Raising Chickens Jump to Chicks
Chickens are easy to raise and have a much greater return on money spent than any other farm animal. An adult chicken will consume 4.7-ounces of feed daily (excluding wasted feed) and 5-ounces of water. This low feed and water consumption results in very reasonable eggs which can be less than $.05 each depending on the source and cost of feed.
Feed quality is a big deal to me. The good thing about chicken feed is that it doesn't vary much in quality from one source to the other, though the price can vary greatly. Unlike feed for other species of livestock which are stuffed with fillers and coated with molasses so animals will eat it. Chicken feed doesn't contain fillers nor molasses. Feed from a co-op is generally better quality and better priced, but it is even more reasonable if you can find a local feed supply. You can feed all of your chickens layer, in crumble or pellet form, but chicks need the crumbles. Though mildly beneficial when very small, there is no need to feed little chicks any special feed, they will do perfectly fine on the same crumbles adult chickens eat. If they were hatched by a hen, that's exactly what they would be eating. One of the nice things about the layer feed is that it contains everything that a chicken needs, but not everything a chicken wants; the two are very different. I feed only layer crumbles because I usually have chicks just about anytime of year and there isn't much difference in the price between the two.
Utilizing the feeders and waterers from your local farm supply will result in a tremendous amount of feed waste, and dirty water which requires frequent cleaning. The key to preventing waste is by making more appropriate feed and water containers which is really easy to accomplish. When it comes to water for your animals, always keep in mind that if it isn't clean enough for you, it isn't clean enough for them either. Jump to Feeders and Waterers
What can you feed your chickens, and what to they really like? Though chickens will eat just about anything, what they really like is vegetation. Especially garden vegetables and greens, even simple grass. You can and should feed your chickens anything left as table scraps except stuff which is strongly seasoned, especially chemically seasoned. Chickens also like chicken, steak, and insects. The best chicken treats are lettuce, tomatoes, fresh grass clippings, peppers of just about any kind, and of course chicken. Even chickens know they taste good! Chickens love insects of all kinds. I once turned over a bucket that had a large female Black Widow spider in it, and a chicken ran up and ate that spider.
There is a lot of quakery about what animals can have as food. You have to remember that somehow animals existed for thousands of years without human interference. They somehow knew what to eat, imagine that. The big difference when humans farm animals, is that they are captive, and therefore dependent upon humans for access to just about everything. If your animals have all they need to eat, they can and will be selective, and will only eat what they should. If they are starving, they will eat anything out of their instinct to survive, and that is the only danger in what you feed them. If you have captive animals, there is only one rule that matters: if your animals don't have food and water, than you can't eat or drink until they do. Their very life depends on you! As far as chickens go, keep plenty of layer in front of them at all times. Throw out scratch grains daily, but not more than they will eat which is about two times as much as layer. If you keep plenty of scratch grain out, they will consume much less layer.
Hatching your own chicks is about as much fun as one can have legally. But you have to start somewhere; that's how we know the chicken came first, because that's where you have to start. You can get chicks from many farm supply stores, and there are also many private people selling chicks they hatched at home. So, what breed of chicks to get? That depends on what you want the chickens for. If you want meat chickens, get Rocks. If you want egg chickens, there are so many to choose from, but some of my favorites (because they lay large eggs) are: the Golden Comet, Australorp, Dominique. Bantams are cute, but they lay tiny eggs. To me, it's about return. So anything on our farm has to pay their own way in some sort of product, and with chickens it's eggs or meat. One way or the other, they're giving something up.
Chicks need three things to survive: heat, water and food. They are just about of equal importance, but certainly in that order of neccessity.
Heat must be maintained until the chicks are fully feathered, when they are about four months old. One cold spell and chicks will die. The temperature should be maintained from 90F to 95F for a few weeks, then the temperature can be slowly tappered off for the next couple of months, but not less than about 87F. When the chicks are a couple of weeks old, they can be allowed to roam about when they want to as long as they can get to a heated area anytime they want. For this, I use a plastic storage box that I got from walmart. I drilled a hole for the heat light in the bottom, cut an opening about 4x4 inches leaving the edge intack for them to come and go. I just set it upside down and there you have it.
