The phone rang. I am not sure that rang is the correct term for the ungodly sound that jarred us out of the normal morning quiet. Shrieked?
"Mrs. Audet? This is the Lancaster Post Office. We have a box peeping for you."
Ha, ha...very funny. Nothing like a comedian at six in the morning. Shiloh and I put the pancake batter on the back of the stove and jumped in the van to go collect our new heritage breed Barred Rock Chickens. 25 females and a male (eventually named Jimmy the Ninja, who would grow to terrorize all of us and have an uncanny knack for kicking the boys and Marc just where it would really hurt.)
Once we got to the post office we could hear our new residents. The lobby was alive with the sound of peeping. The postman grinned as he gave us the box. "This doesn't happen much anymore", he said almost wistfully. It's true too. Our town is moving on up. It is no longer a little community but a hard-nosed, pain in the butt suburb that charges way too much for taxes.
Once we got our new flock home the work really began.
The First 48 Hours with the New Chicks
You have all ready prepared their living quarters for the next four to six weeks. You have a cage or box or something that has shredded newspaper in the bottom of it, or litter of some kind. Don't use treated or aromatic wood shavings because they can kill the chicks. You should have a heat lamp over it and a thermometer in it. The temperature for the first week will be a steady 100F. You should also have bought something to put water in as well as Chick Starter and grit, a type of tiny gravel. Grit Online has a great idea for making a chick brooder from a cardboard box.
The Chicks Are Here! Now What?
The first thing you do when you get the chicks home is to take them out of the box one by one. Check each small chicken carefully for injury or signs of illness (listlessness, half closed eyes, etc.), and see if you need to peel any dried poop off their backsides. There is just no end to the wild and romantic moments in a homesteader's life.
Once you have made sure your new, embryonic flock of chickens is ready to go you just gently dip each of their beaks in some water. They haven't eaten or drank anything since they hatched and they will be ready for sustenance. When you dip the chick's beak in the water it will signal to it that starvation is near. Put them down in the box, cage, or whatever you have provided for them and they will begin to eat the starter feed you have provided. Do that with each chick until all are in the box.
Keep an eye on them for the next day or so. This is a critical time as they adjust to their surroundings. If the pen gets too hot they will die and if it gets too cold they will huddle together until they smother each other. Make sure there is always plenty of fresh water and food. If the chicks huddle together lower the heat lamp a little and if they spread out too far, and/or lay and pant they are too hot. Just raise it up. Yeah, you are going to be feeling like the attendant on a busy drawbridge for a few weeks.
The Following Weeks
Those chicks are going to double in size rapidly. You can cut the heat back about 5 degrees each week until you get to 80 degrees. After a week at 80 degrees your chicks should be ready to handle cooler weather. This does not mean freezing temperatures however. If you get chicks in the fall or winter you will need to keep them protected throughout the season.
Change to Growth Formula
At about six weeks you will change their feed to a growth formula. They will be ready to go out in their own pen as long as you keep them protected from hawks, raccoons and the other chickens you may have. Chickens can be aggressive.
Chicken wire is not good enough. A raccoon can pull the head of a chick through the wire and bite it off in about two seconds flat. You will need a strong wire that has mesh that is not big enough for a chick's head to go through. Also keep in mind that nocturnal predators will dig underneath to get to your chicks. Especially at night keep them in a coop with a floor or something similar.
When Will My Hen Lay Eggs?
You should change them to a layer formula at about four months. Layer formulas have a high level of calcium and will make the egg shells strong. This is important because weak shells can break inside of the hen and that isn't at all good. You can also try a homemade chicken feed at this time.
Your backyard chickens will begin to lay eggs pretty close to five months from the day you got them. At first they will be small, often double yolked, and not necessarily regularly. As the hen gets the hang of it though she will begin to produce about 4 to 7 eggs a week, depending on the breed.