Spring is when most people think of raising chicks, whether starting a new flock, adding to an existing flock or raising meat birds. Perhaps it’s because hens typically get broody and hatch chicks in the spring, or maybe it’s because when those hatchery catalogs arrive in the dead of winter, we can’t resist the idea of ordering chicks. However, after keeping chickens for a few years, I’ve discovered some advantages of getting chicks in the fall.
I was originally attracted to the idea that fall-hatched pullets would ultimately provide more eggs during the first year than spring-hatched pullets. When chicks are hatched in the spring, they reach egg-laying maturity as the summer days are getting shorter, which means they will lay fewer eggs. Although they will often lay through the winter, the rate won’t be anywhere near an egg per day, which can be expected from most of the better egg-laying breeds during summer. They don’t hit their stride and peak production until they are close to 1 year old.
Fall-hatched pullets, on the other hand, reach maturity in the dark of winter, but because of the short days, their bodies defer laying until the days get longer, giving them more time to mature. Then they will quickly shift into maximum production, laying an egg almost every day. Because they are more mature, they will also lay larger eggs from the start, so you won’t see many, if any, itty-bitty eggs.
“I’ve never had spring chicks,” says Rafael Ramirez, who has kept hens in Chicago, Illinois, since 2010. “It seemed a waste of their laying ability to take a winter break just when they are mature enough to lay daily.”
Starting and raising chicks in the fall also benefits those in southern states. D’Lorin Nail, of Canton, Texas, also prefers fall chicks.
“Once spring chicks are of laying age, it gets too hot, so they lay fewer eggs and take a summer break—go on strike, as we call it,” she says. “Then it gets cooler, and the days get shorter, so they take a winter break. Once the sun comes back out in late March, the birds are already a year old, and we’ve missed their most productive first year.”
Even after hearing the benefits, some people worry about starting and raising chicks in the fall because winter is close. They like the fact that spring chicks can go outside as the weather gets warmer. However, with a little forethought and planning, you shouldn’t have any problems starting chicks in the fall.
Although you can easily find day-old chicks in local feed-supply stores during the spring, you will probably have to order chicks from a hatchery in the fall. This will provide you more choices of breeds, as feed-supply stores usually have only a few options available, and they are not always identified. You can also order sexed chicks from hatcheries, so if you want only pullets for laying eggs, you can specify that.
A potential downside to hatchery purchasing is that hatcheries usually require a minimum order of 15 to
25 chicks. This way the birds can be sent safely through the mail, where they will have only their collective body heat to stay warm during the trip. Although some hatcheries now ship smaller orders with heat packs, the price of shipping increases dramatically. If you only want a few chicks, you can save money on shipping by getting another person to split a full-size order. You can also search for local hatcheries to help minimize shipping costs.
Because day-old chicks need consistent temperatures of 90 to 95 degrees F, you will need to create a brooder to keep them warm, regardless of the season. If a hen had hatched them, they could run back to her for warmth whenever they felt chilled. Because they were hatched in an incubator, the brooder will do the job of the mother hen in keeping them warm while they mature and feather out. Although you can buy a brooder or find brooder plans online, you can also repurpose a plastic bin, an old water trough or a 55-gallon fish aquarium. A large cardboard box, such as one that previously held a microwave oven, will also work well as a homemade brooder.
The box should be at least 2 feet wide, but 3 feet wide would be better, especially if you have 10 or more chicks. If you aren’t sure whether your box is the right size, don’t worry about it being too big. You don’t want a box that is too small because the chicks need to be able to move away from the heat lamp in case it’s too hot.
Place the brooder in a room that has consistent temperature night and day so that once you get the temperature regulated, you know that it will stay within the correct range. You should set up the brooder before the chicks arrive. Find your container, and hang the heat lamp over the brooder with a thermometer on the floor. Turn on the heat lamp, and check the temperature in about 15 minutes. If it’s hotter than 95 degrees F, raise the position of the heat lamp; if it’s less than 90 degrees F, lower the heat lamp. Wait 15 minutes, check the temperature again, and repeat these steps until the temperature is between 90 and 95 degrees F.
Cover the bottom of the brooder with plain white paper towels. Because baby chicks instinctively peck at things, sprinkling chick feed on the white paper towels is an easy way to make sure they all start eating. Also, put a chick feeder in the brooder containing chick starter, and usually by the end of the first day, the birds will be eating from the feeder. Change the paper towels once a day, and after a few days, you can switch to bedding, such as wood shavings or coffee chaff. Wood shavings are available at farm-supply stores, and coffee houses that roast their own beans often give away coffee chaff.
Chicks will also need water, and purchasing a chick waterer is a great investment. It might seem like a waste of money when you could just use an old tuna can, but you would probably lose some chicks to hypothermia or drowning that way—chicks would probably run through it or fall into it. Placing the waterer in a corner of the brooder makes it less likely for chicks to walk through it and get wet.
You can reduce the temperature in the brooder by about 5 degrees every week, which means lifting the heat lamp a little. When a hen is raising chicks, the youngsters spend increasing amounts of time running around in the grass every week and less time warming up under their mother’s wing. This instinctive behavior will also tell you whether you are decreasing the temperature in the brooder too rapidly.
If the chicks are wandering around the brooder evenly spread out, that means they are neither too warm nor too cold. If they are huddling under the light, they’re too cold, and the light needs to be lowered a little. If they are scattered to the far edges of the brooder, it’s too hot, so the lamp should be raised a little.
