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Starting a Flock with Baby Chicks

By Kelly Klober

If you opt to start your heirloom flock with day-old baby chicks, you will have to allow time for them to develop and purchase them in the numbers that will allow for full and proper culling as they grow and develop.

The old rule of thumb has been to order at least thirty percent more chicks than you ultimately wish to place in the breeding flock or laying house. Thus, you can be comfortable in culling the expected three to five percent of the birds at each point in their development prior to their entering the flock.

A good baby chick now may cost you two to three dollars and some of the rarer ones from private sources are twice that and more. Also, if they are shipped from any distance, mailing and handling can add another one dollar per chick. One of the big five hatcheries offers its very top end baby chicks for one hundred twenty-five dollars per box of twenty-five and that box may contain no more than five or ten chicks of the rarest varieties.


Hatched chicks typically hatch in a ratio of six cockerels to every four pullet chicks.

A number of caveats often go with baby chick purchases and especially those bought in very small lots. From most hatcheries you should assume that all chicks of the same breed are either full or half-siblings. The minor breeds are also more likely to be sold as hatched, that is they are unsexed. Most private breeders sell their chicks on a strictly as hatched basis and often can supply no more that five or six of certain breeds per shipment. Thus in very small lots you may receive all of one sex or insufficient numbers of one gender to create any sort of breeding group. Small lots are a way to add to a flock, but seldom will one or even two small lot shipments produce enough birds from which to successfully launch a new flock.

From a shipping lot of twenty-five as hatched chicks of the same breed perhaps the best that can be hoped for is one good breeding trio and one or two additional breeding pairs. Those extra males can prove invaluable in the event of unexpected loss because of death. Also, a couple of extra males should always be held back as insurance for the next breeding season.

It is probably best to begin with the staggered purchases of two or three lots of twenty-five from different sources or a single line, whichever is your flock raising strategy.

Chicks were once most commonly sold in multiples of one hundred!

Twenty-five chick lots now seem to naturally fit today’s trend toward smaller poultry flocks. They can be raised in small, inexpensive facilities and are not a bank account busting venture to start. For a great many days a set of chicks this small can be held in a brooder made from a large plastic storage box.

Order chicks as early in the year as possible. Late-hatched chicks tend to grow more slowly as the hours of available daylight decrease. They may not develop as fully and will reach productivity later in the year. In fact some bantam breeds were developed in part from late-hatched chicks of their standard sized counterparts. To get a fair number of the very rarest you may have to order as many as four or five small lot groups in a season and tap into more than one source.

Most hatcheries and breeders will ship no fewer than twenty-five chicks at a time (some will send fifteen in very warm weather) to assure comfort and warmth in transit. That means that you must sometimes contend with what have come to be called “filler” chicks. Often from the larger sources of supply they are little more than throw-ins, cost very little, and can range from sex-link cockerels to surplus chicks from orders for more mainstream varieties. Whenever possible pay the price to get something better and more useful than surplus sex-link or Leghorn cockerels.

From individual breeders and smaller hatcheries this can be a bit more of a challenge. They do not have the surplus cockerel chicks to fill in with and their other breeds may be every bit as rare and pricey as the ones in your primary order. There are a fair number of larger breeders who can ship in great variety although quite often from very small mating groups for certain breeds. Look upon these situations as an opportunity to check out a second rare or heirloom breed or to build a second flock of a traditional standard breed.

At today’s prices, when shopping for baby chicks, don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions. Especially with the minor breeds — you have to know as much about their breeding and background as is possible. Steer clear of any birds tabbed “not for show” or “not for project work.”

After the chicks are located and the order placed, it is time to get ready for their arrival.

Have your brooder set up and warming at least twenty-four hours before the chicks are due to arrive.

Notify the post office that you are expecting a chick shipment, ask to be called as soon as they arrive, go directly to pick them up, and examine them carefully at the post office in case any losses have occurred in transit. You could possibly refuse to accept a really damaged box or one that has been too long in transit or you may need postal documentation to file a loss claim with the shipper.

At home take the time to handle and observe each chick closely and note any obvious defects or problems.

Cover the floor of the brooder with paper toweling. It is a non-slip surface that will prevent problems with spraddle legs developing. It can be lifted in a few days when the chicks have grown stronger. Have ready chick-sized waterers with drown proof lips and a flat tray or even a cardboard box top upon which to offer the chicks their first few feedings.

Warm the drinking water a bit the first time or two, and to each quart add two or three tablespoons of white sugar. Offer this for a day or two to give the newly arrived chicks an extra energy boost. Then, for a couple of days each week, add a vitamin/electrolyte product to the drinking water going into the brooder. Once a week add a capful of hydrogen peroxide to each waterer in the brooder and once each week wash the waterers in a mild bleach and water solution. As the chicks are placed in the brooder, dip their beaks into the water to get them used to drinking from them. Old hands will also even wipe their still damp bills in the chick starter.

I prefer to use the plastic waterers with the red bases and feeders to help draw the chicks to them.

We provide supplemental heat with an electric heat lamp suspended twelve to eighteen inches above the chicks. We generally use 125-watt bulbs and raise them as the chicks grow during what is termed the “hardening” process. A red-tinted bulb will lessen problems with feather picking.

With bantam chicks, birds closely inbred or others needing a quick boost use the more nutrient dense and smaller particulate game bird starter instead of regular chick starter.

In an emergency situation where you have no starter on hand offer the chicks what they have already been feeding upon — egg. Finely chopped, hard boiled egg at room temperature can be offered to them at floor level for a few minutes several times each day. Offer only what they will eat in a short time and then carefully clean up all the remaining traces.

Shortly before hatching, the chick absorbs the egg yolk into its body through the umbilicus. This gives the chick enough nourishment to sustain itself for up to 96 hours following hatching. Thus the day-old chick has the needed wherewithal for 24 to 96 hours in transit through the mail.

For most folks, baby chicks will be the starting point for their poultry venture — be it rare, heirloom or traditional poultry breeds. Baby chicks are now the means that are accessible to the greatest number of producers. From a box of as few as fifteen chicks, a start can be made and I can think of no other purebred livestock venture with lower beginning costs.

Source: Talking Chicken