Covering everything you need to know to care for your backyard chickens in 2023.
While chickens are probably one of the easiest animals to raise, it’s extremely important to do your research before bringing your babies home.
Since the pandemic hit, there has been a renewed interest in self-sustainability.
People who never gave purchasing a dozen eggs from the store a second thought are now interested in raising their own backyard chicken flock.
While this is a wonderful step in the right direction, we must remember that baby chicks are live animals with a very unique set of care guidelines.
Basic Chicken Concepts
Egg producing birds are called “layers” and meat birds are either called “meat birds” or “broilers“.
Layers are hens (female chickens) and meat birds can either be hens or roosters (male chickens).
Butchering is also referred to as “processing“.
Some breeds are considered “dual purpose” which means that the hens can be used for both egg production and meat.
Roosters are male and do not lay eggs.
Determine Local Zoning Laws for Backyard Chickens
Before anything else, give the town hall a call to find out whether or not you’re actually allowed to keep chickens in your backyard.
Some town codes can be pretty strict. HOA’s in particular carry tight regulations within their by-laws that can get complicated.
For example: even though we live in a rural part of Long Island where farming makes up most of the local economy, our township restricts the number of hens we’re allowed to keep. Roosters are banned entirely unless you get a special permit.
Set Backyard Chicken Goals
Once you know you’re allowed to have backyard chickens, the next step is to set goals.
The most common reasons people raise chickens are for insect control, pets, eggs, and meat.
I had two very basic goals.
#1: Fresh eggs.
We go through a minimum of two dozen eggs every single week. It’s a lot!
While having fresh eggs is not cost effective, we wanted to begin taking charge of our food security and sourcing one ingredient at a time.
#2: Natural insect control.
Our farmhouse sits right on the outskirts of a protected Pine Barrens region. Spanning approximately 100,000 acres, it is beautiful, rural, and bustling with wildlife – including insects.
Herbicides and pesticides aren’t in line with our values so raising a backyard flock was an easy choice for us.
Choose a Backyard Chicken Breed
After you’ve figured out why you want chickens, do some research to find the breeds that best fit your needs.
Some are calm and like to be handled, some are abundant egg producers, some are fast growing for meat production, some are ornamental and meant to be pets, some are all four, and others are none.
I recommend narrowing it down to 3 different breeds that you’re interested in and take it from there.
Check out my post on the 15 Best Large Chicken Breeds for inspiration.
Where to Buy Baby Chicks
The most common ways to buy baby chicks are through Tractor Supply Chick Days, online Hatcheries, and local breeders.
Tractor Supply Chick Days
Every spring, Tractor Supply company stores host an event referred to as “Chick Days”.
There, you can purchase the chicks at the store in person or online. You will generally find 7 or 8 breeds to choose from.
If you order online, the chicks will be shipped to your local post office. Tractor Supply offers day old chicks (groups of 10) as well as pullets (groups of 4) for purchase.
Tractor Supply baby chicks are NOT vaccinated. Pullets are vaccinated for both coccidiosis and Marek’s disease.
Online poultry hatcheries vary widely in their reputations and quality. If you are going to go this route, make sure you do your research.
At a bare minimum, the hatchery should be NPIP certified.
NPIP stands for the National Poultry Improvement Plan and is governed by the USDA. They provide oversight to ensure the hatchery poultry is not infected with pullorum disease, avian influenza, fowl typhoid, infectious synovitis, and others which can quickly wipe out entire flocks.
The benefit of a reputable online hatchery is their vast selection of breeds, guaranteed bloodlines, availability of vaccinations, delivery time frames, and ability to pre-order far in advance.
I ordered my flock from an online hatchery and was very happy with the experience.
Starting your flock from a local supplier is the third option.
If you aren’t concerned about specific breeds or whether or not you end up with hens or roosters, this may be an option for you.
Be wary of anyone naming themselves as a “breeder” without documentation of proper bloodlines and infection control protocols.
With very few vets offering poultry services, obtaining chicks locally is not for the faint of heart.
