Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Peeps or Pullets? Ways to Get Started in Chicken Keeping

This is the first of a multi-part series chronicling my entry into chicken keeping.

I've wanted chickens off and on for much of the past decade. The notion came to me in my Martha Stewart-idolizing days when I found out that she had a large flock of chickens in a custom-built "palais de poulet". And they weren't just any chickens. Her fancypants chickens laid eggs in shades of blue and green.

Martha's Palais de Poulet
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The idea of gathering Easter eggs laid by chickens housed in a decorative outbuilding was the subject for many a daydream. The fantasy would inevitably end with Hubby Dear and I beating eggs for an omelet in a scene reminiscent of "Ghost", complete with the Righteous Brothers singing "Unchained Melody" in the background.

There are striking differences between Martha Stewart and myself. And not just the fact that she is a convicted felon and I have an over-active imagination. Martha has people. People to walk her dogs, mow her expansive lawns, and muck out her chicken coop. I have no people and I wasn't sure that I wanted to add chicken poop patrol to my job description.

Fast forward to 2011. Chicken keeping has become much more mainstream and hipsters in urban areas all across the country have chickens. If they can have chickens and like it, why not me? After all, I have plenty of space and more than an inclination for self-reliance. After pouring over a thick stack of books on poultry from the library, I threw my doubts to the wayside, coerced Hubby Dear into cooperating via the magical powers of the chicken moat and started making plans for the spring.

Which should come first? The Chicken or the Egg? 

One of the first questions you have to answer once you decide to embark upon the enterprise of chicken keeping is what kind of chickens do you want to get? No, I don't mean what breed of chicken (that will be discussed in an upcoming post), but rather, do you start with hatching eggs, chicks, or pullets?

Hatching eggs

Hatching eggs are fertilized eggs that could potentially develop into chicks, given the right set of circumstances. You can order hatching eggs from professional hatcheries, buy them online from poultry fanciers, or get some from a neighbor who keeps chickens (assuming that neighbor also has a rooster and the eggs are fertile).

Eggs come in a variety of colors
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How cool would it be to raise your own chickens from the egg up? As a homeschooler, this is one of those projects that appeals to me for the sheer educational value for my children.

There are some downsides to choosing hatching eggs as the means to get a flock started, however. First,  you'd have to find a source of hatching eggs in the breed or breeds you desire. Hopefully the eggs would make it safely through their journey to your house, but even then, the danger is not over. It takes 21 days in an expensive incubator with careful turning (so the yolk does not stick to the shell) and proper humidity for a chick to develop and hatch out of an egg. Some eggs will never develop at all and some chicks may be too weak to survive. What if all the chicks that hatch out are roosters? Then what? You'd have to start the process all over if you want those fantastic fresh eggs.


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The second, and probably most popular, way of starting a flock of chickens is buying chicks. You can get a wide variety of chicks through the mail from professional hatcheries, at your local feed store in the spring, and even on Craigslist at times.

Baby chicks can survive for two days without food or water because they are still absorbing the yolk sac from the egg. This marvelous fact means that newborn poultry can be shipped across the country and arrive healthy and (supposedly) happy at your domicile.  Most hatcheries require a minimum order of 25 chicks to insure the chicks stay warm, though there are a few that accept orders as small as three chicks.

You even have a good shot at getting the right sex of bird. You can specify the exact number of each sex you would like or ask for "straight run" (luck of the draw). This is especially useful if you live in an area that bans roosters and you don't want to re-home or eat any male birds. The sexing process is not foolproof, however. Those chicks and their parts are tiny!  Most hatcheries claim to have about a 90% sexing accuracy.

Chickens rapidly grow past the cute fluff ball stage but it takes a while for them to start laying. From my research it appears that a few breeds might lay at 18 weeks of age but 22-25 weeks is more typical. That is a long time and a lot of feed to buy before you get your first egg. That leads me to the last way to start your flock.

Pullets and Hens 

A Welsummer pullet
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You can save a lot of time if you buy chickens that already are old enough to lay eggs. A pullet is defined as a female chicken than is less than a year old. After a year, they have earned the venerable title of hen. You can buy started pullets from a hatchery and almost immediately start collecting eggs. There won't be any surprise roosters included in the bunch. Although started pullets are more expensive than chicks ($7-15 dollars per pullet vs. $1.50-4.00 per typical chick), when you factor in the cost of feed, etc., it's not really that bad a deal.

An even less expensive option would be to check and see if your state agricultural college sells pullets to the public. One of my neighbors bought 8 pullets from the poultry unit at the Ag college. They were 18 weeks old, fully vaccinated, and ready to go when they brought them home.

If you watch Craigslist or the local classifieds, you might find listings for hens. I would approach these with caution. After two years of age, most chickens will lay significantly fewer eggs. As an inexperienced poultry keeper, I would be afraid that someone was trying to pawn off an old hen that had stopped laying.

My choice

For me, the choice was easy. I decided to buy chicks for the cute factor, the educational value of watching them grow, and the ability to get exactly the breeds I wanted.

I also determined that I would order the chicks from a hatchery versus buy them at the local feed store in the spring. My father is a veterinary epidemiologist and has seen the effects of Exotic Newcastle disease and other poultry epidemics firsthand. He strongly recommended that I buy my chicks from a certified disease-free hatchery rather than take the biosecurity risks that come with feed store chicks. Feed store chicks get handled by a lot of people and are housed in an environment that can be a breeding ground for disease. Hatchery chicks, on the other hand, go more or less straight from the incubator to your house.

Hubby Dear and I decided to order about 15 hens, plus a rooster, from a hatchery that would ship less than 25 at a time. Then we were faced with the next big decision: what kinds should we get? That's coming up in Part II of my series on chicken keeping.

Do you have chickens or chicken fantasies? ;) How did you start your flock?


  1. That is awesome!! And those baby chicks look SOOO cute!! Someday, when I have a yard, I am going to raise chickens. :)

  2. We just bought our first 2 chickens a couple of weeks ago. We bought Americana hens just for the eggs at first. We bought a small tractor coop to house them. We wanted to see how it went taking care of them before we took the complete plunge into raising chickens. It's going well so far but unfortunately no eggs!

  3. Of course we all want a coop like Martha's, but I don't have a staff of 20 to keep my coop and garden looking like hers. :)
    We decided to get 6 hens, all just about at laying age, in the spring to make sure we knew what we were getting into.
    After we discovered that it was very easy to care for them we got 12 chicks to raise. It was fun to watch them grow and out son learned about raising animals.
    I don't think we would hatch from eggs, even though it would be very cute, and educational. I wouls want to have the time to do things properly and I don't feel I have that time right now.
    Eggs now = buy young hens
    Eggs later and cuteness = chicks from the Agway

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