Raising Chickens: A Complete Beginner’s Guide

Last Updated on June 23, 2023 by TheFarmChicken

small chicks in stock tank

Do you have the desire to raise chickens? From the time I was a little girl I thought chickens were interesting. Fast forward to my adult life and it has been fun raising chickens/laying hens. A pet that lays you fresh nutritious eggs; beautifully packaged and you can make delicious baked goods with. Really the best of both words. We are going to look at the process of Raising Chickens: A Complete Beginner’s Guide.

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First off, where do you get baby chicks?

There are two ways most people get their chicks. We have only gotten our chicks in the mail but another popular place to get them is farm supply stores, like Tractor Supply Company. Our favorite place to order chicks is Cackle Hatchery. They were excellent and, in our experience, send a couple extra chickens just in case some have a rough trip in the mail. From the times we have received chicks we have not had a little chick die and they have been healthy chicks. The only issue we have encountered is a few of them have gotten pasty butt. (More on this further down.) I have also heard good things about McMurray’s Hatchery so that is another option you could check out.

A few things to consider before ordering chicks:

  • Some places will have a small order fee and for Cackle Hatchery it is any order below 15 chicks. If the order is smaller than 15, they will charge an extra $20. You can still order less than 15, just something to think about.
  • You can also order chicks sexed or non-sexed. What this means is that you can either have your choice of hen or rooster or you can just get a random mix including both hens and roosters. When you get your birds sexed, they can be a little more expensive, but I find it worth it to get hens as they are the ones that lay the eggs. It really depends on what you are looking for, for your flock. A couple reason we don’t get roosters:
    • Guaranteed that you are investing your feed money in a chicken that will give you eggs in return. Hens are the egg layers.
    • Sometimes roosters can be protective and attack which just adds drama to having chickens. Especially if you have kids that will be around them.
  • You can read more about it on the websites that sell chicks, but they can’t 100% guarantee that you will get a hen if you order a hen or that you will get a rooster if you order a rooster. This is because of the difficulty of knowing what the sex is on a baby chick. They usually have the percentage listed in the description of each breed.
  • If you live in town you will want to check out local ordinances to see if you can have birds or not.
  • Number of chickens is a good thing to think about from the very beginning. Do you know how big your chicken coop is going to be? This can help you determine how many chicks to order to ensure you have enough space to have a healthy flock of chickens.

Chicken Breeds:

Buff Orpington in the grass
Full Grown Buff Orpington

There are so many breeds to choose from when it comes to chickens. Some things to be aware of when you are choosing breeds that you would like for your backyard chickens are things like cold hardiness, heat tolerance, egg production, and temperament. I will share the list of breeds that I have worked with below and you can also check out this article about chickens and different breeds. I wanted chickens that would be cold hardy (hello, ND winters), have even temperaments and lay well with different colored eggs. All the different breeds listed below can do well in cold climates, such as ND.

  • Buff Orpingtons
  • Easter Eggers
  • Welsummers
  • Black Australorps
  • Olive Eggers
  • Barnvelders

Necessary Equipment for Chicks:

Before they get there: (a couple days before they are expected to arrive)

Straw in the sunshine

Make sure you have all the equipment you need and go ahead and set up your brooder area so that you are ready for when they arrive.

  1. Set brooder up. We use a large stock tank. You can use one but there are other options available too:
    1. Brooder designed for chicks. Linked above.
  2. Put fresh bedding in for the chicks. We use newspaper and dry straw.
    • Pine Shavings work
    • Rice Hulls
    • Hay
    • DO NOT use small shavings, sawdust, sand or cedar or cypress shavings for bedding!!
  3. Fill the feeder with chick starter.
  4. Test your light to make sure it works (It’s a good idea to have a spare light bulb around just in case the other burns out.)
  5. Hang it safely so that it doesn’t fall on the chicks or catch anything on fire.

Getting them in the mail:

A box of chicks from the post office
The box with chicks in it after we picked them up from the post office.

Since March 13, 1918, you have been able to get chicks in the mail, which is another reason chickens are so neat. It was declared that as long as they were properly packaged, and the chicks could make it to their destination within 72 hours that you could ship live chicks through the United States Postal Service. Chicks are interesting in that when they are getting ready to hatch, they eat a residual amount of yolk that is left and that is enough for them to live for a couple days after hatching. This is a survival tactic and is one of the big reasons that we can get chicks in the mail.

I’m sure it is different for different post offices, but we went to the post office and picked our chicks up on Wednesday morning after our postal lady called us. They were hatched and shipped that Monday, so it took 2 days to get them here.