How to Buy Baby Chicks
High quality chicks are a must if you want to avoid unnecessary heartache, hassle, and financial loss.
Chicks are sold either as straight runs, sexed groups, or as pullets.
Straight Run Chicks
A straight run is a group of baby chicks that have not been sexed and determined to be male or female.
This is risky for those like us who are not allowed to have roosters on their property.
A sexed group are birds that have been identified as either male or female through various sexing methods.
Most large scale hatcheries hire a poultry professional who’s only job is to identify if a chick is male or female.
Pullets are “started” female chicks that have been raised usually to the age of 4 to 6 weeks before being sold.
They are more expensive than baby chicks but the convenience of knowing you’re getting a female is worth the cost for some.
Decide if You Want Your Baby Chicks Vaccinated
The two vaccines commonly offered for baby chicks are for coccidiosis and Marek’s disease. There is generally an additional fee of several dollars for the entire order.
Merck Veterinary Manual provides an updated for 2020, although vague, set of recommendations for vaccinating backyard poultry. Vaccination for Marek’s disease was recommended in all cases.
Although you can decline initially and change your mind to vaccinate later, it is best to have it done during the first 3 days of the chick’s life.
It’s a personal decision and yours to make.
Place Your Order And Await Shipment/Pick Up
Once you place your oder and pick a delivery date, you will have some time to gather your equipment to prepare for arrival.
The most widely accepted practice is ship the chicks via expedited mail service to your local post office when the chicks are around 12 hours old.
The post office will call you by phone to let you know your chicks have arrived.
Plan your schedule on the week of delivery to have some degree of flexibility.
Baby chicks have a 3 day supply of nutrition from the yolk sac once they’ve hatched.
That being said, they may have had a rough first few days and will arrive tired, cold, hungry, and thirsty.
The birds must be picked up the same day to have the best chance at survival.
In the few days prior to your delivery window, set up the brooder and test the heating source to make sure it works.
You’ll need to turn this on prior to bringing the babies home so that they can immediately go into a warm setting.
As soon as you get your babies home, there are a few things you’ll need to do.
1.) Open the box and inspect the flock for health and viability.
Losses during travel usually need to be reported to the supplier by phone within 24 hours of delivery.
2.) Gently take each chick out and gently dipir the beak into the waterer.
This shows them where it is and lets the others know, too. They will find the feed on their own when they’re ready.
3.) Inspect the chick’s eyes, beak, feet, legs, naval, and vent.
The eyes should be round, open, and clear without residue. The beak should be intact, closed, and nostrils should be clear.
Legs and toes should be straight and freely moving.
The naval is located under the vent towards the belly and may have a scabbed remnant of the yolk sac – do NOT pull this off, it is highly likely you will tear the skin and/or fatally disembowel the chick.
The vent should be clean with no signs of pasty butt.
4.) Place the chicks under the heat source and leave them alone to relax and settle in to their new home.
They had a rough first few days and will be in survival mode. Do everything you can to promote a quiet, restful environment.
They will be super hungry, tired, and thirsty.
Now, on to the good stuff!
Backyard Chicken Essentials – What You Need to Get Started
Backyard chickens can be as affordable or as expensive as you make it. Keep reading to learn how you can give your baby chicks the best chance at a healthy beginning.
Baby Chick Brooder
A brooder is a warm, safe place for baby poultry that were hatched without the company of a mother. While it may sound intimidating, the options are pretty endless.
Common options are an oversized dog crate, cardboard box, kiddie pool, plastic tote, wooden box, galvanized watering tub, or an old playpen.
You’ll want to use a container that is large enough to provide 1/2 sqft per chick or enough room for them to spread their wings and move about comfortably.
If your brooder doesn’t have a lid, opt for a deep container so the chicks don’t jump or fly out when they’re left unattended for periods of time. Make sure whatever lid you use allows for adequate air flow and ventilation.
Brooder Heat Source
Baby chick require a very warm setting for the first 3 weeks of life, especially during cold weather months.
