Purchasing spring chicks from a hatchery has important advantages, such as fewer people handling the birds, lessening the chance for cross contamination in established flocks. Customers also have more options of birds to choose from to best suit their needs.
Whether you are a veteran producer or are brand-new to raising chickens, follow these five tips and you’ll be well on your way to making the experience as positive as possible.
Establish General Goals
Before you even start shopping for breeds, you need to review your chicken-keeping goals. For starters, decide if you’re looking for meat or egg production, or both. You’ll also want to decide if your ambitions include simply contributing to your family’s food supply or if you want to sell what your produce and on what scale.
Before he shopped, Greg Nance, a producer and pastor, decided on what type of breed-specific bird he wanted. Nance has raised chickens off and on since childhood. For the past five years, he has lived on his Sweet Grace Farm, a small plot located on Signal Mountain in Tennessee, where he keeps a flock of about 100 birds that he raises for meat and eggs.
While the birds provide for his family, he also sells to community and church members. Nance put in a considerable amount of research before he clicked “submit” on that first purchase of spring chicks.
“I went through as many hatcheries as I could find to see what pricing was, he says. “My first objective was to find a good source of birds at a good price.” Over the years, Nance has experimented with a variety of different hatcheries, breeds and other venues, such as online classifieds, for his birds.
Another producer, John Kolenda of KC Farms in Crossville, Tennessee, had a similar strategy. “We went in with a plan,” he says. “We wanted to get some eggs that were different. Everybody in the country has chickens. It seems like they all lay a brown egg. So, we went in and we wanted to get eggs that were different-looking than everyone else’s.”
Kolenda sells the eggs and meat produced on his small farm. Like Nance, he’s raised chickens for most of his life.
Over the years, Nance has raised a variety of different breeds of chickens from spring chicks. “For eggs, we’ve used Rhode Island Reds and Black and Red Sex-Links,” he says. RIRs and Sex-Links also make good dual-purpose birds for those seeking to produce meat and eggs from the same bird.
For meat, specifically, Nance has considered “ranger” chickens. “They take a little bit longer to grow, but they are kind of the rage right now because they can get around and sort of free-range better,” he says. However, he prefers the industry-standard Cornish-Cross because they grow so fast—from hatching to processing to freezing is about a nine-week time period.
“By nine weeks, we’ll end up with some birds that are almost 8 pounds,” he says.“You just can’t beat that.”
Another meat breed Nance is working with is the heritage Jersey Giant. “They are gentle, and they grow to be almost 15 pounds,” he says. “They were bred as a replacement for turkeys and take about seven months to get full size. So, it’s a lot more time.”
One downside that Nance has noticed with the Jersey Giant is its susceptibility to predators. His original order consisted of 36 straight-run spring chicks, but he’s now down to just six hens and 20 roosters. While he’s employed a variety of tactics to help mitigate the loss, he’s been disappointed with the number he’s faced.
Kolenda started with Ameraucanas and Welsummers, but he is also a fan of the Cornish Cross. Another favorite of his is the Bielefelder breed. Murray McMurray Hatchery, in Webster City, Iowa, states that this fairly new breed is making a huge splash in the poultry world.
“These gentle giants are extremely docile, beautiful and easy to raise … these robust birds have large, round bodies that put Orpingtons to shame.”
“We’ve found the Cornish Cross do well out on grass and in the sun, and in eight weeks, we have a full-size bird,” he says. “The main reason I went with Bielefelders is because they are supposed to be a larger dual-purpose chicken … males get up to 10 to 12 pounds. They also have an amazing egg.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kolenda was concerned about the availability of spring chicks and made the decision to go with this dual-purpose bird in the event no meat birds were obtainable.
Ryan Kelsey has operated his Valley Farms Hatchery in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, for the past eight years and offers a similar perspective. One breed Kelsey sells is the Cornish Cross.
“They grow out at around 51⁄2 or so in just about six or eight weeks,” he says. “And so, a lot of people get those specifically for meat production. We sell quite a few of those and we have people that place regular orders every week or every other week.”
Kelsey also sells red broilers, a slower growing, dual-purpose bird comparable to the freedom or red ranger variety.
“A lot of people that don’t want the Cornish Cross because they often have leg or heart problems choose the red broilers,” he says. “They grow a little bit slower but still fast enough to grow out to about 51⁄2 pounds at 12 weeks. If their feed is restricted, they actually lay eggs pretty well. We have a lot of people who order a straight-run batch. They keep the males for their meat and the females for their eggs.”
