may not have the same ideas someone else does. :)
First I will quickly tell you how our chicken ordeal began. We had only been married about two months, and the only animals we had were 2 inside kitties. We don't have a ton of land (2 acres) but we knew we wanted some kind of outside animal for a hobby. Horses and cows or other larger livestock animals take a lot of time, a livestock trailer, and eat A LOT (which we would soon find out that chickens did too lol). So we decided to give raising chickens a try!
We decided to order from a hatchery (very smart choice!). We did this because they will ship you day old chicks, they are generally healthier, and have not been exposed to bad weather, lice, disease etc.
At the same time we ordered our chicks, we decided we had NO idea what we were doing. So, we went to the library and rented books...lots of books! We honestly read through them and by the time our chicks came we were glad that we had researched.
When you order chicks from a hatchery you have to order in groups of 25 or more. The reason for this is so that they can pack them very snuggly for warmth. Chicks need to have very very regulated temperature for the first 6 weeks of their lives, the first week they should be at about 95 degrees. The hatcheries can ship you these day old chicks through the mail with no food or water. WHAT?! As crazy as it sounds its true. Right before a chick hatches out of its shell, it absorbs the last bit of yolk (which is the chicks nutrition). This last "gulp" of yolk can last the chick up to 72 hours. Which means in theory chicks can go 3 days without food or water after hatching. However, as soon as you can get them food and water the better and stronger they will be.
When you get your little box of cheeping babies home to your fully set up home( we will go over this later) the very first thing you do is take each chick out, one at a time and "teach" it to eat and drink, after all they've never done it before! When your chicks first arrive you should have shavings covered in newspaper for them to live on. The newspaper only needs to cover the shavings for a few days. This is long enough for them to realize its not the shavings that you want to eat, only the food! You should also have chick feeders filled with a commercial chick feed, for them to munch on. Personally I think that the water is the most important. With brand new baby chicks you should add a few tablespoons of white sugar to their drinking water. This gives them a glucose boost after a long and sometimes stressful ride. To "teach" them to drink you simply take them (they will wiggle and try to fight it) and dip their beak into the sugar water. After a few quick dips of their beak you will see it "click" and they will take off and drink on their own. Be sure that their drinker is not big enough for them to get into or they will VERY likely drown. :(
This is when you want to make sure they are at an optimal temperature. Depending on the building that you have your little "brooder" set up, sometimes temp regulation is harder than others. Buildings with good ventilation will be a little easier. Just remember as the temperature outside changes...so does the temperature under the heat lamp. Chicks that are too cold AND chicks that are too hot are both miserable. And when chicks are miserable they do bad things (in our experience...they PICK)
When chickens are this age, they DO need commercial chick starter (you can't start them on scratch or scraps, it does not have the nutrition they need). They also HAVE to be in an enclosed building, preferably in an enclosure that is safe from all other animals. They can not immediately be free range. They should be enclosed for at least six weeks. Also remember when building your enclosure that when you get your chicks you'll want them to be fairly confined so they can be close and not "forget" where the food and water are. But as they grow, your enclosure will have to grow as well. And remember that chicks can fly early. The last 8 chicks we raised (they're 6 wks old now) were flying out of their 2 ft tall enclosure at 2 weeks! Monitor them closely lol.
Lastly, for today I will say a word about where you get your chicks from. I mentioned earlier that hatcheries are the best option for purchasing chicks. If you can't get them from a hatchery (usually because you want less than 25) there are a few other options. Many people get their chicks from a feed store, usually Tractor supply. The biggest things to remember with this option is to know what you're getting. I feel very confident in saying that 80-90 % of the chicks that these stores sell are whats called "straight run". This means they are not sexed. So if you get 10 chicks...8 of them could be roosters. If you're going to do this...you need to know what you're going to do with 8 roosters! lol If you're going to get them at a swap meet or from a private owner they can carry a lot of disease. When you get them they should be quarentined for at least 2-3 weeks.