Chicks in a box from the post office

The First Day:

So, you picked up your new chicks from the post office. Now what? The first step when you get your chicks home is fill their waterer with warm fresh water, about 100 degrees. They will be thirsty after their journey and having warm water helps them maintain a good body temperature. If they were to drink a lot of cold water their body temperature might drop, and this makes them more likely to get sick.

As you take each chick out of the box they came in, you will dip their beak in the clean water. You hold them gently in one hand and dip their beak. You can then set them down and continue with the next chick until all of them have gotten a beak of water and are in the brooder.

Bringing the Chicks Home and Putting Them in the Brooder:

IMPORTANT: It is best to not hold and take the chicks out of the brooder for the first 24 hours as they acclimate after their stressful trip.

Now that they are in the brooder you will want to monitor the heat lamp to ensure they are warm enough/not too warm. There are 2 ways of doing this:

  1. Using a thermometer check the temperature directly under the lamp. You want the temperature on the floor to be between 100-105 degrees.
  2. Also, pay attention to how the birds are positioned. You want them to be spread out and not all clumped together. If they are clumped together that means they are cold, and you need to lower the heat/brooder lamp.

Another thing to note is the chicks should never run out of food or water. Make sure they have enough food in their feeder and their waterer is always well stocked.

Week 1

  • The first couple days after arrival you want the temperature at floor level to be 100-105 degrees. After the first couple of days it can be lower at about 95-100 degrees for the rest of the first week.
  • Monitor throughout the week that they aren’t to warm or cold based on how they are spread out in the tank/brooder.
  • Make sure water and feed are filled. Water should be very warm (100 degrees) the first day, the next 2 days it should be warm and by the 3rd day room temperature.
  • Clean tank as needed. Twice per week when they are small.
  • You can hold the chicks after the first 24 hour but best to only do it for a little while. You don’t want the chicks body temperature to drop to quickly.

Week 2

  • Clean tank/brooder as needed and make sure water and feed is filled on a daily basis.
  • I usually fill the feeder and waterer once per day.
  • You want the temperature to be around 90 degrees for the chicks.

For Week 3

  • Clean the tank/brooder as needed and make sure water and feed is filled on a daily basis.
  • You want the temperature to be around 85 degrees for the chicks.
  • If you want your flock to be tamer it is a good idea to hold them throughout the coming weeks so they are more familiar with humans.

Week 4

  • Increase how often you clean the tank. As they get bigger they make a bigger mess. Clean the tank as needed about every other day.
  • Keep the waterer and feeder filled.
  • The temperature should be around 80 degrees. If it is nice outside the chicks can spend some time outside. Be sure to watch for predators.

For Week 5

  • Clean the tank and make sure the waterer and feeder are filled.
  • The temperature should be around 75 degrees for the chicks. Depending on outdoor temperature(and if you have the chicks in a garage or out building that fluctuates with outside temperatures) and if it is nice out you can start weening off the heat and turn it off during the day. You will want to watch the chicks when you turn off the light for the first time. Sometimes they will pile if they are scared. Piling is when they all clump together and can suffocate themselves.
  • Clean the brooder/tank. Increase flour space to 3-4 square feet per bird.
Almost 6 week old chicks
Almost 6-week-old chicks

Week 6

  • Temperature is fine to be around 70 degrees.
  • Clean the brooder/tank.
  • Make sure the feed and water are well stocked.

After 6 weeks

  • They are ready to go without a heat source! Slowly acclimate them to not having a light and being outside more.
  • You can also move them to their chicken house! Note: if you have other grown chickens do not just put the new 6-week-old chickens with them.

Feed:

You will want to use a chick starter for your chicks. They will eat this until they have laid their first egg. You can usually buy feed in both a small bag and big bag. I would recommend a big bag because they will be eating it for quite some time; about 18 weeks. It should say on the back of your chick starter bag, and it is like 18 weeks. Then you will switch to a layer feed. Roughly for every 25 birds you will want a foot of feeder space.

Water:

Chicks need a low profile waterer. A gallon waterer is good for 25-50 chicks. As they get older they can switch to a different waterer. More on that below.

Pasty Butt:

Sometimes chicks develop something called pasty butt. This is when a there is poop that sticks the the back of a chicken. It is something that doesn’t always happen but, in our experience, has happened to at least one chick each time we have ordered them.

When and if you notice this happening to your chicks here is what you do.

