A Guide to Raising Baby Chickens for Beginners

Nowadays many are taking back some control and raising their own food via a flock of backyard chickens. It’s not a bad idea! If you’ve never raised a flock before, or need a quick refresher, here's a quick guide to raising baby chickens for beginners.

If you’ve never raised a flock before, or need a quick refresher, here's a quick guide to raising baby chickens for beginners.

Chickens 101 - Can You Have Chickens?

Before getting started raising baby chickens for beginners, be sure to check your local regulations to see if chickens are allowed in your neighborhood. Most subdivisions with homeowner’s associations don’t allow it, but some do.  Some areas restrict the number of birds you can keep. Others allow hens but not roosters. Others regulate how a chicken coop looks, how far from the property line it must be located etc. Don’t forget, properly cared for chickens can live a long time. (I have chickens that are over 10 years old.) They are your responsibility and are a long-term investment. Don’t purchase because of the pandemic, purchase because you are ready for the commitment and the reward that comes with it. 

Backyard Chicken Lingo 

As with every activity in life, there’s usually a set of terms that defines things. Backyard chicken keeping is no different. In fact, it’s vital to know the terms of the road before you start out, otherwise, you may end up where you didn’t want to go. 

Hen – A mature female chicken. 

Pullet – A female chicken that’s less than a year old. 

Rooster (Cock) – A mature male chicken. 

Cockerel – A young male chicken. 

Straight Run – Unsexed day-old chickens. 

Broody Hen – A hen that wants to lay eggs and hatch them. 

Clutch – The set of eggs a broody hen sits on to hatch. 

Point of Lay – This is the time when pullets begin to lay eggs for the first time. 

Breed – A group of chickens with the same general features of height, weight, feather color, egg color etc. Examples of breeds are Cochin, Rhode Island Red, Wyandotte and Orpington. When a breed of chicken mates with its same breed, you can expect the offspring to have the same characteristics as the parents. A hybrid chicken is mixed with two or more breeds. Like a mutt., its offspring will not breed true. 

Bantam – A small-sized chicken, usually ¼ to ½ the size of a regular chicken. 

Broiler – A chicken raised for meat. 

Laying Hen (Layer) – A chicken raised for its eggs. 

Molt – The natural yearly process where chickens shed their feathers in late summer/early fall and replace them with new feathers. A chicken’s first adult molt begins around 18 months of age. 

Coop and Run – The coop is an enclosed chicken house where chickens will roost at night and lay their eggs. A run is an enclosed structure attached to the coop where chickens can get outside and stretch their legs. 

Nest Boxes – A designated area of the coop (can be boxes hung on the coop wall) where hens will lay their eggs. You should provide one nest box for every four to five hens. 

Brooder – This is the area where you hand-raise baby chickens. It contains a heat source and food and water. 

Comb – The fleshy red skin at the top of a chicken’s head. 

Wattle – The fleshy red flaps of skin on a chicken’s chin. Pin the image below to save this information for later.

Purchasing Day-Old Chickens 

Day-old chickens will come sexed as pullets or unsexed as straight run. If you purchase straight run, that means you’re going to get males and females together. Statistics show straight run is about 50/50 females to males. If you can’t have roosters or don’t want them, don’t purchase straight run. Know, however, that sexing day-old chicks is not completely accurate, so sexed pullets may not all turn out to be hens. In a farm store, you also can’t be sure a worker or shopper always picks up a chicken and puts it back in the right brooder. Sometimes straight-run chicks end up in pullet bins. 

Note: You do not need a rooster for a hen to lay eggs, she will lay eggs regardless of whether you have a rooster. A rooster is only needed to fertilize eggs. 

If you purchase from a farm store, you will be able to handpick your chicks. Be sure you are happy with your choices before you leave the store as they don’t usually accept returns. Know that many stores have a minimum number of chicks or ducks, that you must purchase at one time. The most common minimums are three or six at a time. 