The first week, a heat source will need to reach 95 degrees F for optimal well-being.
Drop the temperature 5 degrees each week until they are 3-4 weeks old when the heat source can be removed.
There are two options for a heat source: a heat lamp and a radiant heater.
The heat lamp is the classic source of heat for a poultry brooder. They are the most inexpensive option and are widely available. The lamp can be hung from above or clipped on to the wall of the brooder by a strong clamp.
Temperature zones underneath the lamp are regulated by raising or lowering the lamp. Most lamps come with a metal cage that encases the bulb to lower fire risk.
Lighting can be white or red and stays on 24 hours a day for at least 3 weeks. Red bulbs are less stressful for the chicks.
A radiant heat platform is the more modern version of brooder heating. Depending on how many chicks you have, this can run anywhere from $70-$250.
The temperature is regulated by raising or lowering the heat platform.
Like the heat lamp, this must stay on 24 hours a day for at least 3 weeks.
Padding and Bedding
Although pine shavings are the standard for baby chick bedding, this is where I take a hard left and disagree.
During the first week of life, those little legs are very similar to rubber as their bones have not yet hardened.
The main goal is to provide a safe, non-slip surface for them to walk on.
Too much slippage can cause a condition known as spraddle leg.
Spraddle leg can be fixed with proper intervention at the first sign of deformity but prevention is always best.
Newspaper, cardboard, wire netting (hardware mesh), and other slippery surfaces are not acceptable.
They all make for super easy clean up and quick identification of any medical abnormalities which, often times, first shows up in their poop.
Be sure to change out the padding at least once daily, or as often as needed, to maintain a dry environment.
It’s likely the chicks will make a mess out of their food and peck at it during waking hours. Although it can be frustrating, this is okay and normal happy behavior.
After the first week passes and their legs are visibly thickened, you can switch over to low dust pine shavings.
Add about 4″ of shavings initially.
Each day, add a 1″ layer of new pine shavings on top of the old ones to maintain dryness.
Once a week, scoop everything out and put down fresh shavings. This isn’t necessary but keeps odors away.
If you have a compost system, discarded pine shavings and chicken manure are excellent material to add.
Down the road, you can “harvest” chicken manure from the droppings board into a bucket for a wonderful natural fertilizer.
Do not use hay, straw, or grass clippings at any age as these promote growth of mold and harbor mites.
Cedar shavings should never be used as they are highly toxic to chickens.
Check out What to Feed Your Backyard Chickens for the most up to date recommendations.
Dispensing Feed and Water
I’m not sure there’s anything baby chicks enjoy more than making a mess out of whatever is available.
While cute, it can be frustrating to constantly clean up after them. There are a few things that can be done to minimize brooder explosions.
Most baby poultry watering devices look like a rimmed circle dish with a mason jar attachment. I had originally bought one of these and realized it was more annoying than helpful.
While the birds drank out of it, they also perched on – and therefore pooped in – it.
I did some more research and found poultry watering nipples. These were game changing. Not only were they super cheap, they were versatile and much more sanitary.
Each nipple can be installed into any container to provide a single drop of water when tapped.
Provide one nipple for every 4 chicks. Vertical installation tends to work better than horizontal nipples.
No Matter What, Keep the Water Clean
Which ever route you choose for watering, be sure the chicks have access to clean, fresh water at all times.
Water soiled with poop increases risk of infection and severe illness while their little immune systems are still developing.
Choosing a Chicken Coop & Chicken Run
Chickens can be moved into the outdoor coop once they are fully feathered and the weather is above 70 degrees during the day.
Choosing a chicken coop is a paralyzing process for some because there are seemingly endless options.
Here are the basics.
Provide 4sqft of chicken coop space per chicken.
Take the measurements yourself and buy larger than you think you’ll need. Chicken math is a real thing.
If you have 4 now, you’ll have 9 in 2 years.
Birds that true free range tolerate less indoor space since they’re only inside for inclement weather or to sleep.
