by Jenny Brown
It’s hard to resist such fluffy cuteness in the spring but are all chicks equal?
There are several different options for purchasing your chicks. Instead of telling you where to buy them, I am going to share with you my personal and varied experiences that will hopefully help you in your own decision-making.
To me, visiting the feed store in February and seeing those little day-old chicks takes the edge off of late winter and brings hope that SPRING WILL COME. But…would I buy chicks from a feed store?
Generally not… for a few reasons. One reason being that I rarely ever buy so few chicks and cringe at the ‘retail’ pricing. Yet, I suckered for it last year. I wanted to add a splash of color to my all brown egg basket the following spring so I bought six Ameraucana pullets. I didn’t really NEED anymore chickens so I wasn’t about to place a minimum order of 25 from a hatchery and I just couldn’t resist my 9 year old’s excitement at the thought of taking a few baby chicks home. What the heck; I’ll find out what ‘normal’ people do…they may even get names.
Out of the six multi-colored, two legged cotton balls, I ended up with two that were actually what they said they were (well, sort of *See note at end of article). The other four mystery birds ended up being one beautiful brick-red hybrid of some sort (the only hybrid to ever set foot on our property) and THREE roosters. This lovely ensemble cost over double what I would usually pay and only half of them were capable of producing eggs. It was one of those unforgettable deals!
When you buy from a feed store, unless you know your markings (which not all varieties are kind enough to offer clues when they are chicks) you raise the chance of getting something other than what the sign says on the outside of the water trough brooder. They’ve been sorted at the hatchery and then sorted again by feed store employees. I once was asked by a feed store worker, who just received a shipment of unsorted chicks, if I knew what variety his new darker colored arrivals were. Because I was familiar with the hatchery, I had a good guess but I wasn’t 100% sure… he said it sounded good enough to him and marked them as such. I still kick myself for not saying something (or for not giving him a kick) but I was just a bit too stunned to respond. In my own little town, there is a small feed store owned and run by one man who knows his birds and would never do that to his customers! Needless to say, not all feed stores are the same.
What about naturally raised chicks?
Comparing hatchery chicks to hen-raised chicks is about like comparing a greenhouse tomato raised for it’s shipping qualities to a ripe garden-fresh tomato that has built resistance to the soil and the environment.
Smaller operations exist around the country that raise their flocks naturally; I have seen several advertized in farming magazines such as Backyard Poultry Magazine.
These hobby farm breeders will likely specialize in one or just a few varieties and will be quite more expensive than a hatchery (costs are higher per bird when you do not have higher sales volume – plus you are paying for the type of care and time that goes into the flock).
I’ve ordered from both small farms and hatcheries with mixed results. One year we purchased our meat bird flock from a family farm that raised heritage birds. Although the owner was very knowledgeable and helpful, 10% of the chicks had ‘crooked beak’ which is hereditary and begins forming during the development of the skull. Fortunately, it wasn’t severe enough to affect their eating but it blew our plans of potentially breeding our own batch of meat birds for the next go-around. So, I would just say, keep in mind that some smaller operations, especially new breeders, may not have their breeding down pat yet.
One year we ordered a flock of heritage meat chickens which 10% developed ‘Crooked Beak’, which is hereditary and begins forming during the development of the skull.
Another year I ordered from a hatchery that was recommended by Joel Salatin. Surprisingly, it has been the worst batch of chickens I’ve raised to date. I paid more for their ‘top strain’ Rhode Island Reds and ended up straining them in soup within one year. Out of 50 hens, only two fully recovered from their first molt. Rhodys should last a good two, maybe even three years of laying but in less than one year I had a flock of overly aggressive, low producing, half-naked hens. When conducting science experiments, you must always consider the variables that can affect the outcome. In this situation, these chicks had to ship further than usual and an unfortunate and unexpected cold spell hit during transit. I lost several chicks on delivery and dealt with a bad case of pasting (droppings sticking to the vent area) due to the cold. So, these ‘variables’ likely affected the overall health of these birds from then on out. Therefore, am not pointing any fingers at the hatchery.
