Backyard Chickens: How do you get started keeping chickens for eggs?

Why eggs?

These are uncertain times.  The Coronavirus is affecting food supply chains and this disruption isn’t going to ease up any time soon.   This raises the importance of local food and really shines a spotlight on what we’ve been doing wrong in terms of our capacity to feed ourselves.

If you have been thinking about what foods you could grow at home, and you have even a small backyard, then eggs should be at the top of the list for simple and nutritious homegrown goodness.

While chickens do require daily care, they are perhaps one of the most rewarding animals you can keep in your company.   Provide for their needs and they will return the favor by giving you fresh eggs daily to eat.  

Eggs are an excellent superfood to have in your diet.  According to WebMD:

One egg has only 75 calories but 7 grams of high-quality protein, 5 grams of fat, and 1.6 grams of saturated fat, along with iron, vitamins, minerals, and carotenoids. The egg is a powerhouse of disease-fighting nutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin.

That is a whole lot of nutrition in a tiny package!  Eggs also contain all the essential amino acids needed for health that our bodies cannot produce themselves.  That means your body will have all the building blocks it needs to keep your immune system running smoothly.

Furthermore, recent research has confirmed that you can safely eat eggs every day if you want to.  

And it should be obvious to anyone who has ever studied biology why this is true.  Human beings have eaten eggs from birds for thousands of years. Chickens have been part of our collective heritage for a LONG time – like 8,000 years long!  Eating eggs is a part of our natural diet that has withstood the test of time.

So with the exception of people who have egg allergies, eating eggs can be a part of your daily diet.

 Besides they are down right yummy and versatile!  You can eat eggs at any meal, as a snack or baked into other foods like breads or muffins for added nutrition.

Q. But how do you get started with chickens?

There are three basic options:

(1) Buy pullets or laying hens

Pullets are young hens that have not yet started to lay, ready-to-lay are pullets ready to just start into their first egg laying cycle, and hens are currently producing eggs.  

If you are only going to keep a few birds, or you want fresh eggs right now, then buying ready-to-lay or hens is the fastest (but most expensive) way to start keeping chickens.

This option is expensive for two reasons.  First, pullets don’t lay eggs until they are around 24-26 weeks old on average (but sometimes it takes longer), and thus raising birds for months takes time, money and infrastructure.  Secondly, for every pullet there is also a cockerel (young rooster) to deal with because on average egg hatches are 50% female and 50% male. There is no method for hatching only females.  Thus if people will only pay for the female birds, the cost of dealing with the males remains with the breeder or hatchery producing the birds. It all adds up on the price of these egg-ready birds.

Barred rock hen (www.rosehillfarm.ca)

You could expect to pay anywhere from a few dollars (from someone with over-stock – a super deal!) to $15, $25, $50 or even $75 per bird depending on the breed.   The wide variation in price reflects the huge variation in breeds, availability and cost of production.

You could also buy someone’s one or two year old hens and still get eggs for a couple more years from these birds.  This can be a great option for someone who does not want to be flooded with eggs. It’s also a great introduction to chicken-keeping because you have less chance of doing things “wrong” than starting with chicks or hatching eggs.  For a newbie to chickens, older hens can really help you figure out a workable pattern of chicken keeping.

(2) Buy chicks

Who doesn’t love a little peeping ball of feather fluff?  

Given the cost and challenges of finding laying hens, many people turn to buying chicks as a cheaper alternative.  You can expect to pay anywhere from $2-3/chick on the low end of the spectrum up to $12-15 per chick on the high end.  While this may seem like a great deal at first, remember there is a catch, and if you read point 1 then you already know what it is!   

Day old chicks – Note they have a small cage (with heat mat), house and teddy bear (Photo: www.rosehillfarm.ca)

Chicks take extra time, feed and infrastructure to raise up to egg-laying status (check out the brooder details below). Plus, you will have young roosters to deal with. Just because hatches are, on average, 50% female does not guarantee that your hatch of 12 eggs will have 6 pullets.  

Therefore, when you are deciding how many chicks to get, you need to keep in mind that there can be variation in the actual sex raio of any group of eggs, as well as mortality that may affect one sex more than the other in a given hatch just by chance.  Just saying, you could end up with more roosters than you bargained for!

And that means you need a plan for the roosters if you decide you want to start with chicks. please note that there are far too many roosters produced each year to think you will be able to find homes for them all.  It just doesn’t work that way! You only need 1 rooster for every 10 hens and many people keep only hens with no roosters at all.  

No one is going to take your unwanted roosters.  You need to have a plan to deal with your roosters before you start raising a lot of chicks!  There are a number of options that range from culling them early, harvesting them for your own freezer either yourself or through someone who will do that for you, or selling to someone who wants meat birds.

That said though, roosters are important in the overall production of chickens in any region.  If you are able to keep your own rooster I strongly encourage you to do so.  Once you have an established flock, you can raise your own chicks and not have to buy from someone else.

