Chicken Math - Adding Pullets to Your Flock
Raising chickens is a heartwarming experience, that is until the first time you add new members to your flock and you realize they really are tiny dinosaurs! The pecking order is one of the most brutal parts of the flock dynamic, so you'll want to take steps to minimize the stress to your new chickens and to yourself when you decide to increase your flock. I've learned several things in my ten plus years of chicken keeping that help make the process go as smoothly as it can, and I'm going to share these tips and our set up with you.
Before discussing the logistics of flock integration, I want to take a moment to talk about predators and flock safety. When your chicks have grown too big for the brooder, you will likely be moving them to an intermediate location before they are ready to join the flock in the coop. Even though this may be temporary housing for your chicks / young pullets, now is not the time to skimp on safety measures. Chicken wire should never be used for a nighttime enclosure for your youngest and most vulnerable flock members. I've heard all too many stories of heartbreak due to predators ripping chicken wire enclosures apart at night with very sad consequences; raccoons are especially known for this. So it's very important that you use the same safe building practices for the temporary housing for your young birds as you would when building a permanent coop.
Proper nutrition is important too. At about 8 weeks of age, I transition the pullets to grower feed. I use Scratch and Peck Feeds 'Naturally Free Organic Grower'. Since this is a whole grain feed, they also get 'Cluckin' Good Grower Grit' so that they can grind up their food in their gizzard. I sprinkle the grit on their feed every day, and I also offer a small dish of free choice grit. At this age the pullets are learning about all kinds of treats as they spend their days on the green grass and get introduced to nutritious treats such as grubs and black oil sunflower seeds. It's always helpful to have your pullets trained to come to you when you call them for treats, so be sure to spend the time training them at this age before they get the full freedom of the chicken yard. The rest of the flock will get grower feed as well until everyone is of laying age, and then I'll switch everyone over to layer feed at about 5 months of age.
We have a 10 foot by 10 foot secure run attached to our coop that we use to house our pullets after they outgrow the brooder. The secure run is fully enclosed with 1/2-inch hardware cloth on the walls and on the ground. It has a sturdy wood roof, and we put up plastic panels on the sides as a wind block if needed. I've never had a predator breach this set-up. I use heat lamps until I'm sure that everyone is fully feather and can withstand the nighttime temperatures. We will also give them access to grass by fencing off a small area with four-foot tall plastic roll fencing. The pullets can see the rest of the flock through the hardware cloth and fencing, but the older girls can't peck or chase the younger ones. It's best to wait until the pullets are as close to full size as you can before introducing them to the rest of the flock. I usually wait until the pullets are 10 weeks old. By this time they are establishing the pecking order within their own group and are getting curious about the big world outside. It's the perfect time to give them a bit more excitement and introduce them to the rest of the flock.
After several weeks to a month or so of living within sight but out of reach of the rest of the flock, it's time for the pullets to take their next step into flock life. I like to distract the rest of the flock with breakfast or treats, and then I'll open up the door to the run where the pullets are living and let them take their time venturing out into the main chicken yard. Some pullets are adventurous and will come right out and perhaps venture up to see what the big girls are doing. Others are more cautious and will take a few steps into the main chicken yard and be content to explore a small area for a few days. There's no rush to integrate them, just let them take it at their own speed. I find that the process goes much more smoothly the larger the group of new birds is that you are introducing. This year we added a dozen pullets to a flock of 18, and it was amazingly drama free. It's important to give the flock and the pullets as much space as possible during the integration. We use four-foot tall electric poultry netting to fence off a section of our yard. This keeps everyone from roaming too far and also protects the flock from daytime predators. We also provide plenty of structures and shelters for the pullets to take cover on or under, as well as to get some visual separation from the bigger girls. It doesn't have to be anything fancy, we use rustic structures made from pallets or scrap wood. We've also used wood spindles, sections of cut logs, we've even used an old coffee table!
Sleeping in the coop at night will be the last stage of flock integration. With our set-up this usually doesn't happen for several days after the pullets start spending their days together with the flock. Gradually the pullets will get curious about why everyone is going into the coop at night, and the brave ones will start to follow the big girls in. You may have to carry a few of the shyer ones in if they are reluctant to go on their own after a few days. Wait until it's nearly dark and the big girls have settled down for the night, and then bring the pullets in as quietly as you can and set them on the roost away from the bigger girls. It's helpful to have plenty of roost space, and you may want to add an extra bar for the pullets so they don't have to crowd in right next to the older girls. There will inevitably be pecking and squawking as the pullets learn their place in the flock hierarchy, but if you take it slow and use these tips, it should make it a bit easier on everyone, including you!