If you are like me and have started to make the switch to pick up organic labelled products in the grocery store because you have been reading the news about how our food sources have become more contaminated with poisonous toxins that negatively affect you and your children, then this article is for you. Most people would choose a fresh egg from a known farm with healthy free roaming chickens any day- but the price may prohibit it. The alternative is you raising your own egg-laying chickens or tick eating guinea keets. We have found it not only easy, but a highly enjoyable experience.
A year ago we ordered our first official farm animals- 3 Silkie Chickens- from California. After successfully keeping them alive, we ordered 30 brown-egg laying chicks from McMurray’s Hatchery. This Spring I decided to order 30 Guinea Keets from McMurrays to help us battle the tick population. The following are my tips for keeping day old chicks alive, raising them into adulthood, and caring for the aging chickens.
KEEPING THEM ALIVE
Think of their homing in three phases. The first phase is about two weeks where you are keeping them inside your home (yes inside). The second phase is after two weeks when they are big enough and strong enough to be moved to something like a rabbit hutch. The third phase is when they become too large for the hutch and they either need to free roam or be moved to a large netted pen. The most critical phase is the first two weeks.
Tools You Need:
Phase One: heat lamp, red light bulb, 1 large long cardboard box with sides tall enough they can’t jump out, a plastic or paper plate, a plastic water feeder, medicated chick feed, Newspaper.
Phase Two: Rabbit/Fowl Hutch (raised off ground with metal netting for protection from preditors and weather), plastic water feeder, metal or plastic food feeder, cedar shavings, and a large plastic bin you can buy at Home Depot or Target, and finally chicken or guinea crumble, and a large scoop that can hold several cups of food at a time. Buy the hutch off craigslist or build it yourself from free online plans to save some cash.
Phase Three: Metal Fence with netting above and barn/ shelter from elements, cedar shavings, basket to collect eggs, egg wipes, the feed scoop and feed bin from Phase two and water feeder from feed store.
1. Buying. There are several sources of chicks. If you live in the North East you may be a close enough drive from the Amish or Amish market where the Amish sell chickens. Also, many local feed stores take orders for chicks in Spring time. Finally, there are hatcherys all over the country which offer birds year round. I like McMurray’s which is a well established hatchery with lots of choices of birds and a good policy where if the birds all die in the first week, like our first batch of keets this Spring, they will refund or send you another batch for free.
Timing. Most offer egg laying hens, guineas, and specialty birds in Spring and quail, turkeys, ect in late summer/fall. Ideally, you want to order them to be delivered or pick them up early enough in Spring that the birds will lay by Fall (since the chickens take about 6 months to mature to egg layers) and warm enough that you don’t have to have them outside under a heat lamp 24-7 which is a fire hazard. Ideally it is around 80-85 degrees out.
Numbers. The nice thing about ordering from the feed store or buying from the Amish is you can buy individual birds instead of a group. McMurrays only sells birds in groups of 30 or more which is much more pricey. However, as I will describe below, if you are buying fowl from first hatch, the chances are some will not survive and so you get more chicks then you want/need knowing your numbers can drop to about half in a year through disease/preditors/ect. Another option is to get the larger numbers, keep them alive and healthy for two weeks and then sell them at a higher price on BackYardforums, ect.
Shipping. Most hatcheries ship chicks hours from when they were born because the chicks don’t need to eat immediately. The only carrier in the US which ships chicks is the US Post Office. No, they cannot be Fed-Exed. The issue is that if the Post Office loses them and they are a day or two late they starve to death. So – in addition to being ready to drop everything and drive to the Post Office in your PJs before your first cup of coffee because the postman called and said the chicks have arrived – you have to be ready and prepared to nurse sick dying chicks back to health.
