We bought our first chickens in New Mexico in 1999, back when you could buy a bag of feed at the feed store and get a chick for a penny - surely it was a one weekend special. We bought a bunch!
I believe that everyone, especially children, should have the opportunity and experience of raising chickens, and if you are fortunate enough to live in an area where it is permissible to raise them, and if you've decided that this is something you'd like to do, here are some things you should know:
There are typically three ways to acquire chicks
* a feed or farm store
* mail order (yes, they come in a box in the mail - we did this once)
* hatch them yourself in an incubator
I believe most people will buy their newly hatched chicks at a local farm store. Here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing your chicks:
* the colder it is outdoors when you purchase baby chicks, the longer you'll have to raise them inside. Chicks need a very warm, clean environment (90-100 degrees and the bedding must be changed regularly. Don't worry, you will - they begin to stink very quickly!)
* You can purchase either "Straight Run" or "Pullets"
*Straight Run means that the chicks have not been checked for gender. They are generally cheaper and you get what you get. We've found that you get too many roosters with this choice.
* Pullets are female - worth the additional expense if you want eggs.
* You only need ONE rooster! Chickens do not need a rooster to lay eggs - they just won't be fertile. I believe a good ratio is one rooster for every 30 chickens.
Determine your needs: There are basically four different types of chickens:
* Egg layers
* Meat Birds
* General purpose
* Fancy chickens
The best egg layers are Leghorns. They are a white, light breed that matures quickly and produces approx 280 eggs per year. Because of their light body weight they are typically not used as a meat bird. They lay white eggs and are the breed used for grocery store production.
Cornish Cross or "Broilers" are the standard meat production bird. They grow much faster than egg laying breeds and can reach a weight of 5-7 pounds in 6 weeks.
Personally, I think they're kind of gross. All they do is eat. They belly up to the feeder and will lay there and eat all day if given unlimited feed.
General Purpose Chickens are used for both meat and eggs. These include breeds such as: Rhode Island Red, Barred Plymouth Rock, Sex Link, Buff Orpington, New Hampshire and Ameraucana. There are other breeds that I'm less familiar with, but these, with the exception of the Ameraucana, are generally the brown egg laying chickens that can also be used for Sunday supper.
Here on our Homestead we have what we call "Mutts". Once upon a time we had the farm store, purebred breeds, but because our chickens are free range and our roosters breed indiscriminately, we now have quite the colorful mixture! It doesn't help that we incubate our eggs as well, further mixing the various traits. That's ok though, as long as they lay eggs and taste good!
These are a few of the chickens roaming our farm - they are not always the easiest to photograph - they don't stay still very long! I did try to find close examples of what each breed should look like, but they do have minor traits from other breeds as well.
RHODE ISLAND RED
One of the most popular breeds because of it's abundant egg laying -approx 200 eggs per year. They lay brown eggs, are hardy, docile and weigh about 6-8 pounds as an adult.
PLYMOUTH or BARRED ROCK
A hardy breed and quite friendly, the Barred Rock is a prolific egg-layer and weighs between 6 and 8 pounds. She lays brown eggs.
This bird is produced for her egg-laying capabilities. She can lay between 280-320 eggs per year. Her eggs are white and are found on the grocery store shelves. They are less docile and tend to be somewhat nervous in behavior. They weigh between 4-6 pounds full grown.
BLACK SEX LINK
This is a hybrid chicken that is produced by crossing a Rhode Island Red with a Barred Rock. They can lay as many as 300 brown eggs a year
Characteristically these chickens have full tails, muffs, beards and black or slate colored legs. They typically weigh between 5 and 6 pounds and they lay blue eggs.
This chicken is often confused with the Araucana and the Easter Egger. All three lay blue eggs.
This is the predominant rooster at our farm. I have no idea what breed he is. After each major hatching, once we can determine the roosters, we choose ONE to continue to live on the homestead. He is usually chosen for his good looks and gentle demeanor.