We started our small backyard flock a few months ago with older pullets. As newbies to the chicken world, we felt this was the best way to get our feet wet – we got chickens we knew were female, healthy, strong, and on the verge of laying. I would recommend started pullets to any first time chicken keeper, and I’m really grateful we went that route. We have learned a LOT – most importantly – that we LOVE chickens!
With the love of chickens comes the desire to have more, and at this time of year that spells chick fever! The hubby was hesitant to get into chicks – they take a lot of work, and a lot of time before they can start laying eggs. But, I wore him down. My desire for cute baby chicks, and the chance to raise our chickens from the ground up had me hooked.
So began research mode. There is a lot to know when you’re bringing new babies into your life, and you owe it to yourself and those tiny precious lives to be as informed as you can. With that in mind, I wanted to share the very valuable lessons we’ve learned so far on our chick journey.
Before you get started, do a little research on chicken breeds and see which ones fit your needs. Do you want chickens that are great layers? Make good pets? Make good meat birds? These are important factors to consider before you commit to buying chicks. Also, try to get your chicks from a local breeder or somewhere you can see them in person. This will cut down on shipping tragedies or genetic problems that can occur when ordering from big hatcheries.
The Brooder – Baby Chick Housing
The place where you keep your baby chicks confined is called a brooder. I’ve seen people with brooder set-ups from cardboard boxes, to kiddie pools, to plastic storage containers. It’s pretty amazing what people come up with. The things to consider when setting up your brooder are: it must have a heat source, a feeder, a waterer, bedding, a top (those little rascals can really fly sometimes) and enough space for the amount of chicks you have to be able to play and stretch their little legs. Most people like to incorporate a roosting bar so the chicks can have something to perch on. Make sure your brooder is easy to get into for cleaning and feeding, and in a secure place where it won’t fall over or be accessible to curious pets or small children.
Chick Food – Medicated vs. Non-medicated
For me, one of my biggest questions was whether to feed my chicks medicated feed or non-medicated feed. There are a lot of different opinions on which feed is best. After a lot of research and careful consideration, I realized that there was really one big factor that it came down to – Coccidiosis.
Coccidiosis is a common disease in chickens and can be contracted very easily from contaminated soil or other birds. It is most prevalent in young chickens. Some chicks are vaccinated for Coccidiosis along with a Marek’s vaccine. If a chick has been vaccinated against Coccidiosis, a medicated feed will nullify the effects of the vaccine, which means these chicks will need a non-medicated feed. Chicks who have not been vaccinated for Coccidiosis receive protection from medicated feed. Be sure to check with your chick supplier as to whether your chicks are vaccinated for Coccidiosis. Because of this we have one batch of chicks on medicated feed, and one on non-medicated in separate brooders.
Fresh, easily accessible water is, of course, very important for chicks. However, your basic waterer will become filthy very quickly – I swear my chicks made a game of getting it as gross as possible, as quickly as possible. To help with this, you can elevate your waterer to help keep it from getting too much bedding in it, or getting pooped in. Make sure the water is very shallow for young chicks, as they can drown in it easily. Many people add small rocks or marbles to the water dish portion when chicks are very young in order to prevent this.
We saved our sanity over cleaning out the water a billion times a day by investing in a few Brooder Bottle Caps from The Chicken Fountain. This ingenious little invention is a watering cap that fits on the end of any soda bottle, and only costs $3 per cap. You simply clean out a soda bottle (size dependant on your brooder), punch a hole in the far end, put the cap on, hang up, and viola! The chicks drink from it in a similar fashion to a rabbit/hamster type water bottle. I was really skeptical at first, but the chicks figured it out quickly, and just love it. It has cut down on our chick maintenance by leaps and bounds. Get one of these!
Chicks need to be kept very warm, starting at 90 degrees F and moving down 5 degrees F per week. The standard, most traditional way to offer chicks sufficient heat is with an infra-red heat bulb over the brooder. You can put a thermometer in the brooder to check for proper temperature, and the brooder should be “pre-heated” before you place chicks in it. The chicks will let you know how they feel about the temperature – if it’s too cold, they will stay directly under the heat source in a cluster and cheep loudly in distress. If it’s too warm, they will move away from the heat source, and open their beaks in what looks like a pant. When the temp is just right, the chicks will be spread out evenly, go about their business, and make little noise.
We started off with the traditional red heat bulb. However, at 250 watts, this thing will kill your electric bill. It also poses a serious fire hazard, especially in the middle of the night when you can’t monitor it. Lucky for me, my chick raising buddies who had much more experience than I, suggested using the EcoGlow 20. This warmer is outstanding – it only uses 18 watts of electricity, eliminates fire hazard, and warms the chicks in a similar fashion to a mother hen. It also accommodates up to 20 chicks! It did take our chicks a few hours to figure it out, but once they did, they absolutely loved it. As they get older they’ve enjoyed perching on top of it as well. I can’t recommend this warmer enough – it’s a life (and electricity) saver.
When your chicks are very young (a few days old) it is highly recommended that you start off with paper towels as bedding. This prevents their tiny legs from sliding apart and causing splayed legs. It also keeps them from eating things (wood chips, sand, etc.) that they shouldn’t. After about a week, you can change to another bedding, typically pine shavings. Hay is not recommended, for several reasons, and neither is newspaper due to harmful inks and the slippery surface. We use pine shavings, but I’ve heard of more and more people using sand, which can be scooped out much like cat litter, and provides grit and a dust bath. The most important thing to bear in mind is that chicks poop a lot. A LOT. They are smelly and messy, and bedding needs to be changed often to keep it clean and dry.
Stay away from most treats until the chicks are a few weeks. When you do introduce treats, make them soft ones – fruits, plain yogurt, hard boiled egg, etc. Anything with a whole grain could cause serious issues since chicks don’t have anything to help process it unless you choose to provide chick grit. Even so, I would avoid hard treats like scratch, seeds, etc., until the chicks are older and have access to grit to process them properly.
Handle Those Chicks
This one shouldn’t be hard – picking up adorable chicks is nearly impossible to resist. Go slow at first and get them used to your hands. The ability to handle your chicks will make it easier to check them for problems, and make them more docile, friendly grown chickens. Check chicks often for things like “pasty butt” which is an indication of illness, and skin issues such as mites. The more you interact with your chicks, the more likely you are to catch any health problems early on. Try not to rub chicks on your face or kiss them – they may be cute, but they are also dirty and carry a salmonella risk. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after holding them.
There Will be Roosters
Unless you get Red or Black Sex-Link chicks or another auto sexing breed, there is a very real possibility you will end up with a Rooster or two among your chicks, even with those chicks that are claimed to be sexed. It happens, and more often then not. Decide in advance what you will do with any males you may end up with, as many cities and towns don’t allow roosters.
The Hardest Lesson – Sometimes Chicks Die
Chicks are very fragile creatures, and sometimes, despite all your efforts, despite doing everything “right”, you may experience a chick passing away. Often times if chicks are shipped a few may end up DOA. Sometimes they succumb to an illness you couldn’t prevent. And sometimes, Mother Nature is random and cruel. We just went through losing our little Rhode Island Red chick to a prolapse that we just couldn’t fix despite three agonizing days of trying everything in our power to save her. To lose something so little and sweet is truly heartbreaking. Unfortunately it’s also a reality when raising chicks. However, the joys of raising chicks far outweigh the rare sorrows.
Enjoy your babies – like any animal, they are only cute and fuzzy for so long. Take lots of pictures, watch their antics, and love every minute of it.