Raising Chickens From Scratch, by ZChick Lover

To the point: I have accidently discovered a simple action that is of great assistance in raising little chicks – moisten the chick food sometimes. Although I did this in an attempt to save some little distressed chicks who were not eating, this probably is simply called “mash”. Mash is mentioned in this older pamphlet, downloadable free as a pdf from google books. There is a wealth of other information found here in this 1917 book.

Another successful action: have a “hospital” area always ready in the kitchen. And finally, I’d like to relay a story of how simply warming an apparently dead chick can bring him back to life.
Chickens are my favorite meat animal. They go to bed on their own, they stay around their home, they will feed themselves and they are more than willing to provide mowing and pest elimination services free of charge without even being asked. To top it off, they are lovely and make great pets.

There is the drawback that they have less than consistent toilet habits. This can be considered free delivery of fertilizer with free bonus spreading. Most of the other drawbacks can be dealt with by proper husbandry and proper location for raising them. Although a rural area tends to be the best location for chickens, I have heard of perfectly satisfactory apartment hens as pets and egg suppliers.

I have been raising chickens for over 30 years but only recently advanced to incubators and broody hens. Getting chickens to produce more chickens on their own and getting them to consistently feed themselves is quite a task. Trial and error have resulted in some success in things like moving a broody hen, getting a broody back on the nest, adding eggs to a broody, incorporating different age chickens into the general flock and predator prevention.

Getting the chickens to feed themselves requires getting their feed to grow and growing it. They love being on pasture and will gladly consume an entire garden; potatoes, radishes and onions included. Balancing what is grown and how much with how many chickens is a chore in progress.

For many years I worked with New Hampshire chickens. The roosters can be sweet, the hens are good layers. Both are excellent for meat with good meat-to-feed ratio. Over the last couple years, I have moved on to raising various breeds and running some of their eggs through the incubators. The breeds are all cold-hardy and survive well in the Pacific Northwest. Some of the breeds are: Lavender Orpington, Easter Eggers, Australorp, Wyandotte, Welsummer, Barnevelder, Marens, Legbar, Russians and Silkies along with some more well-known breeds like Plymouth Rocks.

When the birds come from the hatchery they go into an outdoors brooder for the first weeks of their lives. The entire flock can get acquainted thru the wire enclosure wall and by the time the new chicks are let loose with the current flock they accept one another as the same flock. The next step toward releasing is to give the new chicks additional access to an attached outdoor yard for a week or so before that yard door is opened to the open range and general yard with the older chickens, cats, and dog. They are fed commercial chick feed in the brooder then transitioned to mini pellets. Once outside they can free-range as they please. Supplemental feed is always available but they seem to prefer the garden and woods at the yard’s edges.

Before this, I followed the usual advice to not put different ages of chickens together. Last year we had 5 groups of new chickens moved thru the brooders and into the yard in this way. There was no problem adjusting each group into the main flock.

The incubator chicks this year were handled similarly with the additional excitement of the time between hatching and placement in the brooder. Most of the chicks dried and were ready for the brooder area with no problems. But there was this one little one that was weak and droopy and just wasn’t thriving. Sitting under the heat lamp all alone in the brooder he was not looking like he would make it.

A small rabbit cage was pressed into service as a hospital. Plastic around the outside covering the lower half kept the shavings in. A heat lamp and lightly covering with towels made a nice hospital room. Lids from around the kitchen weighted with rocks made excellent waterer and feeder. But, the little guy was not interested in eating or drinking. He was not thriving.
Water provided by just a bit that clings to a fingertip was accepted but food was unwelcome. A chick of the same age was brought in to be a companion. This worked. While chickens are prone to picking on each other and smacking one another more than cuddling, they do cuddle up to sleep under the heat lamp a lot. And so, they did.

He still would not eat or drink on his own. Just as a wild attempt to tempt him, I moistened the feed. It worked! He started eating and the companion chick ate better also. A great discovery.
This year we had four incubator runs resulting in 45 chicks. Less than 50% hatch but still learning.

In addition to the incubator chicks we have had three hens go broody and successfully raise their own chicks one hatched 10 another 9 and the last one only 2. Once these three were done, another three decided to get involved in the fun. The silkie hatched out 4 tiny babies last week and the Australorp is hatching out today – 1 so far. The Lavender is still sitting.

After hatching out her eggs, each hen is kept in her own enclosure for a few days to have some privacy with her chicks before heading out into the general yard. The rest of the flock has access to the area for meet and greet thru the wire. The hen is quite demanding when it is time to take the kids out to meet everyone. Usually she wants out in less than a week. She will bring the babies back to this nest, which we either leave in the enclosure or move to a larger enclosure, until she thinks they should move with her onto the roost or get emancipated.

Having discovered the wet chick food trick, I have used it on all the hen-raised babies to date. The hens are generally good at riding herd on their chicks but they really aren’t always that nutritionally conscious. The cute little buttons scratch and eat where they are told, but sometimes mom has decided to munch on things that leave the little ones less than full.

