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.
“Breed selection can be complicated, so we typically ask people what their goals are with their chickens. Are they looking for birds that are good for family, production or dual-purpose for meat and egg? We work with the future owners to see what kind of chicken will be best suited for their lifestyle, depending on what their answers are,” said Danielle Nater, manager of Northern Colorado Feeder’s Supply in Fort Collins, Colo.
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.
“In Colorado, there are a few things that are necessary for raising chicks. You will need something to keep them inside for the first four to six weeks of their life, as they don’t have the ability to naturally regulate their body heat at that young and need to get their down feathers developed,” said Nater.
She continued, “You also need a heat lamp and bulb, because they need to be kept at 85-95 degrees during that time. We also recommend a feeder, waterer and shavings for bedding. We do not recommend you put them on any kind of slick surface, as they need to have something ‘grippy’ in order for their leg muscles to properly develop.”
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 it’s chickens management tips.
Chicks are typically purchases from as early as a day old to four weeks of age. At this age they are unable to control body heat, so temperature 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. “The most important thing is to make sure they stay warm and away from drafts or breezes, and then to chickens that go home to families with young children they need to make sure they don’t get over handled or rough housed,” Nater said.
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. “If improper nutrition or the wrong kind of feed is given to baby chicks, it could affect their lifetime laying ability, their growth and development and possibly even their survival. It is very important to ensure your chicks are getting the proper nutritional needs,” Nater explained.
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. “In Colorado, we typically recommend putting your birds outside at the four to six week point, however if its still cooler we recommend waiting closer to the six week point,” she said.
Outdoor housing must be ready before the birds can go outside. “Depending on your city’s rules and regulations, the average chicken needs 1.5-2 square feet per adult chicken. They do require shelter. However, we also recommend that there is a run attached to the coop to let the chickens out to scratch and dust bathe. You also have the option to free-range your chickens, but you can watch out for predators,” said Nater.
Chickens will usually start laying eggs between 16-18 weeks of age. “However some chickens are late bloomers and go up to 20 weeks before producing their first eggs. There is no way to tell when a chicken is going to start laying, so the best thing one can do is provide nesting boxes and keep track of weeks,” she stated.
Nutrition is also an important aspect for adult birds. “In order for an adult laying chicken to produce high quality eggs, all vitamin and mineral needs need to be met. Most adult laying rations will consist of protein levels between 16-18 percent, and they don’t require much more than that. Calcium is essential for egg production because the shell consists of primarily calcium,” Nater said.
Calcium can be added to the chickens by feeding them back egg shells, or with a supplement. Adult chickens can also be given vegetable scraps.
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. ❖