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Getting Started With Chickens: Choosing and Buying Chickens

We finally have rain here, so I'm taking this opportunity to share the next chapter in my "you too, can have chickens!" series.  If you have missed any of the past chicken posts check out "Things to consider" and "Planning your Housing."

A variety of breeds makes for a colorful flock.
Once you have figured out where your chickens are going to live, you need to figure out what breed (or breeds) you want to keep, and where you are going to purchase them.  Honestly, the later was the part that I stuck on the most.  If you're new to farm life and livestock altogether you may have NO IDEA where to find chickens for purchase.  I grew up on a farm and I still had a hard time figuring it out at first.

But first, the breeds.  I think that this tool from My Pet Chicken is a great place to start.  It has great information on each breed that is pertinent to the home flock... which is harder to find on sites that focus on breed standards.  Because unless you are getting into raising show chickens, breed standards just aren't that important.  What is important may vary a little bit from case to case, but home raisers are more likely to be concerned with egg quantity, size, and color and/or hardiness, size, and temperament.  The breed selector tool includes all of these factors as well as broodiness (whether or not a particular breed has the tendancy to go broody, or sit on eggs).

What is important to you?  Let's start with broodiness- production breeds and hybrids like red star, leghorn, sex links, and any bird with "production" in the name,  as well as popular backyard breeds like Easter Eggers (often labeled Ameraucanas, but just beware that Ameraucanas from hatcheries are in nearly all cases actually Easter Eggers... which only matters if you want show birds), and Marans (as well as others) are less likely to go broody.  Other breeds, like Silkies, are VERY likely to go broody (I've heard that Silkie roosters can even go broody and hatch and raise chicks).  How do you know which is best for you?  There are two things to consider- do you want to ideally have all your new chicks (after the first year) hatched and reared by a broody hen?  And will you be okay with reduced egg production, since a hen who is broody won't lay any eggs?  Keep in mind that you can't plan when or how many go broody, so if you plan to use your broodies to hatch and/or raise chicks for you you have to be able to get chicks or eggs with little notice (if you aren't hatching your own).  But having a hen hatch and raise your chicks for you takes a lot of worry out of the process, and many believe (I being one) that chicks raised by hens develop better and pick up, um, chicken-y behavior (like foraging for food, scratching, etc) more quickly.  And since chicks raised by a broody hen can be integrated into the flock sooner (since they have mama watching out for them) you will have fewer integration issues.

Sound like a lot to consider?  Well, raising animals is a big responsibility, and you can save yourself some stress and heartache in the future by giving these issues a little thought ahead of time.  But also remember that there is no "right" or "wrong."  And for the broody answer especially, the answer might just be "both."  I have one silkie- partly because they are funny looking little conversation pieces (and I'm pretty sure she's the only chicken that even kind of piques my husbands interest), but also because I can be pretty sure to have at least one very broody chicken, and I won't miss her eggs if she does go broody because they aren't the most prolific layers.  I also have a few other broody breeds, and some gold stars and EE's, which are dependable layers less likely to go broody.

Number of eggs is also an important factor- if you are limited on the number of chickens you can have, but want as many eggs as you can, you want to pick the more prolific layers.  The most popular backyard breed, for this reason, is the Barred Plymouth Rock.  They are friendly, prolific layers, can go broody, and are dual purpose (ie grow large enough to be worth eating).  My Rocks are some of the most friendly- they were the first of all the chickens to jump into my lap at treat time.  My problem with them- they're all identical, so I can't name them.  We call our rocks either Bubbles or Thomas... because I have two kids, and one wants to name them all Bubbles and the other wants to name them all Thomas.  Ah, kids:)  I plan to band them once they're laying age so I can at least pretend I'm keeping track of production.

Once you've limited your choices according to the super handy criteria in the breed selector tool, you will have to from the choices given according to two very important things- what is available to you (which is pretty unlimited depending on where you want your chicks to come from, how much you want to pay, and how hard you want to look) and your personal preference!  This is the point where you get to look at the breeds and go "I think that's a cool looking chicken, I want that one!"

