So You Want to Raise Chickens?

  
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Now you've done it!  You have decided to raise your own chickens!  But wait a minute!  Turning those little balls of fuzz into tender, succulent morsels of fried chicken or efficient farm fresh egg machines may not be as easy or rewarding as you think.  Success will not be automatic.  Many factors play a role in success or failure.

Chicks should not be purchased on the "spur of the moment."  Good planning is essential for rewarding results.  Consider first what you want from the birds.  Will you do this for fun or profit? Are your facilities and equipment ready?  How much experience do you have? Some birds are easier to raise than others.  When you've answered these questions, then you can select the breed best suited for your operation.

EGGS, MEAT, OR BOTH?

Chicks generally some in three categories: layers, broilers, and dual-purpose types.  Layers are bred primarily for egg production.  Some breeds may not produce as many eggs as others but they may not eat as much either.  Consider cost per dozen eggs when selecting layers.

If your interest centers around filling your freezer with drumsticks and chicken breasts, a fast growing broiler will taste best and cost least - if you feed them right!  They usually required extra care and nutrition.

But maybe you want a few layers along with something to eat too.  Several breeds are "production birds".  They grow quite large, produce eggs, usually eat more than layers, and are generally easier to raise.

GENERAL CARE

Chicks need a clean environment.  Unless you have a new coop and housing, you need to do the following:

1. Clean out all old litter.
2. Sweep down walls - dust carries bacteria!
3. Hose down walls and floor to settle dust.
4. Disinfect wall and floors with strong disinfectant.
5. Fumigate if possible - follow directions carefully as some fumigants are highly toxic.
6. Leave housing vacant for three to four weeks to air dry.

To maintain a healthy flock, the floor must be dry and free from drafts.  Shavings, sawdust, peat moss, or fine chaff should be used as litter.  Straw is usually too slippery - especially for heavy breeds.  Turn the litter over frequently and avoid spilling water on it.

Baby chicks require warm temperatures.  You need a canopy of some kind which can house all of the chicks without too much crowding.  For the first six weeks, figure about three birds per square foot.  Eliminate corners where chicks can gather and smother.  Plan your brooder so temperatures can be kept according to the table below:

Temperature (F) for given age range
 
90 - 95 0 - 2 weeks
85 - 90 2 - 3 weeks
80 - 85 3 - 4 weeks
75 4 - 6 weeks
55  after ten weeks 

(Editor's note: If you use a heat lamp be sure to put it in one corner of the coop.  The chicks will get as close to the lamp as they need to in order to regulate their body temperature.  If you put the heat lamp directly over the coop then there won't be any place that the chicks can move to if they get too warm.)

And, of course, you need to feed and water these creatures!  Much too often, people try to feed their chicks into small containers.  So that each chick can get enough feed for optimum growth, provide 1.5 inches of feeder per chick up to three weeks in age and three inches per chick after that.  They need feed in front of them all the time.  Try to get or make a feeder low enough so they can reach the bottom and use a protective bar or spinner to prevent them from standing on it. Be sure they always have clean, fresh water.  Use a waterer that doesn't leak or spill and has a capacity of at least a quart for every fifteen birds.  If you are planning nests for your layers, you will get better reproduction and less breakage with at least one nest for every four to five hens.  They should be kept clean and eggs picked regularly.

NUTRITION

Many rumors and ideas on how or what to feed have filtered down through the years.  Actually, you need to consider nutrient requirements for optimum growth and in what for you should feed them.  Feed usually comes in five different forms: ground, mash, pellet, crumbles, and whole grain.  Baby chicks have trouble eating pellets and certainly don't utilize whole grain very well.  Chickens tend to sort out ground feed and can sometimes miss some essential nutrients unless your stir up the feed in the feeder frequently.  Mash is often too fine and will cake up on the bird's beaks.  Crumbles are probably the most efficient form for feeding chicks.  When properly formulated, every bite is balanced nutrition.

The nutritional requirements of the chicken are very complex.  In general, chicks need energy (calories), protein, vitamins, and minerals.  This doesn't sound complex until you consider that they need these nutrients in just the right amounts.  Too much or too little of any one nutrient will prevent optimum development of your birds.  In addition, different breeds have different requirements!  Broilers need different feed than baby pullets.  Laying hens need another feed!

Energy

Chickens need energy or calories to keep warm, to maintain metabolic processes, and to utilize their feed for growth.  Grains, fats, and vegetable oils are the primary source of eneger in chick rations with corn and wheat the best grains.  Chickens eat for energy and when they meet their caloric needs, they stop eating.  Therefore, all other nutrients in a balanced chicken ration are based on the calorie level of the feed.

Protein

Obviously, protein is essential for chick growth.  Not so obvious but all important is the quality of that protein.  First of all, the protein must be digestible.  Not all protein included in some feeds is very digestible.  An example is feather meal - high in protein but not very digestible.  Secondly, protein composition plays an important role.  Protein is made up of long chains of molecules called amino acids.  The bird's digestive system breaks down the protein chains and absorbs the amino acids.  The metabolic processes link the amino acids together, making protein chains for cell development.  If the right amino acids, or link, aren't present, the bird cannot utilize the remaining amino acids and they are excreted.

Vitamins and minerals

Young chickens require an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals.  Sometimes people think that if a little is good then more is better.  With vitamins and minerals, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Vitamin-mineral balance is vital for optimum growth.  For example, rations formulated for laying hens contain too much calcium and not enough vitamins for starting chickens.

One nutritional problem currently facing the chicken producer is the trend toward organic feed.  Contract to common thought, the opposite of organic is not evil but inorganic.  Organic phosphorous is only one0third as available to the chick as inorganic phosphorous.  All checks need feed with some inorganic phosphorous for proper development.

With so many required vitamins and minerals, how can you select a feed for your chicks?  Perhaps the safest and easiest way to assure a healthy flock is to use high quality feed formulated for the type of chickens you are raising.  Diluting the formulated ration with grain may generate a vitamin deficiency and cost you more than you save.

Medicated feeds

Most good starter rations contain medication for the prevention of diseases.  The reasoning behind this stems from the old adage, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."  Coccidiosis costs producers millions of dollars a year and can be prevented.  Several additives prevent cossidiosis and require no withdrawal. Amprolium, salinomycin, and monensin sodium are examples.  Antibiotics used to prevent chronic respiratory disease and blue comb (non-specific enteritis) usually require no withdrawal period.

Summary

So you are still determined to raise chickens! Your chances of success will increase if you:

1. Plan ahead.
2. Get the type chick best suited for your purpose.
3. Provide a clean environment.
4. Have the right equipment and housing.
5. Feed a ration formulated for your kind of flock.

And remember - cheap feed is not always inexpensive.  Broilers need a high energy, high protein ration.  Pullets should develop more slowly to become high producing layers and need a less energy and a lower protein formulation.  Layers need more calcium for shell formulation.  Broilers on cheap or imbalanced rations may take three to five weeks longer to mature or layers may produce only half as many eggs.

Burdic Feed, Inc.
115 E. Willis St.
Kent, WA 98032
(253) 852-2300