Maybe it’s because my baby sister is getting married in 2 short days, but something in me feels very much like a mother hen these days. Looking after little chicks is sentimental work! We’ve been busy here over the last 7 weeks, tending to our own little flock of chickens, five of them to be exact. Although we’re far from experts on the subject, I’d love to talk to you today about what we’ve learned so far in the wonderful world of raising backyard chickens!
I’ve always been a bird person – in fact, I collect bird & birdhouse decor – so it really came as no surprise to my husband when I started talking about the possibility of getting some chickens of our own. A lot of my family and friends had already decided to get some, and I was intrigued by the concept of raising our own flock and reaping the benefits of farm fresh quality eggs each week.
Doing Your Homework
The first step in this process was checking with our town and county ordinances to see if chickens were allowed in our area. We live in a very rural part of our county, surrounded by farms, but our home is still technically located in a subdivision, so we weren’t sure what the rules would be. After placing a call to both our town hall and our county zoning office, we were pleasantly surprised to find that their ordinances did allow for up to 5 hens in an enclosed coop. Our subdivision covenant documents had no verbiage specifically not allowing them either, so we were officially in the clear! If you are considering getting backyard chickens yourself, I would strongly encourage you to check out these resources first before moving forward. It would certainly be sad to have to say goodbye to your feathered friends if you haven’t done your due diligence first.
Buying Your Chicks
Next on the checklist was buying our chicks. We knew we wanted to purchase day old chicks, versus hatching them ourselves, since we needed to be guaranteed that we were getting pullets (hens) and not roosters. Our ordinances prohibited them. This process of weeding out the females is referred to as “sexing” chicks. This is a really interesting method that is done by examining their feathers when they are 1 day old. If you want to read more about it, you can do that here.
We ended up going to our local Farm & Fleet for ordering our chicks. They have an entire catalog of different breeds for you to choose from! We chose a breed called the “Cinnamon Queen”, known for their excellent brown egg production and their white with brownish/red speckled feather color. We thought they were a really pretty chicken! We ordered 5 pullets at roughly $3 per chick. We had to wait for about 5 weeks until they would arrive at the store.
The day came when the store called to say the chicks were in and we could go get them – I was feeling both anxious and excited! We got to the store and stood in line with all the other “expectant chicken parents” who were also there picking up their feathered babies. The sound when you enter the store is nothing but constant peeping! The next thing I knew, we were driving home with a cheeping box full of fluffiness and ready to begin raising our flock!
I know it may sound a bit ridiculous, but every chicken resource we read recommended to start bonding with your chicks immediately after bringing them home. Handling them gently on a daily basis would help them grow accustomed to people and allow you to learn the best way to calm them down. At first this was easy to do, and the chicks seemed to really enjoy being held and snuggled for a bit each day. But as they grew bigger, it was not uncommon for them to squawk with displeasure upon lifting them up. Despite this, we still tried to spend a little quality time each day visiting with them.
It became one of my favorite things to do at the end of the day – to come downstairs and sit and watch them busily eat, drink, then lazily fall asleep and crash onto the wood shavings underneath their heat lamp. Very entertaining stuff and warmed this “Mama Hen’s” heart!
Brooder & Heat
In the weeks leading up to their arrival, we had prepped an area in an unfinished section of our basement for the chicks to live while they were little and in their brooder. We purchased an extra long and tall Rubbermaid tote to serve as their brooder and filled it with fresh wood shavings.
Then we suspended a red heat lamp over the middle of the brooder to help keep the chicks warm. Most babies need a brooder temperature of around 90 degrees when they are still only a few days old. Each week you are supposed to raise the heat lamp up about 3″ to help lower the temperature in the brooder by a few degrees, helping them to learn to adjust their body temperature. They need to be able to withstand chiller nights in an outside coop by the time they are about 6 weeks old.
At the end of every week, we completely emptied the brooder’s dirty wood shavings and replaced them with fresh ones. It’s really important to keep up with this to prevent the spreading of disease among the chicks.
Food & Water
You also need to provide constant food and water for the babies to have available to them while in the brooder. You’ll want to start by buying smaller, chick-friendly feeders and waterers which have small openings for them to eat and drink out of; eventually graduating up to larger sizes once they are full-grown and move outdoors.
They will forever be kicking shavings and poop into their food and water. We did our best to keep them as clean as possible. But this sometimes meant changing them out at least 2x a day, which can kind of be a pain. We found once the chicks got a little larger, moving the feeders up onto small blocks of wood helped elevate them enough off the ground to prevent them from getting saturated with shavings.
You will want to feed them a medicated starter chick feed for about the first 11 weeks, then moving up to adult pullet feed once they’ve passed that 12 week threshold. We also feed ours a starter grit supplement, which helps them digest their feed and gives them something to scratch around for – chickens love to scratch!
Once they are a little older, you can give them other “treats” like mealworms, clover buds or scraps of oyster shell. But their primary source of food should still be a protein-rich layer feed.
Moving into the Coop
By the time our babies were a few weeks old, we knew we would be ready for them to be moving into an outdoor coop soon. With their feathered wings coming in, they were constantly flapping, losing their baby fluff and getting a little too big for their brooder box. I had to cut a section of chicken wire to fit over the top of the brooder bin to prevent anyone from flying up and out.
Not to mention the dust – oh, the dust! Be prepared for a thin-film of white dust that will settle on everything around the brooder. Luckily for us, we had ours located in the utility portion of our basement where we didn’t mind it so much, but it was still time to move this messy show outdoors!
Around 3 weeks old, we let them try out warmer days outside in a makeshift coop we constructed using some old wire shelving panels, still bringing them inside at night.
We did our research on different styles of coops, and fell in love with a “Farmhouse Style” backyard coop that would be perfect for our girls. We found it online through Tractor Supply Company when they were having a spring sale on all their coops. We had it sent to the store, picked it up, took it home and assembled it ourselves in a little under an hour. It was a pretty darn cute place for our “girls” to call home, so we needed to get them inside to try it out for themselves to see how they liked it.
Learning to Let Go
By this time, it was early June and the weather was staying warm most days and night temperatures were hovering around the 50 degree mark. We decided to replace their brooder’s heat lamp with a regular light bulb and hung it in the enclosed upper portion of their coop. This way, if it did get chilly at night, they could still stay warm huddling together under the lamp. By this time they were fully feathered and could handle the lower temperatures.
While the chicks really seemed to love their new space and started exploring the upper and lower levels, mastering the art of using the ladder and the roosting bars, I couldn’t help but worry about them and how they were doing. Especially since on about their 3rd night outside in the coop, we got hit with a nasty thunderstorm with pouring rain, major lightning and higher winds. I was up at 1 am, 3 am and 6 am, at the window, checking that our “chickie-babies” were safe and sound in their enclosed nesting box. Thankfully their instincts kicked in and they managed to all stay safe and dry. I’m still working on my ability to let go!
I’m happy to say our 5 feathered beauties are nearing the 8 week mark and still doing well. They have adjusted to living outside in their new coop rather nicely. We enjoy going out to visit them during the day and the kids love helping me bring them fresh water and food.
We’re still a few months away from seeing our first eggs, but when they do start laying, they’ll have 3 cozy little nesting boxes to lay in. And I’ll be sure to check in with you again when we hit that major milestone! Oh, and in case you were wondering, we did name them all – Ruby, Fluffy, Spices, Joey and Glumpy – but don’t ask me how we tell them all apart! For now, that’s the scoop on the coop!