This time of year when you walk into a feed supply store, the sound of peeping can be heard. Chickens, turkeys, geese, and ducks join together to make this noise.
Spring time is a common time for people to pick up new poultry. However, knowing how to take care of these birds will help to optimize their productivity and longevity in a flock.
When picking out poultry, people should have an idea of what they want to do with the birds before they buy them. It can be very tempting to walk into a store and see the cute little chicks, and want to take one home. However, people should be prepared before they ever buy the birds.
There are many different breeds, especially in chickens. Some are better at egg production, and others are great meat birds. “Chickens can be an excellent addition to many acreages. Their versatility as both meat and egg producers make chickens a viable option for acreage life,” said Vaughn Hammond, University of Nebraska - Lincoln Extension.
He continued, “Chickens are categorized as heavy or light breeds. Heavy breeds have a bulkier, larger body suitable for meat production. Light breeds are smaller, and not as suitable as a meat bird, but many are excellent egg producers. Many heavy breeds are known as multipurpose breeds, in that they are both good meat and egg producers. Chickens are much like people in that each have a unique personality. Hens tend to be generally docile, except when they are protecting their nest or chicks. Roosters, on the other hand, can be overly aggressive and you may need to keep one eye on them at all times to stay out of their way.”
He suggests 10 breeds that can successfully be raised in Nebraska. Those include the Barred Rock, Black Australorp, Black Sex-linked, Brahma, Brown Leghorn, Buff Orphington, Golden Laced Wyandotte, Rhode Island Red, Turkin and the Welsummer.
Once the breeds are selected, facilities should be prepared, so that when the birds do arrive, they can immediately be placed in their new environment. This includes a place to keep the chicks when they are little, and a place to go when they grow up.
Generally deep-sided tubs or troughs, or a brooder work best, as chicks can escape from shallow pens. This set-up should be kept out of kitchens or bathrooms, as chicks can carry disease. Always remember that hands should be washed after every time the chicks are touched.
“Housing for your new chicks should be dry, draft-free, mold-free and safe from predators. Cover the floor with clean bedding and allow it to become heated before introducing the chicks to the area,” Ranch-Way Feeds states in its chickens management tips.
Chicks are typically purchased from as early as a day old to four weeks of age. At this age they are unable to control body heat, so temperature control is critical to their survival.
“Temperature is very important to keep your chicks healthy and happy. For the first week of life the floor temperature should be kept at 90 degrees Fahrenheit. A heat lamp should be placed 18-inches above the floor. Place a thermometer 2-inches above the floor to test the temperature,” Ranch-Way states.
They continued, “If chicks are crowding the heat source or peeping loudly, they are cold and need more heat. If chicks crowd outside the heated area, it is too hot. Reduce heat by 5 degrees Fahrenheit each week for the next five weeks. After week six (and development of hard feathers) the chicks should be able to survive without heat lamps.”
They suggest using red heat lamp bulbs, as they help reduce pecking and to control feed consumption at night. Chicks should be brought home promptly after purchase, as just a few hours of being chilled can cause death.
Shavings should be used for bedding for the chicks, and they should never be placed on a slick surface. Shavings provide grip for the chicks, which is needed for leg muscle development.
Young chicks should have access to clean, fresh water at all times. It may be necessary to put the waterer on a small block, as chicks may scratch at the ground and fill the waterer with bedding.
“Provide two, one-gallon automatic watering jugs for every 100 chicks. Check watering devices frequently to ensure clean water is always available. Clean, disinfect and re-fill watering jugs before water is entirely depleted,” Ranch-Way states.
If birds struggle to drink, there are little tricks that can be used. “Placing marbles or pennies in the waterer will help teach turkeys how to drink from the container,” said Ranch-Way.
Nutrition is the next key factor to raising young chicks successfully. Chicks need to be kept on a chick starter/grower for at least the first 16-18 weeks, and can be slowly transitioned to adult feed once they mature.
Birds can be put outside after they grow their down feathers, at which point they can regulate their temperature better. This usually takes four to six weeks. However, if it is still cold outside, birds may need to be kept inside longer.
Before the birds can be put outside, facilities need to be prepared. It is suggested that chickens are allowed 1.5- to 2-square-feet per adult chicken. Most coops are made with an outdoor run, so chickens can go outside during the day. The inside of the coop should include nesting boxes, which is where the chickens will lay their eggs.
Chickens will usually start laying eggs between 16-18 weeks of age. Some will lay later, however, and chicken owners will have to wait until the chicken is mature in order for her to lay. Turkeys or ducks will also need access to shelter, and will lay eggs if they are kept past maturity.
Nutrition is an important aspect for adult birds as well. Most rations consist of protein levels between 16-18 percent, and are in a meal form. Adult chickens also like scratch, which is a mixture of cracked whole grains. Calcium is also vitally important. It can be added to the chickens by feeding them back egg shells, or with a supplement. Adult chickens can also be given vegetable scraps.
“Consider raising chickens on your acreage. They don’t take a great deal of space, and a great family activity. You will be amazed at the taste of fresh eggs, and homegrown chickens,” said Hammond.
Raising chickens can be a fun, rewarding experience for many families. Utilizing proper management will help chicks to become productive chickens that will last for many years. ❖