I have a few suggestions for anyone interested in getting started with chickens.
We’ve kept chickens for quite a few years now, and have hatched chicks from eggs, started with day-old baby chicks as well as purchased pullets (female chickens just ready to start laying eggs).
Here are my recommendations for things to consider when getting started with chickens:
What Breed Of Chicken To Start With
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. Therefore, initially, we chose a breed specifically bred for egg-laying. Later, we were interested in both eggs and meat, so we added dual-purpose chickens. Identify what purpose you’re keeping the chickens for, and then plan on breeds from that type of chicken (egg-laying, dual purpose, or meat) that appeal to you.
Once the type of bird is determined, then you can further narrow your breed choices by climate, free-ranging suitability, broodiness, laying capacity, egg size, egg color, and social nature.
For example, if you’re looking at dual-purpose birds and you live in a cold weather region, does the breed you’re interested in do well in cold weather?
Similarly, if you’ll be allowing your birds to free-range, then a breed that prefers free-ranging over confinement would be a good choice.
Do you want your chickens to hatch their own eggs (if you get a rooster)? Then choose a breed known for it’s tendency to go broody.
Laying capacity, egg size, egg color, and social nature are also qualities that should 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?
Hendersen’s Handy Dandy Chicken Chart provides a listing of qualities for many chicken breeds while the Livestock Conservancy’s Chicken Comparison Chart provides a listing of qualities for the heritage breeds. Use these handy comparison charts to help you choose the perfects breed(s) for your situation.
What Age Of Chicken 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 time of year). There are links to reputable chicken hatcheries at Free Hatchery/Catalog Links.
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.
Starting with a few pullets gives you nearly instant gratification (eggs), most hatcheries offer vaccinated pullets so you don’t have to worry 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. Here’s a little about that in Young Chick Care.
However, it can be difficult to find pullets of dual-purpose or rarer breeds.
Day-old chicks are the option we most often use for getting chickens started. They’re not as easy as pullets because you need additional equipment, 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).
For equipment, you’ll need a brooder (this can be as simple as a box), heat lamp, chick waterer, chick feeder, and specialized grower feed. Here’s How To Raise Baby or Day-Old Chicks.
On the positive side, you’ll likely get several roosters (these can go in the freezer unless you’re going to keep roosters too), hand-raised birds are typically friendlier and more sociable, you’ll be able to hatch chicks in the future if wanted, and day-old chicks are generally much less expensive than pullets. It’s also easier to find day-old chicks in a wide variety of breeds than it is to find pullets.
Hatching eggs has about the same positives and negatives as day-old chicks except that an incubator is also needed to hatch the eggs. This is probably an option if you’ve got access to an incubator or it generally makes a good 4H project for kids. Incubators range from very basic to totally automated, we’ve used this one in the past with good success: Brinsea Automatic 7 Egg Incubator
Hatching eggs can be a bit tricky and there’s no instant gratification (those cute chicks or pullets) like there is with day-old chicks or pullets, so it’s probably not the best option if you’re just getting started with chickens.
Avoiding Trouble When Getting Started With Chickens
Chickens are really pretty easy to raise and take care of and having your own source of eggs or eggs and meat is very rewarding.
Once you’ve gotten birds; however, be very careful about introducing new birds, or bringing any kind of disease back to your birds. Be sure to practice bio-security and keep those birds healthy!