As spring is now upon us, many begin to think about raising some baby chicks for the home flock or to supply eggs for sale. There are several considerations for those contemplating purchasing a few chicks.
Where to Purchase
Most feed stores sell chicks during the spring of the year; they are usually available until the middle of May. In recent years, some feed and farm stores are selling chicks nearly year round.
Purchasing local has the advantage of viewing the birds prior to purchase, however, the selection is generally restricted to a few relatively common breeds. Some feed stores will order chicks of a particular breed for purchasers. Mail order from hatcheries around the country via web or phone is a good way to get the more exotic breeds. These fancy breeds will not usually be of show quality, if that is of concern.
Chicks mail order very well, as long as there are no weather extremes at either end of their journey. When weather extremes are expected, the postal service may not accept chicks for shipment until the weather improves. They do not require water or feed up to 3 or 4 days. It is important, however, to pick up chicks as soon as they arrive so they can get water and feed.
The breed of chicken is important depending on the purpose of the birds. The most common for backyard flocks of chickens are probably “sex-links” which are actually crosses that can be sexed by using a genetic marker, usually color. These birds lay brown shelled eggs and are considered a dual-purpose breed, good for eggs and meat.
If greater egg production is desired, “production red” or White Leghorns can be used. These breeds or strains have been selected for increased egg production. The production reds lay brown shelled eggs while the Leghorns lay eggs with white shells. Production hens can be expected to produce about 250 eggs per year, compared to the dual purpose types that lay about 150 to 200 eggs.
If chickens will be grown primarily for meat, Cornish Cross, or the slower growing "Red Broilers" are the best choice. While all chickens can be used for meat, the Cornish Cross are the most efficient in terms of weight gain and feed usage than all other breeds or crosses. These birds should be ready for processing at about 6 to 7 weeks of age. Slow growing broilers can reach the larger weights but will take several weeks longer and significantly more feed.
Fancy breeds are pretty to look at but generally make poor production birds. These should not be used if production efficiency is desired. Finally, bantams are simply small birds that produce small eggs due to their size. Again, they are pretty to look at but not very productive.
Finally, when purchasing chicks it is important to purchase vaccinated birds, if available. The vaccination will prevent Marek's disease, or “Range Paralysis”. This can be a devastating disease of chickens that can affect up to 40% of an unvaccinated flock, and there is no treatment. There is a small increased cost for these birds but it well worth the extra cost. For those who raise organic birds, the vaccine does not affect their organic status.
Young chicks should be fed a chick starter diet until they are about 6 weeks old. Chickens grown for meat should be fed a starter formulated for meat chickens. Other starters will not support the rapid growth of the Cornish Cross breed.
If organic production is desired, organic feeds are available at most feed outlets. In general, chickens fed organic feeds do not perform as well as those fed conventional feeds.