As winter begins to warm, the ice and snow begin to turn into the rains of early spring; it is time to begin thinking about replacing some or all of your chickens. Chickens are quite suitable for most small farming enterprises. The birds produce eggs and/or meat for the table and a great nitrogen rich fertilizer for the garden. To have a successful flock, all producers, large and small must follow a few simple rules for years of productivity and enjoyment.
First, each producer must consider the reason they are producing chickens. Are they to produce eggs for the table or maybe for sale? Or maybe they plan growing some birds to process, freeze and store so home grown fryers can be enjoyed all year. Some growers are interested in fancy breeds while others just want a few chickens of any breed or even crosses will do.
Breed choice can make or break a beginning poultry producer. The wrong breed could increase costs and reduce productivity. So, breed consideration is important. For those that just want a few chickens, most any breed will do, however, one must realize that the exotic (uncommon) breeds tend to have poor egg production, poor meat production and higher mortality compared to the common breeds and crosses.
Most small flock producers desire chickens that produce brown shelled eggs. While there is virtually no difference between white and brown shelled eggs, since the egg industry produces mostly eggs with white shells, they are perceived as more like farm eggs.
Egg color is an important trait for most small flock producers. Chickens of various breeds lay eggs from dark brown to white, and a few breeds lay eggs that are light blue to olive green in color. Note: Individual hens always lay eggs of the same color, while hens of the same breed will lay eggs that vary but are mostly the same color.
Most breeds produce eggs with brown shells. Of these, the best choice for novice poultry producers would be one of the American heavy breeds: Plymouth Rock, New Hampshire, or Rhode Island Red. Even better would be “Production Reds” or “Sex-Links”. These latter two come from the heavy breeds but are generally hardier and more productive than their pure-bred cousins. Chicks of these breeds are readily available from the local feed store or by mail-order. (Purchasing chicks by mail has been done for many decades and is quite safe to do.)
Poor choices for egg producers would be the exotic pure-bred birds like Polish or Cornish. These birds while striking in appearance are poor producers. White Leghorns, while being excellent producers of white shelled eggs, have a flighty, skittish personality, not particularly suitable for small flock production. And Cornish cross, or broilers, should be reserved as meat producers. Their large size, fast growth rate, high feed consumption and poor egg production should keep them out of your egg flock.
While any chicken can be used for meat, the best yield by far will be from the Cornish Cross or Broiler. For decades these birds have been selected for fast growth and maximum yield at which they excel. If a breed other than the Cornish cross is desired, then the American heavy breeds can suffice, however, the cost of production, quality and yield will be poorer than when producing Cornish cross.
In recent years, "Red Broilers" or slow growing broilers have become popular with small producers. They have some of the traits of the faster growing Cornish cross but are not as efficient.
Preparing for chicks
They should be grown on the floor with some form of bedding. Chicks will require at least 2 square feet of floor space each, more space will give them more room to grow, and will keep the bedding cleaner. However, too much space during the early days of the grow period will encourage the birds to wander far from feed and water.
Sawdust (not the type that is fine particles) or shavings is the best, especially for a small group of birds. These bedding materials are readily available at any feed or farm store. If you intend on using bedding other than shavings or sawdust it should be soft, dry, clean and without any molds. Grass seed straw is adequate as long as it is not moldy, and chopping the straw dramatically improves its usefulness as bedding.
Start with about 4 to 6 inches of clean bedding on the floor. Do not put the chicks on a slick floor such as newspaper or cardboard as this can result in spraddles, a dislocation of their hips that can not be fixed.
Make sure that the birds are not exposed to drafts. A brooder ring, or draft shield, a solid wall (cardboard) of between 18 and 24 inches in height, encircling the chicks will keep drafts away from your chicks. The ring will also serve to keep the birds confined close to the heat, feed and water. A draft shield is especially important if the birds will be kept in a barn or shed. The brooder ring can be removed after a couple of weeks, or sooner depending on conditions.
The chicks will need supplementary heat for the first few weeks to survive and grow properly. For a small flock of birds the most economical method of providing heat is heat lamps. One or two, 250 watt, heat lamps are adequate. Note: If only one heat lamp is used, watch that it doesn’t burn out, with two, there is a backup. For best results, use red heat lamps because the white heat lamps may encourage the birds to pick the feathers of pen mates.
The temperature should be measured at chick height about 12 in. from hottest spot, usually directly under the lamp. The temperature should be 95 F for the first week and reduced 5 degrees per week until ambient temperature is reached, or until the birds are fully feathered. It is better to leave the lamp(s) on longer than removing them too soon. Temperature is adjusted by raising or lowering the lamps. Important note: Please do not allow the heat lamps to contact any combustible materials, bedding, draft shield, etc. These lamps can become very hot and could cause a fire.
Another method of temperature management is to watch the birds – they will tell you if they are too hot or cold.
- If they are cold, they will be huddling under the lamp, chirping loudly, lower the lamp until this behavior ceases.
- If they are hot, they will be as far from the lamp as possible.
- Ideal temperature is reached when the birds appear to be acting normally, some eating, some drinking, some sleeping, etc.
In addition, when the lay down to sleep they should form a “doughnut” around the heat lamp with the hole directly under the lamp. It is imperative that there are both warm and cool areas in the enclosure. If the birds get too hot, they will move to a cooler spot and visa versa. If this option is not available to the chicks, they may become chilled or overheated.
Begin feeding a chick starter diet which contains about 20% crude protein. (If Cornish cross type chicks are grown, feed a starter formulate for meat type chickens.) This diet should be fed for about 6 weeks then switch to a grower/developer diet (meat birds can remain on the starter until slaughter). At about 18 to 20 weeks of age, they should be fed a layer diet which contains about 15 or 16% protein and 3 to 4% calcium.
Be sure to feed only fresh feed, no more than 4 weeks old, and keep feed available to the birds at all times. Feed your birds from feeders, a couple of small troughs early and larger troughs or hanging tube feeders later. For the first few days you may want to place paper towels in the brooding area and sprinkle some feed on the towel. This will encourage the birds to begin eating. At all ages, provide enough feed space so that all of the birds can eat at the same time. Limited feeder space can contribute to increased back scratches and reduced growth rate.
Feed supplementation is not suggested as this practice will usually cause slight nutritional deficiencies. All of the nutrients that these birds require are in the diet you purchase. Supplementation with scratch, table scraps, garden trimmings, grass, etc. only serves to dilute their nutrient intake resulting in poor development. If you must supplement their diet, feed only what they will clean up in about 15 minutes.
Provide clean fresh water daily. Use one or two gallon jug waterers, or drinkers, for the first week or so, and spread them around in the enclosure so there is more than one place the birds can find water. It is a good idea to put the drinkers on a small piece of cardboard or wood, which raises the trough above the litter preventing the litter from being kicked into the trough.
Drinkers should be cleaned daily, especially during the brooding period. This does two things, first it keeps things clean and secondly, it keeps the water cool. Birds do not like to drink warm water. Larger tank waterers or automated water systems can be used as needed when birds get older.
If you begin to observe your birds picking, or you notice localized feather loss on any of your birds; back, tail, back of the head, etc., you must take measures quickly. The best way to stop this is to trim your birds beaks. Using a dog nail trimmer, or toenail clipper, remove about ¼ of the upper beak on all of your chickens. This will stop the picking. You will not lose points during judging if the birds have trimmed beaks, but feather picked birds will lose points. Be observant.
More detail can be found in an OSU Publication: PNW 477 How to Feed Your Laying and Breeding Hens