Although (another variable in the story), I have since been informed that there has been so much tampering with the breeding of hatchery raised Rhode Island Reds over the years that it has had an overall negative effect on the breed…a farmer friend who holds a degree in animal science and sells his own chicken feed off his farm (so he is in contact with several other chicken farmers) informed me that my Rhody issue was apparently not uncommon.
Two important lessons I learned through this experience:
1. I will not order chicks cross-country again. I only buy from a location that can deliver my chicks in less than 48 hours from hatch. I always cut the mailman off at the pass and pick my chicks up at the airport when they arrive. That way I usually have food and water to my newly hatched chicks in 24-36 hours.
2. No matter how excited I am to start the farming year, if I am ordering chicks, I wait until winter is truly over and things are warming up. This will avoid those harmful low temperatures in transit. I have had much healthier flocks and little to no loss when I am patient.
For those of you on the western side of the country, I have had good results from Dunlap Hatchery, a smaller family run hatchery out of Caldwell, Idaho. Although the chicks are still ‘hatchery hatched’ I raised a beautiful, healthy flock of Wyandottes. Minus a few yearly culls, this flock recovered from two molts and produced semi-decently into their third year. I also know a guy that used to make deliveries to their hatchery and he was impressed by the cleanliness of the facility. They do mis-label their Araucanas though. They are either Ameraucanas or likely just mutt Easter Egger chickens. True Aracaunas are a rare breed, bred for show (not laying), and have a rather high price tag on them. If you see ‘Araucanas’ at the feed store, you can pretty much count on the fact that they are NOT Araucanas. (*Again, see not below on this.) I mentioned this detail to the hatchery a few years ago but I notice the label still hasn’t changed. If you just want green, blue, or pink eggs and don’t plan to breed, I guess it really doesn’t matter what you call them but just don’t expect to take them to the show ring.
Wyandottes are beautiful, docile birds. They lay a medium-sized brown egg and are winter hardy.
My Ameraucana Mother hen and her ‘Ameribuff ‘ chicks (Ameribuff is a variety caused by my naughty Buff Orpington rooster who ‘jumped the fence’)
Surprising (even to me), My favorite flocks have actually been from a larger hatchery. Privett Hatchery out of New Mexico. I ordered my second flock of Buff Orpingtons from them and have been delighted with both batches. They are big, healthy, hardy, and docile. It is partly the breed characteristic but the death rate of these birds at delivery and through the first week was very low to nil, my lowest numbers from any source I’ve purchased from. That definitely says something about the health of the birds. I also had 100% hens this time which is almost unheard of! You can usually expect around 5-10% cockerels (roosters) in a pullet (hen chick) order.
As far as naturally raised…I am not crazy about the whole hatchery idea but with what is available, I have personally have found the best option to be, both health-wise AND cost-wise, to buy a batch from a reputable hatchery such as Privett or Dunlap (I’m sure there are others, these are just two that I have experience with), cull the extra cockerels, runts and skittish or overly aggressive ones that you find as they develop over the first several months (you will need to purchase a minimum of 25 which should provide enough for culling), and begin the natural process with your selected, culled flock.
Remember when choosing your breed, consider such qualities as having a good fertility rate, hens that set well (will actually sit on the eggs), and are good mothers. You can always add a few of a different variety to do the setting or mothering if the breed you want lacks those qualities…although that can be a gamble too. The birds I raised for setting didn’t want anything to do with that job and one bird that was not technically a setter, sat! Have I mentioned that animals don’t read the books?
*Note about the Aracauna, Ameraucana, Easter Egger confusion: It’s common for hatcheries and feed stores to sell “Araucanas” or “Ameraucanas”, (also incorrectly spelled Americanas), but rarely do they actually sell them. Most sell the mutt Easter Egger which is a mix of breeds that possess the blue egg gene. It’s not necessarily intentional (especially feed stores who are told what the breeds are by the hatchery), it’s more likely they just don’t have a clue.