Chickens may be “easy to care for” but baby chicks are fragile. Follow these tips to give you little peeps the best chance at a healthy adult life.
Before the Chicks Arrive – Brooder Setup
Baby chicks need a warm, safe, clean place to live during the first 4-6 weeks of their life. That warm, safe, clean place is called a brooder and it can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes.
The brooder can be as simple as a cardboard box or as complex as a wood and wire box built for the occasion. The container should be able to keep bedding (i.e., pine shavings), chicken poo, chicken feed and, well, chickens, enclosed at all times while still allowing air flow. Our brooder was initially a large plastic Rubbermaid tub. As our chickens grew we graduated to a large cardboard box and eventually a large dog crate with cardboard inserts to keep the bedding inside.
Temperature is critical during the first few weeks so you’ll want a heat lamp to keep those chickees warm! During the first week the temperature inside the brooder should be 95*. Every week after that you lower the temperature by 5* (move the lamp higher) until eventually you settle around 70* and turn the lamp off. To be able to accurately determine the temperature you’ll also want to include a thermometer. I placed my indoor/outdoor thermometer inside the brooder – tells me the brooder temp and (remotely) tells me the greenhouse temp.
Chicks also need something to eat (typically commercial chick feed) and something to drink (whiskey water). Becuase they’re messy creatures, it’s your job to make sure their food and water don’t get (overly) contaminated with poo. Ergo, these puppies come in handy:
The other thing you’ll need in your brooder is bedding. The bedding absorbs chicken waste. I’ve heard rumors that pine shavings are bad for chickens because they give off some manner of harmful emission. Unfortunately I didn’t learn that until after I had already filled my brooder with pine shavings. I did more reading (especially in the forums at www.backyardchickens.com and the overwhelming majority of chicken owners said they had been using pine shavings for a long time with no signs of impact on the chickens. All the same, after we ran out of wood chips I used timothy hay. I have to say, the wood chips definitely did a better job of absorbing moisture and smells. Plus the with the way our final brooder was setup (dog crate with cardboard sides) there were small cracks where the bedding would fall out onto the floor when the chickens scratched in it. Long story short, I ended up with chicken bedding on my floor. Not. Happy. I’m going back to wood chips. (On a side note, resist the urge to use shredded newspaper. Apparently it is very slippery under the little chickees feet and can lead to abnormalities in foot development.)
Bringing the Chicks Home
Now that your brooder is setup and the temperature is just right, you’re ready to bring some babies home! If you ordered chicks to be delivered through a hatchery, they’ll arrive a little stressed. The chicks are packaged in a way that they’re collective body heat keeps them warm, but as soon as you open the packaging, getting them into an appropriately warm environment is critical. Also keep in mind that it’s not uncommon for one or two chicks to die during delivery because of the stress. Keep that in mind if you have little ones who are helping you get the chicks setup. (Knowing that this is common, hatcheries will often send you a couple of extra ‘insurance’ chicks.)
If you’re picking your chicks up, you’ll want to keep them warm in transport. Our six chicks came home in a cardboard box from Tractor Supply Company that looked a little like a happy meal with ventilation holes. (Perhaps we should name one nugget?) The ride from TSC to our farm is about 5 minutes so I just made sure the temp in the car was comfortable.
Whether you bring them or the mailman does, the first thing you want to do is encourage your chicks to take a drink of water. Gently pick them up and dip their beaks into the water container until they drink.
Now is a good time to take note of how the chicks behave. If they huddle together under the light, they are probably too cold and you’ll need to lower the heat lamp. If they scatter to the edges of the brooder, they are probably too hot. Having a thermometer in the brooder takes some of the guess work out of this part.
Another thing to check for is “pasting up.” This is a condition where a stressed chick gets a buildup of feces on their vent (where their poo comes out). You want to check your chicks often for pasting up. (I checked mine a couple of times a day during the first week they were with us – their second week of life – and since none of them ever had a problem, I stopped checking after that.) If one of your chicks has a problem with pasting up, guess what you get to do? Clean it. Grab a damp, warm towel and wipe away the problem. Sounds gross, but think of all the street cred you’ll gain in the backyard chicken community…
Ongoing Chick Care
In addition to the things mentioned above, remember that you need to adjust the heat lamp every week so that the temperature drops by 5 degrees. This process is essentially “hardening them off” just like you would do with a plant that has been living indoors and is now ready to live outside. You’ll also want to change the chicks’ bedding at least once a week or more often if it gets especially nasty in there. After the chicks are 2-3 weeks old, they can take field trips to the outdoors so long as the temperature is warm. Keep a close eye on them to protect them from family pets and predators like hawks or racoons. Our chickens ventured outside twice before they moved to the coop – once at four weeks old and once at five weeks old. Both occasions were on warm (60*) sunny days and lasted for about 30-40 minutes. Marley helped us to keep a watchful shepherd eye on them both times.
When your chicks are four to five weeks old, they’re probably ready to be called chickens. They’re also ready to move to their permanent outdoor home. Because our chickens are old enough to get the heck out of my spare bedroom already be outside now, they’ve moved to their new home in the backyard (more on that later this week!). Though daytime temps are up in the 50?s and 60?s, our April nights still dip down to nearly freezing. For that reason, I plan to keep the heat lamp on at night for another two weeks or so. I’m being careful to keep it clipped to a spot where the hens can benefit from the warmth without danger of touching its hot surface.
A Note on Food
I ran into conflicting opinions about what to feed my baby chickens. Many hard-core permaculture peeps felt it was important to reject commercial starter feed. (After all, our grandparents or great-grandparents probably didn’t rely on medicated commercial chick feed to get their flock off to a good start.) The idea is that commercial “starter feed” has everything a baby chick needs, namely proteins that are easy for little chick stomachs to digest. You can buy medicated or unmedicated feed. The medication – as well as an available vaccine – are intended as a preventative measure against coccidiosis, a disease caused by an intestinal parasite. On YouTube I saw several videos where chicken owners have chosen to give their chicks yogurt as “insurance” against intestinal issues. For easy to understand info on coccidiosis, medicated starter feed and vaccinations, I recommend this article at Urban Farm Online: Hatching the Facts on Medicated Chick Starter Feeds for Layers. We opted for non-medicated starter feed and have given our chicks a few doses of yogurt. I have no idea whether or not they have been vaccinated. We’ll plan to feed our chickens starter feed for the first two to three months.
Chickens also need grit. Grit is a substance (usually small stones) that chickens use in their crop (the first part of a chicken’s digestive system) to help grind their food. (Look ma, no teeth!) Whether or not you need to feed your chickens grit depends on their diet. I suggest doing some research before you decide what to do. Here’s a good place to start: Chicken Grit; Grit for Baby and Adult Chickens. I still haven’t made a plan for the kind of grit we’ll provide our chickens.
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