2. Prep Time.Before they come, get the cardboard box, cover bottom of box with newspaper. Place paper plate with Medicated Chicken Crumble on bottom of box. I use a paper plate to start because it is large and flat and the chicks like to explore with their pecks so I find giving them a larger source of food allows all the chicks access and exploratory space. Fill plastic water feeder and place in box. Take the heat lamp (hopefully is on a clamp) and clamp it 12-18 inches above one side of the box. I place a stool next to the box and clamp the lamp on it. Fold over cardboard on opposite side and make sure the water and food is under the shaded side of the box. The reason for this is that the chicks will move from the heat to the food and water and back. This encourages them to move and ensures the water and food doesn’t get hot. You want the chicks to be able to get under the heat, then escape the heat depending on their needs.
3. Emergency Room.
I think of the first couple of hours the chicks come as an Emergency Room. They are tired, dehydrated, cold. When chicks arrive, turn on heat lamp. It should get to about 90 degrees. Some people throw a temp gage below the lamp to test the temp but I wouldn’t leave it there because the chicks congregate and poop on it. Take each chick out individually and dip their beaks into the water and then place them on the food plate and let them go. This gives them a little jump start on dehydration and figuring out where food and water is in relation to the heat (which they will find very quickly). Sometimes I put a little chicken electrolyte power in the water as well. Some people sware by it.
4. Then watch the chicks. There WILL be chicks laying down dying. Chicks should NOT be laying down unable to get up. Take the sick chicks and redip their beaks in the trough and place them in a second box and place them under heater in the second box. Basically, you are separating the sick chicks from the healthy ones so that you not only can watch them and give them extra attention, but so that they also have a chance to breadth and not be pecked on and climbed on by the other chicks. So the heat lamp should be split between boxes placed right next to each other.
5. Grab a water glass, fill it with water and a tsp of sugar. dribble that mixture on both troughs. The healthy chicks should be eating it up and walking back and forth from trough to heat lamp area (don’t put trough under heat lamp because then chicks just sit in it to get heat and prevent other chicks from eating). Go back to sick chicks every 15 minutes for a couple hours and redip their beaks in mixture. They should start to come around and stand up. If they don’t, try taking an eye-dropper, filling it with the sugar water, then hold the chick, force its mouth open, and drop in water into its mouth.
6. Amount of Food. During the first two weeks I keep the plate filled. A lot of it will end up on the newspaper (just change the newspaper if it gets yucky from the water/food mix). I also keep the water filled. This means you will probably need to refill plate and water 3-4 times day.
6. Survival. Finally, a neighbor told us the first time we got the chicks that we would lose some. At the time, I was horrified, for not only had I paid money for these things, but a living thing dying in my care was just not comprehensible. But a year into raising fowl, I will tell you, the probability is that you will lose some. We managed to keep the 3 Silkies alive, but we lost 16 of 30 of the original brown egg layers – 3 in the first week, the rest over time to foxes. Three weeks ago we lost all 30 keets in 5 days- they were obviously sick when they arrived and nothing we did saved them. However, McMurray’s sent a replacement batch for free and we have kept more than 20 of those alive and they have moved to the second phase.
RAISING THEM TO ADULTS
1. Shelter Phase Two:
After about two weeks inside maturing we move the chicks/keets outside into a rabbit hutch. It is great because it has a wooden “house” with a door for outside access on one side and a door with clear flap leading to a wire and wood rabbit run on the other. This allows the birds to get outside in the sunlight and fresh air but still be protected from preditors. It also allows them time to get to know who brings their food and where their home is so that once they are free roaming you can actually round them up at night for protection in a barn. The wooden box protects from the rain, wind, and temperature drop at night.
