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Ordering Chicks: Tips for Adding the Right Birds to Your Flock

By Kelly Klober

Ordering chicks, for most of us, means that spring comes early in the poultry world. Here in Missouri we start planning out the mating groups in the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The hatchery catalogs start arriving a week or so after Christmas. It was once tradition to start the pullet chicks in February to have them sorted and laying for the fall and winter months when eggs would normally post seasonal highs.

That box or two of chicks that arrives during the traditional hatching season, mid-February through early June, are so much more than the little bits of fluff they first appear to be.

trio of chicks
I sometimes wonder if everyone fully understands what awaits beneath the lids of such boxes.

Too many folks flip through a catalog or stand before the little pens at a farm supply store and buy some of those because they’re cute, some of the “funny” colored ones, and others because they recognize the breed name or because their grandparents had some of them. Bits and pieces are alright when piecing together a quilt, but a poultry flock, to be successful, must be built with a plan and a uniformity of vision.

Ordering Chicks: The Basics

The normal, as-hatched ratio is six cockerel chicks for every four pullet chicks hatched. In very small lots, 15 or fewer as-hatched chicks, the ratio can skew even further toward one sex or the other. When working on rare breed preservation projects we would often be able to only buy chicks in lots of as few as five at a time. Very often, they developed into four of one gender and one of the other. Guess on which side of that ratio the pullet was to be found?

Those buying a lot of 25 as-hatched chicks, the smallest sized lot many will ship for warmth and safety limits, to acquire breeding birds should shade their expectations accordingly. From a lot of 25 as-hatched chicks, I would expect to develop no more than one good breeding trio plus one or two backup or insurance pairs.

mail order chicks
With modern mail, a baby chick should arrive at its new quarters within 48 to 72 hours of hatching.

In many instances it will be best to assume that all of the chicks in the box are full or half-sibs. It is not an inbreeding disaster waiting to happen, but does call for a plan of management for the genetics that they represent.

To that end:

  1. For retention as breeding stock, save only the largest, fastest-growing and most vigorous birds.
  2. Mate them together based on the concept of breeding strengths to strengths to reinforce the good traits.
  3. As the first generation you produce reaches breeding age select the largest, best-performing and truest-to-breed-type females. These will form flock A which will be bred to their sire.
  4. Select the very best one or two young males that are produced. They will head up breeding pen B that will be made up of the females from their dam’s generation that are to be retained for a second breeding season.
  5. In the third year select the best of the roosters that headed up pen B above to head up a new pen A populated with the better pullets just produced. The best one or two young cockerels produced will then head up a breeding pen B based on all of the older females to be retained.
  6. This is termed a rolling mating system and is designed to maintain genetic viability while creating a breeding line based on a small group of very select individuals. The pullets produced each year will always be mated with their sire or another male of his generation and lineage.
  7. The oldest males are removed each year, older females go into a collective group, and the breeding flock is maintained in two groups. As numbers of females produced increase, they can be funneled into a laying flock that is being regularly upgraded through selective breeding from the known genetic line being developed on the farm.
  8. With this plan, the flock can be maintained for many generations. The birds going into the breeding flock should be carefully selected for growth, vigor and libido. Most chicks in the retail trade now are of an “industrial” character. They are purebred, but the breeding behind them is not always of a very exacting nature, and it may have been literally decades since they have had anything in the way of performance testing or selective breeding for performance traits applied to them.

A great many brown egg-laying hybrid varietals are being offered now and, again, I believe that not everyone fully understands what these birds are. They are not of a breed, many have a faster metabolism, and the crosses that create them are often intended to create birds that produce a rather large egg in proportion to body size and to produce at a rather high level for a single season before being removed from the farm to make way for a new crop of pullets.

Chickens lay best in their first or pullet year. The hybrids were developed first to fit the laying cage, and such birds were rarely bred to have anything in the way of salvage value.

For many years there has been no trade in older, stewing and baking fowl, nor any wholesale trade for eggs of any shell color from independent producers. The hybrids do not reproduce in kind, their breeding patterns are often too complex to duplicate on a small farm, and they have little in the way of salvage value and have to be considered the antithesis of sustainability.

A red sex-link (a mating that allows males and females to be sexed by sight at hatching) is generally a cross of a Rhode Island Red male and Rhode Island White female. The red male carries the gold gene essential for this form of sex-link mating, and the Rhode Island White female the other, the silver gene. Not all white breeds have this silver gene, however. A red/white cross can also be made with New Hampshire males and females of several other white breeds. In Great Britain, an early cross of Rhode Island

Red males with White Wyandotte females of laying type was quite popular.

Something that I have observed with the red sex-linked females is that the more light-colored feathering they show, the paler brown the eggs they produce.

