THE FIRST SIX WEEKS
I think that you will be utterly amazed at the pace in which these adorable little chickens grow! Don't blink because you will miss it! Take the time to enjoy them. They should start to develop a pecking order. Every flock has one. By watching your flock, you will be able to determine things such as; Who eats first? Who eats last? Who seems like an outsider? Who sleeps next to whom? Who plays together? Who is the smartest one? Who is the fastest? Your answers will help to determine their pecking order. The idea of a pecking order is hardwired into every chicken from days when they had to survive in the wild. Each chicken will have a role. These roles are fought for or settled on depending on how the chickens jockey for position. There is not much you can do to change it. Once a true order is established, it should not change. The only exception to this is if you add or subtract anyone from the flock. Of note, roosters are not part of the pecking order. Roosters are separate from the hens in this manner. If you have more than one rooster, there will be an alpha rooster and the other will be submissive to him. They may fight now and then and sometimes it is deadly. The rooster's role is to be a protector of the flock and to fertilize eggs. If a predator attacks, it is the rooster that will sacrifice himself for the sake of the girls.
If you have a warm sunny day and temperatures outside are not too far off from the brooder's temperature, feel free to let the chicks go into a small enclosure outside. We put our chicks in the run. I suggest starting with small increments of 15 minutes. As they get closer to six weeks of age, they can spend a couple of hours outside depending on the temperature. When they do go outside, be sure to provide them with shade, food and water at all times.
It is also a great idea to introduce some toys for your chicks. Growing larger in a tiny space like the brooder can create chicken boredom. My chicks enjoyed reading the newspaper. They loved to scratch away the pine shavings to reveal people's faces. Then they would peck at them for hours. They also loved it when I put cardboard paper towel rolls in there too. They would peek through the tubes at each other and try to roost upon them. Until they got the hang of it, it was like a log rolling contest. At about 2 weeks, they will also begin to practice roosting. Chickens should sleep on roosts. It helps keep them clean and provides them with a feeling of safety. Try placing some sort of skinny stick just wide enough for the chicks' tiny feet in the brooder. I found one outside in the woods. Initially, I placed it about 2 inches off the brooder floor. As they grow they will need it raised. This provides exercise and roosting practice for these little chicks.
SETTING UP YOUR PERMANENT COOP AND RUN
Now is the time to start preparing the area for your permanent coop and run. The decision that you will first need to make is whether your chickens are going to be primarily confined or primarily free-ranging. It doesn't mean that they can't do both. It will just need to be figured into the plans. It is estimated that standard sized chickens need 4 square feet of living space if they are free-ranging and they need 10 square feet of living space if they are confined. I am defining living space as the square footage of both the coop and the run. Bantam breeds like the Silkies do not require as much space because they are smaller. To determine square footage, take the length and multiply it by the width. For example, if your coop is 3' by 4' then it is 12 square feet.
We decided that we would keep our chickens confined for most of the day. They do get to free range about an hour a day in the afternoon but we are always in the yard with them. We came to this decision because of potential predators in the area. We live near conservation land. This land is home to many predators including hawks, coyotes, foxes, fisher cats, raccoon, and opossum to name a few. If you choose to free-range your flock, you must accept that you are going to lose a member of your flock now and then. We have had several friends who have lost chickens in both the night and broad daylight. The chickens were stolen as they were free ranging and also through coop break-ins. This was too real for us and we did not want one of our pets becoming dinner. Once you come do a decision on your spacing requirements, you are ready to think about your coop.
You can build coops or you can purchase them preassembled or ready to assemble. There are many great coops available. Here are the absolute essentials that you will need, keeping in mind the climate that you live in. Coops should have easily accessible doors for cleaning and harvesting eggs. Coops should have ventilation but no drafts. Coops need roosts and they need to have predator proof hardware. Coops should be water/snow proof. Coops may require insulation for colder areas. Coops should have a window of some sort to let in natural light and also assist with ventilation on warmer days. Coops should be able to lock your chickens in at night. Coops will also need one nesting box for four hens and an entry ramp.
The run should be constructed with 1/2 inch hardware cloth. DO NOT USE CHICKEN WIRE. Predators can rip right through it and raccoons do nasty things to chickens like pulling them through chicken wire. Once you have set up the coop and the run, you will also need to predator proof the perimeter. This requires burying hardware cloth in a 12" deep trench surrounding the run. Fold the top edges into the run. Once this is done, it might be enough to discourage predators. There is a lot of other predator proofing paraphernalia out there. It can all be found on the internet.
Once your chicks are fully feathered and day and evening temperatures are close to the brooder temperature of 65 degrees F after 6 weeks, they are ready to transition outside. If you live in a cooler area, and the evening temperatures are still too cool, let the chickens go outside during the day and return them to the brooder at night. This will help you acclimate them until warmer weather arrives. Keep the chicks locked in the coop and run for 3 days before letting them free-range. This allows them to become very familiar with their home. As dusk approaches, the chicks should enter the coop on their own and go up onto the roosts. At first, you may have to help them learn this. I had to. Now after the sun sets, the girls go in all by themselves. I just close the door. In the morning around 7:30, I let them out into the run. I wait until all potential nocturnal predators have returned to their homes. At this point, the girls are pretty self-sufficient. I refill the feeders and change the water for the day and sometimes do not see them again until they get tucked into bed.
FEEDING THE FLOCK
Different manufacturers recommend transitioning chickens at different times to the various feeds available. Based upon your flock's goals, I encourage you to research the feeds independently of this blog. Please read the labels for clarification. Chicken feed is created as follows: chick starter, grower or developer, layer or broiler feed. The goal for my flock is eggs. I have all pullets. They were on the chick starter until about 8 weeks. Then they transitioned to the grower pellets until about 15 weeks and have been transitioned to the layer pellets. They will remain on this for the rest of their lives. Chicken feed also comes in a few forms. These are mash, crumble or pellets. I went with pellets because they create minimal waste when the chickens scratch in the feed with their beaks. However, when I transitioned them, I had to mix the chick starter with pellets that I chopped up with a large kitchen knife. At first, the girls had a difficult time eating the pellet form. This lasted about 1 week until they got used to the pellets. Now, I just give it to them as is.
In addition to providing the flock with fresh water at all times, I choose to give the chickens additional nutrients. I mix about 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar into their water every day to promote healthy digestive tracts. I also mix about 2% of food grade diatomaceous earth into their food supply as well. For more information on diatomaceous earth, visit Fossils for Chickens.
Finally, I give my chickens organic scratch once a day. Scratch consists of cracked corn, oats, and whole grains. I usually feed them as much as it takes for them to eat in about 5 minutes. I like to provide this in the late afternoon. This helps to fill their crops prior to their bedtime. As their bodies work on digestion, they produce heat to keep them warm, especially in the winter.
In the conclusion of this series, I will discuss eggs, winterization, health concerns and food sources other than free ranging and chicken feed.