It’s starting to feel a bit like fall, so it’s time to think about integrating the chicks that hatched in the springtime into the main flock. It seems that we’ve had female chicks (which have grown into pullets) to introduce into the flock every fall for the past several years, and every year we get a little better at getting them introduced without “pecking order” scuffles.
The process described below is for chicks that have already been on your property for at least thirty days, any new birds should be quarantined for 30 days for biosecurity reasons before being integrated into the flock (very important for preventing the spread of disease to your flock!). Also, it’s always better to introduce several new birds together, that way the mature hens don’t have just one interloper to concentrate on.
Your flock knows that the coop and run are “their” territory, and will not welcome any new chickens. They also have a pre-established “pecking order”, and will immediately peck at new birds to try to put them in their place. This can become vicious, and new birds may be injured if they can’t escape.
Because of this, many guides on chickens suggest sneaking the new birds into the main coop at night, thereby mixing up the pecking order and giving everyone a fresh start in the morning. When introducing young hens (pullets), I haven’t found that this works that well. The mature hens know who the pullets are, and immediately start “picking” on them in the morning anyway.
To ease the combination process, we’ve found that it’s better to let the pullets mingle with the adult birds – without each group really having access to each other. To do this, we put a portable coop and run in the adult chicken pasture and house the pullets in that coop for a week or two. That way, when it’s time to let the pullets out into the larger pasture, the two groups are already familiar with each other. It also introduces the pullets to the sights and sounds of the chicken pasture without exposing them to any of the dangers.
Fourteen weeks is generally when I think pullets are large enough to integrate in, and it usually coincides with the arrival of fall if the chicks were hatched in the spring. It’s a good idea to try to introduce them a couple of weeks before they start laying, so it can vary depending upon breed. The Leghorn and sex-link (black sex-link, golden buffs, etc.) egg-laying breeds usually start laying at 17 – 18 weeks, so introducing them beginning around 14 weeks makes sense. Most of the purebred breeds (Rhode Island Reds, Buckeyes, Barred Rocks, etc.) start laying a few weeks later, so you can start introducing them a couple of weeks later.
After a week of coexisting in the main pasture, when we open the door on the portable coop and let the pullets out into the pasture with the adult birds, there are usually no fights or pecking order scuffles (the pullets concede that they’re on the bottom of the pecking order). The older birds are usually more interested in getting into the pullets food in the portable coop than in the new pullets themselves.
At first, we let the pullets continue to eat and drink from the portable coop/run and return there at night to sleep (we close the coop at night to protect the birds from predators). But after about a week, we let the adult birds finish the supply of layers ration in the main coop, and replace it with the grower’s ration that the pullets have been eating. Then, we do introduce the pullets into the main coop one night. We find that they like to sleep in the nesting boxes at first, so we just introduce them there one night (we don’t try to put them on the roosts with the adult birds – they always seem to prefer the nesting boxes or coop floor).
After the pullets begin sharing the main coop with the flock, it’s better to feed the entire flock the grower/conditioner that the pullets have been eating, rather than feeding the layer ration that the mature hens have been eating. The higher calcium levels in the layer ration aren’t good for the growing pullets (can damage their kidneys) until they start laying, so it’s better to feed the grower/conditioner and supplement the mature hens diet with free choice oyster shell for a couple of weeks until the pullets start laying.It’s a good idea to have several feeding and watering stations available so that the younger birds have access even though they’re lowest in pecking order. We’ve found that having two in the main coop and maintaining the feed and water in the portable coop provides enough access for everyone. It’s also best to have plenty of space available with lots of things for the pullets to run behind or under so that they can escape from the adult hens if necessary.
The pullets always seem excited about the larger pasture, but stay together loosely in their own small flock(s). They generally do fine foraging and getting along with the adult birds. It’s a good idea to watch carefully as the groups mingle; occasionally one of the mature hens can become overly aggressive. In that case, it’s best to isolate just the aggressive hen for a few days. When she’s returned to the flock, she’ll be worried about returning to her place in the “pecking” order rather than picking on the pullets.
Using the method described above, we’ve not had any pecking injuries. However, if pecking does occur and blood is drawn, it’s best to treat with something like Blu-Kote immediately. It’s a blue antiseptic spray that masks any red color so the chickens don’t continue to peck at any injuries (they like to peck at red). If there still is serious pecking and scuffling going on throughout the flock after going through the process described above, it’s probably best to start over.
In the past, I didn’t look forward to integrating pullets, but this process has worked so well that it’s not a concern any more. And, just as the older birds are slowing down on egg-laying in fall, the new egg-layers should be getting started!