2. Food: When I first move them to their new hovel, I put them in the wooden box part and I block the flapped door so that the fowl get used to their safety zone first. I put their food and water in plastic containers. For how much food. At two weeks I move them off the medicated chick food and onto either chicken crumble or guinea crumble. The feed stores carry these thin long trays that are perfect for many birds feeding at once but really any kind of plastic plate will do so long as it holds enough food to get them through half-all of the day depending on how large it is. I take the food and put it into the large plastic bin from Home Depot, market “Chickens” on the top and sides with black magic marker, and place it inside the rabbit hutch run. Because we live on a farm, we have lots of animals (racoons, mice, skunks, birds, and therefore snakes) interested in the food bin. We found out the hard way that putting the food in a bind that closes tightly and is hard to chew through and is off the ground is the best way to avoid it getting attention and being broken into. If you can keep it safe in a shed or barn that may be an OK option except that then for every feeding you have to drag your scoop of food back and forth to the chicken hutch. So if you can manage to put the bin inside the rabbit run part of the hutch, it protects it while making it fast and easy to feed.
3. Cedar Shavings. Fowl are messy and their poop stinks. Cedar shavings are a controversial solution. I spread a thin layer on the bottom of the boxed in portion of the hutch. I do this not only to mask the smell, but because it allows for nesting and then a quicker clean because the poop isn’t sticking to the bottom of the hutch. However, some say the birds will peck, eat, and inhale the cedar shavings and kill them. I have never had that problem, but there is both sides for you.
4. Phase 3 Shelter.
You have three choices at Phase 3 of what to do next. If you only have a couple of chickens and the hutch is large enough you may consider leaving them in the hutch or letting them free roam during the day and penning them up in the hutch at night (do this by teaching them to feed at sundown when you come out with food that you put in the hutch and they jump up into the hutch to eat and then shut them in). You can let them just free roam. The last choice is to barn and pen them. Because we live in a place with so many preditors roaming around at night, we barn and pen them.
Our farm already had a chicken barn and pen constructed. The barn is tall and fairly thin with nesting boxes off the ground and two roosting poles. It has a door where we enter to clean and collect eggs and three “chicken doors” one at the bottom and two at the top to allow the chickens in and out into the penned chicken yard. At the beginning, I used to open all of the doors and then shut them all at night once the chickens were in the barn. This was after foxes dug under the fence and ate a bunch of the chickens. Lately, mainly because I am lazy, I have been only opening the top door doors so the chickens actually fly in and out of the doors which are too high for a fox to get into (but not a raccoon). The chickens have learned to fly into the barn at nightfall and roost off the ground for protection and that seems to be working. Regardless, the bottom of the barn is cement which is VERY helpful because after I clean up the cedar shavings (yes, I put them on the bottom of the barn too), I cleanse and hose off the concrete to provide more sanity conditions.
The fence is metal and about 4 feet tall. It has netting covering the top in a tent like fashion. This keeps the chickens from getting out. However, our suggestion is to place some kind of metal or wood barrier at the fence base for animals that dig under fences. We ended up taking metal coat hangers and cutting them into long pieces that we inserted at the bottom of the fence line to make it harder to dig under (they are almost like stakes).
5. Phase 3 Nesting.
Our barn has some nice nesting boxes but when I accidently forgot a bale of cedar shavings in their barn that became the communal nest. It has worked beautifully. The chickens each take their turn laying and nesting and at the end of the day I get to collect all the eggs from one very clean place. My suggestion is for you to create the same kind of nest and encourage the communal laying.
Also, you need a container to collect the eggs. I actually just use our Easter basket. You don’t need anything fancy, just something that can support and keep the eggs from cracking as you put them in.
I collect the eggs once a day in the evening when I put the chickens up. After I collect them I bring them inside and rub them down with an egg wipe which gets any gook or bad bacteria off them. We ordered 50 egg cartons from eggcartons.com, stamp them with a pretty blue nest stamp, mark them “Candy Hill Farm” and gift or sell them to friends. Each chicken will lay at least an egg a day so if you have 12 chickens, you have a dozen a day.
But one thing I will tell you as a “didn’t eat eggs before I moved to the farm” kind of girl….. once you taste the goodness of fresh eggs… all the work and cost is totally worth it.