As part of our ongoing series of urban agriculture articles, in the next few of weeks we will be talking about the birds and the bees, specifically raising chickens for eggs and beekeeping in the city. Stay tuned, later in the month, we’ll also be covering growing fruit trees and growing your own food in the garden.
When people think of urban agriculture, one of the first farm animals they consider raising in the city are chickens – and raising chicken for access to fresh eggs, not meat, is the biggest reason. There are entire books written on raising chickens, but there are also several forums about raising chickens that you should browse before bringing home that first batch of baby chicks.
First Things First: Heritage Chicken Breeds
There are hundreds of chicken breeds, but because large corporate farming operations concentrate on raising only a couple of chicken breeds known for egg-laying and meat-producing qualities, many heritage chicken breeds are becoming threatened with extinction. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has lists of heritage chicken breeds that, once common, are now listed as critical or threatened.
This was an important consideration when I bought my first batch of baby chicks. I wanted to raise heritage chicken breeds, but they’re obviously not always readily available.
Believe it or not, several heritage chicken breeds are actually available through a large, well-known chicken hatchery in Iowa called Murray McMurray Hatchery. Chicken hatcheries such as Murray McMurray Hatchery typically expect a minimum order of at least 25 chicks. Obviously, if you’re raising chickens in the city, you need to know the maximum number of chickens allowed before you order. Check the urban agriculture ordinances in your city before ordering your chicks or building your chicken coop.
But, what do you do if your city’s urban agriculture ordinances say you can only have eight chickens and the minimum order is 25? Think creatively.
This is where your networking skills come in handy. Find other people in your area who are also interested in purchasing baby chicks. Again, check out online forums about raising chickens and see if you can make some connections with other people wanting to order baby chicks.
If that doesn’t work, check with local feed stores to see what breeds they sell. Many feed stores will carry the standard, popular chicken breeds and have baby chicks available in the spring of each year. At some feed stores, you get what’s available. They won’t special order. However, I was lucky enough to find a local feed store where the owner would take orders for heritage chicken breeds until she got enough to place a minimum order to a large chicken hatchery.
Raising Baby Chicks
The topic of raising baby chicks is not difficult or extraordinarily complicated, but baby chicks have a high mortality rate. Before ordering your baby chicks, again, look at the information on forums about raising chickens to understand the basics.
Before you bring your baby chicks home, you need a heat lamp, a feeder, a waterer, bedding material, and a place to raise the baby chicks that protects them from wind and drafts as well as vermin like raccoons, rats, and possums. Baby chicks also need protection from household pets such as cats, dogs, and the occasionally snake. If you already have older chickens, the new baby chicks should be kept separate until they are big enough to be slowly introduced to the general chicken population.
If you only have a few baby chicks, a large cardboard box in the garage can serve as their first home. It needs to have sides that are high enough to block the wind and prevent the chicks from hopping out. If you have a larger number of baby chicks, many feed stores use an aluminum water trough to contain the chicks until they are ready to be moved into their coop.
Make sure the baby chicks always have food and water and hang the heat lamp, or brooder, so the chicks look comfortable. Again, there are illustrations on forums for raising chickens that show how, if the light is too far away, the baby chicks will bunch together because they’re cold. If the lamp is hung too low and is too hot, the baby chicks will try to move out to the edges of the pen, away from the heat lamp.
Raising baby chicks can be a lot of fun, but make sure everyone washes their hands before and after handling them. Although baby chicks are typically inoculated before they are shipped from the hatchery, they are very fragile in their first few days of life. They can easily get infections that become fatal.
You will be raising your baby chicks in this temporary location for at least four weeks or until temperatures outside are sufficient to keep them warm. The baby chicks will quickly start to get their feathers, and, once they have them, they are ready to go outside.
Next up … Chicken Real Estate: Unique Chicken Coops for City Chickens.
Have you successfully raised baby chicks? What was the hardest part? What chicken breeds did you have? Did you have any heritage chicken breeds?