Water is important to all creatures, but even more so to avians because they don't have teeth and therefore they don't chew their food, rather they simply swallow it as it is. Water softens the food in their crop making it much easier for the gizzard to grind. The gizzard works like the heart and breathing, in that it is automatic. Contractions of the gizzard grind up the moistened food using the grit within. Without sufficient water, the food stays hard, but doesn't stop moving and it will plug the birds digestive track killing them.
Food is second to water because chicks (and chickens) can survive a little while without food, but not long for two reasons. Without food, they will eat things that they normally wouldn't due to starvation, and when they are finally fed, they will over-eat which in itself can kill them. A chick doesn't need special feed, if a hen hatches them, they eat what she eats. They learn to forage with their mother hen. We feed chicks layer crumbles because it contains everything they need including the tiny stones for their gizzard.
Feeders and Waterers
Feeders are always going to be better if you make them yourself. The best product for making a feeder is wood since wood doesn't condensate and as a result, the feed stays dry and doesn't mold. A chick feeder should be raised off the ground to the level of the back of the chicks which is just as important as this next step; the size of the feeder slots where the chicks will access the feed. For chicks, these slots should be 1 inch deep, 1 1/2 inches long, and 1 inch wide. (For adult chickens, these slots should be 2 inches in depth, 2 inches long, and 1 1/2 inches wide.)
Water containers can be made from just about any plastic container that has a lid with the use of chick water nipples. To install the nipples, just drill a 21/64th hole and screw in the nipple. Two nipples in the bottom of a 5 gallon bucket is sufficient for 20 to 25 chickens, maybe even more. I use two nipples in the bottom of a 55 gallon barrel that I only refill once a month for 25 chickens. For adult chickens, the water container should be 16 inches off the ground. For chicks, it must be within reach, just about head level with the chicks or chickens.
When do the eggs come?
Eggs are one of the safest foods on the planet, and can be eaten in many different forms, even swallowed whole if you could get it down. In a survival situation, eggs, since they are known safe, can be eated from just about any source.
Chickens become adults at about six months of age, and begin laying eggs at about that time give or take a month. The eggs tend to be small at first and increase in size for about a month. Eggs can vary in color, shape, and size all the time, even from the same chicken. Inside the egg, especially if the eggs are other than white, colored spots are normal and edible. These colored spots usually occur from the pigment that colors the egg. Sometimes there may even be a spot of blood. These are harmless and can be eaten the same as the perfect egg. You wouldn't throw out a steak because it had blood on it before you cooked it, and an egg is safer than a steak to eat.
An egg can have one yoke, or maybe double yoked. I have not witnessed a triple yet, but I have heard of them. Once I cracked open an egg, and it didn't have any yoke at all. It is possible to find an egg inside of an egg as well. It is also possible that some chickens lay eggs with thicker or thinner shells than others. Once I even found a soft shelled egg.
I have been asked many times, "How do you tell an egg that is for eating from one that is for hatching." It always strikes me as kind of funny, but everyone has to learn from somewhere, right? So, how do you tell? It's simple, if you have a rooster, all eggs can be incubated and potentially hatched. If you don't have a rooster, no eggs can be hatched because they will not be fertile. They all can be eaten regardless of whether or not you have a rooster. The eggs will look the same when cracked into the pan, with one tiny difference. There is a single tiny cell that lays on the surface of the yoke, this cell exists on both fertile and non-fetile eggs. The difference between the two is that on the non-fertile egg this cell is irregular in shape, while on the fertile egg this cell is perfectly round. It is this cell that will develop into a chick only if the egg is warmed to the proper temperature and maintained at that temperature for 21 days.
Want to hatch your own chicks?
