All You Need to Know to Start a Flock.
Spring will soon be upon us, and for many folks that means baby animals! So cute.
Let’s talk baby chicks and ducks. They are a great starting point for anyone looking to get livestock—they’re easy maintenance, easy-going, and they don’t need to cost a ton. If you are new to chickens, you will also want to check out my tutorial on chicken math. If you’re asking yourself ‘what is chicken math?’ then you definitely need to educate yourself 🙂
This is a TON of information, so for ease of processing, here are the sections listed in order.
Benefits of Roosters
Where to Buy Chicks
So What About Ducks?
Maintenance as Adults
Basic Chicken Terminology.
First things first, Terminology. If you join Facebook groups, poke around on chicken websites, hatchery websites, or even reading on my blog, there are a few things you need to know.
Here are a few basic terminologies to familiarize yourself with:
Straight Run: a group of chicks that could be male or female
Sexed Chicks: there is a “10% chance you’ll have a male”
Pullet: a female chicken that is less than 1 year of age
Cockerel: a male chicken that has not reached maturity – less than 1 year of age
Hen: a female chicken over 1 year of age
Rooster: a male chicken over 1 year of age
Bantam: a mini version of a chicken breed, in my experience, not very cold hardy
Broiler: Chickens raised for meat
Broody Hen: a hen that insists on sitting on eggs to possibly hatch babies (without a rooster, she will never be successful, but she doesn’t know that)
5 Benefits of Kepping Roosters.
First of all – let’s get the worst out of the way: Roosters.
People are scared to have them, do not understand the benefits, or maybe they are not allowed to have them per zoning.
As for me, I have always purchased sexed chicks (aka pullets) and end up with at least ONE rooster. I never wanted a rooster because my first few roosters were buttheads. Now I respectfully have five roosters and I couldn’t be more excited. Here are a few benefits to roosters:
- They’re beautiful. Just look at them. Flowing tail, bright colors, silky sheen.
- Roosters protect the flock. If a rooster senses a threat of any sort, they get their girls to safety. Many roos will fight animals much larger than themselves to protect a flock.
- They find food. Roosters want their ladies to eat so they scavenge the area for bugs and such and call their girls over to eat. The hens will eat before the rooster chooses to eat.
- Roosters are funny. Think of a big macho man with an ego the size of Texas meeting someone more dominant than him. Roosters strut the yard like their $#!+ don’t stank, but then they see you and get all self-conscious.
- Babies! Roosters will allow your hens to lay eggs that, if you let them, may become chicks! Instead of trudging to the feed store each spring getting babies to raise in your house, you can let your hens hatch and care for the babies all by themselves! YASSS!
I wrote about my experiences with roosters and how I successfully maintain a flock with multiple roosters. It is a quick read, and details more on how to maintain nice roosters.
Where to Buy Chicks.
It is absolutely important to buy chicks from a reputable breeder/hatchery.
Hatcheries often times vaccinate their chicks. I have found that this is actually extremely beneficial for new flock owners. The vaccine protects against ‘Marek’s’ or ‘Newcastle’ disease – which can be picked up from wild birds nearby. If your chickens free-range or in a run – they are at risk.
The disease will paralyze your chicken slowly. In our case it began in the feet and ended up taking over vital organs and we lost her. Some people say that it is curable, but we tried EVERYTHING – I mean she lived in our house for nearly a year.
All that being said, find a good hatchery!
Locally in Minnesota, we love to go to Anoka-Ramsey Farm & Garden. They are family-owned and have fantastic customer service and varieties of chicks.
Hoover Hatchery also has a great reputation for selling chicks online – pick up a the local post office.
Ideal Poultry has a good selection, and has good prices and minimums.
Tractor Supply tends to sell chicks that are best-selling (read: trendy) for the year as well as high-production (read: more eggs). Plus they are extremely cheap. People go FRANTIC over the ‘Chick-Days’ so be sure to keep in touch with your local store.
Poke around at local feed stores – often times they sell chicks seasonally. They often do custom orders as well.
Starter Guide to Chicken Breeds.
