Helpful Tips For Getting Started With Chickens

Whether you’re getting your first or 40th chick, this advice is sure to start chickens off right, so check out these poultry-keeping tips before you begin.

by Ashleigh Krispense
PHOTO: Maya Kruchancova/Adobe Stock

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by various types of poultry. My mother certainly enjoyed keeping birds around. We had everything from Rhode Island Red and Golden Laced Wyandotte chickens to Rouen ducks, Brown African geese and even Bourbon Red turkeys. I had the opportunity to gather fresh brown eggs from the nests or, earlier on, help my family butcher roosters and prepare them for the freezer. 

No matter if you grew up on a homestead yourself or are just now beginning to dabble in a more self-sufficient lifestyle, a small flock of chickens can be a great way to get your feet wet. Whether you have plans to harvest broilers for meat or are just looking for some laying hens to fill your kitchen with eggs, consider the following before adding poultry to your farm.

What to Look For 

Chickens come in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes. Have a plan in mind before choosing a breed. Know what purpose your flock will serve. 

  • Are you looking to raise them for meat, eggs or ornamental purposes? 
  • Are you looking for a specific feather or egg coloring?
  • How large of a space can you offer them, both in a coop or a run? 
  • What type of climate do you live in? This can influence which breed you choose. For example, breeds with larger, more exposed areas of skin in their combs or waddles can be more prone to frostbite and might not be as well-suited for a cold climate.
  • Are there any regulations in your area about having poultry? 
  • Are you wanting only hens? Keep in mind when purchasing that you’ll likely need to choose between straight run (an unsexed mix of cockerels and pullets), cockerels and pullets. 
chicken chickens chicks tips for getting started
scott/Adobe Stock

Find a Good Source

Chickens can generally be purchased as either hatching eggs, young chicks or started pullets. While fertile eggs might not be too difficult to come by in your community, incubating is a task that will need careful and consistent monitoring. On the other hand, though, started pullets can be more expensive to purchase. 

Offering a happy middle ground, newly hatched chicks are a good option for the beginning chicken-keeper. They can be purchased online via hatchery websites and then shipped to your local post office. You can also purchase in person at farm-supply stores or from an individual’s own flock. 

If ordering online, some hatcheries will require a minimum number of poultry to be purchased, and some may charge a fee for any order below a set quantity, as the chicks can stay warm longer and ship better in a larger group. This can be a disadvantage for anyone looking to start with a small flock of just a few hens. 

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If you’re open to a more limited selection of breed options, a local farm-supply store might be a good place to visit as you’ll be able to see the chicks in person and likely choose which ones and how many you want. Our local feed mill also offers the option to order in chicks for people. 

For those looking to purchase from an individual, consider asking to see the original flock and inquire about any previous sickness or problems they might have had. If you already have an existing flock that you’ll be incorporating new birds into, avoid bringing any illness or problems home to your own birds. 

chicken chickens chicks tips for getting started
Ashleigh Krispense

Supplies to Have 

I have gone the impulsive route of walking away from a farm-supply store with two little boxes of fluffy chicks. But if you’re not familiar with the basics of caring for and raising them, it can be a good idea to wait until you have the supplies needed to bring them home! 

Here are some things to have on hand: 

  • A stock-tank or other suitable living space (with a piece of metal grate or other material with small openings for a lid) that can be sectioned off into smaller areas to keep the chicks contained in. While young, they won’t need a huge area to roam and keeping them warm is important. 
  • Plenty of new bedding that can be changed out once soiled
  • Chick waterer that has a shallow ring around the bottom, allowing for safe drinking
  • Chick feeder
  • Good quality chick starter, whether you choose to use medicated or unmedicated
  • Heat lamp and bulb (whether a heat lamp bulb or incandescent) that’s height can be adjusted, allowing it to be moved closer for more warmth and then further away as the chicks get older. (Tip: Watch the chicks for indicators of how hot or cold they are. If they huddle close together, they’re likely cold and need the heat lamp moved closer. If they move outside the ring of light and spread out, the light might need to be moved a bit further away.)
  • A plan for future relocation is good, because as your chicks grow, their space will need to grow as well. Offer room for them to stretch their wings and move about.

As your chicks mature into adult birds, their needs will change. Here are some basic things to have: 

• Large enough coop and run for the size of your flock 

• Appropriate feeder and feed, which can vary dependent on whether you have broilers or layers, and their age 

• Larger water dish

• Nesting boxes and bedding (such as straw)

• Roost that they can grip securely

Brooding Setup

Long-time chicken-keeper David Esau hatches his own chicks twice a year to share with people at local events/holidays, replenish his own flock of laying hens and raise cockerels to butcher. 

After hatching, he raises the chicks in about a 2-foot square cardboard box until they have grown enough to be relocated. A cardboard box meets his needs well. He can dispose of it then after the chicks have outgrown it, and as he mentioned he won’t require storage until the next batch of chicks hatch. For an additional brooder option, metal stock tanks or washtubs work very well if you’re willing to store them when not in use.