Choosing Your Chicken Breed 

Breed choice is part of the fun of chicken ownership - there are literally hundreds to choose from! Here are some categories to consider based on your goals — egg layer, dual-purpose (can be used for eggs and meat), meat bird, weather tolerance (heat, cold or both). Within those parameters, there are many choices. Some are more family-friendly. Some will go broody more than others. All have unique feather colors. Egg color may also a consideration. 

Note: Eggshell color is genetic and does not affect the taste of an egg. Egg taste is based on a chicken’s diet and the freshness of the egg. 

Raising Baby Chickens 

When you hand-raise day-old chicks, you are replacing their broody mom, so you’ve got to provide what she would provide them — shelter, warmth, food and water. Don’t spend a lot of money on your brooder because it will need to get bigger as your chicks get bigger. You don’t want it too big in the beginning because the chicks shouldn’t get too far from their heat source. Three examples I have used are a large plastic storage tub, an old guinea pig cage and a mesh puppy playpen. I raise my chicks inside the house and then move the brooder to the garage as the chicks get bigger (and messier). Make sure your brooder is secure on the top because baby chickens can fly! 

If you’ve never raised a flock before, or need a quick refresher, here's a quick guide to raising baby chickens for beginners.

For heat, there are two popular options, a heat lamp and a brooder plate. I started out raising baby chickens with a heat lamp. It worked well, but you’ve got to be careful because a heat lamp can be a fire hazard. Eventually, I splurged and switched to a brooder plate. I wish I had done it sooner (a Brinsea EcoGlow, in case you're curious). I wish I had done it sooner. It’s easier, uses less electricity and has a greatly reduced fire risk. You also don’t have to worry so much about the temperature. Just make sure the room where your chicks are being raised is a good temperature. (I keep mine at 73°F.) Then let the chicks do the rest. They will run out from under the brooder plate to get food and water and to explore, then run back under when they need some heat. This is what they would do if they were being raised by mom. 

If you’re using a heat lamp, you need to measure the temperature at the bottom of the brooder since that’s where the chicks hang out. From hatch to one week of age, the brooder temperature should be 90 to 95°F and then go down five degrees each week. Watch your chicks closely. If they are cold, they’ll huddle around the heat and will chirp loudly, if they’re too hot, they’ll be sprawled out around the brooder and pant. Make adjustments as needed. 

If you’ve never raised a flock before, or need a quick refresher, here's a quick guide to raising baby chickens for beginners.

Special chick-sized equipment for food and water is available and helpful. Know that as the chicks grow, you’ll need to raise the food and water to their height to reduce waste. Until pullets reach their point of lay, they must be fed starter/grower feed. This comes in two different formulations: medicated and non-medicated. The medicated feed contains amprolium which keeps the number of coccidia low in the chick’s system so their maturing immune system isn’t overwhelmed and they develop coccidiosis which can result in poor growth and death. If your chicks have been vaccinated for coccidiosis, they don’t need medicated starter feed. 

Note: Do not feed layer feed meant for hens that are already laying eggs to baby chickens. Layer feed contains calcium which is harmful to a growing chick. If you have a mixed flock of adults and young chickens, switch everyone to starter/grower feed and offer calcium free-choice to the adults. 

When Can My Chicks Go Outside? 

For the first month of life, chicks aren’t fully feathered and can’t regulate their body temperature. If the chicks are a few weeks old and you have a warm day, you can take them outside to a protected enclosed area for short visits, but stay with them and bring them back inside if the weather turns or they are showing signs of distress. 

Your chickens can live outside full time when they are around nine to 10 weeks of age and the weather is not dipping into the 50s at night. If you have an existing flock, you should wait to integrate the new chicks until they are about the same size as the older birds. This can take a bit and may require temporary separate housing. 

If you’ve never raised a flock before, or need a quick refresher, here's a quick guide to raising baby chickens for beginners.

When Will I Get Eggs? 

