Ashley English has been a frequent contributor and friend to Taproot since our very first issue, SOIL. A mother, gardener, and writer, Ashely has written many books on the topics of food and homesteading. Today, courtesy of Sterling Publishing, we share with you an excerpt of one of her new books, The Essential Book of Homesteading.
~Amanda Blake Soule
(Excerpted from The Essential Book of Homesteading by Ashley English. Adapted with permission from The Essential Book of Homesteading © 2017 by Ashley English, Lark, an imprint of Sterling Publishing © 2017 by Ashley English. Photographs by Sterling Publishing)
You’ve chosen your breeds, checked to see if you need a permit to keep chickens in your area, and considered the space available. Now you’re ready to start assembling your motley crew! Consider whether you want chicks or more mature chickens, what you should be looking for when selecting birds, where to source your chickens, and what time of year might be best for chicken purchasing.
HERE, CHICK, CHICK!
If your local pet store is anything like most, you won’t be finding White Leghorns or Japanese Bantams there any time soon. While most big box pet retailers will sell you salamanders, turtles, finches, and dog sweaters, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll score any Belgian Bearded d’Uccles there, either. Your local feed store is a much more likely place to begin feathering your nest.
Selection there may be limited, however, especially if you are after a specific exotic or endangered breed. Feed stores can offer a wealth of chicken advice, though. Ask a staff member who supplies them with their poultry and whether their suppliers are nationally recognized as engaging in sound and healthy breeding practices. Participants of such organizations often insure their flocks to be free of once-common diseases such as pullorum and typhoid, nasty bugs your chickens can literally live without.
If you don’t have a feed store where you live (in, say, midtown Manhattan), or you have your heart set on a Lakenvelder that can’t be had at John & Jane Doe’s Feed & Seed, then move your search to the Internet. It is possible today to source chickens and chicks online from a number of highly reputable hatcheries. Some offer free catalogs, should you want to take your time ogling and contemplating chicken varieties over your morning cup of joe. These mail-order hatcheries also often sell housing, feed, and reading materials for those desiring a onestop chicken shop.
Finally, don’t underestimate the county fair as a means of procuring a desired breed. Owners of prizewinning birds, or any of the birds on display, might be in the business of selling offspring or could be talked into doing so. Take a gander, see who the chickens belong to, and try to track them down, either by the names listed on the bird’s cages or through the fair’s livestock coordinators. Score some chickens and ride the Ferris wheel—now that’s my idea of a good time!
When you begin assembling your flock, you will have to decide how old your chickens will be when you bring them home. It is possible to purchase freshly hatched chicks, pullets (usually between 16 and 20 weeks old), or mature hens. If you are considering including a rooster in the mix, they may also be purchased as chicks, cockerels (male chickens less than one year old), or mature roosters. Although it’s hard to resist the ridiculously cute, fuzzy balls of feathers that are chicks, this decision should not be made lightly, as there are pros and cons to each scenario.
If you want the most birds for your money, chicks are the way to go. Depending on the quantity you purchase, chicks usually only cost a few dollars apiece
Chicks bought from a reputable source, either your local feed store or an online commercial hatchery, will generally be in good health when you get them.
Before you rush to your nearest feed store and gather up the fluffiest chicks you can find, remember that, at least in the beginning, chicks do require more care than older birds. During their first few weeks of life, chicks are at their most vulnerable. Like any young animal, chicks can be rather unruly. Left to their own devices, things could get pretty messy, and potentially hazardous, fairly quickly. They frequently stomp around in their food and water, spreading fecal matter throughout. Savagely enough, they can peck each other to death. Be certain before you purchase your chicks that you will always have someone available for “chick patrol.” Furthermore, they are susceptible to a host of illnesses and health conditions.
Another thing to consider is that, unless you purchase sexed chicks, where the sex is determined for you by a poultry sexing expert, the precious chicks you brought home might leave you with several roosters too many, which you don’t want. If chicks are your choice, be certain to request sexed chicks and develop an appropriate rooster-to-hen ratio. (Unsexed chicks are also listed as “straight run” and “as-hatched.”) If you live in an urban or suburban area, remember that roosters are most likely prohibited, so choose your chicks accordingly.
Although they will cost more than chicks, usually by several dollars apiece, pullets and cockerels require a good bit less care than newly hatched chicks. If your goal is to have a regular supply of fresh eggs to eat, pullets will be that much closer to point of lay—by six months they may already be laying. Accordingly, they will cost you less in feed as they mature. Birds purchased as starts will offer more eggs over their lifetime than those purchased as hens. Also, started birds require less in the way of specific housing and care than do chicks. Pullets can immediately be placed in their run, needing no regulated heat or special chick feed.
On the other hand, started birds are often not as readily available at feed stores as are chicks. If you plan to raise chickens for table, started birds are too old, as table birds are generally slaughtered around eight to 12 weeks. If you want to ensure yourself stewardship of affable, sociable, guest-and-family-appropriate chickens, then selecting chicks from a breed known for their friendly personalities may be your best bet.
When electing to purchase a mature bird, as either a hen or a rooster, the clear advantage is that you generally are able to see precisely what you are getting. Older birds are clearly sexually mature and have their plumage in. Like pullets, they require less in terms of housing, critical care, and constant observation than do chicks.
Mature hens, although they will continue to lay, will never produce as many eggs after their first laying season. Older birds are also more susceptible to diseases as they age. Finally, purchasing mature birds will cost considerably more than purchasing chicks, as their entire lifetime up to that point will have been maintained on someone else’s dime.
SHINY EYES AND SLICK FEATHERS
When purchasing chickens, be on the lookout for visible cues to the birds’ health. If you are purchasing chicks by mail, be certain to open the box in front of a delivery person to make sure your flock all survived the journey. If purchasing chicks in person, look for alert, energetic birds. Pick them up and examine their rear ends for pasty butt, which is exactly what it sounds like, a backside with excrement dried around it, preventing elimination. Be certain to choose chicks with straight beaks and toes.
Older chickens should have clear, bright eyes, waxy combs and wattles, shiny feathers, and smooth legs. There should be no visible parasites, which an examination under the wings and around the vent should easily disclose. Internal parasites will cause diarrhea, which a quick check at the vent should indicate. Pick up any bird you are thinking of buying. The breastbone should be flexible and covered with flesh. Listen for any coughing or wheezing, as this could be an indication of a sick bird. Examine the entire flock, looking for any listless or isolated birds. One sick bird could affect the entire crew, so pay close attention. Lastly, if you can, try to have a look at the bird’s droppings. Healthy birds will have firm, well-rounded feces, brown in color and tipped in white (this is the urine).