We have taken the next steps towards self sufficiency and started raising chickens in our backyard as part of our suburban homestead and got our first flock of chicks a few weeks ago.
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After much research, we knew we needed chickens that would manage with the winters here at over 4000 ft elevation as well as our hot desert summers. We wanted rare breeds, heritage breeds and birds which are friendly.
What Did We Get?
Our first flock is six chicks of different breeds which are cold hardy and good egg layers. The breeds we selected are:
- Barred Plymouth Rock
- Speckled Sussex
- Jersey Giant
- Rhode Island Red
With it being later on in the year, there was only one place which still had chicks for sale and we picked ours up a week ago. Usually baby chicks are available around easter or you can try a hatchery in your state or online. You can even get chicks in the mail!
We picked them up from the store so we would have a chance to check the health of what we were purchasing and we could get chicks that had already been sexed.
Our city has strict ordinances on roosters (cockerels) and the last thing we want is males which we need to find homes for rather quickly, we don’t want to be the family which ruins it for everyone else!
We chose chickens more for eggs than meat because we get through more eggs as a family. Meat birds are on the agenda once we’re a little more experienced.
Meet The Flock
Henghis Khan, a Speckled Sussex hen which is an English variety of bird and was chosen by my husband.
Count Cluckula, a Jersey Giant hen. This is a rare breed variety which are slow growing, produce large eggs and can be a good table bird. I chose this one because I’m a fan of heritage breeds and varieties.
Attila The Hen, a Delaware. These are one of the most docile breeds and Attila is a lovely bird and is pretty easy going. I chose her for the temperament.
Fried Chicken (aka Ruby) the Australorp who was chosen by my step-son. Australorps are a very productive egg laying breed.
Chicken Little the Plymouth Barred Rock also chosen by my step-son. Barred Rocks are a good all-purpose breed.
Ginger the Rhode Island Red chosen by my husband and named after watching Chicken Run. Rhode Island Reds are another all-purpose bird.
What You Need Before You Get Your Chicks
If you are getting baby chicks, there are a few things you need before you can bring them home.
Have a good think about where the chicks will go that will be warm, away from other household pets and can be easily accessed by you. You will need a socket for a heat lamp and easy access to water and cleaning supplies.
The Brood Box
Chicks grow quickly and need plenty of space in their temporary housing to reduce behavior problems between the hens. The space also needs to be escape proof and breathable.
The brood box is where your flock are going to be starting out for the next few weeks and should be solid and have a lid which is breathable to prevent escapees.
This is the brood box we’re using. It is made from plywood, has a chicken wire removable lid and a strip of wood to allow the movement of the heat lamp.
You need the brood box to be spacious enough for your birds as they grow and to have room for food and water containers. We wanted to ensure the chicks had things to do and explore as well as the basic food and water.
I have seen people use dog crates, cat carriers and large plastic totes as brood boxes.
A word of caution if using plastic; the heat lamp can melt plastic and cause fires more readily for this reason, we don’t recommend plastic containers.
Baby chicks need to be kept between certain temperatures for the first few weeks which is aided by a heat lamp.
A red light to 250 W is best. The red stops the birds from seeing blood from injury and will reduce the risk of them cannibalizing the injured bird (it happens, chickens can be cruel). You don’t want more than 250 W since it can get too hot and the disk of death of the birds and also potentially loss of your home to fire.
We didn’t get a red bulb, mostly because there wasn’t one available and our birds so far, have done ok.
Our brood box has a piece of wood to be able to move the lamp up and down. Move it down to be able to keep the brood box warmer and move it up to cool it a little.
The chicks themselves are a good indicator of how they feel; if they are huddled together under the lamp, they care cold and the lamp should be moved a little closer. If they are scattered as far away as they can from the lamp, they are too warm so move the lamp up.
Ideal temperatures mean your chicks will be scratching and milling about around the brood box.
You will need something to line your brood box with. Newspaper or no bedding can be slippery for young chicks and can lead to injury or foot and leg troubles later on.
