Chicken math is a real problem here. In the past, I would order chicks pretty much every winter for delivery the next spring. Over the years I’ve received hundreds of chicks (plus ducklings and goslings) through the mail without any major issues.
How it works
Hatcheries are businesses that specialize in hatching, selling, and shipping baby chicks. Typically they contract with various farmers to raise their breeding stock for them. The breeding stock is kept in big barns with eggs collected and sent to the hatchery daily. The hatcheries then set the eggs once or twice every week for hatching. After hatching, the chicks are placed in special shipping boxes and mailed out to the customer who ordered them.
Right before baby chicks hatch from their eggs they absorb the egg yolk into their abdomen. They can live off the yolk for up to 3 days after they hatch. My best broody hens won’t even take their chicks to find food for 2-3 days after hatching. Because of this built-in food supply, it’s possible to ship chicks through the postal system all over the country.
What is the best place to order chicks online?
There are 4 major hatcheries in the US as well as a number of smaller hatcheries. The major hatcheries are Meyer, McMurray, Ideal, and Cackle. The largest hatchery for ducks and geese is Metzer’s (they have acquired much of their breeding stock directly from well-known waterfowl breeder Dave Holderread).
I have ordered from all of the major hatcheries and had good experiences with all of them. They’re all worthy of being recommended as the “best” place to order chicks online. However, I’ve got to say that Meyer is probably one of my favorite hatcheries to buy from due to the excellent customer service and extra care in packing. Ideal is a close runner-up because of the wide selection of breeds and varieties and low prices.
Each hatchery has slightly different offerings and the quality of each breed and variety will vary as well. For example, Cackle has better Salmon Faverolles than any of the other major hatcheries. Meyer has some of the better Speckled Sussex than the others. Ideal has some of the worst Silkies.
The only major hatcheries with true Ameraucanas are Cackle and Meyer. McMurray labels their Easter Eggers wrong and calls them Ameraucanas (they are so NOT true Ameraucanas!).
You can also talk to your local feed store about special ordering chicks for you and having them sent with their usual spring shipment of chicks.
Why you should NOT buy from a hatchery if you want to raise heritage chickens for meat
For the most part, hatcheries do not selectively breed their flocks which results in chickens that are almost always too small and lay too many eggs for their breed.
This is a boon to the backyard chicken keeper who keeps a flock for eggs and pets because it often means more eggs for less feed. Yay for pets who make breakfast!
But when you’re a homesteader or backyard farmer who wants to breed their chickens for their own meat production it’s really upsetting to discover that the “heritage breed” cockerels from the hatchery are still tiny at 24+ weeks old. A lot of people give up at this point and raise Cornish Cross for meat instead.
If raising and breeding a heritage breed chicken for home meat production is important to you don’t bother with chicks from a hatchery. Seek out a good breeder who has been selecting for meat qualities and can tell you how much their chickens weigh after butchering and the age they butcher at.
If you can only get hatchery stock for your meat chickens then take a look at this article to breed for meat production qualities.
When to order your chicks
Most hatcheries start taking orders for next spring’s chicks in December or January. I recommend having your chick order planned by the end of November and placing your order as soon as the hatchery starts accepting orders. That way you’ll have the largest selection of ship dates for the breed(s) you want.
Popular breeds often sell out for the entire year before March.
What shipping date you should choose when you order chicks
For the safety of your chicks, it’s very important to choose a ship date that should have decent weather while the chicks are in the postal system without heating or air conditioning.
This is VERY dependent on your location and where you are having the chicks shipped from. Here in mild western Oregon I can usually have chicks safely arrive anywhere from mid-February to mid-June and then another safe shipping window in late August to late October.
If you are in a colder climate you may need to pick a ship date from late April to late June or place a full order of chicks (usually 25 to make a full box) with a heat pack in March or September.
Don’t be one of those people in Michigan/North Dakota/New York/other cold state who orders just a few chicks for February shipment without a heat pack and then blames the hatchery when they arrive dead. You’re far too smart to do that!
