12 Questions Before Your Chickens Arrive

A coworker of mine is getting chicks this spring and brought me a list of chicken care questions that I thought I’d post up here.  I have found a lot of posts online about specific topics, but I think the below list for basic starter questions might be particularly helpful for someone just starting chicken keeping.

How Much Do Chickens Eat?  You can leave your chickens with open access to food, as they are self regulating and will not overeat.  I keep the feeder at least half full at all times.

What About Supplements, Vitamins, etc?  There are many additions to chicken feed which will help with egg production and hen health.  There’s nothing that is “required” but some of the most helpful chicken supplements include garlic powder, oats, kelp, oyster shells, and yeast.  All of these are available at a regular, human grocery store so it is easy to find them.  There are also specific egg booster vitamins which you might consider feeding if a large quantity of eggs is a priority for you.  Chickens do need some grit in their diet in order to digest their food, so if there aren’t a lot of tiny rocks around your coop, you may need to add grit to their daily diet.  

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What Supplies Do I Need Before the Chicks Arrive?  You’ll need a brooder box ready (for a dozen chicks, a box 6′ x 2′ should be plenty large enough).  The walls of the box should be at least two feet tall, and it should have a lid, because otherwise you will have escaped chicks on your hands.  You also need a feeder and waterer, which can be found at most hardware stores.  For chicks, just get the small plastic ones as they will outgrow them quickly.

As the chicks get bigger it’s best to keep them amused with brooder additions such as small roosts from twigs, a clump of dirt to dig and bathe in, or even a mirror.  This keeps them from growing bored, which sometimes leads to them picking on a member of their own flock.

What Supplies Do I Need Ready for Adult Chickens?  You will need a coop with roosts and a nesting box, and a run area if you chickens won’t be free range.  Additionally, you need a large metal waterer and a feed bin.  I use just a rubber feeder pan, but there are many options on the market to choose from.

Any Medicines I Should Have On Hand?  Not for general chicken keeping, but there are things which would be useful in an emergency.  Chicken illnesses can range from becoming egg bound to getting cut or scrapped to developing mites and bugs.  There are cures for all of these things, but the most useful things to have on hand would be a salve such as bag balm and petroleum jelly.  You can put the balm on an open wood and petroleum jelly will cure frostbite in a chicken.  Additionally if you do incorporate garlic into your feeding, it will help to reduce bugs and mites in the coop.

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Why Do People Sell Unsexed Chicks?  You might think everyone wants hens, or at least to know what they are getting, but that’s not necessarily true.  Meatbirds always come “straight run”, which means unsexed, because by the time they are old enough for it to matter you will be harvesting them.  Also, most bantam chick breeds come unsexed simply because they are too small for sexing to be realistic.

What Type of Bedding Should I Use?  Ideal bedding is either pine shavings or hay.  Hay is easier to deal with and clean up when the temperatures are freezing, but I do like to use pine shavings when possible.  Never use cedar shavings as they have dangerous toxins.

Do You Need a Light in Your Coop?  You don’t need one, but it will help with egg production in the winter months.  There’s a bit of controversy about whether this is good for the chickens or not, and personally I do not light my coop.  A light can also be a fire hazard if not set up properly.  You do need a light over your chicks when you get them – but a heat lamp is not recommended because it can get too hot.  Just a regular 40-watt bulb will work, 24 hours a day until they start to develop feathers.  If it’s cold when you get your chicks, cover the brooder with a thick blanket to keep the heat for the baby chicks.

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What About Insulation and Circulation?  You want your chickens to be comfortable so insulation choices largely depend on your climate.  If you live somewhere very cold, insulation is a good idea, but the most important aspect is making sure that your coop is sealed up tight in winter.  A ripping wind will do a lot more damage to a hen’s health than just general chilly temperatures.  It is also very important to have good circulation in the coop, especially in summer.  Poor circulation leads to disease, as well as making the coop twice as muggy and uncomfortable on a hot summer day.

My chickens are free range, but if yours have a run you need to make sure it is big enough to keep them amused, and keep it stocked with things to hold their interest such as branches to play on, chicken swings, mirrors, fresh clumps of earth – for the same reasons as with the baby chicks.

How Long Are They Cute Little Chicks?  It is, of course, important to keep in mind that chicks aren’t little balls of fluff forever.  They are only this way for about 2-4 weeks, and even before then little feathers do start to develop.  At about four weeks they’ve got noticeable baby wings and start to get antsy in their brooder.  That’s the age when you can start bringing them outside for a few hours a day with close supervision.  Around 8 weeks you’ve got chicks that look like weird mini-chickens with splotchy feathers and extra long necks.  This is usually the time that you would move them into the grown chicken coop and they should be able to fend more or less for themselves.  It will still be another four months or so before you start to see any eggs (sometimes longer), and it’s usually a full year before they have reached their adult weight and full feather pattern.  

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Can You Train a Chicken?  Chickens will do anything for a good treat.  Most hen’s favorite food is mealworms and mine will come running from the other side of the yard if they think I have treats.  They also love any other kind of bug or worm, and most leftovers.  If you call your chickens the same way every time than they will start to come every time they hear that call, treats or not.  Chickens also are naturally inclined to return to the same roost every night, so you don’t have to put effort into training them where home is, as long as you don’t move the coop.  Once I moved our coop to a new location and it was two weeks before the rooster stopped going to bed sitting on the ground in the old coop spot, despite the fact the coop was no longer there.

What Can Chickens Not Eat?  Chickens will basically eat anything, but there are definitely things they shouldn’t ingest.  Of course: junk food, chocolate, candy – those are bad.  There are a lot of controversial foods that you might as well stay away from, notably avocados and citrus.  Onions are generally bad for chickens, as are potatoes (especially the peel) – but they are usually not harmful if cooked first, so if you are feeding a leftover potato dish that is all right.  And eggs are actually very good for chickens but you must be careful not to create an “egg eater” hen, which is a very hard habit to break.  If you feed eggs, don’t do so in the shell, and if you feed egg shells (which are also healthy for hens), don’t do so with the egg inside.  When feeding shells you should make sure they are completely crushed, so that they can’t make the connection to the round egg shape.

And as much as I want to encourage your to venture into this world, remember: if you are squeamish about poop, chicken keeping might not be for you.

Good luck to everyone getting little chicks this spring, they are great companions and fun to have on the farm.


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