Most people think eggs come from the store.
Well, surprise! Not only do they NOT come from the store, but anyone with a little time and a little space can raise lovely laying hens from day old chicks. In about five months’ time, you can be making a delicious omelet from your very own eggs.
Guess how baby chicks come to your door? In the US Mail! Yes, they really do. When baby chicks hatch at the hatchery, the egg yolk from the egg they were in has been nourishing them during their incubation. Because of this stored-up feed, the baby chick doesn’t need to eat immediately, and can be shipped through the mail to your door.
Maximum time for traveling should be no more than 48 hours from hatch to arrival at your home. Most hatcheries will ship only to a specified distance to allow for the baby chicks to arrive safely.
When you pick up your chicks at the post office (go and get them, don’t wait for the mailman to bring them to you), take them home right away. Keep them warm. Remember, these are baby chicks! They are fragile.
The ideal “chick nursery” consists of a draft-free area lined with sawdust or wood shavings, a heat lamp aimed at the floor, a feed trough and a water source. (Your local farm store can help you here. You’ll want to make sure you pick up some chick starter, it comes in large bags.) These tiny chicks know what they need to do to grow up big and strong, but a little help from you doesn’t hurt!
Our best nursery was an old 100 gallon water tank that we lined with wood shavings. The sides are tall and prevent any drafts (killer to baby chicks), and lining the floor with wood shavings keeps the chicks clean and sanitary. Every day add a thin layer of additional wood shavings, which will keep your chicks healthy. (The wood shavings absorb the chicks’ excretions and the resulting decomposition action actually provides some gentle warmth from the floor.) A 100 gallon tank will allow you space to add shavings for at least 3-4 weeks for about 25 chicks, at which time the chicks may be getting too large for the tank anyway!
Back to Day #1, bringing the chicks home. Have a heat lamp with a 100-200 watt bulb ready, placed pointing downward. Take the chicks out of the shipping container and dip their beaks, one at a time, into the water and the food. (Remember, they know what to do with the food and water, but it helps them to see where it’s located.) Then let them go!
Chicks that have been shipped can be a little disoriented, and we’ve found that a little apple cider vinegar helps this tremendously. Add one tablespoon cider vinegar to one gallon water to help settle their tummies. The chickens thrive on it, and we’ve found it helpful for them to have access to the vinegar water their whole lives. This will also stop the chicks from pecking each other.
Add a couple of handfuls of pinhead-sized gravel and sand to the wood shavings. Your chicks need gravel in their “craw,” the bag inside their throat that serves as their “teeth.” You may have noticed that chickens don’t chew their food. What they do is allow food to travel into the craw, where they have a supply of gravel that grinds their food for them. You’ll see your chicks scratching in the dirt, looking for gravel and other goodies. This is normal, and another sign that your chicks are healthy and happy.
You will want to monitor the heat lamp for the first few days. If the chicks lay under it, then they’re probably too cold. If they circle away from it, they are probably too warm. They need to be kept at about 95 degrees until their feathers grow in. Watch them. If you see chicks walk under the light and stretch a leg or a wing and then walk back out of the light, you’re probably in good shape. The optimal distance for the lamp to be from the bottom of the floor is when the chicks lay down in a circle around the light from the lamp. You’ll be able to tell.
Make sure to leave the light on 24/7.
Another sign of happy, healthy chicks is the little chirp, chirp sound they make. Not a distressed “Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!” sound, but a quiet, little, chit-chatty chirping sound. You’ll be able to tell pretty quickly when you have happy chicks, because they will constantly make this sound. If you hear nothing, something is wrong with your babies. Check their heat, food and water. When they’re happy, they’ll sing.
At about 3 weeks of age the chicks will be fully feathered and able to stand differences in temperature pretty well. You can transfer them out of the 100 gallon tank now. Some people will use a hen house, and others will make a cage with no bottom, but lined on the top and sides with chicken wire so that predators can’t get in. If you live out in the country, your happy chirping chicks will be very attractive to skunks, racoons, possums, foxes, owls and other local varmints. Protect them! Make sure nothing can get your babies.
The dietary needs of your chicks are changing as they grow. We’ve found that feeding a cafeteria-style buffet works the best, with their choice of whole or cracked corn, whole oats, brewers yeast and oyster shells. The whole grains prevent parasite problems. Make sure that your chicks have access to fresh, green grass and plant material. They love to eat bugs and greens!
Once your chicks are about three months old, they’ll look full grown. They aren’t though. Give them a couple of months longer and start looking for fresh eggs. Yum!