PHOTO: Deann Barrera/Flickr
April 26, 2016

One of the first considerations a potential poultry keeper faces is whether to raise their flock from chicks or pullets. Welcoming day-old baby birds requires different structures and practices than laying hens, and there are advantages and challenges to each stage.

No matter what age, breed or type of poultry you choose, you’ll have greatest success with birds from a reputable breeder or keeper. Large hatcheries offer so many breeds that they often don’t practice very selective breeding, meaning birds might not turn out as productive and healthy or exhibit breed standard characteristics that allow them to be shown. A better alternative is to look for small-scale, local breeders through poultry groups, Craigslist or the county extension.

“A good breeder should be knowledgeable, open to talking, and focused on just a few breeds,” says Jerah Pettibone of Pettibone Urban Game in Columbus, Ohio. “Ask them questions about their birds, how they are raised, what traits they select for, etc. If possible, go see the animals before agreeing to buy them.”

What You Get With Chicks

Young chickens, ducks and turkeys are frequently sold as day-old chicks, ducklings and poults, respectively. They hatch from fertilized eggs at a hatchery or breeder and are immediately sold to their owners, often shipped via U.S. Postal Service.

Fluffy feathered babies of domesticated poultry can be raised without a mother, so long as the poultry keeper assumes that role. They require warmth, shelter, food and water in a small enclosure called a brooder. Many people create a brooder from an open-topped bin or crate with a layer of wood chips and a suspended heat lamp.

“Make sure [the chicks] are never competing for food or water, keep the space dry, and offer a variety of temperatures so that birds can move to the place they are most comfortable,” Pettibone says. “All these things lower stress and can prevent some common problems, like pasty butt, in chickens. Also, watch your birds carefully at first to look for potentially dangerous spots like deep water, corners to get stuck in, and birds piling.”

Finding a community locally or online is a great way to troubleshoot issues that might come up in the first weeks of raising birds.

“Without a mamma, chicks and ducklings are fairly suicidal,” Pettibone admits. “Close attention, and practice will help.”

The Difference With Pullets

Pullet is the name given to a young female chicken after it has molted into its adult feathering but before regularly laying eggs. Although farmers differ in naming the exact age, a female chicken is generally called a pullet until around 1 year old, which means she’s been laying for about six months.

The biggest challenge in beginning or adding young female birds to your homestead or farm is introduction. While chicks sometimes die because of dangers inherent in learning how to live, pullets can come with diseases like avian pox, Marek’s disease and bronchitis, which require quarantine practices. Unless you’re rehoming an established group of birds, you’ll need to also pay attention to flock dynamics so that your pullets don’t injure one another.

“It is very important to quarantine new birds, and to allow them time for social integration—especially with chickens and drakes,” Pettibone says.

She recommends four weeks of quarantine when introducing new birds to an established flock. A dog pen or small coop can be used for quarantine, and some farmers keep a small tractor-style coop for exactly this purpose.

“When you’re ready to integrate them, give the new birds their own cage with food and water inside your coop where the other birds can see them, but not hurt them, for about a week,” Pettibone says. “Before letting new birds into the main coop, try moving things around a little so that all the birds have to claim new territory at the same time. You can also try letting new birds in during the night when the others are sleeping. This can ease the process.”

Once the birds are fully introduced, the flock will need to re-establish its pecking order. This can often be difficult for a keeper to observe, as some fighting may occur in the first few days. Try to avoid interfering unless blood is drawn; if you have a wounded bird, remove and treat it immediately.

Be aware that if pullets have started to lay, they will often stop for a short while adjusting to flock dynamics or coop arrangement. It may take up to three weeks to collect eggs again after introducing pullets to a new home or group of birds.

How To Choose

Purchasing chicks is the least expensive route to starting poultry, provided you consider any brooder cost a long-term investment. However, keeping baby birds requires more time and work. This input is justified if you want a specific breed, the desire to expose your children to the bird life cycle, and more control over the husbandry practices needed to raise healthy birds.

Pullets are the fastest way to count on consistent egg production and great for those just starting out because a brooder is not required. The risk of disease spread and flock disruption can be minimized with careful quarantine and introduction practices. Game birds, like quail, partridge and chukar, don’t tolerate shipping as chicks, so if you don’t have a local source, choose hatching eggs or adults for these species.

Ultimately, most homesteaders end up welcoming both chicks and pullets to their operation at one time or another. It’s useful to know how to raise both ages for when you’re presented with the opportunity to expand or replace your flock.


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