(3) Buy Hatching Eggs

This is perhaps the most complicated and the most rewarding choice of all when it comes to raising chickens.  Hatching eggs typically sell for around $5 per egg ($60/doz) and up depending on the breed. Some rare breeds and excellent bloodlines cost a LOT more per egg, but they can be worth it to get the exact type of bird you want or to secure an unrelated breeding line for outcrossing.  (For tips on hatching eggs from your own birds, try this)

Fresh Eggs (Photo: www.rosehillfarm.ca)

  

But there is an even bigger catch when it comes to starting with eggs.  You need even more time and more equipment – including an incubator and a brooder.

It takes 21 days to hatch chicken eggs using an incubator.   You can try making a simple incubator at home, or buy a ready-made brand.  If you Google “DIY incubator for chicken eggs” you get a lot of options and videos.  

I have 3 different incubators:  Brinsea Ovation 28, Brinsea Maxi II, and a Hovabator with an associated turner

Both Brinsea machines are the fully automated type with humidity, temperature and turning controls digitally adjustable. They are expensive machines, but the ability to set them and just check periodically is really great, and I love their clear dome tops for visibility.

Newly hatched Silkie chicks in the Brinsea Maxi II incubator (Photo: www.rosehillfarm.ca)

The Hovabator is cheaper, has a factory set temperature, and you have to buy the turner separately in most cases. The humidity is manual for the Hovabator, meaning you have to monitor and add water as you go, and constantly check to see that everything is okay. It can be stressful at times to get it just right and you have to open and close the lid a lot. You also cannot leave the hatch unattended so that means being around the full 21 days. However, I love the Hovabator for the lock down stage (see the tip below) for big hatches because the chicks have more room and its easier to clean up afterwards.

For me, having the 3 sizes and types of incubators gives me the most flexibility in hatching eggs for myself and for customers, but it has been a big investment to make.

Brooders

Once the chickens have hatched and dried off in the incubator, they need to spend their first 1 to 5 weeks in a brooder.   A brooder is a special pen, cage or box that keeps the chicks close to a heat source, food and water for their first few weeks of life.   Although chicks are precocial (i.e. can feed themselves from day 1), a mother hen would normally do the job of keeping them safe and warm and showing them where the food and water are.  You have to be “mother hen” and provide the right environment for your new chicks.

Brooders are easy to build yourself.   I like using a small animal cage (rabbit cage) with wood-shred bedding, a seed heating mat (instead of a heatlamp) and a house or teddy bear for shelter. But you can also use a deep rubbermaid tub with a screen for a lid, or block off the corner of a shed or other building, provided you can keep it warm enough for those first few weeks.

I prefer a seed heating mat over a lamp because the mat draws less power and is far less likely to start a fire than the heatlamps. You can also check out the alternative suggested in this Chicken Chick article: The Dangers of Brooder Heat Lamps & a Safe Alternative.

Regardless of what type of brooder you use, it is hard not to spend hours watching the chicks. They grow VERY fast and are so entertaining. I never get tired of hatching chicks and watching them grow, so for me this was the best option.  You will need to decide if the extra time and equipment is worth it for you. On the plus side, you have a much broader range of breeds to choose from when you decide to hatch eggs, than if you buy hens or chicks.

Q.Where can I find pullets, chicks or hatching eggs?

There are a number of ways to find chicks and hatching eggs:

  1. Find a local chicken keeper – local breeders often have chicks and hatching eggs for sale.  Buying locally helps support keeping these resources available in your community.  Local breeders also know what works well in your area, and what type of predators you will need to account for.
  2. Try the buy-and-sell – lots of people advertise their chicks in the local listing.
  3. Find a breeder online – searching for chicken breeds, breeders and hatcheries in your area often turns up a wide range of options.  Note that ready-to-lay and laying hens are only available for pick up. Only day-old chicks and hatching eggs can be shipped.
  4. Commercial hatcheries – each province in Canada has one or more large commercial hatcheries that can ship chicks and/or hatching eggs.  

I can accommodate only a handful of clients in a year for chicks and hatching eggs, and I am not set up to ship hatching eggs. If you are interested in my birds, use the contact form or find me on Facebook and let’s have a conversation.

I have also had wonderful experiences ordering from other breeders. Two of my favorites are True North Heritage Hatchery and Wild Acres. Both of these farms have excellent birds which I have included in my breeding program.

Q.  Should I get a commercial breed for eggs or a heritage breed?

This choice is really up to you.  The commercial breeds for egg laying – such as Leghorns or Isa-browns have been selected to produce a large number of eggs in their first two years of life.  This is because commercial egg operations focuses on rapid, high volume egg production and feed conversation rates rather than longevity. You will get a lot of eggs in the first two years and a rapid decline thereafter.  In contrast, older heritage breeds will often continue to produce eggs well into their third and fourth years, and some even longer.   

Therefore, your trade off is around feed efficiency and longevity of egg production.  That is, for maximum feed efficiency you should choose commercial breeds and for longevity of egg production you should choose an egg-laying heritage breed. Also, if you get attached to birds and want to keep your chickens as pets and enjoy some eggs, then a heritage breed might suit you better.

