Spring has sprung in the Tetons, and all the farm mamas are having their babies!
Backyard chicken farmers are ramping up, too, with new baby chicks—in all sorts of breeds—finding their way to their forever homes. For a backyard farmer, there’s nothing quite like the day the chicks arrive. Their little fluffy bodies, their awkward waddle, and their miniature peeps pull on your heartstrings from day one. These adorable babies will someday become great producers as they grow from chicks to pullets, and then eventually to laying hens.
Preparing your hens for their fruitful adulthood takes some preparation, some TLC, and—for the first time farmer—a great deal of time spent surfing best practices on the internet. We’re here help by lining you out on what you’ll need for the first few months of chicken rearing.
Setting Up the Brooder
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just pick up your baby chicks and pop them into an outdoor coop? Well, here in the mountains, this simply isn’t the case. The chilly spring temperatures in most North American locales prevent most chicken farmers from starting their chicks in an outdoor coop (or even in the garage, for that matter). Instead, you must set up a brooder to simulate the warmth of a mother hen.
Any large, sturdy container will suffice as a brooder box. Some people use large Rubbermaid bins, others construct their own from scrap lumber with a chicken wire top. We’ve found that one of the easiest housings to use is a large wire dog crate. Inside your brooder, you’ll need: 1.) Bedding or a floor lined with old towels, 2.) A heat lamp or another heat source, 3.) A chick feeder, and 4.) A chick waterer (available at most feed stores).
Set up your brooder in an area that maintains a steady temperature of 50° F or warmer. Safely hang the heat lamp from the wire crate making sure that it’s off to one side (so that chicks can escape the heat) and far away from anything that could start a fire. Secure it tightly. Try to maintain a temperature of 90 ° F in the brooder for the first week of life, and then decrease it 5° F each week. Purchase chick starter feed and electrolytes and probiotics from your feed store and place the food and water away from the heat source.
Hint: Instead of purchasing chicken electrolytes and probiotics, we like to make our own by dissolving 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar with the mother, and 1 tablespoon raw honey into 1 quart of water. Store this in the fridge and fill the waterer, as needed.
Preparing the Coop
While the chicks are in the brooder, spend your time dialing in their coop. Our coops come equipped with proper ventilation (screened windows), a locking door (to predator-proof), a hatch door (to access their run), a roosting pole, and nesting boxes (for laying eggs).
You’ll need to outfit the coop with a full-size waterer and feeder which are available in both plastic and aluminum versions. If you are considering adding natural probiotics to your chickens’ water, like apple cider vinegar, choose a plastic waterer, as vinegar will corrode a metal one.
During the spring at high altitudes, you may need to provide supplemental heat until your chickens reach full size. You can use the heat lamp from your brooder for this purpose. Make sure to safely wire your lamp by running an electrical cord from the house to the coop, and then designing a sturdy bracket from which to hang the light. Heat lamps are a major cause of coop fires, so securing it safely, and with a backup, is recommended.
Lastly, purchase pine shavings to fill your nesting boxes, then sprinkle 1 to 2 inches on the floor. This gives your chickens something to scratch at and also adds in the cleaning process, helping to decompose the chicken waste. Once dirty, scoop out the old shavings and freshen them up.
Constructing the Run
Constructing a chicken run is one of the most time-consuming setup projects. Still, a sturdy and predator-proof run will protect your chickens for years. In some areas of the country, chicken farmers can get away with roofless runs. But not in the Tetons! Here, we need a fenced run, complete with a roof, to protect the chickens from both ground mammals and birds of prey.
You can make your chicken run from galvanized metal fencing and notched metal fence posts (available at most hardware stores). If you’re crafty, you can also build a run out of wood framing and chicken wire. Whatever you choose, make sure that your run is fastened securely to your coop and preferably dug into the ground. We suggest burying 4 to 6 inches of wire fencing so that predators cannot dig underneath it.
Moving Your Pullets
It’s a good idea to introduce your chicks to the outdoors by placing them in the run when they are big enough and have grown their feathers. Choose a sunny day to move them outside and make sure to supervise them as they forage and play. Do this a few times prior to making the big move.
In about 6 weeks (depending on the weather), your pullets will be ready to move into their mountain coop. If the temperatures are still cold at night, supplement the heat for a few more weeks. Around eight weeks of age, you will also want to change your chicks from a starter feed to a grower feed. Then, in about 18 weeks, your first egg will arrive and you’ll switch them, once again, to their final grower feed.
Enjoy your bounty of fresh eggs!