The start of the new year often triggers thoughts of new chickens. Whether you are just starting your flock or are considering expanding it, the prospect of baby chicks is always exciting. This is especially true if you are considering adding a different breed to your flock. Selecting a second (or third or eighth) breed is only the first step, however. Locating a source for the chick of your choice is an adventure of its own.
When my husband, Jae, and I started our poultry farm, we didn’t consider what our niche would be. We just wanted chickens. We picked up a half-dozen mixed-breed chicks at our local farm-supply store; these were joined a few days later by two dozen “grab-bag” chicks from another seller. We loved our little flock but, as its members matured, we realized that we didn’t just want a yard full of birds, like my grandmother had kept. After much thought, discussion and research, we decided we wanted to specialize in heritage breeds. Because we live in Michigan, we decided that the winter-hardy Cochin would be the first addition to our feathered family. Now we just had to find them.
1. Feed Stores
Finding Cochins locally proved close to impossible. We hit all the mills, feed stores and farm-supply stores in a 50-mile radius. (After the first four, we wised up and called ahead.) None carried Cochin chicks. Their chick-days offerings were limited to meat chicks, sex links, Easter Eggers and assorted bantams. One feed store offered to order us some Cochin chicks but, upon looking through its supplying hatchery’s catalog, could not find a listing for Cochin chicks. These days, the variety of infant poultry available at our local farm-supply stores has indeed increased—Buff Orpington, Barred Rock and Australorps chicks are now common options—but we have yet to see a Cochin chick at any nearby establishment.
If your local store does not carry chicks in your choice of breed, ask whether it can order them for you. This availability depends upon the supplying hatchery. Keep in mind that you might be required to pay for your order in advance, and that the arriving chicks will be yours regardless of their condition when they arrive. There will not be a selection of chicks from which to pick, because yours will be a special order.
Our hunt for Cochins brought us to our catalogs next. Like many would-be poultry farmers, we had a huge stack of glossy and newsprint mailers from chicken-related businesses from across the country. Most focused on feeding equipment, coops and fencing, and egg cartons, but several specialized in baby chicks. Some just listed descriptions; others featured photos of the babies as well as pictures of their adult forms. We were thrilled to find Cochins—bantam and standard—in three catalogs. Unfortunately, one offered only the buff variety while another required a minimum order of 25. We quickly went to the website of the third to order six black Cochin only to learn that these had sold out in pre-orders earlier in the year.
Most hatcheries these days have their entire inventory of chicks online, with full-color photos and detailed descriptions of the breed, the breed’s character traits and the varieties available. Many specify the minimum order required; this can range from three to three dozen. Some hatcheries might sell out and offer a waiting list, while others ship only at certain times of the year because of dangers associated with extreme weather. We’ve learned that the best time to order hatchery chicks is November and December of the previous year. Our chicks of choice tend to still be available during the off season vs. in the spring, when lots more people want chicks for their flocks.
3. Breeders Clubs
Poultry-keepers who raise a specific breed or variety of chicken often belong to that breed’s national club. As club members, they can share their experiences, help stage exhibitions and contribute to the perfecting of the standards for that breed. A breeders club is also an excellent place to find chicks, juveniles and adult birds for sale. Many clubs have websites that not only post information about breeds but also have member directories. When Jae and I sought to start our Ameraucana flock, we turned to the Ameraucana Breeders Club and searched the online directory for breeders near us. We found two, one of whom cordially and promptly answered our emails, patiently answered all our questions and eagerly gave us a tour of the facilities when we picked up our newest flock members.
Not all breeds have national breeders clubs, however, and not all national breeders clubs have websites. If you fail to locate a website for your chosen breed’s club, try social media. A good number of breeders clubs have Facebook pages and methods of contact for information on chick sales.
4. Poultry Groups
Social media offers another way to connect with breeders: through poultry groups. A poultry group consists of like-minded chicken owners, fanciers and breeders who share their experiences, support each other and socialize online. Some groups are purely social, while others allow members to publish in-search-of posts—often called ISO posts—noting what kind of breeds and varieties they’d like to buy. Similarly, members can also post about the birds they have to sell. Over the years, I’ve sold dozens of chicks and a handful of adult birds to fellow poultry-group members who’d come to know me through my group participation. I have also purchased chicks this way, finding our Polish from my friend Paris in Indiana and refreshing our Silkie bloodlines with chicks from David in Missouri.
One note about poultry-group sales: These purchases fall under caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. Groups do not police the quality of their members’ sale offerings or the validity of their transactions. While most poultry-group members are honest chicken-keepers and breeders, some might not be as ethical. If you plan to purchase infant poultry from a social-media group member, ask the group about its experiences with that particular individual. You’ll know soon enough whether to move ahead or turn and run.
5. Land-Grant Universities
The poultry-science departments of many land-grant universities have associated poultry-research farms where studies and investigations into different facets of fowl-rearing are conducted. Some of these university farms offer hatching eggs, chicks and adult birds for sale; these tend to be the result or product of the studies or the control-group participants themselves. I learned about Michigan State University’s poultry-research farm almost a decade ago and reached out to its manager, Angelo, to arrange a tour. For several years, MSU was a chief source of hatching eggs for our farm: our Royal Palm turkey flock originated from there. The research farm’s focus changed several years ago—my oldest, Michael, begged us to please adopt the farm’s flock of emu—and I’m unfamiliar with what is offered now. In my experience, it pays to contact the poultry-science department of your local land-grant university to see whether it has the breed you seek.
6. Grassroots Organizations
As newbie poultry farmers, we sought to legitimize our business by joining several professional associations. We became members of the American Poultry Association, the American Bantam Association and the Livestock Conservancy. We also discovered and joined our state’s poultry association, the Michigan Poultry Fanciers. This was by far the smartest move we made. Instantly we were connected with fanciers and breeders throughout our state. We made connections via email and telephone, and at the organization’s annual exhibition. These connections enabled us to expand beyond the buff variety in our Orpington flock, fueled our foray into the world of exhibition Seramas and provided us with the starter animals for our Marans, Welsummer and Wyandotte flocks.
Through the Michigan Poultry Fanciers, we also connected with a breeder named Vicki, at whose hobby farm we finally found our dream Cochin babies, in blue, black and white. Vicki guaranteed their health (we never encountered any problems) and kindly put up with our multitude of questions regarding Cochin care. All the breeders we encountered through our membership in our state’s poultry association were friendly and more than happy to share their knowledge and their love of poultry with us, as we did with those who sought our birds out once we ourselves became established.