RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—With Easter right around the corner, you may be thinking, "This is the perfect time to buy baby chicks!" And it really could be. But before you jump headfirst into the wonderful world of raising chickens, you need to ask yourself a few questions to make sure you fit the bill of a chicken whisperer. And while some chicken experts have gauged the difficulty of raising backyard egg-laying hens of somewhere between raising a cat and a dog, baby chicks are a bit of a different story and require some additional TLC. "Chickens, and especially chicks, need to be checked every day—twice a day would be better—to make sure they have feed and water and are safe," explains Gail Damerow, author of the chicken-raising bible, Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens (Storey Publishing, 2010). "In the case of chicks, safety includes being warm enough. So one question would be: 'Does my schedule allow me to make the commitment to properly care for these birds?'"
And of course, another question is: "What am I going to do with these birds when they grow up into big chickens?"
Here are other things to consider if you're interested in raising baby chicks this season:
• Try renting first. It's true! There are such things as rent-a-chick programs all over the country, and they are especially popular around Easter time. The idea is that you pay a sustainable farm to rent a few chicks for a specific amount of time. The farm often provides food and the basic equipment necessary to keep the chicks warm and safe, and the family provides the extra attention and TLC the chicks require in those first few weeks before giving them back to the farm. If all you want is a cute Easter experience for your kids, this is a win-win for both family and farm. If you're considering keeping chickens, it's also a good way to figure out whether someone in your family suffers from any chicken dander-related allergies. "It is a great way to see if you like chicken personalities—each one is unique—and how they interact with each other and you, and see if kids'—or your—interest will hold up when you find out what chicken poop smells like (not bad, but distinctive) and deal with it," says Rodale.com Nickel Pincher columnist Jean Nick. She and her partner, Tom, run a chick rental program at Happy Farm in Eastern Pennsylvania.
Search for sustainable chicken farms in your area on LocalHarvest.org and ask if they offer Easter baby chick rentals.
• Figure out if you're fit to raise chickens. If you decide you'd like to keep chickens, not just rent them, it's important to first make sure you're fit to raise a small backyard flock. Read Do You Have What It Takes to Raise Chickens? to learn about costs (for example, it could cost up to $2 a week per hen if you feed organic grain).
• Pick the right number of baby chicks. If you're like most people and have limited space for chickens, you're probably only going to want to order a few. Many hatcheries require orders of 15 to 25 birds, but an online search of "hatchery small order" will yield suppliers who sell smaller batches and provide supplemental heat to keep the chicks warm enough during shipment. Now, to the "how many." For consumption purposes, divide the number of eggs you use in a week by seven—that's the number of hens you should order. Just be sure your henhouse and outdoor grass area are spacious. Figure 1½ to 2 square feet per hen in the coop, and at least 8 to 10 feet of yard outside.
• Set up the nursery before the babies arrive. Many people set up the baby chick nursery, known as a brooder or brooding facility, in a safe, secure box in a garage secure from predators, or even in a spare bedroom or bathtub. (Damerow suggests the bathroom, if going the indoor route, since baby chicks create lots of dust.)
Other things you'll need:
1. Chick starter ration, and something to serve it in.
2. A chick waterer filled with water that is warmed to room temperature; the best way to do that is to fill the drinker and put it in the brooder for several hours before the chicks arrive. "Chicks that have traveled any distance, especially those shipped by mail, will be thirsty, and if they drink a lot of cold water they could get chilled and go into shock," explains Damerow.
3. A heating device. The idea is to keep the baby chicks extra warm in their first few weeks. If the chicks are all huddled desperately under your heating lamp, you probably need to hang it a bit lower into the brooder. If they are all spread out and crammed in the corners away from the lamp, it's probably too hot. Another thing to consider when setting up the brooder: Drafts can be deadly. "The cheapest option is a lightbulb in a reflector," suggests Damerow, who notes that popular infrared heat lamps may not be the best option, because they can make the brooder too hot, posing a fire risk. "I have switched entirely to infrared heating panels. The only company I know that makes them is Infratherm; the brand name is Sweeter Heater," she adds. Of course, inexpensive feeders and drinkers are available from any farm store and some pet stores.
4. Bedding. To prepare the space, Damerow suggests lining the bottom of the box (you could also use a plastic kiddie pool) with newspaper and paper towels. "The towels provide a non-slick surface the chicks can walk on without slipping and injuring themselves," Damerow explains. "After a few days, bedding is needed to absorb the poops. I use a lot of paper shredded in a crosscut shredder—not long strips chicks can trip on."
She says another good option is pine pellets, but urges against the use of shavings, especially cedar, which is toxic to chicks.
Your baby chicks should remain in the brooder until they are feathered and the weather is warm enough outside, so that varies by season and breed, says Damerow.
• Prevent tough love. When your chicks arrive, whether for a few days or as permanent residents, young children in the house will no doubt be very excited. Damerow urges against allowing young children (about 6 and younger) to handle the chicks on their own because they can accidentally drop them or squeeze them too hard. Remember, the chicks are likely only a day or two old on arrival. "Perhaps the child could sit on the floor with a towel in his/her lap to catch poops, and place a chick on the towel where the child can touch the chick without actually holding it," Damerow suggests. "And remember, chicks are babies that tire easily, so don't overdo it. Let them spend most of their time like any baby—eating or sleeping."
For more information, check out A Guide to Raising Chickens in Your Small Backyard.
Filed Under: BACKYARD CHICKENS
Published on: April 19, 2011