Whenever you decide to get chickens for eggs, meat, pets or show, you must also decide how to get them. Do you go the Craigslist route and risk, well, the same things one always risks when shopping on Craigslist? What about buying an incubator and hatching your own? Isn’t there something controversial about having baby chicks sent to you in the mail?
The hurdles of just getting a flock started can give any beginning chicken keeper second thoughts about his or her imminent destiny—don’t let this be you. Here are tips for choosing the most responsible, affordable and ethical way to finally get some chickens scratching around your property.
Let’s say you want to start at the very beginning of the process: incubate the eggs, watch them hatch and raise them up from chicks. If total involvement in the process is your goal, you may consider building or purchasing an incubator. Incubators can hatch anywhere from a dozen to several thousand eggs, but there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind if you go this route:
- Incubators often have a hatch rate of 85 percent or less, so set more eggs than the number of chickens you want.
- Unlike ordering from a hatchery, where you can choose to get only female chicks, you’ll get as many cockerels in the mix by incubating eggs. It’s nice to have one rooster to fertilize future eggs and protect the flock—even in neighborhood settings, if your local laws allow—but several can be a loud, costly and sometimes dangerous issue. You’ll need to decide what to do with the extra boys: raise them for meat, give them away, et cetera.
- Ensure the eggs you incubate are fertile. To buy fertilized eggs, call a local farm and ask if they can sell you their freshest fertile eggs. Many hatcheries will also sell fertilized eggs of several different breeds and send them in the mail.
If you plan to hatch eggs every year, an incubator is a good investment and a cheap way to start a flock. To make the most out of your money, split the cost with a neighbor or friend.
2. Broody Hen
There is no better method to hatching eggs than the mother hen herself. Some breeds, particularly Silkies, are known for their broodiness, aka egg-sitting tendencies. When a hen goes broody, her cluck changes, her manner shifts and she won’t get up until the eggs hatch. Because broody hens don’t lay eggs, they can be a nuisance to egg farmers, but they’re perfect for hatching purposes.
If you don’t have your own broody hen, ask a farmer friend or your egg farmer if you can borrow or rent one of theirs. Give the broody hen a dry, safe place with straw, and she will stay on the eggs until they hatch.
Mother hens also raise good chicks. In fact, if you do order live chicks from a hatchery, and happen to have access to a broody hen, you can place up to 12 young chicks under her in the middle of the night—making sure to remove the eggs beneath her first—and she will believe she hatched them. She will then raise the chicks like they’re her own, keeping them warm and showing them how to forage. Letting hens hatch eggs, or tricking them into thinking they did, is likewise a great way to stop broodiness.
3. Craigslist and Newspapers
Raising your flock from baby chicks can be a fun and admittedly cute experience, but your first chickens won’t start laying for six to eight months. Farmers who want to expand their flock more quickly turn to classified ads and websites like Craigslist to find pullets or already laying hens.
You can expect to pay $8 to $12 for a pullet and up to $25 for a laying hen, though Craigslist makes it possible to find birds cheaper. To save time, money and energy, it’s best to purchase 5-month-old pullets; they’re hardy enough to survive most weather and are on the verge of laying eggs. However, if you decide to buy an already laying hen, ask how old it is. A hen will lay reliably for three to four years before its egg production tapers off, thus spending $25 on a 3-year-old hen isn’t the best investment. Also, before purchasing, ask the seller why he’s getting rid of the birds, what he feeds them, and if they’ve received any vaccinations or medications.
Hatcheries are the supermarkets of chicken-buying. You can get just about any breed and sex you want, as well as any equipment, books or supplies you need to raise them.
Hatcheries ship chicks to the farmer through the mail. They’ll arrive to the post office early in the morning, so you’ll need to go pick them up. Have proper brooding facilities (or a broody hen), as well as fresh food and water ready for the chicks once they arrive at the farm. Although the egg sac the chicks consume before hatching will provide them with plenty of nutrients for a day or so, they will be thirsty and hungry shortly after arriving home. Keep in mind that as with all animals, there will be weak chicks and strong chicks. Consider not opening the box around children in case one of the weaker ones did not survive the trip. (For your conscience, if a chick is too sick to make the trip, it’s very likely they were too weak to survive in the first place.)
If you wish to order all female chicks, but want ensure excess male chicks are handled humanely, feel free to ask your hatchery of choice. Most small hatcheries try to find homes for the excess cockerels. Some will ship extra males to people as “packing peanuts”—bonus chickens—hoping the recipient will take to them and give them a shot at life, while other hatcheries auction off the cockerels to the local community, or even give them away for free. If the hatchery is not upfront with you about what they do with the males or if you don’t agree with their handling methods, find a different hatchery.
Get more chicken-keeping help from HobbyFarms.com:
- Protect Your Chicks Naturally from 7 Common Illnesses
- 5 Cheap Coop-Maintenance Materials
- 7 Coop Bedding Materials and How to Choose the Right One
- 7 Chicken Treats for Better-Quality Eggs
- How to Care for Molting Chickens