Ordering Chicks: Tips for Adding the Right Birds to Your Flock

By Kelly Klober

Ordering chicks, for most of us, means that spring comes early in the poultry world. Here in Missouri we start planning out the mating groups in the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The hatchery catalogs start arriving a week or so after Christmas. It was once tradition to start the pullet chicks in February to have them sorted and laying for the fall and winter months when eggs would normally post seasonal highs.

That box or two of chicks that arrives during the traditional hatching season, mid-February through early June, are so much more than the little bits of fluff they first appear to be.

trio of chicks
I sometimes wonder if everyone fully understands what awaits beneath the lids of such boxes.

Too many folks flip through a catalog or stand before the little pens at a farm supply store and buy some of those because they’re cute, some of the “funny” colored ones, and others because they recognize the breed name or because their grandparents had some of them. Bits and pieces are alright when piecing together a quilt, but a poultry flock, to be successful, must be built with a plan and a uniformity of vision.

Ordering Chicks: The Basics

The normal, as-hatched ratio is six cockerel chicks for every four pullet chicks hatched. In very small lots, 15 or fewer as-hatched chicks, the ratio can skew even further toward one sex or the other. When working on rare breed preservation projects we would often be able to only buy chicks in lots of as few as five at a time. Very often, they developed into four of one gender and one of the other. Guess on which side of that ratio the pullet was to be found?

Those buying a lot of 25 as-hatched chicks, the smallest sized lot many will ship for warmth and safety limits, to acquire breeding birds should shade their expectations accordingly. From a lot of 25 as-hatched chicks, I would expect to develop no more than one good breeding trio plus one or two backup or insurance pairs.

mail order chicks
With modern mail, a baby chick should arrive at its new quarters within 48 to 72 hours of hatching.

In many instances it will be best to assume that all of the chicks in the box are full or half-sibs. It is not an inbreeding disaster waiting to happen, but does call for a plan of management for the genetics that they represent.

To that end:

  1. For retention as breeding stock, save only the largest, fastest-growing and most vigorous birds.
  2. Mate them together based on the concept of breeding strengths to strengths to reinforce the good traits.
  3. As the first generation you produce reaches breeding age select the largest, best-performing and truest-to-breed-type females. These will form flock A which will be bred to their sire.
  4. Select the very best one or two young males that are produced. They will head up breeding pen B that will be made up of the females from their dam’s generation that are to be retained for a second breeding season.
  5. In the third year select the best of the roosters that headed up pen B above to head up a new pen A populated with the better pullets just produced. The best one or two young cockerels produced will then head up a breeding pen B based on all of the older females to be retained.
  6. This is termed a rolling mating system and is designed to maintain genetic viability while creating a breeding line based on a small group of very select individuals. The pullets produced each year will always be mated with their sire or another male of his generation and lineage.
  7. The oldest males are removed each year, older females go into a collective group, and the breeding flock is maintained in two groups. As numbers of females produced increase, they can be funneled into a laying flock that is being regularly upgraded through selective breeding from the known genetic line being developed on the farm.
  8. With this plan, the flock can be maintained for many generations. The birds going into the breeding flock should be carefully selected for growth, vigor and libido. Most chicks in the retail trade now are of an “industrial” character. They are purebred, but the breeding behind them is not always of a very exacting nature, and it may have been literally decades since they have had anything in the way of performance testing or selective breeding for performance traits applied to them.

A great many brown egg-laying hybrid varietals are being offered now and, again, I believe that not everyone fully understands what these birds are. They are not of a breed, many have a faster metabolism, and the crosses that create them are often intended to create birds that produce a rather large egg in proportion to body size and to produce at a rather high level for a single season before being removed from the farm to make way for a new crop of pullets.

Chickens lay best in their first or pullet year. The hybrids were developed first to fit the laying cage, and such birds were rarely bred to have anything in the way of salvage value.

For many years there has been no trade in older, stewing and baking fowl, nor any wholesale trade for eggs of any shell color from independent producers. The hybrids do not reproduce in kind, their breeding patterns are often too complex to duplicate on a small farm, and they have little in the way of salvage value and have to be considered the antithesis of sustainability.

A red sex-link (a mating that allows males and females to be sexed by sight at hatching) is generally a cross of a Rhode Island Red male and Rhode Island White female. The red male carries the gold gene essential for this form of sex-link mating, and the Rhode Island White female the other, the silver gene. Not all white breeds have this silver gene, however. A red/white cross can also be made with New Hampshire males and females of several other white breeds. In Great Britain, an early cross of Rhode Island

Red males with White Wyandotte females of laying type was quite popular.