If you’re in a hotter climate you need to aim for a ship date where it’s not so hot that the chicks die from the heat but warm enough where they’re coming from that they don’t die from the cold.
A breeder I know in Phoenix, AZ has a very limited safe shipping window of February-March and then again in September-October. She has a hard time getting chicks shipped out due to it being too hot at her location but too cold in much of the rest of the country.
Shipping information from my last orders. All orders were shipped via Priority Mail.
- Cackle, Missouri to Oregon. Shipment notice on April 26th and delivered on April 27th.
- Ideal, Texas to Oregon. Shipment notice on March 13th and delivered on March 15th.
- McMurray, Iowa to Oregon. Shipment notice on March 28th and delivered on March 30th.
- Meyer, Ohio to Oregon. Shipment notice on February 20th and delivered on February 21st. Heat packs were included without me requesting them (awesome!).
- Metzer, California to Oregon. Shipment notice on March 28th and delivered on March 30th.
After receiving some chicks from a breeder via Priority Mail Express I will be requesting it for any future chick orders because the faster shipping speed results in far less stress to the chicks.
How many chicks should you order
Chicks aren’t able to regulate their body temperature and can become chilled or overheated during shipping depending largely on the weather. Because of this hatcheries have a minimum amount of chicks that you need to order for them to be able to ship safely. This amount varies by hatchery and season. This can be as low as 3 large fowl chicks.
I personally don’t like to order less than 25 chicks. This number of chicks can generate enough body heat to help each other stay warm and results in much higher survival rates. Also, shipping rates on 25 chicks are cheaper because they don’t need as much packaging or a heat pack.
In the past, I’ve placed orders where I only wanted 5 specific chicks. To make up a full 25 chicks I also ordered an assortment of 20 rare breed pullets which I sold off once they were off the heat for $15 each.
Other options are to pool an order with other people, special order through your local feed store (limits you to whatever hatchery they order from), or just go ahead and order a few chicks.
How to order chicks from a hatchery
You can order either by mailing in a catalog order, calling in an order over the phone, or placing an order online. I much prefer placing an order online, although I do love flipping through the catalogs.
- Make yourself a wish list. You can read more about choosing breeds here.
- Add the chicks to your cart. Choose the gender (or a mix). Pullets are females under 1 year, cockerels are males under 1 year, and straight run is a mix of both genders.
- Select your ship date. You’ll be given a choice of ship dates where all of the chicks you’ve chosen are available. Choose the best shipping date for your location.
- Fill in your info.
- Decide on extras like whether you want a free chick, vaccinations, etc.
- Pay. Many hatcheries give you the option to wait to pay until 2 weeks prior to your chicks shipping. Some hatcheries (I’m looking at you, Cackle) require payment immediately.
- Wait (im)patiently for your ship date.
- Track your package and watch your weather forecast nervously.
- Receive your order.
What to have ready before your chicks arrive
Make sure that you have a heat source, bedding, chick starter, a feeder, and a waterer. You’ll want to make sure that your brooder is all setup and that your coop is done or close to it. I recommend moving chicks out of the brooder and into their adult or grow-out housing around 3-4 weeks (they will still need a heat source).
What to expect when they ship
When the hatchery ships your order you will receive either a phone call or an email notification. If they didn’t include a tracking number (Ideal never does) you can contact them to get it. It’s very important to get your tracking number because it can help you keep track of where your chicks are at.
What to do after they arrive
- Check for losses. It’s common to lose 1 or 2 chicks in an order of 25+ but I’ve had orders arrive with 0 losses. Set aside any deceased chicks.
- Pick up each chick and dip its beak in the water and food. Place it under the heat source.
- Monitor closely for pasty butt and report any and all losses to the hatchery by their required time. Most hatcheries will either refund you for the losses or credit your account. They may offer you replacement chicks, but keep in mind they can only ship them if you meet their minimum shipping requirement.