We use pine wood shavings because we can get them in a large bale and since we’re operating a sustainable homestead, we mix the chicken poop soiled shavings with grass clippings from the garden in the compost heap that will break down and provide nutrients for the garden.
Other bedding choices include sand, chopped straw or shredded newspaper.
If you are in an urban or suburban setting like I am, you need some shelter for your chickens to keep them warm in winter, cooler in summer, protected from predators like neighborhood dogs, cats, foxes, raccoons and even bears.
You need to ensure there is enough space allocated for the chickens to have room to perch, lay, nest and move about inside the coop. A run attached is usually preferred in the urban homesteading setting and some city ordinances require it.
Here is just a short selection of coops available on Amazon:
As you can see there is a coop for pretty much any budget and styles including movable coops to rotate the birds around the yard. There are many coops available in farming supply stores and even more online.
I encourage you to look at as many coops as you can in the flesh/physically to get a sense of some of the following:
- Space inside the covered coop
- How easy will it be to clean?
- Space inside the run
- Removable perches (easier to clean)
- Nest box spaces
- Weather proofing
- Annual maintenance (will it need repainting each year?)
- Modification ease (can a green roof be added, rain catchment etc.)
- Where will the feed and water go?
- How does the coop door close (can you do it from the outside or do you need to reach in? Scrambling about on your knees to shut away the chickens might be ok in the summer but not so much fun in winter)
- Predator proofing
By looking at some coops live in the flesh, you can make a better assessment of coops available online and what needs you really have for your urban homestead.
There are many commercial coops available with many plus points but we are making our own in order to comply with the city ordinances and to give them more space.
We liked many features on lots of different coops and decided to build something which would meet those aspects of the commercial coops we like together in one Super-Coop that suited our family and meets all the city ordinance requirements.
Chicks grow quite quick and although you don’t need a coop at the ready when you first get your chicks, they soon out grow the brood box and need more space.
Healthcare or First Aid Kit
Baby chicks are susceptible to a myriad of conditions and a first aid kit is handy to have on standby so you can help with some basic first aid.
Some items you should have in your chicken first aid kit:
- Vinyl/latex free gloves
- 70% isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol)
- Aspirin pills or effervescent (dispersible) tablets
- Blu-kote H W NAYLOR BKP Antiseptic Spray, 4 oz
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Antibiotic ointment
- Chlorahexidine solution
- Vetericyn Plus Wound & Skin Care Spray 4 oz
- 3M Vetrap Bandage Tape, 2″ x 5 Yard Roll, Blue
- Non-stick pads
- Bandaids (Plasters)
- Bandage tape
- Plain intimate lubricant, not one with flavors or sensations (for prolapse)
- Hemorrhoid cream (for prolapse)
- Children’s diphenhydramine allergy medicine (for bite, stings etc)
- Petroleum Jelly or coconut oil
- Styptic powder (blood-stop for clotting wounds)
- Epsom salts
You should have a place to segregate the sick or injured bird with food, water and heat.
Feeder and Waterer
There are lots of options available to the urban homesteader and new chicken owner from automated, rat proof containers to ones you can make yourself.
Small chick feeders which can be seen as the rectangular red objects in the brood box pictures need filling regularly and are easy to clean. Circular containers are usually bigger and need refilling less.
Plastic containers break easier than metal and will fade or crack over time but are super easy to clean. Metal containers can rust up and get very hot in the sun but are usually predator proof.
There are also drip type waterers call chicken nipples or automatic chicken watering systems which drop water when the chicken pecks at it. This type of watering system is great because the birds can’t foul up their water. Chickens are messy and will get all of their bedding in their water and food containers, if it is possible, raise them up so they are slightly off the floor to reduce the chickens’ ability to kick up the bedding.
Currently in the brood box, we have to scrape out the wood shavings at least twice a day to ensure the hens have water. You can raise the waterer up on bricks if you have enough head space in the brood box and the chicks are able to reach the water still.
When you get your new chicks you will need to take them to the water and dip their beak into it to show them where the water is and how to drink.
