If you are planning on raising meat birds or starting some layer chicks this Spring, now is the time to be planning and getting things in motion.
When buying chicks, you have a couple of options – buying direct from the hatchery or pick up birds from a local farm store.
When you order direct from a hatchery the advantages are you get to order exactly what you want, have them arrive when you want, and typically pay a lower premium than buying the chicks from a local farm store. However, shipping costs on smaller orders can make this prohibitive or eliminate any potential savings. Consider ordering chicks for yourself and friends, neighbors or relatives to split the shipping costs and to take advantage of quantity pricing breaks. You may also find that this is the only way to get meat birds, or at least the faster growing varieties such as a Cornish cross or a specialty bird like a red ranger or “freedom ranger”. While some farm stores carry those, not all do. You might be able to find some heritage cockerels locally in a farm store which can produce a nice meat for you, but they take considerably longer to raise (at least twice as long) and will have a darker, smaller breast meat than most Americans are accustomed to. If you want a heritage meat bird, then buying from a hatchery direct can be a great way to save money. The male chicks are usually a fraction of the price from a hatchery as those in a farm store because they are in low demand.
The main thing to consider when buying from a hatchery is it’s location relative to you! Shipping stress is your greatest enemy with day old chicks, and the longer they are in that box while in transit, the more problems (and deaths) you will have. Personally, I prefer to use a hatchery that will get the birds to me in just one night, or two at the very most. You can watch a short video where I explain why this is so important. Two nights are okay so long as you pick those birds up first thing that next morning and get them tucked into your warm brooder setup as quickly as possible. Most likely, your post office will have them on hand by 6:00 a.m. and are all to happy to have you come pick them up. Beyond that, use a hatchery with a good reputation. I’ll list several hatcheries I like at the end of this article.
Picking up birds from your local Tractor Supply, Rural King or similar type store also has its own pro’s and con’s.
First, you can get as few (or as many) as you like and it’s easy to mix and match breeds to meet your fancy or satisfy your kid’s desire for a specific color. Also, the birds will be at least a few days old when you pick them up, which means they are past that crucial 72 hour period after they get unloaded from the shipping box. This lets the farm store take all the initial risk. And, they have been fed for a week by someone else. The bad news is, we have no idea what they have been eating for the past week! Typically, this will have been medicated, genetically modified feed which I’m adamantly opposed to for many reasons. I always suggest trying to source gmo free grain, or even spending the added cost for certified organic grain to feed your livestock. You are what your food ate!
Also, you will normally pay a much higher premium for layer chicks early in the season than if ordering direct. These chicks are also at the mercy of minimum wage store staff who may, or may not, be taking good care of them. Problems arising from mismanagement may not be evident until later on in the birds life. The good news is, if the chicks are a week or two old and have survived in that environment, then you probably have some pretty good birds to take home and raise. It’s also a great way to buy 3 or 4 chicks, get your feet wet and give this whole chicken thing a try if you are new to it. Lastly, if you roll the dice and wait until later in the season to buy from a local store, just like everything else they go on clearance. I had a friend of mine who once cleaned out a Tractor Supply of their leftover stock for .50/chick and they were already 6-8 weeks old, or a third of the way home to producing eggs. If you are an opportunist, this might be a good route to consider. You can also add your name to a mailing list for hatcheries who will sometimes discount overruns or orders that get canceled at the last minute. You can also call a hatchery to see if they have any extras they would be willing to sell at a discount.
Here are some hatcheries I’ve personally had good success with over the years. We are currently using Schlecht Hatchery out of Iowa for all of our meat birds. While I have not tried any of their laying hens, I suspect they would impress just as much as their slower growing cornish cross broiler has done:
Schlecht Hatchery (Iowa)
Townline Hatchery (Southern Michigan)
Meyer Hatchery (Ohio)
Hoover’s Hatchery (Iowa)
Remember, the main thing is how fast the chicks can get to you. Every hatchery will be able to tell you how many nights they will be in the mail, make certain it isn’t more than two. While they will tell you chicks are fine for three nights, in my experience the shipping stress is just too much, especially for quick growing broilers.