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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.

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.

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.”

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About the Author: 

Kelly Klober was raised on a small farm in Middletown, Missouri, where he began a lifetime of experience with various livestock species, including heritage poultry. Klober has been active in poultry and livestock breed preservation for more than 35 years. He holds a State Farmer Degree from the Missouri FFA. Klober has written on agriculture, especially the small farm field, for over 20 years. He and his wife continue to farm with much love and attention to his heritage poultry flock.

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