Chicks don't take nearly as much of your time and money as your kids, but they still need a lot of attention. The first month of a chick's life is critical to their health and future success. With proper planning and preparation it's relatively easy to raise chicks. Our three chicks are doing just fine and are still pretty easy to look at.
|Our three chicks at two weeks|
Baby chicks need food, water, space, and heat. Their home for the first few weeks is usually a brooder, a house specifically designed to raise chicks. I built a brooder to accommodate all of their early requirements, but many other systems can be used, like a cardboard box, a pet cage, a big plastic bin, or a horse trough. Unless you want to move them when they're bigger the brooder should be big enough to allow two square feet per bird.
My brooder is two feet wide and four feet long, big enough for four comfortable chicks as they grow. Their house should be at least 12 inches tall. I recommend higher and made my brooder two feet tall. The chicks will experiment with jumping and flying as they grow and the extra height gives them room to exercise while reducing the chance that they can fly out.
|My simple wooden brooder|
The brooder can be located almost anywhere. A spot that is easy to get to makes your efforts easier. Mine is in our guest bedroom. I'd planned to put it in the barn but during a cold spell last month I determined I couldn't keep it as warm as it needed to be.
Heat is the most important factor in a successful brooder. Sure, you can argue that water and food are more important; that's obvious and a given. But heat is critical to their early survival. Baby chicks need an air temperature of 95 degrees in their first week of life. In the second week it drops to 90 degrees. Then 85 degrees the third week and so on until they're ready to move to their permanent coop at five or six weeks old. Only a properly-designed brooder can provide the necessary heat.
Use a heat lamp to provide the high temperatures. Some sources say you can use a 60-watt or 100-watt incandescent bulb, but unless you have it fully enclosed in a small cardboard box it won't generate nearly that much warmth. A 250-watt infrared heat lamp is the only way to guarantee the heat. I recommend a red bulb. The heat lamp needs to be on 24 hours a day and a white bulb provides continuous daytime which can interfere with the chicks' effort to sleep; red is darker and gives them some rest. Also, chicks are attracted to red and have a tendency to peck each other. If blood is drawn, other chicks can continue pecking the injured bird, potentially to death. A red bulb makes a wound virtually invisible and reduces the chance of chicks hurting each other.
Because the brooder temperature needs to change each week it's design should allow for the heat lamp to be moved as necessary. Before the chicks ever saw my brooder I used a thermometer to measure the temperatures at different spots with the heat lamp in different positions. Initially it was suspended inside the brooder to generate 95 degrees in one corner. It gradually changed until at one month it is mounted outside the brooder with the bulb pointed inward. I continue to monitor the temperature with a thermometer to keep it where it needs to be.
Chicks will self-regulate their body temperatures. If they huddle together under the heat lamp it demonstrates that they're too cold; you may want to lower or move the heat lamp for more heat. If they are hanging out far away from the lamp and away from each other, with wings spread and panting, they're too hot; you should raise the lamp to reduce heat. If they're walking around the brooder pecking curiously, they're comfortable and happy.
While they're walking around, water and food need to be available constantly. You can use bowls and pans, but I recommend the specific waterers and feeders that are designed for chicks. Chicks don't know not to step in or poop in their water and food. While an open dish is quickly soiled, a chick feeder has little holes designed for their little heads to peck food. An open water pan can actually drown a small chick while a chick waterer is designed to give each chick access to water without the opportunity to swim in it.
|Chicks with food, water, and heat lamp|
Chicks have specific nutritional needs and buying chick feed is the only way to provide it. There's no way you can supply the necessary nutrition if you try to feed them with kitchen scraps. They'll need chick feed for at least the first four or five weeks before they can graduate to different chicken feed. Specific bags of feed will tell how long it should be used before moving on to a "grower" feed. The feeder should stay full so food is always available. A dilemma arises in whether it should be medicated feed.