  1. Get a container with warm water and an old clean rag.
  2. Pick up the chick and gently get the spot wet with the warm water.
  3. Continue to wet the area and gently wipe it until the poop comes off.
  4. DO NOT just pull the poop off. This could hurt the chick.
  5. Set the chicken back in the brooder and continue to monitor it for more pasty butt issues.

Pin for Later:

Pin Image for Chicks

Older Chickens

red and white chicken coop
Our Chicken Coop we built out of old barn wood. You can learn more about it here.

Things to get ready for when the chicks are 6-8 weeks old. At this point I would call them young birds. Roughly at 12-16 weeks old is when they are classified as a pullet and after a year an adult hen or rooster.

Chicken Coop:

They say on average a chicken should have 4 square feet per chicken. Bantams are less and bigger chickens are more but that gives a general idea of what size of coop they need for their chickens. Chicken coops should most importantly be draft free and closed up from predators so that it is a safe place for your chickens to be.

inside the chicken coop

Nesting Box:

We have 4 nesting boxes for our 15 laying hens. You can use quite a few different things when it comes to nest boxes.

  1. Build your own out of particle board or plywood
  2. Milk crates on their side
  3. 5 Gallon buckets on their side

Roost:

Here are some general specifications for a roost in the chicken coop.

  • 18 inches or higher off the floor
  • Square or rectangle roost- not flat (something they can wrap their feet around.)

Enclosed Run:

This is especially important if you live in an area that has a lot of predators. The enclosed run will ensure that they are not attacked. This gives them a safe outdoor area. It is not a good idea to free range birds in a heavily populated predator area. 8 square feet per bird in the run is what is recommended.

Dust Bath:

You use water to clean with? Chickens use dust/dirt and take dust baths. Strange to think but this helps chickens clean their feathers. It also helps control parasites and the feathers being too oily. They like loose dirt or sand to bath in.

Egg Production:

Farm Fresh Eggs in a Carton

It varies by breed but on average laying hens should start laying between 18 and 20 weeks. There are a couple main things that you want to make sure your egg-laying hens are getting plenty of.

Protein

You want to make sure that your feed is high in protein. This helps them produce eggs more frequently.

Calcium: Oyster Shells/Shell

Calcium is important for them to make the eggshell. You can get crushed oyster shells at any farm store in the chicken area of the store. Chickens also enjoy eating the shell from the egg so you can start a chicken bucket where you through the shells and they will eat them which helps them get enough calcium.

We have rarely gotten any but sometimes chickens will lay eggs with just the sack around it and no shell. This is a strange thing to see but also kind of interesting.

Another way that they can get calcium is by their feed. We buy a feed that has some built in.

Grit:

This is also something you can get from your local farm store. It is small stones/rocks that chickens use in their crops. A chicken’s crop is located in their neck, and you can feel it when it is full. You need to make sure they have grit especially if you feed them corn. Small gravel works too but can start making a dent on your driveway if you use too much of it!

FAQ:

When will my chicks start laying eggs?

When your chicks reach 18-20 weeks old is when they will start laying eggs.

If I have 20 hens how many eggs will I get in a day?

In their prime (1-2 years) with a healthy diet you could likely get about 20 eggs each day.

How many years do chickens lay well?

We are on year 3 and we still get about 9 eggs a day from 15 chickens in the summer. During the winter months you get quite a few less eggs than this. 1 year old hens however lay very well during the winter months with supplemental light. This obviously can vary but about 3–4-year-old adult hens start to lay less.

What taste better farm fresh or store-bought eggs?

I always think it’s interesting but farm fresh eggs taste much better than store-bought eggs. Whether it’s their diets or just because they like living on the farm like I do 😉 they taste better for sure!

Can chickens eat fruit and vegetable scraps?

Once your chickens are in their coop/run they will love getting the treat of food scraps. Things like watermelon rind, old berries, banana peels, lettuce, etc they love! We call it their chicken salad!

Shop this Post:

I enjoy our small flock of hens and hope that this information will help you start a flock of your own! It is rewarding to have your own chickens. Especially when you can share and enjoy the eggs. Thanks for reading. Post your thoughts or questions below!

...how often would I have gathered they children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not! 
Luke 13:34b
Strawberries, peas and a cucumber from the garden
Garden Haul: the first cucumber of the year.
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10 Comments

  1. This is awesome, Mariah! I’ve always wanted chickens but we live in the middle of town, haha! Maybe someday. Thank you for sharing this!

  2. I’ve always wanted to try raising chickens, but it seems so intimidating! This post is super helpful – makes me think I can actually do it! Thanks for sharing!

  3. We just had some chicks hatch by a momma hen on our farm. Aren’t they just adorable:) thanks for sharing!

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