As They Grow
As the chicks get bigger and begin to outgrow the brooder, they’ll need a roomier home, but if temperatures outdoors are starting to drop, you might not feel comfortable putting them into a chicken house. By a month of age, they can usually handle 70 degrees, so if it’s still that warm in your area during the day, you can let them outside in a protected area. Once they are fully feathered out, which usually happens by 6 weeks of age, you can put them in a coop with a run, although if you are in a northern region, you might need to still provide a heat lamp.
How do you know if they need a heat lamp? The chickens will tell you, just as they did when they were younger: If they are warm enough, they’ll happily run around, and in the evening, they will hop onto a roost and spend the night there.
If they are cold, they’ll huddle in the corner of the coop, possibly piling on top of each other to stay warm. In this situation, they need a heat lamp. Otherwise, you could lose some to either hypothermia or to suffocation as they pile on top of each other. They will continue to mature and feather out as the weather gets cooler.
I generally plan to purchase my fall chicks about six weeks before our first frost date, which is Oct. 15 where I live in Illinois. Using that strategy, I can discontinue using a heat lamp by the time the chicks are 2 to 3 months old.
“We like to start chicks in November, in the basement garage,” Nail says. “They stay there until I just can’t take it anymore, and they get moved—evicted—to a grow-out coop in the garden. At this point, the garden is overrun with pesky weeds and bugs, so they clean it up nicely.”
Broody Hens in Fall
Although most hens have the good sense to become broody in the spring and summer, sometimes a hen will get the motherly urge in late summer or early fall. Joan Merlo of Chicago started her flock of backyard hens with mature chickens, but when a hen became broody in late summer last year, she took advantage of the situation and contacted a farmer who gave her some fertilized eggs. The hen hatched the eggs and raised the chicks. By winter, they were big enough that they didn’t require any additional heat.
“If the Cream Legbar goes broody again, I will probably get her fertilized eggs again,” Merlo says. “It’s a wonderful instinct in a bird, and in my opinion, not to be wasted if you’re able to let it run its course.”
A few of our hens have gone broody in the fall over the years, and it generally works fine as long as the hen doesn’t have too many chicks. Several years ago, a hen hatched nine chicks in October. As the chicks grew, we worried when we noticed they no longer all fit under their mother, and one morning we found a dead chick.
We knew that as the chicks grew, it would become more challenging for them to all fit under the hen. We put the mother hen and her chicks in a small coop every night with a heat lamp so that the chicks that didn’t fit under Mom could stay warm under the heat lamp.
Whether you have a broody hen or want to start keeping chickens or increase the size of your current flock, you don’t have to wait until spring. By starting chicks this fall, you’ll be enjoying your own fresh eggs by spring.
While there’s no such thing as “grassfed chicken,” there is such a thing as chickens that feed on grass. More specifically, chickens feed on the seeds, grubs and insects they find in the grass, but they do consume a bit of the grass itself, too. (A quick chicken anatomy lesson: These birds are monogastric, meaning they have one stomach that is not designed to ferment and digest forages in the same way as ruminants, such as cattle and sheep.) “Poultry will consume up to 30 percent of their body weight in forage when it is available,” according to the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture, based in Oklahoma. Knowing what the chickens are really after in their forages helps you to plant forage types that are most beneficial to them.
Try some of these grasses and legumes for your pasture-raised poultry flock.
- What It Is: a cool-season, perennial grass that grows well in the central and northern U.S.
- Why It’s Good for Chickens: “Kentucky bluegrass has a large proportion of its leaves close to the soil surface and below the grazing height in managed pastures,” according to the PennState Extension, meaning it’s at prime chicken height.
- How to Grow It: Plant 1 acre with 10 to 14 pounds of seed in late summer or early fall, when temperatures begin to decrease and rains are more frequent. It takes about two weeks to germinate but establishes quickly, as it spreads by rhizomes underground. Bluegrass grows well in a diverse pasture with white clover, red clover or birdsfoot trefoil.
- What It Is: a cool-season, perennial grass found across the U.S.
- Why It’s Good for Chickens: Perennial ryegrass produces seedheads in the late spring and can also flower again in mid-summer, depending on your climate, according to the PennState Extension, offering chickens seeds for their diet.
- How to Grow It: Fifteen to 20 pounds of seed per acre is recommended when seeding alone or 4 to 8 pounds per acre when seeding with a legume, according to PennState. Plant seeds with a grain drill or by broadcast seeding and following with a cultipacker. University of Kentucky researchers Ray Smith, Ph.D., and Jacquie Jacob, Ph.D., caution against planting turf-type perennial ryegrass, as it has “been developed to have high levels of toxins to reduce insect and grub damage. This is great for yards and sports fields, but not good for grazing poultry.”
- What It Is: a cool-season, perennial legume found across the U.S.
- Why It’s Good for Chickens: White clover is the legume of choice for poultry, as its fibrous root system give it the greatest tolerance to grazing, say Smith and Jacob.
- How to Grow It: The USDA National Resources Conservation Service says white clover likes cool, moist-climate clay and silt soils with ample lime, phosphate and potash. Seed at 2 pounds per acre using a seed drill.
Whatever forages you choose to grow for your chickens, the University of Maryland Extension recommends 1 acre of quality pasture for every 400 chickens in your flock. And make those forages diverse, both to provide a range of nutrients to your chickens and soil and to attract a range of insects that your chickens will find more enticing than the forages. A diverse diet like this could very well reduce your feed bills and help keep your chickens healthy.
This story originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of Hobby Farms.