Something that I have observed with the red sex-linked females is that the more light-colored feathering they show, the paler brown the eggs they produce.

The black sex-link is a cross of Rhode Island Red males with Barred Plymouth Rock females. The sex-linkage factor here is how the golden gene interacts with the gene for barring. The little cockerels will hatch looking just like Barred Rock chicks with a white spot atop the head. They will grow into birds with a so-so pattern of barring.

chicks under lamp
Barred rock chicks

The pullet chicks will hatch black with no white spot atop the head. They will grow into a black bird with some red in the hackles. They are one of the larger sex-link crosses.

“Performance” or “Production” Reds are also hybrids of a sort. Some are crosses with Rhode Island Reds and New Hampshires and others are crosses of red sex-link females with a purebred Rhode Island male. There is no sex-linkage in these crosses; they will be of a light red hue, will lay light-to-medium brown eggs and will often be among the larger in size of the hybrid offerings.

Hybridization in chickens generates the greatest advantages in the first 12 weeks of the bird’s life. This generally manifests itself in the forms of a bit larger size and level of vigor at the time of hatching.

Early size and growth can prove advantageous for a lifetime, but traits such as egg production come down from the purebred ancestry. It is a practice that some might term an attempt at a genetic shortcut. It is something of an attempt to compress the traits of two different breeds into one bird, and a lot of the resulting pullets often burn out after a single season of laying.

With modern mail, a baby chick should arrive at its new quarters within 48 to 72 hours of hatching. Shortly before hatching, it will absorb the egg yolk through the umbilicus and can thus be sustained for up to 96 hours following hatching.

The chicks, hopefully, will have received an initial evaluation as they are taken from the hatching trays and placed in shipping boxes. Chicks with defects such as navel ills, crossed beaks, splayed legs, bent toes and obvious color flaws should not have been shipped. And the buyer should have selected the shipping date and be notified of its acceptance.

When a shipment of baby chicks is in the offing:

  • Notify the local post office of the due date and that you are to be notified of their arrival as early in the day as possible. You should pick the chicks up at the post office. At the post office, the box should be opened, a postal employee summoned to witness any deaths or damage and report forms requested if any excess losses are noted.
  • The brooder should have been set up and the heat turned on for at least 24 hours before the chicks are due to arrive. This is to ascertain that the heat source is working well.
  • Have a good starter feed on hand, and offer it on the floor of the brooder in a shallow tray for the first day or two.
  • Use a good bedding material in the brooder, though not newspaper because it can become slick and cause some of the chicks to develop a problem with spraddled legs.
  • Provide lukewarm drinking water when the chicks arrive and for a day or two afterward. Add a tablespoon or two of white sugar to every quart of drinking water offered. This will give the chicks an energy boost after their trip.
  • We like feeders and waterers with red bases to draw the chicks to them. On waterers with wide lips, marbles can be added to reduce the risk of baby chicks drowning.
  • Once at home, draw each chick from the shipping box, examine them for any defects, dip their beaks into the drinking water a time or two, and, with their beaks still wet, wipe them through the chick crumbles.
  • Once or twice a week many will offer drinking water to which 1 to 2 ounces of apple cider vinegar has been added to each gallon. This is a traditional tonic, and many will boost it further by adding a full head of garlic and one or two dried red peppers to each gallon of vinegar. This concoction should be allowed to steep at air temperature for 24 to 36 hours.

Old hands would recommend unpasteurized cider vinegar when it could be found. A traditional treatment for coccidiosis was to add 6 ounces of red vinegar per each gallon of drinking water for five days, skip the water treatment for two days, and then go back to the vinegar-treated water for another three to five days. We use red vinegar here in the drinking water for all of the birds a couple of times each month.

If the peeps have had a long or rough trip a vitamin/electrolyte product can be added to their drinking water. Such a product should be used each time the birds are moved or subject to other sources of stress.

The question of whether or not to have chicks vaccinated is very much an individual call. Where healthy birds are in place and few new birds are brought onto the farm many have opted not to vaccinate and focus on building upon increasing levels of natural immunity in established, largely closed flocks. A few years ago we added some breeds and went through a hatching season that might be termed a bit rocky. The following year, with those genetics in place for some time becoming better adapted, and building their levels of natural immunity, things went much better.

For every 25 pullets you intend to place in the laying flock you should start 30 to 35 pullet chicks. This will allow for natural attrition and the needed, rigorous culling. A box of baby chicks arrives with much promise, but what is to be made of it, a starting point or a point of renewal is up to the person lifting the lid on the box.