Baby chicks and adult chickens benefit from good, friendly bacteria just like you and I. Baby chicks readily pick up gastrointestinal problems and maintaining healthy gut flora can help them defend themselves a bit better.
We have a probiotic and vitamins powder that we add to the water which is free from artificial colors. The benefit of me being a formulation scientist is knowing what ingredients really do and which to avoid. Many of the packs contained FD&C colors in them which I avoid in my food and the dogs’ food so I certainly didn’t want to add them to my chickens.
We use this probiotic and vitamin mix:
The color will turn yellow, this is caused by the riboflavin or vitamin B2 in the formula and is perfectly normal. Other probiotic mixes will contain yellow and red colors but this one does not which is why we use it.
Just as human beings need to replace electrolytes when they are dehydrated or sick, so do your chickens. The probiotic and vitamin mix above also contains electrolytes to maintain hydration.
You can buy chicken electrolyte packs to use when you get your chicks to help rehydrate them and combat the stress of shipping or bringing them home. Children’s electrolyte solutions or sachets and even sports drinks can be used. I avoid anything artificial so I opt for those which are free from artificial sweeteners and colors.
Add these to the chicks water to help them overcome travel stress and keep some in your first aid kit in case of sickness.
Our First Flock Was Not Without Problems
Unfortunately, our first problem occurred when the tiny Barred Rock had pasting. This is a condition which is common in commercially sourced chicks but can be easily mistaken for another condition which looks similar but is a navel infection.
The Chicken Chick has an incredible resource for raising chickens with pictures for identifying pasting in the post Pasty Butt In Chicks: Causes, Treatment & Prevention as well as My Pet Chicken in their help section Pasted Vent Overview.
We removed the caked poop which came of easily with warm water and it was only poop not an unhealed navel. We then dried her off as best we could without a hairdryer and returned her to under the heat lamp. She perked up and began exploring the “chicken enrichment” items for them to climb on, peck at and investigate such as natural branch perches, food, water and everything else in the new spacious brood box.
Things Went From Bad To Worse
Chicken Little the Barred Rock was the smallest and youngest. She was often picked on by the other, larger chicks in the flock. She began isolating herself from the others early on in the evening, then she stopped eating and drinking.
I coaxed her to drink and held her close as she drifted in and out of consciousness. She suffered two seizures and unfortunately died.
My dog Sparky nosed her to get her to move and looked from her to me with worry in his eyes. It was a heartbreaking moment.
I cried more than I thought I would, especially since we only got them two days before. It was amazing how easily and quickly these fluffy critters can capture your heart.
I wished I had noticed it sooner, dried her off better, done more for her but, it wasn’t meant to be and I have had to take comfort knowing that her last days were spent in a bigger space with lots of things for her to explore rather than being in the small holding pen drawers used at the store.
We buried her by the apple tree in the orchard and were all saddened by the events of the night but there was things which needed to be done. We had to clean out the brood box and sanitize everything in case it was something that could have been passed to the other chicks.
So our first steps into homesteading begin, with gain and loss as the circle of life must always continue.
Learn From Our Mistake
The Barred Rock was the only chick I did not check over and was the one the store assistant placed in the box whilst I was doing something else.
The other chicks I assessed the eyes, beak, nostrils, feet and vent to ensure all were ok. Had they not been clear, I would not have taken her.
We have since found out that it was a bad batch of birds and many of them were sickly.
We did get another bird from the same store but this time, my husband thoroughly checked the chick so the same mistake wasn’t made. My husband and step-son came home with a White Laced Wyandotte who was larger than the largest chick in the flock to reduce the likelihood of the existing flock bullying the newcomer.
Meet Mother Clucker. She is the most vocal of the bunch and is also known as Ranger by my step-son.
She has settled in with the flock very well and now all of the chicks are catching up in size and are rapidly outgrowing the brood box whilst we are rushing to finish the coop.
To read more about raising your own chickens take a look at my other posts:
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If you have any chicken raising tips, choosing chickens or anything else chicken related please share them in the comments or at the Misfit Gardening Community Forum, we would love to hear your ideas and tips.