So, upon hatch we offer up easy to eat chick food while in the broody enclosure and moisten it to supplement their scratching. All the hen raised chicks get a bit of chick food in the morning and a bit moistened in the evening. They follow me like the pied piper in the evening to their treat area near their bedding. They come from the woods, the garden, the brush and tagging along with their mom, who gets a bit of treat too.

Yesterday, one of Silkie’s little 6-day old chicks escaped from her enclosure and could not return. We returned from town at dark and this little chick was discovered as the pens were being locked up. He was stretched out, unmoving and icy cold. Then one of his legs twitched.
Taking him in cupped hands it really did not look like there was much life left. Holding him cupped, alternately rubbing his little back and blowing my hot breath into my hands, as though warming them, eventually resulted in the weakest peep and slight leg movement. He accepted about a half drop of water off a finger tip and the smallest taste of wet chick feed.

After about an hour of undivided attention he could stand fairly well, had his eyes open and he was looking around with a few peeping comments and a couple of coos the chicks make to their moms. Since one of the cats had been sitting with me through this entire activity, I passed the job of warming the little thing to him. The chick snuggled up to the cat. I’m not sure the cat was overly impressed with his new job, but he is considered our nurse cat since he tends to all the others whether they want his attentions or not.

After a few minutes, the chick seemed rather steady on his feet and the cat was tired of warming him. I took him back to his mom and put him under her wing. She didn’t peck or flog me so she was at least not mad at me for the intrusion. He made it thru the night and all four of her chicks are running around with her again this morning.

All of the mentioned chickens are available from a hatchery or your local farm store. Descriptions of their temperament and properties are available online. Hatcheries often have very good data to help you decide on what chicks to start with.

None of the breeds I am currently raising are the usual meat birds. I have raised Cornish Cross, Red and Black Meat birds and other hatchery meat mixes. Meat birds are excellent to simply buy, raise, butcher, and eat or store frozen. They perform well and can generally be gotten to the table or freezer in a short amount of time. As long as there is a place to breed and provide these chicks, all is well. But, just like our regular supplies of meat at the grocery, this is less than a sustainable action should any of our supply chains be interrupted.

For the chicken to be a fully sustainable meat source, it would need to reproduce itself and be able to feed itself, or feeding it would be something we (as human owners) can sustainably do. It needs to protect itself or we need to be able to protect it. Thus, that is what I am currently working at: to have chickens that breed on their own and brood and raise new chickens and feed themselves on pasture.

Chickens readily breed on their own. If a nice nesting area is provided, they will gladly use it for their eggs. We provide about 15 nests for 40 hens yet at least 10 go unused because they all want to lay in the “best” one. It is exactly like many of the others but they have their own ideas.
When a hen goes broody and is found in a nest box for a couple days, she is checked to see that she actually has eggs. One lady sat on a porcelain egg in a nest box for a while and after a number of interrupted starts is now on a nest of her choosing in a ridiculous location. She is being allowed to sit on her own terms.

If there are eggs and the lady is serious we simply wait till nightfall and move her, nest and all, to a prepared enclosure where she has privacy and can brood. This is the time to add eggs to a lady who is sitting on too few. Slip them in at night. Sit a couple beside her or in front. She will usually pull them under her. The prepared area is enclosed with chain link and chicken wire to keep her safe and contain the little ones in the enclosure when they hatch. Those little ones are Houdinis and can find the one spot that the wire has come loose so must be watched and the wire fixed as needed.

If the lady has chosen one of the fixed nest boxes and has to be moved to a moveable nest as well as a private enclosure, she and her eggs are moved to one of the stand-alone nest boxes that can be easily moved right at the spot where she is, then that moveable box is placed in the enclosure. If she is upset at all, a piece of wood or other material can block the nest entrance for a short while till she settles in. If a hen gets spooked and jumps out of the nest and refuses to return you can gently put her back on the nest and partially block the opening for a few hours. She usually forgets she was upset and settles down.

Moving the nest box or moving the lady and eggs to a new nest box does not always work. But, when done at night – really night, not dusk – it has worked for us. The lady knows its home when she wakes up there. Works for moving any chicken from a roost to the hen house etc. Has to be repeated a few times for some.

All our chickens reside in areas surrounded by sturdy wood or wire. Roofing is added. Chicken wire as needed along the lower areas and black deer fence to panels where small chicks are located as needed. This does not prevent access but it makes the chickens hard to get at and not worth the bother for the majority of predators. What best prevents the predators is not allowing the chickens and predators to mingle. Don’t let the chickens out of their enclosures to roam until well after sunrise and close the door on the enclosure before it is too dark. The chickens are usually all in bed but a little encouragement gets any stragglers the idea to go to bed. Being around, having other animals like cats and dogs in the same area makes the entire area less than attractive to most predators. But there was this raccoon that figured out a little hole in the middle of a roof and got caught inside one of the enclosures a while back…

There are so many books on this subject and advice from so many folks who have done and are doing it that I hesitate to give advice. One of my favorites is that little pamphlet I noted above from the early 1900s by a guy raising chickens before electricity and the Internet. I haven’t tried his wood-fired incubator yet. The above is just my experience. I hope it helps.