Ask Farmer Pete: How to Raise Chicks for Laying Hens
Are you interested in starting your own backyard chicken operation? Pete King walks us through the process of raising and caring for laying hens.
I’m planning to raise baby chicks this year. How do I get started?
Pete King: There are several hatcheries available online. Most require a minimum order of 15 birds in order to ship them. Place your order 2-6 weeks in advance of the date that you would like them shipped.
How are baby chicks delivered?
PK: Baby chicks are delivered the day after they hatch. They are put in a box and overnight mailed. They arrive hungry and thirsty. It’s important to have a brooder area and food and water set up and ready to go.
What is a brooder area?
PK: The brooder area is a closed off area with walls at least 24 inches high and good ventilation that is kept warm and dry. You can use a large cardboard box to build a brooder area. The important thing is to avoid a draft or a chill. Egg layer chicks need to be kept at 90-99ºF for the first week of life. Their feathers haven’t developed yet, so it’s your job to keep them warm. Each chick needs at least half a foot of space for the first two weeks. After that, increase the space to one foot per chick.
How do I keep the chicks warm?
PK: Keep a brood lamp on them. A brood lamp, or heat lamp, can be clamped on and mounted above the brooding area. You can adjust the temperature by raising and lowering the brood lamp. Use a thermometer to monitor the temperature, but more importantly, watch the chicks. I keep my chicks near the house, where I can look out and make sure that the light is always on. If they spread out and keep away from the light, it’s too hot. If the lamp is too high, you will see the chickens huddle together for warmth and risk smothering each other. If they are chilly, they will be at risk of catching pneumonia, which will kill them.
You can reduce the temperature each week until you reach 70ºF, but leave the heat lamp on them for the first 15 weeks, especially at night. Keep them warm, and keep them dry.
How do I keep the chicks dry?
PK: I like to use wood shavings for bedding, the finer the better. While you can use straw or leaves, I find that they tend to mat and get damp. Wood shavings make it easy for them to stay dry, scratch around, and clean their beaks. I use the chips and shavings from the woodcarving projects I do during the winter, but you can buy a bale of wood shavings.
What about food and water?
PK: Baby chicks need plenty of food and water to eat and drink right away. Set out the food and water in separate containers. When you put the chicks in the brooder area, dip their beaks in water to get them started. You will need starter feed, which has a higher protein ratio. We have a local guy milling our feed, but you can purchase starter feed at any feed store. Keep them fed all the time. Don’t let them go hungry. Check on them twice a day, and make sure they have feed and water. You don’t want them rushing the feeder – that’s a sign that they aren’t getting enough food.
Is there anything else that they need?
PK: Chickens need grit in order to develop their craw, gizzard, and functional digestive system. You can buy grit at the feed store, or you can dig it up from a sandy field. If you’ve got a stream on your property or know somebody who has one, go dig some up and toss it into the brooder house.
When do you move the chicks outside?
PK: My egg layers spend about a month in the brooder area, then I would recommend starting to get them outside, unless the weather is still below freezing. You will need to keep them in some kind of protected confinement pen that is easy to move. In a backyard or for a larger scale operation, it’s ideal to use a mobile simple structure that can be moved every day.
Why is a mobile chicken coop ideal?
PK: Chickens that are kept moving are happy, healthy, clean, have nice growth, and won’t lack vital nutrients or minerals. The more green material the chickens have access to, the better. Chickens that are able to forage on green material really appreciate it. You’ll also have the best lawn in the neighborhood with all that natural fertilizer. When you move the chickens daily, you never get the high concentration of manure that causes the rank ammonia smell. Chickens will keep insects in check by utilizing pest bugs, and they’ll also eat your table scraps. Anything you don’t eat, the chickens will take care of and turn into something useful.
You can build your own chicken coop, or you can buy one from Freedom Farms. We offer a mobile, pine coop. It’s perfect for starting your backyard chicken operation. You can order it online at our website and pick it up at the Farmers Market.
How long does it take before a chick starts laying?
PK: Most hens will start laying between 5-7 months of age. They will lay best at 1 to 2 years of age. All pullets (female chicken under 1 year of age) lay small eggs at first and after a while will lay larger eggs. Younger hens will lay 1 egg every 3-4 days.
What if I want to buy a hen that is already laying?
PK: This year, we are selling full grown pullets. We have Rhode Island Reds that are 20 weeks old, in key production. These are the best chickens you can get. They started last fall, spent some time on the pasture, and were fed high quality local feed in the greenhouse all winter. They are clean and pretty, with shining feathers. They would make a lovely addition to any backyard. We also offer birds in their second year of production. Again, visit our website and place an order. Your birds will be ready for pickup and you can get a head start on your backyard laying operation.
Interested in purchasing laying hens or a coop from Freedom Farms? Order today at our Online Store.