Esau suggests using appropriately-sized equipment in your brooder set-up, such as chick feeders and waterers that are low enough to the ground that they will be able to reach them. Wood chips can be used for litter. And for a heat source, Esau has opted to use a heat shield with a 40- to 60-watt incandescent light bulb (as opposed to the traditional heat lamp bulbs). Esau also notes that the heat can gradually be reduced over time as the chicks grow and feathers develop. 

Inside Your Coop

Transitioning young birds into a regular coop can be more of a challenge if you already have an established flock. Do it gradually and allow time for the chicks and older hens to first become acquainted with each other through a pen. 

Whether your chicks are in their “big bird” coop yet or not, it can be helpful to go ahead and make any repairs or small fixes needed to secure it against predators and the elements. From fixing holes in the fencing that encloses your pen, replacing broken or missing windows inside the coop, or touching up other various areas that have become weakened over time, always be prepared. 

As you prepare your coop, here are some things to consider having.

  • A sturdy-enough roost that will allow the chickens to sleep up off the ground
  • Nesting boxes can come in a variety of shapes or sizes, including homemade ones. Whatever you choose to use, line it with some bedding, such as wheat straw.
  • Feeders and waterers, whether on the ground or suspended from the ceiling
  • Appropriate lighting that can be used to supplement any extra hours of light needed for laying hens
  • Ventilation is also necessary to remove ammonia smell due to droppings, as well as to help cool the hens during hot summer months when they are inside the coop. Doors and windows can be opened and lined with chicken wire to make screens, allowing more air flow. Esau has used half-inch hail screen in the past. 

Consider the litter on the floor of your coop and find what method of care and cleaning works best for your flock and lifestyle. Keep in mind also what type of floor your coop has, whether it’s a dirt floor at ground level or elevated with wood.

Look for any openings or gaps that would allow a predator to slip inside, such as a weasel, opossum or hungry raccoon. Even snakes will seek out a whole egg meal at times.

Feeding & Boredom Busters

The nutritional needs of your flock will vary, depending on their age and intended purpose. It’s good to do your research via poultry-related books, trustworthy local feed-mill/feed-store employees, or, as Esau suggests, the instructions on feed bags. He feeds a commercial feed that is age-appropriate for his flock. Chicks should start with chick starter and gradually move up as they mature to a brooder/grower/finisher feed. Esau suggests that pullets can then be switched to a layer feed around a month before they are to start laying.

Once you have landed on a good feeding plan, supplement it from time to time with various boredom busters. Try suspending a head of cabbage or lettuce in the air and letting your birds peck at it. You can also make your own frozen treats.

If producing fodder from sprouted grains—such as wheat—sounds like something you would like to try, Esau has grown it in various containers to around a height of 3 inches before feeding it to his flock. He prefers to not grow so much that the flock can’t consume it within just a day or two. 

chicken chickens chicks tips for getting started
Ashleigh Krispense

Poultry-Safe Landscaping 

Gardening and landscaping while owning chickens can be a challenge, especially if they free-range. Learning which plants are safest to plant near your coop or in the main free-range area can be helpful. For example, local greenhouse owner and chicken-keeper Jana Dalke shared some herbs and other plants that can be safely planted near poultry, such as “mint, chives, parsley fennel, basil, anything in the brassica family,” she says. “They love lettuce and other salad greens.” 

If you’re looking to mix it up, Dalke also suggests providing your flock with an accessible snack by allowing cucumbers to grow up a fence. This way, the birds can munch on them as they’re produced. She pointed out that preventative measures will need to be taken in the beginning—such as putting fence around the plants—to keep chickens from the plants until they have matured.

While various types of plants can safely co-exist with poultry, some are also considered toxic. Dalke mentioned some of these. “Nightshades, bulbs such as tulip daffodils and iris, holly, foxglove, azalea, oak leaves and acorns, rhubarb, yew, apricot pits, certain ferns are said to be toxic to chickens,” she says. 

Whether you’re close to making your first purchase from a hatchery or are considering some fertile hatching eggs to go in an incubator, chickens can offer a fun and educational experience for your homestead. Do your research, gather the supplies and watch as your flock seems to expand right before your eyes! 

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Keeping Your Hens Healthy

Sometimes, prevention can be the best medicine when it comes to keeping your flock healthy. Here are some simple steps you can implement in caring for your own poultry.

Chicken-keeper David Esau recommends having good feed (which should be appropriate for your flock’s age and nutritional needs, depending on if they’re layers or broilers) and being watchful for parasites. The more time you spend around your birds, the more normal their behaviors will appear, so you’ll be better able to spot something that’s out of character.

Provide fresh, clean water during the summer and winter. Whether it’s become low and dirty during the hot summer afternoons or frozen over and unable to be drunk during cold winter days, check in regularly on their water supply and freshen it up.

For larger flocks, an appropriately sized coop and run is beneficial. This will keep them from being too cramped and avoid behavioral problems and excessive pecking or bullying. 

Watch for excess amounts of ammonia from droppings, which can cause respiratory issues in your flock. Check your coop for plenty of ventilation and clean or change litter as needed. Find a routine that works for you and your flock.

Keep a watchful eye out (and ear, as sometimes you may notice an odd noise) on your chickens for early signs of health problems. Whether mites or an illness, it can be helpful to jump on an issue as soon as it can be recognized.

This article originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.

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