A basic rule of thumb I follow is – if you want a docile breed, get a brown egg layer. They will be calm, not wild or flighty. A few of the most popular brown egg layers are:
- Rhode Island Red
- Barred Plymouth Rock (also come in other varieties)
- Jersey Giant
There are also colorful egg layers that lay eggs like green, olive, blue, a little hint of pink, or even dark brown. These birds are NOT bad or hard, just might be less friendly. Not mean, just more independent. Especially if you are a beginner, begin with majority from the list above, but also – for fun, include a few from the list below.
- Ameraucana – blue to greenish-blue egg
- Easter Egger – blue, green, brown, or pinkish egg
- Olive Egger – varying shades of olive green
- Cream Legbar – blue egg
- Marans – dark brown egg
- Welsummer – dark brown egg with speckles
- Penedesenca – very dark brownish red egg
There are also a few white egg layers. So weird, right? Considering most of our supermarket eggs are white.
Now, none of these lists are by any means extensive. They just list a few common chickens that I believe are pretty easy to find. It is a great basis to start on. If you would like eggs daily, lookup how each breed does in your climate as far as egg laying. I am in MN and many hens stop laying all fall to spring (I choose not to heat or light my coop). Some hens still lay a few eggs weekly.
Google some breeds that catch your eye. Join some Facebook groups and enjoy seeing all the flocks. Some people raise flocks of all the same breed, some raise for a pretty flock, some raise for pretty eggs. I fall somewhere in the middle of all of these.
Pros & Cons of Ducks in the Flock.
I like to lump ducks in with chickens because they add a bit of love and humor to your flock. Personally I have Pekin Ducks, but I am interested in getting Welsh Harlequins. I keep my ducks and chickens housed together now, and always have without a problem. Just keep a watering bucket that they can dunk their entire bill into. In the summer I move all water outside so the coop is dry and the run can be their playground.
I am not as rehearsed in breeds because I love me some Pekin Ducks. Ducks are chatty and loud, but I have 10-acres, so I don’t care. They are super friendly and will follow you around. The kids love them and are typically less intimidating than a chicken. Here are pros and cons of backyard ducks.
- Personality. Ducks are funny. They play in the water and splash around especially if the water is fresh. Ducks love treats and express their goofiness when treated.
- Friendly. I am not sure if it is the flat bill in contrast to the pointy beak, the silly demeanor, or what, but nonetheless, ducks are less intimidating to people than chickens. Plus they warm up easier.
- Lay large eggs. YUM. Duck eggs do not taste that much different from chicken eggs, but they are about the size of 1.5-2 chicken eggs. They have a larger yolk in ratio and are great for baking.
- Nicer than roosters and still protect a flock. Ducks see a predator and they quack… LOUDLY. It always makes me laugh because most times it is just me walking through the yard.
- Easier on the lawn. Ducks do not scratch and have flat feet. They do not tear up the yard quite like chickens do.
- Wet & Stinky. I fill a kiddie pool every day with fresh water and within an hour it is gross. The poop and water mixed is a distinct duck smell. Not as potent as maybe a cow or horse smell, but definitely present.
- Loud. As stated as a benefit, ducks are loud when a predator is near. They are also loud if you talk to them, if they talk to each other, or if they cannot see each other.
- Need deep fresh water. Ducks need to dip their bill in the water in order to breathe properly. They are also happiest with a source of water to swim in and clean themselves with.
Some people do not like ducks, and are often getting rid of them. I find if you buy a DUCKLING they imprint on you and trust you way more than if you buy an adult duck. The more you handle the duckling, the more it’ll respond to you as a grown duck.
Needless to say, please be sure you want a duck before going out and getting one. Feel free to email me with any questions!
From Chicks to Hens: How to Raise Chicks.
Finally, what you are probably here for. Chick talk. I wrote an all-encompassing post about raising chicks, so please check that out for more info. The Cliff’s Notes are below.
For chicks you will need
- Fresh Water
- Water Container
- Grower Food Crumbles
- Food container
- Heat Lamp
- Wood Shavings/Bedding
The chicks need to be under close watch if you would like a success rate. Add a dribble of ACV to the water because it keeps them healthy, also add VetRX to their water because it keeps them perked up.