You should, it is a tremendous experience to witness the miracle of nature first hand. In just 21 days, that single cell on the surface of the yoke is going multiply and grow into a fully developed chick. That is an unbelieveable rate of growth. This high rate of growth continues for another two weeks or so after hatching, then slows a great deal.
In order to develop a batch of eggs, the eggs must be held within an even temperature range and humidity level for the 21 days necessary. Eggs also need to be turned either manually or automatically. For this, an incubator of some sort will be required. It is not necessary to purchase a commercial incubator, you can build one yourself if you so desire. A commercial incubator will provide good success, but a homemade one will be a lot more fun, and could have a higher success rate.
The problem with small cheap incubators is that they have minimal heating capabilities. They will work, but if opened for to long, it takes a long time to warm back up, which over time can cause hatching problems. If you make your own incubator, you can put sufficient heat in it that it warms up rapidly, where as a result there is less heat on-time. Incubators need to have fans in the top to force the heat down where the eggs are. There should be sufficient fans to ensure that the whole incubator is the same temperature no matter where it is measured. The temperature control sensor however, should be at egg level.
When incubating eggs, not all eggs will hatch. About 5% will be infetile, and others just won't continue to develop. This is true whether artificially incubated, or naturally incubated (by a hen). The eggs can be candled periodically to check for development, but in the end it is normal to have about 35% success rate. I have had as good as 80%, but that is far above average. Generally, the cheaper the incubator, the more likely a poorer success rate because temperatures and humidity are not as accurate, but anything is better than nothing.
It has been my experience that small to medium sized eggs have a better success rate than large eggs. Also, in my experience the eggs begin to hatch on day 19, not day 21 as commonly indicated. Once the chick begins to pip the egg, it can take 12 hours or more for the chick to hatch. You should not assist the breaking of the egg in most cases, though it is so tempting. The chick gets tired trying to get out of the egg, and sometimes die in the process though this is not the norm. Sufficient humidity during the hatch process is of the utmost importance.
The chick can't seem to break out of the egg: This does occur, and sometimes the chick suffocates in the end anyway. The chick is developing at an unbelievable rate even during the hatching process.
- Sometimes time is all that is necessary. You should always give the chicks at least 12 hours to get out on their own.
- You can gently break away some of the shell, but extreme care must be taken not to tear the membrane under the shell. Inside the shell is a membrane that contains blood vessels which are connected to the chick via the umbilical cord. If these tiny blood vessels are ruptured, it will cause bleeding which of course could kill the chick. I have had about 50% success rate in assisting chicks using this method.
- While hatching, the chick is obsorbing the yoke of the egg into it's abdomen. Sometimes after the hatch, a small amount of yoke is visible especially if assisted to early. It is important that chicks like this are kept seperate from others to prevent the other chicks from pecking at this and pulling on it.
Innards or yoke is hanging out of the chicks abdomen: You will encounter this even when everything seems to be going well. I have had these cases with several chicks in a particular batch, and with no chicks at all in other batches which causes me to think that it is relative to temperature or humidity.
- When this occurs, you must remove that chick from access by the others because they will peck at it. Humidity must be kept higher (60% or so) until this condition resolves itself.
- You can put a divider in your chick container to keep this chick seperated; it can do without food or water for up to 48 hours. You could put a tiny water container with it if you wanted.
Umbilical cord stuck to egg shell: But the chick is otherwise normal.
- This happens a lot, and often the chick will be dragging around a part orf the shell. I keep a small pair of scissors available to clip the cord. Be careful not to tug on the abdomen in the process though.
Chicks are pecking at the eyes of other chicks: Chicks do this, and I hate it when I see it. I haven't had any complications from it, but I have heard of damage being done.
- Chicks are curious creatures, and they can only explore with their beak. There is nothing that can be done about this really, and the curiosity with the eyes does pass within a day or so.
Chicks don't seem to be drinking water: Don't worry, they will.
- Chicks are curious creatures, they can't leave anything alone. When they want water they will get it as long as it's available.
- Don't dip their beaks in water, they will figure it out when they are good and ready.
- Chicken nipples are the best water source