Since we just went through the ordeal of culling our flock (see Painful Chicken Lesson), and then choosing another chicken breed to raise (see Buckeyes), I have a few suggestions for anyone thinking of getting a few chickens for the backyard.
What to Start With
You can start with eggs, day-old chicks, or pullets. Hatcheries offer eggs and day-old chicks from many breeds, but pullets are usually only available in the egg layer breeds (leghorns, black sex-linked, golden buff, etc.). Breeders often offer eggs, day old chicks, and pullets (but may be limited on quantities or times).
Basically, chickens are bred for egg-laying, egg-laying and meat (called dual purpose breeds), or meat. So, that’s the first decision, what do you want the birds for? When we got started, we wanted to know where our eggs were coming from and what was in them, so we were primarily interested in the egg layers. Now, we’re interested in eggs and meat, so we looked at the dual purpose breeds. Once the type of bird is determined, then climate (do they need to do well in hot or cold weather), free range or confinement, broodiness (do you want them to hatch their own eggs should you get a rooster?), laying capacity, egg size, egg color, and social nature should all be considered. Then there’s the question of heritage breeds – some of the old, quality backyard breeds are in danger of extinction, would you want to help preserve a breed? And finally, availability – can you obtain the starting type of chicken breed you’ve selected in your area?
If you’re brand new to backyard chickens, I think pullets are a good place to start. Pullets are young hens that have been raised to the point that they’re almost ready to start laying eggs. That’s what we started with (we picked up three Golden Buffs from Meyer Hatchery), and we were very happy with our birds. They started laying almost immediately, produced very large eggs, and were friendly, trouble-free birds. On a side note, I wouldn’t take a Mercedes to the hatchery to pick up your pullets – we did, and many people waiting in line (in their pickup trucks) looked at us strangely – we didn’t know, we’d never picked up chickens before! Starting with a few pullets gives you nearly instant gratification (eggs), most hatcheries offer vaccinated pullets so you don’t have to hassle over that, you quickly learn what’s involved in caring for chickens, and you figure out whether chickens are for you. Plus, you only have to come up with a way to house, water, and feed your birds.
Day-old chicks are the option we’re going with this time. They’re not as easy as pullets because you need additional equipment: a brooder (this can be as simple as a box), heat lamp, chick waterer, chick feeder, and specialized grower feed; you put in the effort to raise them to maturity; you won’t get eggs for several months; and you have to deal with vaccinating them (or not). On the positive side, you’ll likely get several roosters (all but one or two can go in the freezer), hand-raised birds are typically friendlier and more sociable, and you’ll be able to hatch chicks in the future if wanted.
Eggs have about the same positives and negatives as day-old chicks except that an incubator is needed for eggs. This is probably an option if you’ve got access to an incubator, or perhaps it would make a good 4H project. Otherwise, it’s probably not a good option for someone just getting started with chickens.
Once you’ve gotten birds, be very careful about introducing new birds, or bringing any kind of disease back to your birds. Learn from our experience, and don’t let a disease get to your flock.