They arrive as little more than bits of peeping fluff, but, like the few seeds at the core of an apple, their potential can extend for decades and generations. Think of them always in that way, and you will progress from a keeper of chickens to a real poultryman.

This information was first shared in the March 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken; Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken available from Acres U.S.A. For more information visit www.acresusa.com or call 800-355-5313.

Cockerel or Pullet? Sexing Chicks

By Kelly Klober

Sexing day-old chicks is a skill that has been mastered by but a handful of people in this country. Several of them travel from hatchery to hatchery in the spring and early summer doing such work for up to twelve or fourteen hours each day.

There are texts that illustrate what to look for when vent sexing baby chicks, but this is no simple task and the visual indications are often quite slight. Many will find it difficult to bring themselves to handle baby chicks in the way required to successfully carry out this task.

There are a number of visual clues that many use to sex their own birds. These are oftentimes little more than folklore and you certainly won’t use them to guarantee chick sexes to buyers. Still they may have some merit and are worth considering — just don’t use them to cull through rare and valuable heritage birds too quickly. Prove them to your satisfaction before relying upon them.

There are certainly no sexing guarantees with hatching eggs and the safe assumption will be that of every ten chicks hatched, six will be little cockerels.

Visual Clues for Sexing Baby Chicks?

There are many theories about the possible visual clues for sexing baby chicks. Some are more reliable than others. Good luck!

  • The spot atop the head of barred birds is generally more round on females and more elongated on males. Females are also generally darker than males in their barring.
  • An old adage holds that if a young chick is picked up just behind the head with thumb and forefinger and raised, a young male will struggle and a female hang limply. The same has been said if the chicks are suspended upside down by their feet.
  • The legs and toes of young cockerels are said to be longer and larger than on newly hatched pullets.
  • Pullets generally feather faster than males and especially along the forward edges of the wings.
  • On Rosecomb birds, the combs of the males will appear wider and brighter than on the females
  • Silkies are an especially difficult breed to sex and some will even wait until the males start crowing to be absolutely sure. A rule of thumb holds that if the crest feathers are spread apart, the young pullet’s comb will appear more triangular and indented.
  • Pointed eggs are said to produce cockerels and more rounded ones, pullets.

The most venerable of sexing devices, once even used over the abdomens of expectant women, was a piece of metal suspended at the end of a bit of string. If it swings back and forth it means one gender and for the other it turns in a circle.

To follow the letter of ancient lore it should be a silver needle suspended by a bit of red silk thread. Some of the above are a bit more proven than others and some are probably best as meat for coffee shop debates.

I did hear of a new use for the remote control from the TV as a chick-sexing device. Begin by inserting fresh batteries and place the remote in the brooder with the little guys. The chicks that gather around it and peck at the keys are little males. Those pushed back into the corners are the little females.

The young bird of the year is the ultimate product of the heirloom flock. They are the yardstick by which the year’s work and the flock’s progress are to be measured. In the early going with a very rare breed, success may mean you now have four females where you had just two the year before. Just adding a second breeding trio can sometimes be a real victory — a very big one.

Source: Talking Chicken

Chick Nutritional Needs

By Kelly Klober

Their nutritional needs begin when the chicks arrive in the mail or are removed from the hatcher and placed in the brooder. Those chicks that have had a rocky trip through the mail or are out of a slow hatch will need that bit of extra feed as noted above to make a successful launch in life.

The best place to begin giving them this boost in life may be through their drinking water. For the first couple of days add four to six tablespoons of simple white sugar to each gallon of drinking water. This gives the chicks a quick energy boost and they will often drink when they won’t eat. Two to three times each week we also add a vitamin/electrolyte product to the drinkers in the brooders.

There are a number of good vitamin/electrolyte products available. Some are formulated for poultry (all will work) and a couple even contain probiotics. There are some who believe that this product can be overused. They contend that chicks may not fully utilize it and overall water quality can be adversely affected if overused. We have not had these experiences, but do change the water frequently and clean the small waterers often. They can be dipped and rinsed often in a mild chlorine bleach solution (one ounce of bleach per gallon of water).

Two or three times each week I will add a cap full of hydrogen peroxide to each gallon of drinking water. This seems to improve water quality. It freshens the water due to the extra oxygen molecule, keeps our waterers cleaner, and even seems to help check that annoying green film that forms in waterers during warm weather.

Most baby chick feeds now are quite complete feeds onto themselves. They are sold in various small particulate, “crumbles” forms. An acquaintance with gamebirds and bantams will run starter feeds through an old blender to break down particulate size even farther. Just don’t beat it to dust. With bantams and some standard chicks that you know are going to need an extra boost you can start them on gamebird starter or a blend of gamebird and regular chick starter.

chicks eating
Baby chicks can consume only very limited amounts of feedstuffs and for very best results they should be as nutrient dense as possible.

