Everybody loves a spring chicken, but at the Newcomb Farm, we start ours in the fall to get more productivity out of our egg-laying chickens using their natural egg-laying patterns. Most chicks won’t start laying eggs until 18 to 20 weeks. That means they are pretty much just farm freeloaders for almost the first half of the year. Most chickens also dramatically decline in production–many to the point of laying almost no eggs–in the winter when daylight declines. Practically speaking–if you start your chicks in the spring, they won’t start laying eggs until late summer or early fall. They’ll lay for a month or two and then egg production will drop significantly–meaning you’re getting very little out of the chicks you’ve invested so much in the first year.
We’ve found aligning the early–most intensive–part of chick-rearing before they are mature enough to lay eggs with the darker days of winter–when they won’t be laying many eggs anyway–is more productive.
There are a few disadvantages to this method. Number one, heat is a major issue for baby chicks, so you will definitely want to ensure you have a good method of keeping the chicks warm for the first 6 weeks. This is a big deal no matter what time of year you start your chicks, but it can be a little more challenging in the winter.
The second big disadvantage is that baby chicks are a much easier prey than their broody mothers and hawks are hungry in the winter. Around the Newcomb Farm, we see predator activity pick up significantly during the winter–especially around really intense cold snaps. Our flock are truly free-range chickens who make it back to the coop each night. Since we lock up our coop at night when predators usually come out, we’ve been able to keep them out of harm’s way most of the year. But in the winter when food is scarce, we’ve had hawks snap them up in the middle of the day even while we are outside. So if you’re raising a flock of chicks over the winter, it’s best to keep them locked away in the coop until predators have more plentiful options.
With all that being said, let’s talk about how to get baby chicks started. For the most part, you won’t find chicks at your local co-op during the fall and winter, so you’ll likely need to mail-order them. (You won’t want to go back to the co-op once you start because mail-ordering chickens gives you a much larger range of options for chickens). Your chicks will come in the mail in a tiny box all nestled together. The first thing you need to do once you get them home is to get them warmed up and hydrated.
You don’t need a hi-tech brooder to keep your chicks alive. I use a plastic tote that is fitting for the number of chicks I have. Conventional wisdom says you need about 6 inches of space for each newly hatched chick, and you’ll need to add some sort of bedding. I’ve always heard to avoid cedar, so I usually use pine shavings. From there, all you need to do is add water, food, and heat.
The first thing I do when I get new chicks is to teach them to drink. It’s not too complicated. Just cup the chicken in your hand and wrap your fingers around their tiny bodies. This seems to calm them down. Then tip their beaks into the water by gently pressing on the back of their head with your finger. Make sure you don’t hit too hard or do anything to knock their beaks off–they will need those to live. You’ll be able to tell if they figured out how to swallow because they swallow in a very exaggerated–almost comical–way. If they swallowed, put them in the brooder and jump to the next one. If not, try again until you see them gulping the water down.
The brooder should have chick feed and warm water in it with a heat lamp on the other side. Be careful with arranging the heat lamp so that it is clasped on firmly with the light set far from wood where it could start a fire and far from any plastic it could melt. Once our chickens get mobile–sometimes in under a week–we add a homemade wire guard to the tote to keep them from flying out.
Chickens are the gateway animal for homesteaders–even many urban areas allow chicks in city limits. They are a great way to engage your kids in farming and have been a wonderful source of joy and protein for our family over the years.