Friday, April 10, 2015

Shopping for Spring Chicks

Spring will come, I promise. I know this not because of the weather conditions, but because the local feed stores are starting to get in baby chicks to sell.
For those who may be newer to the chicken fancy, there’s a multitude of information that can be found online. I still find to be an invaluable resource for everything from preferred breeds to healthcare to coop designs.
Since I began keeping backyard chickens almost 6 years ago, I have acquired new chicks every year, one way or another. My original flock of nine has grown to 20. I have expanded in part because I like so many different breeds that I had to have at least one (or two) of each kind. My flock of 20 is represented by 10 different breeds of chickens. I like the variety I get with the different colors of eggs and having chickens that I can easily tell apart.
I have found that as my older girls decrease their egg laying production, it helps to have new pullets to continue to supply my family with eggs. Although hens are clearly most productive during their first two years, they will continue to lay as an older hen, just not as often. We have a hard rule to not cull our chickens as these are our pets. The older, and by older I mean three years and up, lay primarily during the longer days of spring and summer, then take a sabbatical starting in the fall. I look at it as the younger girls paying into the social security fund of the menopausal ones.
I have obtained chicks utilizing different methods; by ordering them online from a hatchery in the mid-west, feed stores, hatching my own eggs, mail-order from a breeder and directly from breeders at poultry shows. I have yet to attend a chicken swap meet, but that’s an idea too. I would prefer to get them all directly from the breeder as those chicks are generally most likely to fit the standard for the breed. I was amazed when I saw the Buff Orpingtons at my first poultry show as they were easily twice as large as our online-ordered Buffy. I also trust the health more from breeders as opposed to mid-west hatcheries, although I have no personal experience to support that.
I have, however, encountered a few issues when shopping for chicks at a poultry show. The breed I want may not be available or even at the show I choose to attend. I have had the best luck purchasing young adult chickens at poultry shows. I suggest Googling “Poultry Shows” to find show and swap meet dates in your area.
Most chicks purchased from a feed store originate from the big hatcheries in the mid-west. The feed stores are merely the middle man. They are already sexed to be all female unless straight run is indicated. Feed stores usually carry four to six of the more popular breeds. In Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and other states, the law requires that buyers must purchase at least six chicks at one time. I was told this was to limit frivolous single Easter chick purchases and protect the chicks from those who are not likely to know what they are doing. Chickens are flock animals so a single chick is not going to be happy or healthy. I have been able to get around the six-chick rule with a couple of feed stores after I explained that I already had a backyard flock, it was after Easter already and I didn’t have room for more than three new chicks. Although you can have the immediate satisfaction of selecting your chicks at a feed store and taking it home that day along with all the supplies, the variety of breeds are limited. If you want a Polish Crested with its crazy Cruella Deville hair, a cute Silkie or a Marans hen that lays chocolate brown eggs, don’t look at Tractor Supply.
My very first chicks arrived from Meyer Hatchery in Polk, Ohio. The reason I initially chose Meyer was that it was the only online hatchery I could find that would ship as few as three chicks. Most hatcheries require a 15-25 minimum order, depending upon the time of year. With an online hatchery, your choices are much greater. I found it easy to pick and choose which breed and color I wanted, easy because the websites include descriptions of the chickens (personalities, cold/heat tolerance, egg color), hatch dates, and whether I wanted all female, male or straight run (mix of both genders).
If you do encounter a problem with a minimum chick number requirement, one can often find fellow chicken keepers to split the order.
My chicks arrived when they were two days old at my local post office. They had nesting material and heating packs in their special live chick box. Because newly-hatched chicks still have a yolk sack on their abdomens which provides them with 72 hours worth of continued nutrition, the best age to mail chicks is the day they emerge from their shells.
I have had limited success with hatching my own eggs. I don’t have an incubator, but the one thing a Silkie hen is good for besides looking cute, is sitting on eggs, no matter what the source. I have used my Silkies to hatch a friend’s pheasant eggs and eggs from other hens. The problems I experienced were infertile eggs (read rotten), a low hatch rate (only one out of four eggs ended up as a live chick) and not getting girl chicks.
Along with many of the chicken fanciers of the world, I only want female chicks or  pullets (young hens under the age of one year). Roosters are not necessary to get a hen to lay eggs, plus they have a reputation for becoming aggressive toward humans. Many towns have ordinances which will allow chickens to be kept in backyards as long as none of them ever crow. Crowing is not just a morning activity, but one that begins around 4 am and continues throughout the day. I have come to regard a rooster’s crow as nature’s music, but if we lived in the burbs, I wouldn’t want to subject my next door neighbors to the music blasting from my backyard.
Statistically, half of all eggs hatched will result in male chicks. It is a major disadvantage to be a boy in the chicken world. Realistically, people don’t need half of their chickens to be male. Hens not only lay the eggs, but they are quieter, gentler, and, if one is so inclined, better to eat. If the chicken reproduction world were as advanced as the dairy industry, the gender could be pre-determined. Dairy farmers also only need female calves, but they are now able to artificially inseminate their cows with semen that is already divided to produce only girls. My wish would be that scientists could come up with a way to ensure only female hatchlings and avoid a lot of the chicken gendercide.
There are those who proclaim the hatcheries to be the enemy because they end up killing the unwanted male chicks. The animal rights activists push the vegan agenda with their hatchery abuse videos. However, the video I’ve seen represents the factory farmers who raise chickens for the big companies like Purdue.  While I would agree that factory farming methods are disturbing and inhumane, not all hatcheries should fall under the same label.
The hatcheries that cater to the local farmers and backyard breeders seem to be a lot more humane in that they’re selling pets and heritage breeds. These hatcheries try to place as many boys as they can by having local sales. Some hatcheries use the male chicks as extra packing warmth with other chick orders. In the latter case, this means that if I ordered six Silver-laced Wyandotte pullets, I may also receive an equal number of little cockerels in whatever breed that wouldn’t sell.  
On the other hand, your local chicken breeder will also end up culling unwanted roosters, just at an older age. I’ve been to poultry shows where the breeders were trying hard to sell us roosters because otherwise they’ll end up slaughtering whatever cockerels they didn’t sell when they got back to the farm.
Some suggest that when ordering online to only order a straight run of chicks which is supposed to be an even mix of genders so as not to discriminate against the boys. Realistically, with so many people ordering pullets only, those who order a straight run may receive more than 50% male chicks. Until the day arrives where the only male chicks that hatch are those that are wanted, I try to be practical. It is much easier for me personally, since I don’t eat my chickens, to only bring in pullets to begin with.
As surely as the snow will melt and the mud will dry, little peeps will be arriving regularly. They may come to the post office, the feed store, the poultry show or with your neighbor. With so much cuteness and promise of the best eggs ever, it’s time to start shopping.


  1. A fellow I work with, who is from Puerto Rico, told me they deal with their rooster problem there by participating in cock fights. He showed me the tiny boxing gloves they put on them so they don't get hurt.