This is a hot, hot feed and you need to watch the chicks closely for any related problems such as pasty vents. It is always best to start them directly on this product if you are planning to use it. If you must make a transition to it do it ever so gradually over a period of days.

Good starter and early grower rations can be quite complex in their formulations along with being nutrient dense. This is due to the extra nutrient needs and quite limited ability of a baby chick to consume. It explains the higher cost and the convenience factor benefit of using starter feeds for one with modest poultry numbers.

Currently being offered are a number of broad purpose rations that are supposed to be used as a starter/developer or base beginning ration for a number of poultry species. They are sound in their formulation, but I believe they are perhaps trying to fill too many needs out of a single bag of feed. I have used one to finish developing some heavy breed birds late in the season when the higher protein level seemed to best suit their needs.

Our best experiences have been with finding good starter/grower ration and staying with it until the birds are at least twenty to twenty-two weeks old. No, I don’t own shares in a feed company, but I do recognize the importance of keeping feeding programs as simple as possible and keeping that all-important bite-after-bite consistency needed in young bird rations. Even if raising baby chicks with broody hens these higher quality feedstuffs are needed to be offered to both. My barn banties of nearly fifty years ago did raise their small broods on little more than found feed, but both growth and survival rates suffered for it.

Early in the breeding year our challenge with some of our heritage birds is to get them laying well and producing fertile eggs as soon as possible.

Six week old Rhode Island Red
Six week old Rhode Island Red chick enjoying some scavenged snacks.

Some breeds, like the Sumatra, do not truly hit their reproductive stride until warm weather and the accompanying longer days of daylight. Others need a bit of a high protein push to get them laying (and laying fertile eggs).

There are a number of ways to boost protein levels in breeding rations without breaking the old ration. First, be sure that the birds are up to making the fullest possible utilization of that extra protein. They should be free of both internal and external parasites, well housed, and in a true weight gaining condition.

Perhaps the simplest means of stoking their reproductive engines is to gradually switch them over from their regular complete feed to a complete, gamebird layer ration. It won’t be cheap, but it will get the desired results. Time after time I have seen just this one change jump egg production and increase hatchability dramatically.

Source: Talking Chicken

Using the Toe Punch System With New Chicks

By Kelly Klober

The numbers one through sixteen can be encoded into a chick via the toe punch system. These punches can denote the hatch from which the chicks came, the breeding pen that produced them, their time of hatch or other designation.

The punches are painless and made in the fleshy webs between the chick’s toes. An all-metal toe punch will cost about five dollars. Keep it clean and disinfect it in a simple alcohol bath before and after each use.

Make the punches crisp and quick. Then be sure the small flap of flesh is completely removed to prevent the punch from closing back up.

The following is a suggested sequence to use as a toe-punching guide.

sequence 1 through 6
sequence 7-14
sequence 15-16

Source: Talking Chicken

Starting a Flock with Baby Chicks

By Kelly Klober

If you opt to start your heirloom flock with day-old baby chicks, you will have to allow time for them to develop and purchase them in the numbers that will allow for full and proper culling as they grow and develop.

The old rule of thumb has been to order at least thirty percent more chicks than you ultimately wish to place in the breeding flock or laying house. Thus, you can be comfortable in culling the expected three to five percent of the birds at each point in their development prior to their entering the flock.

A good baby chick now may cost you two to three dollars and some of the rarer ones from private sources are twice that and more. Also, if they are shipped from any distance, mailing and handling can add another one dollar per chick. One of the big five hatcheries offers its very top end baby chicks for one hundred twenty-five dollars per box of twenty-five and that box may contain no more than five or ten chicks of the rarest varieties.


Hatched chicks typically hatch in a ratio of six cockerels to every four pullet chicks.

A number of caveats often go with baby chick purchases and especially those bought in very small lots. From most hatcheries you should assume that all chicks of the same breed are either full or half-siblings. The minor breeds are also more likely to be sold as hatched, that is they are unsexed. Most private breeders sell their chicks on a strictly as hatched basis and often can supply no more that five or six of certain breeds per shipment. Thus in very small lots you may receive all of one sex or insufficient numbers of one gender to create any sort of breeding group. Small lots are a way to add to a flock, but seldom will one or even two small lot shipments produce enough birds from which to successfully launch a new flock.

From a shipping lot of twenty-five as hatched chicks of the same breed perhaps the best that can be hoped for is one good breeding trio and one or two additional breeding pairs. Those extra males can prove invaluable in the event of unexpected loss because of death. Also, a couple of extra males should always be held back as insurance for the next breeding season.