Coccidiosis is a deadly chicken disease. Some chick providers will vaccinate chicks against it, but if yours aren't vaccinated, medicated feed is recommended. Coccidiosis is spread from animal to animal and your chicks may have been exposed at their place of birth. Medicated feed is only needed if they aren't vaccinated and is an easy way to help keep them healthy.
|Chicks feeding together|
Fresh water is important. Chicks will hesitate to drink dirty water and can become dehydrated quickly. Since they do everything they can to dirty the water you give them, you'll need to change it many times a day. Initially the waterer should be at floor level so the baby chicks can drink it. As they grow plan to raise the waterer on blocks of wood or boxes so it is closer to the level of their heads. Do the same with the feeder.
|Bigger chicks with raised, fresh water|
A brooder should have absorbent bedding material. I use a thick layer of pine shavings. Cedar shavings aren't recommended because the aromatic oils in the wood can cause respiratory problems in the chicks. Some say pine can cause similar problems, but I haven't seen that. The bedding will be pecked and kicked as the chicks move around. Expect it to end up in the waterer and feeder, another reason to raise them as the chicks grow; it reduces how trashy they get.
Many people immediately think newspaper is an option for bedding because we're used to lining bird cages with newspaper. Newspaper by itself can get slippery when wet and slippery conditions can lead to a condition called "splayed leg" in chicks, a deformity that permanently affects the way the chick will walk. That deformity can cause the chick to be picked on, literally, by other chicks and can even result in being pecked to death.
Because "splayed leg" syndrome happens very early on, after the first week I use a layer of newspaper underneath the pine shavings. It helps keep the brooder cleaner when the chicks start kicking around the pine shavings and makes clean up easier. And easy clean up is important.
Chicks poop. A lot. And it increases as they grow. They don't care where they are when the urge strikes and the entire brooder will quickly become a mess. Having newspaper as a base allows me to pick up the messy shavings in a big mass to be distributed on the compost pile.
Depending on how many chicks you have, cleaning the brooder is a weekly event when they're small, particularly in a big brooder like mine. Lots of shavings effectively absorbs the amount of poop they produce. As they get into the teenager phase at about three weeks old cleaning needs to happen more often. Besides giving them a healthy environment, cleaning the brooder reduces the smell and depending on where you have your brooder smell can be an important and noticeable factor in your comfort.
A few other options should be considered when you're raising chicks. Birds need coarse material to aid their digestion. Chicks should have sand or parakeet gravel. You can provide it in a separate bowl but they'll probably knock it over quickly and your efforts may be wasted. I suggest adding it to their feed by sprinkling some on top when you add new feed.
Also adding a perch to the brooder when they're a few weeks old can give them a new toy to experiment with. Chickens will naturally roost on high spots. Training chicks on a low roost will get them ready for the roost you have in their permanent coop and may keep them off the feeder when they get big. A perch that is about four or five inches high is a good way to start. Half-inch dowels can be used as long as they won't spin when the chicks climb on. I use 1" x 2" wood mounted to 2" x 4" blocks. The top of the 1 x 2 is the thin portion, sanded with rounded edges so there are no splinters.
One of my chicks began roosting on the new roost after the first day. They all hop on it throughout the day. I'll raise it a little in the next few weeks to get them used to a higher roost. It's not a necessary part of a brooder but it's a nice addition.
|Checking out the roost|
If the days are nice and warm, you can give them some outside time beginning when they're about three weeks old. They should be in a fully protected cage or structure that provides water, food, and shade if it gets too hot. They can actually fly so don't give them the opportunity to escape. If it gets cloudy or windy they'll soon get cold so bring them back to the comfort of the brooder. Don't leave them unattended during an outdoor excursion.
After about five weeks the chicks should be ready to release into their coop. You'll probably be very ready for that transition. If the birds start pecking and fighting when they're older it may be because the brooder is too small for them. The exact date you move them depends on the weather and coop conditions. They should still have a warm environment with ample water and food and moving them to an unheated coop too early can affect their comfort. More on coop transition in the next chicken article.
Raising chicks is a time-consuming activity. You can't leave them unattended for a few days and expect that they'll be okay. During the important first month you'll need to watch after them daily, and many times during each day. Don't plan a vacation during that time. Remember that a happy chick is often a quiet chick. Lots of loud chirping means they're not happy. It takes work to keep them happy and healthy but it's worthwhile. Soon you'll have full-grown chickens.