Splash Orpington and blue copper Maran chicks explore grass for the first time.
By Amber Veverka
Chicks are arriving in Charlotte-area stores in the next couple of weeks, and nearby breeders already have batches of chicks ready for new homes. If you want to raise backyard hens, here are a few things to get you started.
Prepare a brooder.
A brooder box simulates the heat a mother hen would provide her offspring under her wings. Essentially it’s a box with water, food and a lamp for a heat source. You want high enough sides that the chicks, as they develop feathers, can’t leap out (or cover the box with screening or a grate) and you want to be sure to use wood shavings – not cedar, as its oils are toxic to birds – or newspaper changed daily as flooring. Chick waterers and feeders are available at stores such as Tractor Supply or Renfrow Hardware in Matthews and you can get a sack of chick starter food at such stores, as well. A warming light will use a 60-watt bulb and should be securely clamped so it doesn’t fall into the box. You’ll know if the chicks are at the right temperature if they sleep scattered slightly around the area where the light falls. If they’re huddled far from the lamp, it’s too hot. If they’re heaped up directly beneath it, they’re too cold.
Chicks stay under a brooder light until they’re fully feathered
Brooders can stay in a garage, basement or other outbuilding though if the temperatures drop, check them to be sure they’re warm enough. Though some people keep them inside their home, chicks are messy and create a lot of dust.
Build or buy a coop.
When the chicks are fully feathered, they can move outdoors. They’ll need a coop and enclosed pen. Privacy fences work to keep adult chickens safe but small poults – that’s a chick that’s got its feathers – can squeeze through gaps beneath. Coops can be slammed together out of cheap materials such as pallets, or you can go the fast and expensive route by buying one ready-made. Check the classifieds or craiglist for pre-built, but to create your own, you can peruse plans at Backyardchickens.com.
Inside the city of Charlotte, your coop will need to meet certain restrictions. It will need to be at least 25 feet from any of your property lines, and contain ample square footage for each bird. To read the full list of rules go to the city’s municipal code. The key with any coop is to make it predator-proof, and that means using fencing with tiny holes, such as hardware cloth. Forget traditional chicken wire or dog-pen mesh – raccoons can reach right through that, hook a roosting hen while she’s asleep and kill her.
Get ready for eggs.
Spring-purchased chicks will begin to lay in the early fall and you’ll get about one egg a day for the hen’s first year of life. You don’t need a rooster to get eggs (and in town, you won’t want a crowing bird, anyway). After the first year, laying slows somewhat. Plan ahead for what you’ll do with nonproductive hens. Will they retire in your yard as pets or do you plan to make them into soup? It’s a reality you’ll have to face so think about it early.
The great news about backyard chickens is after you get your coop set up, they are easier than dogs or cats, interesting to watch, and their eggs – firm with bright orange yolks – have demonstrated higher nutrients than factory-farmed eggs from hens which are confined in tiny cages all of their short lives.