Wednesday, April 13, 2011

get'em started right!

If you’re new to raising chickens, you might be a little intimidated setting up house for your new flock. After all, this is a big step. Chickens aren’t pets: they’re livestock. That word seems to carry a sense of import not bestowed on our humble cats and dogs. And rightly so — these girls have a job to do! In a few months your little fluff balls will be producing eggs so rich in omega-3s and energizing, wholesome protein you won’t be able to remember a time in your life without hens in the backyard.

But before you can start learning how to make your own Hollandaise sauce, you need to learn how to raise those birds. Here’s my recipe for the perfect chick-brooding environment. Follow these basic rules of warmth, safety, and care and feeding, and you’ll be home free.

Preparing a Safe Brooder
Chicks need a warm, clean, draft-free place to start off in the world: a large container that allows enough room for the birds to walk, scratch, and get the space they need to stretch their wings. You can create a brooder out of something as basic as a cardboard box or as complicated as a large stock tank. I know someone who once used her downstairs shower to raise laying hens, lining the bottom with newspaper and then washing it down between regular cleanings.

You don’t need to share a shower stall with your chickens, though. The classic cardboard brooder box is perfect for a few laying hens. Line it with newspaper or pine shavings (which I prefer), and set it in a draft-free area of your home or garage that curious cats and toddlers can’t get near. Once the brooder is in a safe, quiet, corner, above it place a heat lamp that is clamped safely. These powerful 250-watt bulbs become your foster mothers, and make the brooder a comfortable 90°F (32°C) for your little ones. To be sure your box is a safe temperature, place a thermometer in the base and check on it in a few hours. If it reads higher than 90°F, lift it up a few inches, and take another reading a while later. If it reads 70°F (21°C), drop it an inch or 2, and do the same. You want that magic number of 90°.

Feed and Water
When your brooder is set up with proper temperatures, location, and bedding, you can set up your cantina. Choose water and feed bases designed with chicks in mind. These usually are made to screw onto the bottom of quart canning jars and are inexpensive. They allow chick feed and fresh water to flow out all day by the grace of gravity, letting you leave for the office worry free. Just make sure you have them set up on sturdy bases so none of your new charges plows them over and makes a mess.

Feed your chicks a medicated starter feed, which prevents the early onset of such diseases as coccidiosis, which can easily kill an entire brooder box of chicks. If you want organic eggs, you can always switch to organic feed when they are laying age, but to prevent unwanted disease in so fragile a creature, I suggest the medicated starter or paying for immunizations on any laying-hen chicks you plan on raising organically. It really is the best insurance for a healthy start.
With this combination of a warm place to crash, good food, and clean water, you’ll have yourself some truly happy hens on the way. The care and attention you put into their upbringing will shine forth in your future adventures together on the farm, in the backyard, or on your condo’s roof. Welcome to the backyard poultry club, and good luck with your very own livestock!

P.S. Join the conversation over at on Chickens, farms, and more!


Blogger Casie said...

I just came in from my morning check on our chicks in the brooder. We used a large heavy duty cardboard shipping box called a gaylord. Works great! One more week and they will move out to their shed and run. These are cornish X broilers so they are past the cute fuzzy stage already.

April 13, 2011 at 11:29 AM  
Blogger Copper + Cream said...

Can't wait to get my own chickens! Someday soon...

April 13, 2011 at 12:05 PM  
Blogger Cindy said...

Congrats on the buzz about your new chick book--I've seen it advertised with Mother, Backwoods Home, and the Storey Books blog calls you a "beloved author"--almost saintly status!

April 13, 2011 at 12:06 PM  
Blogger RabbleRoost said...

Chicks are awesome.
Food, water, warmth, and a clean and safe environment are pretty much all they need, but I'm sure you'll be over there watching your very own chicken tv more often than not. ;)

April 13, 2011 at 12:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! No chickens yet over here, but I'm reading as much as I can in preparation for the great day (okay, I'm totally planning out chicken names too).

April 13, 2011 at 12:26 PM  
Blogger Crystal said...

Thanks! I found your blog after reading Chick Days, which I loved! It calmed my nervous, city girl fears. We just got our first chicks a few days ago. So pure and simple...the beginning of something beautiful.

April 13, 2011 at 3:34 PM  
Blogger David said...

Great Job Jenna!
I have read your books and in the "Chick Days" you refer to putting some apple cider vinegar in the chicks water. I would like to ask if you can tell me how long do you do that for?
Thank you for everything Jenna I have enjoyed your books and the blog, keep up the great work, If you do not know it you are a blessing.

April 13, 2011 at 3:59 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

I couldn't agree with you more about these things :D I would also like to mention to check their bottoms to make sure they aren't pasting up... I know my chicks do not enjoy me picking them up and tilting them to inspect them but it beats the alternative!

April 13, 2011 at 5:13 PM  
Blogger Debi said...

I loved reading Chick Days! The information you provided gave me much more confidence in being able to raise healthy happy hens. Thank you.

We got our first 4 chicks (2 Australorps and 2 Easter Eggers) this past Sunday! :) They're currently residing in a large plastic tote, with the top cut out and wire stapled to it, in my back bath tub. We got the tote idea from Abby at Spiderwomanknits. I'm allergic to most wood shavings, so we opted for Swheat cat litter. We got the Vet's ok first, and they absolutely love it, they spend alot of time scratching and pecking at it! I love it because it doesn't bother my allergies, and so far no dust! Due to the small space, the brooder was getting too hot, so we switched to a 125 watt bulb. They're much more comfortable now. :)

April 13, 2011 at 9:22 PM  
Blogger Maggie in Tally said...

Thanks to you, my ex and I got 17 chicks of various breeds about a month ago. They are now referred to collectively as the Raptors since they're voracious and thus far not flying. This wknd we gotta finish a shed/run since they're quickly outgrowing their quarters in the World's Ugliest Homemade Brooder. Thanks for the inspiration!

April 14, 2011 at 8:31 AM  
Blogger candisrrt said...

I am reading your chicken book now am fascinated. I grew up on a farm and SO want chickens in my backyarnd! Thank you for the info. The medicated feed is a WONDERFUL suggestion. Thanks.

April 14, 2011 at 9:24 PM  
Blogger Josephine Augusta said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

April 15, 2011 at 7:49 AM  
Blogger Josephine Augusta said...

What an amazing morning...we have 3 baby chicks that hatched. I cannot beleive we did this....

April 15, 2011 at 7:51 AM  

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