Don’t go by the manufacturer’s guidelines.
A coop that is 3’x3′ and advertises the ability to accommodate 6-8 hens is incorrect. 3’x3′ is 9sqft. That’s just enough space for 2 hens.
Provide one nesting box for every 4 hens.
Hens have no issue sharing. Make sure the nesting boxes are easily accessed and a locking device to deter egg stealing predators.
Provide 10sqft of chicken run space for each bird.
This is for those that are not permitted to free range.
Provide 8″ of roosting space for each bird.
Place the roosting poles at a height that is at least 18″ above the nesting boxes.
If the roosting racks are the same height as the nesting boxes, they will poop and sleep in their nesting boxes.
Raising Backyard Chickens – Frequently Asked Questions
Can I Give My Baby Chicks Treats?
Try to hold off on the treats until the flock is around 18 weeks old.
Growing chicks require huge amounts of protein with specific nutrient proportions to develop properly and thrive. By giving the flock treats, you are disrupting their nutritional intake.
If anything other than chick starter is given after 6 weeks of age, be sure to provide the flock with chick grit to promote proper digestion.
Do I Need to Bring My Baby Chicks to the Vet?
No, you don’t.
In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to even find a vet that is able to care for poultry.
Because of the blatant lack of health resources, chicken keepers are well versed in providing a wide array of medical care for their birds.
At this time, we have no avian vets in the surrounding 100 miles so I’m it.
Can I Get Salmonella Poisoning From Baby Chicks?
Technically, yes although it’s highly uncommon.
Practice common sense by washing your hands thoroughly after contact with any chicks or items that came into contact with the flock.
Make sure children are supervised and also wash their hands before sticking them up their nose or in their mouths.
Disinfect any surfaces after contact.
Can I Get Baby Chicks From Two Different Places? My Friend Has Too Many.
It is unwise to do this for reasons of disease transmission.
While two flocks of backyard chickens may be perfectly healthy on the outside, their immunities are entirely different.
Pathogens can be crossed between the two flocks making many birds very sick.
If you must introduce a foreign bird to an existing flock, be sure to follow standard quarantine guidelines keeping the new member separate from the others for 30 to 60 days.
When Do Hens Start Laying Eggs?
Hens usually begin to lay eggs around 6 months but may start as early as 18 weeks.
Once they start laying, they should gradually be switched over to a complete layer feed.
Do Hens Lay Eggs All Year Or Seasonally?
Hens generally need about 12-14 hours of daylight to lay an egg.
Once winter comes, most hens stop laying eggs or slow down production dramatically until it gets warmer again.
Although it’s a seasonal event, there are ways to “trick” a hen’s body into laying eggs all throughout the year.
What Age Should a Meat Bird Be Butchered?
A Cornish Rock or Cornish Cross (X) is processed at 6 weeks.
Heritage meat birds are slower growing and taken for processing at 16-18 weeks for best weight, texture, and flavor.
As the birds age, the meat toughens and becomes less desirable.
Can I Get a Dual Purpose Hen to Lay Eggs and Then Use for Meat?
You can, but it may not be the most efficient way to go about it.
Hens usually start laying eggs between 18 weeks and 6 months of age. Meat birds are optimally butchered at 18 weeks.
Dual purpose is best defined to mean you can use the breed for either eggs OR meat. Basically, you can buy now and decide later what purpose you want her to serve.
This is in contrast to other breeds which are specifically bred to be good at laying lots of eggs or growing quickly for quick butchering, not both.
What Is A “Soup Bird”?
Soup birds are ones that have aged beyond common butchering time frames.
Since the meat is tougher, it is best cooked in soups or stews to break down the fibers to produce a more agreeable texture.
What Breeds Do You Have?
Rhode Island Red and Plymouth (Barred) Rock hens.
We needed breeds that were weather hardy, friendly, and high egg producers.
Reds and Barred Rocks met our needs the best.
Where Did You Get Your Flock From?
Cackle Hatchery located in Lebanon, Missouri.