I keep my birds in a few Rubbermaid’s with chicken wire folded on top and a heat lamp on the wire. Nothing fancy. Having a few brooders is ideal because you have a spot for sick chicks as well as for room to grow. Keep their heat diversified so if they’re too hot they have a cooler spot to go to and vise versa.
Check their bottoms every day or twice a day for poo sticking to it. Wash any off with warm water. Watch for birds that are sluggish or failing to thrive. Separate them out. They’re not a lost cause, but some chicks are wild and may trample them.
8-12 weeks should be ample time in the brooder. Be sure to not just throw them into the coop, you need to harden them off.
Depending on how many birds I have, and how warm it is here in MN, around week 10-12 I ‘harden off the birds by taking away their light during the day. Maybe even put them outside (in the brooder). Let them practice foraging and to stay close to home.
Week 11 I put them in the coop in their brooders covered and by week 12 locking them in the coop during the day and locking my big birds out. This teaches them their new home. Eventually, I make sure the babies have a safe haven in the coop and let them figure out their pecking order.
I never have a hard time with introducing birds. As long as they have safe places to hide and multiple roosting spots, they can hold their own.
7 Tips for Adult Chicken Maintenance.
Chickens are basic animals. They have many predators – on foot and in the air. That is the biggest thing not on this list, because it should be self-explanatory. It is especially important to have a secure coop.
Other than that, illnesses can ride your flock number to the ground. If you are out in the coop or with your birds for at least five minutes each day, you will notice when something is off. Prevention is key.
In addition to that, here are seven basic things for adult chicken maintenance:
- Fresh Water/Container. Chickens do not drink a LOT of water, but like any living thing, it is necessary. Keep water thawed in winter, and available year-round. I add some ACV, VetRX, garlic and herbs to the water if I suspect mites/lice or illness. See my post on herbs for chickens for more info.
- Food/Container. Chicks need ‘grower food’, non-laying birds need ‘finisher’ food and laying birds need ‘layer’ food. The food is formulated to have the correct protein and nutrients so chickens do not lack vitamins/nutrients. I do not use this as as strict rule of thumb, because I have ONE coop, not three. Sometimes if I have chicks going into the coop that do not need ‘layer’ food, I will mix the foods together. If you free-range chickens tend to need quite a bit less feed. In our case, we use about half the feed.
- Clean bedding – wood shavings, straw or I have heard wood pellets work? We use wood shavings in the summer because it is easier to clean and more commonly accepted in the ‘chicken world.’ Our coop switches to straw bedding during colder months because it is more insulating and we use a ‘deep litter’ method throughout winter. Basically toss the dirty bedding to aerate it and add fresh bedding on top all winter. This allows it to compost down and be beneficial for the garden in the spring. Add barn lime for smell – it is also good for the garden.
- Check for eggs daily – an un-watched egg is cause for a broody hen. Broody hens do not lay eggs for about a month. Plus, who does not love fresh eggs?! Read about broody hens here.
- Watch for illnesses and treat ASAP – separate the bird away from your flock to prevent spreading. Give EVERYONE ACV and VetRX. Add herbs and garlic to their diet. All of these things are general rules to prevent/treat illness. Ask around on Facebook groups or poke around on the internet to see what could be wrong with your hen. Typically it is: respiratory, mites, or lice, but it could be something else. There area a myriad of chicken illnesses.
- Spray coop weekly with poultry protector or 2:1 oil and water with lemon essential oil to keep mites away. Mites live on wood and come out at night to feast (shudder) on your birds. YUK. Prevention is key.
- Roosting bars. Birds love to roost when they are resting. Most pre-fabbed nesting boxes have them built in, but you can always build one. We have a ladder-type in our coop that took all of twenty minutes to make.
Chickens are easy. It should be noted that we live in the frigid tundra of Minnesota. Our birds tend to live healthy and happy lives. We have casualties, as do all farms. Nevertheless I will say it a million times: prevention is better than treatment.
This is a TON of information, but I was asked how I started. What do you do differently? Tips you have for me?
Any other questions do you have about starting a chicken flock?
If you ever have any questions, or ideas for future blogs, comment below or shoot me an email!
From the farm,