The quick answer to when you’ll get eggs is around 18 to 20 weeks of age. This can take longer depending on the breed and the time of year you purchased your chicks. If you are raising chicks in the fall, they will mature in the winter and will not lay eggs until the length of daylight increases. Chickens need about 16 hours of light each day to maintain consistent egg laying. 

Around 18 weeks, introduce layer feed to your hens. This will give them more calcium to make their eggs. Don’t go cold turkey on the feed. Make the switch gradually to allow their systems time to adjust. 

This is also the time to introduce nest boxes. Line the boxes with some clean shavings and place a few fake eggs into each box. This shows the hens where to lay. 

As your hens start to lay, be aware their first eggs will be small and of inconsistent quality. This is the time you may find more double-yolk eggs. This is all normal as a hen’s body adjusts to the rhythm of laying. 

Collect eggs often and make the decision to wash or not. Eggs have a protective layer called a cuticle. It’s what you see that’s shiny and wet when an egg is first laid. It dries quickly and is efficient at keeping out bacteria. If you wash an egg, the cuticle is removed and the egg should be stored in the refrigerator. Many backyard chicken keepers don’t wash their eggs unless they are heavily soiled. Small particles can be brushed or picked off. 

If you’ve never raised a flock before, or need a quick refresher, here's a quick guide to raising baby chickens for beginners.

Broiler Chickens 

Raising chickens for meat is possible and not terribly time-consuming. First, decide how much meat you’ll need for your family for a period of time, say six months or a year. That’s how many birds you should raise, process and freeze. (Maybe throw in an extra bird or two in case of losses.) Then, decide what you want to raise. There are a couple ways you can go with meat birds — raise hybrids specifically designed for meat or raise dual-purpose breeds. 

With the hybrid birds, there are usually two offerings, a Cornish Cross-type or a Ranger type. The Cornish Cross is a white bird meant for confinement. It grows quickly and is ready to process around eight weeks for a five-pound table bird. (It takes about 10 pounds of feed per bird to reach this weight.) If you want a larger table bird, you can let them go a bit longer, but don’t wait too long. Because of their robust growth, Cornish Cross can develop life-threatening health problems and suffer. 

Note: Broilers can overheat easily because of their rapid weight gain. It’s best to raise them early or late in the season to take advantage of cooler weather. Ranger birds can free-range and take a bit longer until processing time around nine to 12 weeks of age. 

If you’re raising dual-purpose birds, you can pick straight run and eat the roosters leaving the hens for egg production. Dual-purpose birds can be processed around 16 weeks. 

Both the rangers and dual-purpose birds are said to have more flavorful meat with little fat because they can free-range and have a more natural diet. Keep in mind the difference between the live weight and the edible portion of a chicken is roughly 70 percent give or take a little for breed. Broilers should be raised on starter/grower feed for three to four weeks and then switched to grower/finisher feed. 

If you are not prepared to slaughter your own birds, look to local sources. There are usually processors that handle 4-H birds and can process your birds too. You usually need to set up the processing date when you first get your birds, that way the processor can fit you in the schedule. 

Ongoing Maintenance 

On a daily basis, chickens are easy to maintain. At a minimum, they should be let out of their coop to roam their enclosed run or safely free range in the morning. They need fresh water and food each day and refreshed as needed. Their eggs should be collected each day and they should be closed safely in their coop at dusk. 

Cleanliness is key to good health. The coop bedding (pine shavings are my preference) should be changed as needed. If your birds free range during the day, the bedding won’t get dirty as fast as the bedding for confined chickens. 

Your birds can help you turn kitchen waste into eggs/meat as you feed them your leftover scraps. Just make sure not to make treats, including scratch grains, too much of their diet. A ratio of 90 percent formulated diet to 10 percent treats is a good gauge. 

All said, raising backyard chickens provides your family with a reliable source of food and it can be a wonderful learning experience for children. Plus, who doesn't love an adorable baby chicken?

As seen in The New Pioneer magazine.

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