Kelsey also offers Novogen brown and white chickens, which are commercial layers of brown and white eggs. “They start laying earlier than your regular heritage breeds,” he says. “They also lay more and eat less feed.”
Jeff Smith is the director of sales and marketing at Cackle Hatchery in Lebanon, Missouri. His grandfather, Clifford Smith, started the business in 1936, and Jeff has been involved for two decades. He recommends Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds as they are dual-purpose and relatively calm. “They are durable and are going to be one of the easier breeds to raise,” he says.
Beyond White & Brown
For those seeking to raise colored eggs, Easter Eggers are good, inexpensive birds that lay green- and blue-tinted eggshell colors. On the more expensive, specialty bird end, the Ameraucana breed comes in several colors: blue, splash, lavender, black and white.
“They are more of a show-type chicken,” Smith says. “They are not really an egg-production chicken, but they’re going to lay a decent amount of eggs throughout the year.”
In addition, for colored eggs, consider Cream Legbars, Olive Eggers and Speckled Eggers. Cream Legbars lay a blue egg and are slightly less expensive. “Olive Eggers are really popular,” Smith says. As the name implies, their eggs are shades of green. Speckled Eggers lay a deep chocolate-colored egg with dark spots. “It’s really interesting for buyers to have an eggshell pigment color like that,” he says.
Producers also have options when it comes to the best age of chicken to purchase. Nance and Kolenda have always gone with day-old chicks. For most situations, this is the age that Kelsey and Smith recommend as well.
Today, most hatcheries ship year-round. But the best times to buy and have chicks shipped is still in spring to early summer and fall. “It’s the perfect temperature,” Kelsey says of the cooler months. “It can get a little too hot in summer [and too cold in the winter]. Sometimes, we have a little more shipping loss during the summer and winter.”
He recommends ordering as soon as you are sure that you’re ready to move forward. Most chicks purchased in the spring will be laying by fall.
Ordering day-old chicks has its advantages. “When you’re raising them, you can tame them to your particulars,” Smith says. Older birds have prelearning they may need to overcome. It’s a little easier if you start out with a baby chicks.
The big issue with buying older birds is bringing disease into your flock.
“If you can just bring in baby chicks, you’re going to have about a 90 percent effective method of trying to keep your farm from getting a chicken disease on it,” he says. Older birds, while more expensive, do have the advantage of requiring a slightly smaller investment of feed, time and money before they reach production age.
There is a third option available: hatching eggs. “We offer fertilized hatching eggs,” Smith says. “They’re the same eggs we put in our incubators.” While hatching eggs offer many obvious rewards, it does come with the added expense of purchasing an incubator. In addition, hatching eggs aren’t, other than arriving unbroken, guaranteed.
Hatcheries put a lot of money and time getting them packed correctly. But they’re at the total mercy of how the eggs are handled during shipping. Dropped eggs or eggs exposed to extreme heat and cold are unlikely to hatch.
“But, if they have the proper incubator, they should have about as good of luck as we do when we put the same eggs in our machines,” Smith says.
By the Numbers
Many hatcheries offer price breaks for purchasing in bulk. Minimum orders can be as small as just three chicks. But you can often get price breaks on orders of 25, 50, 100 and more. For smaller producers, orders of 25 chicks are common.
In order to get the best price, shop sales such as bargain and weekly specials—and seek discounts.
Some hatcheries also offer other specials that allow producers to purchase a combination of spring chicks that are individually suited for meat and egg production. Valley Farm, for example, offers four different sizes of this particular special to meet the needs of different size families.
Even with price breaks for larger orders, it doesn’t make sense to purchase more birds than you can reasonably accommodate. Even factoring in bird loss, 25 can be a large number of birds if you aren’t equipped to handle them.
But, in the right situation, price breaks and specials can make purchasing chickens in bulk very affordable and allow you to get just what you need.
Sidebar: Plan Before Proceeding
Evaluate your goals prior to placing your order. Decide ahead of time if you wish to produce meat or eggs for just you and your family or if you plan to sell what your produce. Selling your produce can be something on as small a scale as covering your feed costs by selling to community members. On a larger scale, you might do something like sell at a local farmers market.
While knowing your goals can help you to select the type of bird that best fits your goals, it can also help you to select the number of birds you will need. If possible, evaluate the facilities beforehand to make certain they can support your proposed operation.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.