For me, my Barred Rocks are the super-hero egg layers on the farm, even though I specifically chose dual purpose (meat and egg) stock for my farm.  Having said that, I am really impressed with my Silkies. They are smaller and lay eggs half the size of a regular chicken, but they eat substantially less food while still producing a lot of eggs! That makes them stellar performers for small spaces or people with lower egg consumption needs.

Q.  How many chicks should I start with?

Start with the question of how many eggs you want!   

Remember that 3 good laying hens will produce a dozen eggs each week, on average.  There will be more eggs in the spring and summer, a drop in production when the birds molt (shed their feathers), and eggs in the winter depends on a number of factors (breed, age, feed, and housing).

Once you know how many hens you want, then remember that at least half of the chicks will be roosters.   So if you want 3 hens you need a minimum of 6 chicks. However, it is likely that not all the chicks will be perfect little miniatures of their breed!  Some will be strong and healthier than others. To ensure you have a good choice for the hens you will keep, it is better to go with more chicks to start with.  If you have room to keep 8, 10 or even 12 chicks to start, then you will be able to select the best 3 hens out of the group and sell the rest to someone else.

Americana chicks (Photo: www.rosehillfarm.ca)

Q. How many hatching eggs should I start with?

Again, start with the questions of how many fresh eggs do you want!  Then think about how many chicks that would be, factoring in the 50% male issue and buffering for quality of the chicks you get.  THEN add in more eggs to account for hatching success rate.

Just because you order 12 hatching eggs from a breeder or commercial facility doesn’t mean you will get 12 chicks. 

Sometimes you are lucky and get 100% success in your hatching. But some breeds are simply harder to hatch than other.  And shipped eggs have a lower success rate than eggs that are gathered and hatched.

What that means is that I could have 97% rate hatching my own eggs, but shipped eggs may hatch at a much lower rate.  There can also be issues depending on the type of incubator you are using, whether it is accurately keeping temperature, humidity and turning schedules, and even in how you handle the eggs or how often you check them in the incubator.  That’s a LOT of variables.  

Mixed types of eggs in the Brinsea Maxi II incubator (Photo: www.rosehillfarm.ca)

So what does that mean for ordering eggs?  I think typically I would go with 6 eggs more than I think I needed (assuming you have enough incubator room to handle that many eggs).   In other words your 8 chicks becomes an order for 14 eggs or your 12 chicks becomes an order for 18 eggs, and so on. 

Hatching is not an exact science when done on a small scale. A lot of things have to go exactly right.

Buffer your hatching egg order based on what you know about the hatching rate for the breed (overall) and whatever information you can get from the seller.  And if it is your first egg hatching adventure, go in with a sense of adventure and learning. As the old saying goes “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch!”

Q.  Can I just buy eggs at the store and hatch them?  What is the difference between fresh eggs and hatching eggs?

You cannot tell the difference between a fresh egg and a hatching egg just by looking at it.  

There are two important differences between fresh eggs that you eat and hatching eggs that you incubate to raise chicks.

  1. Hatching eggs must be fertilized, meaning that the hens had to be with a rooster.  Many store bought eggs are produced without roosters and are therefore infertile.
  1. Hatching eggs are handled in a very different way than fresh eggs.

Fresh eggs for eating are gathered, washed and stored in a refrigerator.  Even if the eggs are fertile, this type of handling means that they will not hatch if you put them in an incubator.  Don’t waste your time.

Hatching eggs are never washed or refrigerated, ever.  The eggs need to come from clean nests so that they are not dirty.  Dirty eggs rarely hatch and they may contaminate the incubator leading to high mortality if other chicks hatch.  

Hatching eggs need to be carefully checked for cracks.  This is usually done by candling them.  If the eggs have light colored shells, it is possible to candle them to see if the yolk is well formed and to ensure there are not two yolks.  If you are dealing with a very dark shelled egg, like a Marans, it may only be possible to check for cracks.  I use a Brinsea high intensity candler and still cannot easily see into my dark Marans eggs or Marans cross olive-eggers.

The eggs get stored in a cool dry place that is about 12 oC (55oF).  They also need to be turned at least once a day while waiting to go into the incubator.  This allows the breeder to collect up eggs over a period of days, and then start them all at once in the incubator or ship them off to a client.

TIP:  Remember that once you put eggs into the incubator, it is important to ensure the temperature and humidity remain in the right ranges.  For the last 4 days of the hatch (days 18-19-20-21) it is critical that you stop turning the eggs, increase the humidity, and put the incubator on “lock down” or no disturbance.  Opening the lid during this stage can jeopardize the entire hatch because the humidity is critical to enable hatching. It’s hard not to rush in and see the chicks as they hatch but you MUST wait until all the hatching is done and the chicks are dry before you handle your new peeps.

Q.  How much space do chickens need?

The amount of space chickens need depends on their age, breed, and the number you plan on keeping.   See my earlier post on figuring out how much room they need and follow the links to access a handy pen size calculator.

Barred rock chicks enjoy some time out in a fenced yard – their 4×8 chicken tractor is in the background (Photo: www.rosehillfarm.ca)

Looking for more resources? Visit the Shop for Products page to read reviews on products that have worked for me and have survived life at Rose Hill Farm.

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