The black sex-link is a cross of Rhode Island Red males with Barred Plymouth Rock females. The sex-linkage factor here is how the golden gene interacts with the gene for barring. The little cockerels will hatch looking just like Barred Rock chicks with a white spot atop the head. They will grow into birds with a so-so pattern of barring.

chicks under lamp
Barred rock chicks

The pullet chicks will hatch black with no white spot atop the head. They will grow into a black bird with some red in the hackles. They are one of the larger sex-link crosses.

“Performance” or “Production” Reds are also hybrids of a sort. Some are crosses with Rhode Island Reds and New Hampshires and others are crosses of red sex-link females with a purebred Rhode Island male. There is no sex-linkage in these crosses; they will be of a light red hue, will lay light-to-medium brown eggs and will often be among the larger in size of the hybrid offerings.

Hybridization in chickens generates the greatest advantages in the first 12 weeks of the bird’s life. This generally manifests itself in the forms of a bit larger size and level of vigor at the time of hatching.

Early size and growth can prove advantageous for a lifetime, but traits such as egg production come down from the purebred ancestry. It is a practice that some might term an attempt at a genetic shortcut. It is something of an attempt to compress the traits of two different breeds into one bird, and a lot of the resulting pullets often burn out after a single season of laying.

With modern mail, a baby chick should arrive at its new quarters within 48 to 72 hours of hatching. Shortly before hatching, it will absorb the egg yolk through the umbilicus and can thus be sustained for up to 96 hours following hatching.

The chicks, hopefully, will have received an initial evaluation as they are taken from the hatching trays and placed in shipping boxes. Chicks with defects such as navel ills, crossed beaks, splayed legs, bent toes and obvious color flaws should not have been shipped. And the buyer should have selected the shipping date and be notified of its acceptance.

When a shipment of baby chicks is in the offing:

  • Notify the local post office of the due date and that you are to be notified of their arrival as early in the day as possible. You should pick the chicks up at the post office. At the post office, the box should be opened, a postal employee summoned to witness any deaths or damage and report forms requested if any excess losses are noted.
  • The brooder should have been set up and the heat turned on for at least 24 hours before the chicks are due to arrive. This is to ascertain that the heat source is working well.
  • Have a good starter feed on hand, and offer it on the floor of the brooder in a shallow tray for the first day or two.
  • Use a good bedding material in the brooder, though not newspaper because it can become slick and cause some of the chicks to develop a problem with spraddled legs.
  • Provide lukewarm drinking water when the chicks arrive and for a day or two afterward. Add a tablespoon or two of white sugar to every quart of drinking water offered. This will give the chicks an energy boost after their trip.
  • We like feeders and waterers with red bases to draw the chicks to them. On waterers with wide lips, marbles can be added to reduce the risk of baby chicks drowning.
  • Once at home, draw each chick from the shipping box, examine them for any defects, dip their beaks into the drinking water a time or two, and, with their beaks still wet, wipe them through the chick crumbles.
  • Once or twice a week many will offer drinking water to which 1 to 2 ounces of apple cider vinegar has been added to each gallon. This is a traditional tonic, and many will boost it further by adding a full head of garlic and one or two dried red peppers to each gallon of vinegar. This concoction should be allowed to steep at air temperature for 24 to 36 hours.

Old hands would recommend unpasteurized cider vinegar when it could be found. A traditional treatment for coccidiosis was to add 6 ounces of red vinegar per each gallon of drinking water for five days, skip the water treatment for two days, and then go back to the vinegar-treated water for another three to five days. We use red vinegar here in the drinking water for all of the birds a couple of times each month.

If the peeps have had a long or rough trip a vitamin/electrolyte product can be added to their drinking water. Such a product should be used each time the birds are moved or subject to other sources of stress.

The question of whether or not to have chicks vaccinated is very much an individual call. Where healthy birds are in place and few new birds are brought onto the farm many have opted not to vaccinate and focus on building upon increasing levels of natural immunity in established, largely closed flocks. A few years ago we added some breeds and went through a hatching season that might be termed a bit rocky. The following year, with those genetics in place for some time becoming better adapted, and building their levels of natural immunity, things went much better.

For every 25 pullets you intend to place in the laying flock you should start 30 to 35 pullet chicks. This will allow for natural attrition and the needed, rigorous culling. A box of baby chicks arrives with much promise, but what is to be made of it, a starting point or a point of renewal is up to the person lifting the lid on the box.

They arrive as little more than bits of peeping fluff, but, like the few seeds at the core of an apple, their potential can extend for decades and generations. Think of them always in that way, and you will progress from a keeper of chickens to a real poultryman.

This information was first shared in the March 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken; Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken available from Acres U.S.A. For more information visit www.acresusa.com or call 800-355-5313.