Helpful terminology:
  •  Pullet- sexed female chicken (but keep in mind that, unless you're getting sex links, the sexing process for chickens isn't 100% accurate and you could still end up with roosters).
  • Cockerels- sexed male chicken.
  • Standard Run- unsexed chicks- generally you will get roughly half males and half females, but there is no guarantee.
  • Sex Link- hybrid chicks that can be sexed by color, ie. cocks are yellow and pullets are red.
  • Bantam- a "mini" chicken, these are a good option for people with limited space, as you can keep more chickens.  They lay smaller eggs, but not as small as you would think.  There are several breeds of bantam available.
 Now would also be a good time to revisit the reason you are keeping chickens- eggs or meat or both.  If you're looking for meat birds your options are not limited to Cornish X... there are other meat hybrids available from mail order hatcheries- MT-DI carries some different meat hybrids, and Freedom Rangers are gaining popularity with those who want to free range their meat chickens.  However, if you'd prefer to buy the chicks from a feed store you're likely to be limited to Cornish X.  You could also try to raise some dual purpose birds for meat, but keep in mind that they take longer to finish and won't carry as much meat on the breast- but many people prefer the taste and texture of dual purpose birds to meat hybrids, and the longer finishing makes better bone structure, which makes for better bone stocks.

The next step is to figure out where you are going to get your chicks.  You actually have quite a few options:
  •  Local feed store- in the spring (up until right now, basically) many feed stores will carry chicks in-store, and during much of the rest of the year you can have them special ordered for you (but often have to order at least 25).  The selection is often limited to cornish x (broilers), Production breeds (ie. Production Red, Red or Black Sexlinks, Leghorns, or Red or Gold Stars) and the more popular dual purpose breeds like Orpington, Plymoth Rock, and Wyandotte.  Some feed stores also carry bantams (although often as "assorted standard run bantam," which I don't understand because there are TONS of breeds of bantams, and I like to know what I'm getting), Ameraucanas (actually Easter Eggers, as I said before), ducks, and various game birds.
  • Craigslist-  This was how I got my first seven chickens.  No, I didn't get exactly what I wanted, but in retrospect I'm happy with how it worked out.  I was originally supposed to get 20 straight run chickens, but due to an incubator malfunction only three of them lived.  So I got those three, along with four other random chickens.  I'm glad I didn't get 20 standard run chickens- what would I have done with 10 (or more!) roosters!  My original plan was to process the excess roosters, but now I can't imagine processing any of my laying flock, even the males.
  • From Breeders-, besides being a great source of information and community for chicken people, has a for sale page where you can buy eggs, chicks, or full grown chickens from breeders.  There is always an amazingly random array of chickens for sale, so if you're looking for something out of the ordinary this is a great place to check.  Or you may have a chicken breeder near you (check craigslist, bulletin boards at the feed store, classified ads...).
  • Mail Order Hatcheries- I already listed two hatcheries above when I mentioned meat birds.  Other popular hatcheries are Welp, Murray McMurray, Ideal Poultry, JM Hatchery, and My Pet Chicken.  Most mail order hatcheries have minimum orders of 25, but My Pet Chicken has much lower minimums- as low as 3, depending on where you live.  And if you order juvenille chickens you can order fewer (and get eggs sooner).
  • Ex-Battery Chickens- I have looked into this and haven't yet figured out exactly where to find ex-battery chickens, but this is an option many people use.  When Battery chickens (chickens used to produce commercial eggs) are 2 years old their production starts to decline and they are removed from production... and usually killed.  So some people adopt these chickens.  It's a great thing to do for these chickens, but another sticking point for me was the requirements of the one chicken adoption organization I found.  There are very strict requirements you must stick to in order to adopt these chickens, including not being allowed to sell their eggs.  I get most of them (ample housing, access to medical care, etc) but the selling is a sticking point for me, because I plan to sell any excess eggs I have- not as a source of income, but simply because I purposely am keeping a lot of chickens so that, at their lower production times (ideally) we will still have enough eggs.  So at peak production times I will sell some of their eggs (which will have the added advantage of offsetting feed costs) so they don't go to waste.  But this is definitely worth considering.
And while you're at it, if you haven't already checked out Backyard Chickens and joined the forum, now would be a great time to do so.  You can get great advice and information from other chicken peeps... just remember your basic forum etiquette: search before you ask, include all the information you can think might possibly be pertinent when asking a question, don't type in all caps, use punctuation (it is really hard to read run-on posts that lack punctuation or capitalization), and be open minded.

Up next (hopefully without such a big time lapse) is how to care for baby chicks.

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