It is probably best to begin with the staggered purchases of two or three lots of twenty-five from different sources or a single line, whichever is your flock raising strategy.

Chicks were once most commonly sold in multiples of one hundred!

Twenty-five chick lots now seem to naturally fit today’s trend toward smaller poultry flocks. They can be raised in small, inexpensive facilities and are not a bank account busting venture to start. For a great many days a set of chicks this small can be held in a brooder made from a large plastic storage box.

Order chicks as early in the year as possible. Late-hatched chicks tend to grow more slowly as the hours of available daylight decrease. They may not develop as fully and will reach productivity later in the year. In fact some bantam breeds were developed in part from late-hatched chicks of their standard sized counterparts. To get a fair number of the very rarest you may have to order as many as four or five small lot groups in a season and tap into more than one source.

Most hatcheries and breeders will ship no fewer than twenty-five chicks at a time (some will send fifteen in very warm weather) to assure comfort and warmth in transit. That means that you must sometimes contend with what have come to be called “filler” chicks. Often from the larger sources of supply they are little more than throw-ins, cost very little, and can range from sex-link cockerels to surplus chicks from orders for more mainstream varieties. Whenever possible pay the price to get something better and more useful than surplus sex-link or Leghorn cockerels.

From individual breeders and smaller hatcheries this can be a bit more of a challenge. They do not have the surplus cockerel chicks to fill in with and their other breeds may be every bit as rare and pricey as the ones in your primary order. There are a fair number of larger breeders who can ship in great variety although quite often from very small mating groups for certain breeds. Look upon these situations as an opportunity to check out a second rare or heirloom breed or to build a second flock of a traditional standard breed.

At today’s prices, when shopping for baby chicks, don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions. Especially with the minor breeds — you have to know as much about their breeding and background as is possible. Steer clear of any birds tabbed “not for show” or “not for project work.”

After the chicks are located and the order placed, it is time to get ready for their arrival.

Have your brooder set up and warming at least twenty-four hours before the chicks are due to arrive.

Notify the post office that you are expecting a chick shipment, ask to be called as soon as they arrive, go directly to pick them up, and examine them carefully at the post office in case any losses have occurred in transit. You could possibly refuse to accept a really damaged box or one that has been too long in transit or you may need postal documentation to file a loss claim with the shipper.

At home take the time to handle and observe each chick closely and note any obvious defects or problems.

Cover the floor of the brooder with paper toweling. It is a non-slip surface that will prevent problems with spraddle legs developing. It can be lifted in a few days when the chicks have grown stronger. Have ready chick-sized waterers with drown proof lips and a flat tray or even a cardboard box top upon which to offer the chicks their first few feedings.

Warm the drinking water a bit the first time or two, and to each quart add two or three tablespoons of white sugar. Offer this for a day or two to give the newly arrived chicks an extra energy boost. Then, for a couple of days each week, add a vitamin/electrolyte product to the drinking water going into the brooder. Once a week add a capful of hydrogen peroxide to each waterer in the brooder and once each week wash the waterers in a mild bleach and water solution. As the chicks are placed in the brooder, dip their beaks into the water to get them used to drinking from them. Old hands will also even wipe their still damp bills in the chick starter.

I prefer to use the plastic waterers with the red bases and feeders to help draw the chicks to them.

We provide supplemental heat with an electric heat lamp suspended twelve to eighteen inches above the chicks. We generally use 125-watt bulbs and raise them as the chicks grow during what is termed the “hardening” process. A red-tinted bulb will lessen problems with feather picking.

With bantam chicks, birds closely inbred or others needing a quick boost use the more nutrient dense and smaller particulate game bird starter instead of regular chick starter.

In an emergency situation where you have no starter on hand offer the chicks what they have already been feeding upon — egg. Finely chopped, hard boiled egg at room temperature can be offered to them at floor level for a few minutes several times each day. Offer only what they will eat in a short time and then carefully clean up all the remaining traces.

Shortly before hatching, the chick absorbs the egg yolk into its body through the umbilicus. This gives the chick enough nourishment to sustain itself for up to 96 hours following hatching. Thus the day-old chick has the needed wherewithal for 24 to 96 hours in transit through the mail.

For most folks, baby chicks will be the starting point for their poultry venture — be it rare, heirloom or traditional poultry breeds. Baby chicks are now the means that are accessible to the greatest number of producers. From a box of as few as fifteen chicks, a start can be made and I can think of no other purebred livestock venture with lower beginning costs.

Source: Talking Chicken