Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Backyard Flock: Bringing home the babies

Last week I wrote about being prepared to bring home new chicks. In order not to have to scramble around, figuring out what stuff you need to care for them and then finding it while your little peepers are trying to hop out of the box you brought them home in, you should already have obtained the following: A chick drinker; a small feeder, a bag of chick-starter (feed); a heat lamp with a 250 watt heat bulb; a forty gallon plastic storage box with a lid that can be secured, or other large sturdy box; a bale of straw; and an assortment of bungee cords.

The drinker, feeder, starter feed and heat lamp can all be purchased at a Tractor Supply or other farm or feed supply store. The heat lamp can also be purchased at a hatchery. A suitable large plastic box can usually be found in a discount department store such as K-Mart, Wal-mart, or Big Lots. You may have noticed signs for straw in front of some of the farms in the area. I pay $3.00-a-bale at a farm on Ankeny Road in Beavercreek.

Chicks can be purchased at a hatchery, Tractor Supply, a farm, or the Caesar’s Creek Flea market. The best time to purchase, in order to have chickens that start to lay before winter, is in April or early May. I have bought mature chickens from a nearby farm where the woman who raises them is an expert and a chicken lover rivaled by none. I have never bought young chicks from her, but I know she orders in large runs in the spring and is sometimes willing to sell off a few. The problem is you have to catch her at the right time. The same goes for buying chicks at the flea market or Tractor Supply. They only have them for a few weeks in the spring each year.

The best place to purchase chicks is at a hatchery. They are experts at determining the sex of day old chicks and they guarantee them to be healthy. If you buy chicks at the flea market, you will probably get four roosters out of every batch of six chicks. That’s fine if you like roosters. But if you want egg layers, you are bucking the odds. A few years ago, I tried Tractor Supply, but was too late. They had already sold out. Another year, they didn’t sell any chicks because of the Bird Flu. They didn’t want to scare off their customers. Last year, by the time I got there, they only had a few chicks left, they didn’t look very healthy, and the people in the store weren’t sure what breed or sex they were. That was when I decided to drive down to the Mount Healthy Hatchery, just outside Cincinnati.

Hatcheries are in the business of shipping large orders of day-old chicks. Chicks do not need food or water for three days. The hatcheries want to get rid of them right away, in order to avoid the cost of having to feed them and deal with the waste they would produce. They ship them in large boxes with air holes and the chicks keep each other warm by huddling together in large numbers. They do not need to supply them with food or water for the trip. They also sell day-old chicks to people who come to the hatchery. It is best to call ahead and find out what breeds are available on any given day.

Last year, I called the Mount Healthy Hatchery at the very beginning of May and was told to get there early on a Saturday morning to get the breeds I wanted. They have a window where we placed our order. Down a short hallway is a door that opens into the shipping room. Every time someone opened the door, we could hear thousands of day-old chicks peeping. It was a joyous sound.

The hatchery gives you the chicks in a box that is designed to get them home warm and safe. You will not need any food or water for the journey. Just turn up the heat in the car.

Once you get them home, place them in the box you have already lined with clean, fresh straw and supplied with food and water. Suspend the heat lamp over the box and adjust it so the temperature is about 95 degrees. You can generally tell if it is too warm or cool by how the chicks arrange themselves. If they are too hot they will separate themselves to the far corners of the box. If they are too cold, they will gather in a lump in the middle. If it is just right, they will distribute themselves evenly; that is, when they are not playing. It also helps to attach a thermometer to the inside wall of the box. As they get older, you will need to raise the lamp to lower the temperature in the box.

The Mount Healthy Hatcheries Website,, is a wealth of information not only on how to care for your new chicks, but on the different breeds that are available.

Next week: Raising your chicks


Brady Balouga said...

Can you tell me the name of the woman who sells grown hens? We got 5 chickens in November, 4 turned out to be roosters which was fine for us, but yesterday some rogue neighborhood dogs got our one hen (scared her over the electric fence) :( We are planning on more chicks this spring but we would like a couple of laying hens sooner!

Virgil Hervey said...

Brady, I'd be glad to tell you her name and how to get in touch with her, but I am not sure she would like me to publish it on this blog. If you email me at, I will provide it.