Raising chickens from hatchling to hen: A guide to poultry care

Published 11:01 am Wednesday, May 8, 2024

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Welcome to the May Edition of “The Appalachian Harvester”

We’re diving into the fascinating world of raising chickens this month. Whether you’re starting a flock from scratch or expanding your coop, caring for these feathered friends brings tremendous joy and reward. From hatchlings chirping away in brooders to hens clucking proudly over freshly laid eggs, each stage of raising chickens brings unique challenges and immense satisfaction.

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In this edition, we’ll guide you through the essentials of caring for chickens from hatchlings to fully grown hens, ensuring they’re well cared for and productive on your farm. You’ll find tips on receiving chicks, raising them as they grow, and ensuring their health and safety as they mature into prolific egg layers. 

Raising chickens isn’t just about the fresh eggs or the potential for meat; it’s about cultivating a healthy, happy flock that brings vitality to your homestead. So dust off the feed bin and grab your coop plans – let’s start hatching a plan to raise some of the happiest birds in East Tennessee

Your First Week:

The journey begins with the arrival of chirpy hatchlings whether from a local farm supply store, a mail-order service or your local incubator. Preparing for their arrival is crucial to ensuring they start their lives in a safe and maturing environment.

Setting up a brooder is vital, as it provides a warm, enclosed space that keeps chicks from drafts and predators. Plastic tubs, cardboard boxes, or specialized brooder setups all work well as long as they provide ample space and ventilation. Hatchlings need a consistent temperature of around 95 degrees in the first week, gradually reducing it by 5 degrees each week until they can regulate their body temperature at about 70 degrees. Heat lamps or adjustable brooders are great for this.

Use absorbent bedding like pine shavings to keep the area dry and clean and avoid slippery surfaces that could lead to leg issues. Ensure the bedding is changed regularly so that chicks’ feet remain dry.

Provide high-protein chick starter feed to support growth and development. Make sure the feed is accessible and fresh. Offer fresh, clean water in a shallow dish to prevent drowning, and consider adding electrolytes to boost the chicks’ immune systems. Place the water dish under the heat lamp to ensure it’s warm, as cold water can shock young chicks and even be fatal.

Monitor the chicks closely in their first week. Healthy chicks should be active and chirpy. Watch for signs of lethargy, pasty butt (fecal matter blocking the vent), or huddling too close to or far from the heat source. Adjust the brooder heat based on chick behavior: if they’re huddled directly under the lamp, it’s too cold, but if they avoid the heat directly, it’s too hot. A red bulb can prevent cannibalistic pecking.

Gently handle chicks early on to familiarize them with human interaction. Early socialization helps reduce skittishness and fosters trust as they grow.

Growing Up:

After a few weeks in the brooder, your chicks will start to outgrow their cozy space and need a larger coop or run as they continue developing into strong young birds. Chicks can be moved to a larger, draft-free coop once they’re fully feathered, typically as around 4 to 6 weeks old. Ensure nighttime temperatures are consistently above 70 degrees F, or provide a lamp if needed.

Prepare the coop with enough space for the growing flock, giving each bird at least 2-3 square feet inside and 8-10 square feet per bird in the outdoor run. Use clean bedding like straw or wood shavings, and ensure good ventilation or prevent moisture buildup.

Predator-proof the coop with sturdy fencing and hardware cloth to protect against racoons, hawks, and other predators. Introduce the growing chicks to the outdoors gradually, letting them roam in a secure run or chicken tractor.

Switch from starter feed to grower feed, which has slightly lower protein but supports continued growth. I prefer crumble feed for chicks and pellets for hens. Ensure fresh water is always available, especially during outdoor time.

As the birds mature, they’ll establish a social hierarchy called the “pecking order.” Some bullying is normal, but separate any birds that don’t fit in or are overly picked on. Provide ample and multiple feeders to reduce competition, and interact with your flock regularly to build trust and ease handling.

Reaching Egg-Laying Age:

As your birds near egg-laying age, it’s crucial to meet their changing needs so they develop into healthy productive hens. Chickens usually start laying eggs at 18-22 weeks, and you’ll notice signs like squatting, increased vocalization, and more prominent combs and wattles. Their behavior will also change as they explore nest boxes and find suitable spots to lay their first eggs.

Switch to layer feed at this point, as it contains the calcium needed for strong eggshells. Crushed oyster shells or grit should be available to supplement calcium. Give your hens any unused eggs to eat and toss in the used egg shells. They will love them! Keep fresh water accessible since proper hydration is essential for egg production.

Prepare nest boxes in a quiet dark corner of the cooler, with at least one box for every three to four hens. Line the boxes with soft bedding like straw or wood shavings to create a comfortable environment that encourages laying. Consider placing artificial eggs or golf balls in the boxes to help your hens learn where to lay,

To maintain steady egg production, provide at least 14 hours of light daily, especially during fall and winter. Supplemental lighting may be needed when natural light decreases. Reduce potential stressors like sudden environmental changes, overcrowding, or lack of water to avoid disruptions.

Collect eggs daily to prevent cracks or broken eggs that may be eaten by the flock. This also encourages hens to continue laying. Store the eggs in a cool, dry place and refrigerate them if needed.

Natural “Bloom” and Egg Washing

The natural “bloom” or cuticle is a protective layer that covers eggshells when a hen lays an egg. It serves as a natural barrier to bacteria and contaminants, preserving freshness.
It’s best not to wash eggs immediately if the bloom is intact unless they are very dirty. Washing removes the bloom, leaving eggs more vulnerable to bacteria. Instead, gently clean lightly soiled eggs with a dry cloth or brush. If washing is necessary, use warm water (warmer than the egg itself) to prevent the egg from contracting and drawing in bacteria.

Store washed eggs in the refrigerator to keep them fresh and safe.

Rooster Or No Rooster?

While the focus is often on hens and egg-laying, roosters play an important role in the flock especially if you’re interested in expanding through natural reproduction. Roosters fertilize eggs, protect hens, and establish a social structure within the flock. Though they can be noisy and territorial, they provide valuable companionship and security.

Fertilized eggs are safe to eat and have the same nutritional value as unfertilized eggs. To prevent embryo development, collect eggs daily and store them in a cool place or refrigerator. If eggs are kept below 55 degrees F, the fertilized embryo won’t develop.

With proper care and consistent management, your flock can provide a steady supply of delicious, safe eggs. Remember to collect eggs regularly, maintain proper storage conditions, and check for freshness.


Chickens are a lot of fun, provide healthy eggs, and eat many bugs around your home. Every homestead should have a few hens to roam about! Good luck with your flock.

Until next time, remember that each day is a chance to grow, learn and find joy in the earth’s offerings. Keep your minds growing and your hands busy. Happy gardening, happy farming, and most importantly, happy living!

(Jerry Agan is a devoted lifelong Carter Countian, deeply rooted in the soil of his beloved East Tennessee. With a degree in Agriculture Education from Tennessee Technological University, Jerry has dedicated over a decade to teaching agriculture, nurturing the minds and hearts of the next generation of farmers and agriculturists. He currently teaches at Elizabethton High School.)