Where do you begin?
Having a flock of hens is rewarding, entertaining, and beneficial. Perhaps you want to start your own flock but aren’t sure where to turn. Do you get baby chicks or already started pullets? Are you only looking for egg productions? If so, perhaps hens are the best way to go. Where do you find your birds? What are their housing requirements? These are all good questions and the answer lies in how much work and effort you want to put in starting your flock and where you are located, and what is available to you.
Where to buy
There are many sources for purchasing chickens, locally and through mail order. I’ve done both, it simply depends on what I am looking for, what age I want my birds, and where it is an impulse buy. Yes, between my children and myself we often come home with chickens we never intended to purchase but fell in love with for whatever reason. To find chicks locally, look at your local farming supply stores, feed and grain stores, flock swaps, or even Craigslist. If you choose to buy locally, inspect the health of your birds. Check the flock for signs of any birds having respiratory issues, sickly looking birds, or feather mites or lice. Chances are pretty good your young chick will bring those uninvited guests with them.
If you can’t find what you’re looking for locally, there are several reputable online hatcheries. I’ve personally ordered from Meyer Hatchery, Whitmore Farms, and my neighbor has gotten chicks from Cackle Hatchery. We’ve been pleased with all three. These chicks are coming from large inspected farms that take pride in the health of their birds and cleanliness of their facilities. When I order online, I will get a call from the Post Office that my chicks have arrived and can pick up. I have yet to receive a shipment with any birds DOA, I usually make out a chick or two since the companies tend to pack an extra one or two just in case.
Chicks, Pullets, or Hens
Chickens are available in 3 age groups, day old chicks, pullets/cockerels, and laying hens/roosters. Day old chicks are sold from hatcheries when they are fresh out of the egg. You will find the options of straight run, female, and male. When purchasing with a straight run, you pay less per chick but you end up with a mix of male and female. This option is good if you are raising chicks for fryer birds and not just egg production. You can process the male birds and keep the hens. Pullets/cockerels are chicks between 8 weeks of age to the point of egg laying, approximately 5 months. These are easy to distinguish between male and female birds so you can get exactly what you are after. Hens/roosters are those who have reached egg laying or one year of age. Hens are already laying eggs so if your primary goal is egg production, this may be the way to go. Of course the age determines the pricing, chicks are the cheapest but also require the most work. Hens are the most expensive but for good reason. Someone has taken the time to ensure they are hatched, brooded, and reach the point of egg laying. I guarantee their cost of rearing is worth far more than what you’ll pay per hen.
Chicks have 2-3 houses in their lifetime. They will start in a brooder box where they’ll stay for the first 8 weeks. Their brooder needs to have a heat source, water, food, and clean bedding. After the brooder box, I like to move mine to what I call a transition pen. It is smaller in size and fairly portable so I can move it around. The wire mesh is still small, not larger like a chain link fence. This gives them the chance to be outside with protection from predators. They are still relatively small in respect to their overall size as adults. Think of this as the teenage stage. Any pullets I bring to the flock also get this pen. It serves as a great quarantine pen and gives me a chance to watch for sick birds. With it being portable, I can move it away from my main pens. The last pen my chickens will see is the main coop run. This is where they graduate to the adult world and begin laying eggs. In this pen I have nesting boxes and roosting bars. We build our own so we can conform them to our land (i.e. hills, trees, slopes) but we have also used 10×10 or 10×20 dog kennels, and commercially made chicken coop kits. Whatever pen you use, make sure it is predator safe!
Over time we’ll go more in depth of each aspect of chicken husbandry. For today I hope I’ve broken it down for you on which chicken to start out with based on what your overall goal and timeframe is. Personally, I love starting with the chicks. I enjoy watching them go through the growing stages. The chick stage is cute and fluffy with lots of chirping. The birds get to know you as they go through their teenage phase and blossom into adulthood. Its very rewarding to gather the fruits of your effort with fresh eggs and a blissfully peaceful entertainment.