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Spring is on its way, and you may be considering raising chicks. Feed stores and hatcheries will be soon announcing the arrival of their new babies. It’s very tempting to bring home a few fluffy chicks, but do you know what to do after you bring them home? With all the information out there, it can be overwhelming. But I am here to help!
Decide what breed you want
First off, you want to decide what breed you want to get. With so many choices in chicken breeds, you’ll want to choose a breed or breeds that fit your needs best.
Do you want chickens that lay the most eggs? Get production hybrids! My favorites are Production Reds, Golden Comets, or ISA Browns. They are friendly chickens that lay like crazy. These hybrids can lay more than 280 eggs a year, or almost an egg every single day.
Do you want colorful eggs? Chickens like Ameraucanas or Easter Eggers lay beautiful blue or blue-green eggs. You can even get some that lay olive-colored eggs. Welsummers and Marans lay dark, chocolate brown eggs.
Do you want small, friendly chickens that love to hatch eggs? You may want to look into Silkies or Bantams. They are cute little fuzz balls that love their people, and have a tendency to go broody (want to hatch chicks).
In my opinion, the best breeds to get are known as “dual purpose chickens”. These are bigger birds that lay lots of eggs during their laying years, and then provide a decent sized meal when their laying days are done. This is the way our grandmas raised chickens! Examples of these would be Barred Rocks, or Orpingtons.
Choose how to get your chicks
Nowadays, there are so many options when looking to buy chicks. You can buy an incubator to hatch the eggs yourself, or you can have day-old chicks shipped to you. Keep in mind, if you buy an incubator, you can hatch any fertilized eggs that your grown hens lay for you as well. This helps you keep a self-sustaining flock. Getting chicks shipped to you comes with risks. If they get too cold, your chicks will die before you even get them.
Other popular options are going to your local feed store when they are having “chick days”, visiting your local hatchery, or even searching for eggs from a reputable local breeder through Craigslist or Facebook. Feed stores and hatcheries usually have the more “common” breeds, so if you want a less common breed, you may have to get chicks from a breeder, either online or locally.
Required supplies for raising chicks
Now that you know where you’re going to get your chicks, let’s make sure you have all the supplies you need, BEFORE you bring them home.
Chicks need a brooder. It should be at least 18 inches tall, be waterproof, and be able to have some kind of breathable lid put on top. Plastic tubs are great, but think outside the box! I actually want to get a galvanized water trough for my next chick brooder. You could even use an old playpen. Or, just buy a brooder from the feed store too.
Just a friendly note, don’t put them in your house unless you absolutely have to. I would suggest a garage or barn, but make sure you can keep the brooder safe and adequately warm. You do want to check on them frequently, though, so make sure it’s easily accessible for you.
The brooder needs a good covering of bedding to help with cleanliness and comfort. Pine shavings are the best, in my opinion. Don’t use straw, it stays wet and gets slippery. And don’t use newspaper, it also gets slippery. Cedar shavings can cause respiratory issues in chickens. If you use pine shavings, which is the best way, just fluff them up once a day and add a little more dry shavings if the bedding is too wet. Make sure you clean the brooder out every couple of days. Cleanliness is so important with chicks!
You need a good heat lamp, preferably with a red light bulb. Red light helps to “camouflage” injuries. If a chick gets injured and bleeds, the others will pick at that spot relentlessly. Red light helps cut down on that. It’s helpful to have some kind of pulley system to hang the heat lamp on, so that it can be raised and lowered to regulate the temperature.
It’s a good idea to get a thermometer just for the brooder. You really need to make sure your chicks stay warm enough, but not too warm. The brooder needs to be kept at 95 degrees the first week, and reduced by 5 degrees each week thereafter, until they reach a temp of 70 degrees. By that point they should be fully feathered and should be able to withstand more fluctuation in temps, as well as get some outside time on warm days.
Chicks need access to clean, fresh water at all times. I would suggest getting the waterer bases that screw onto the plastic quart bottles. They are sturdy and easy to clean. You can even use a quart mason jar in place of the plastic bottle if the bottle breaks. If you use any deeper of a waterer, you should put small stones in the bottom so that the chicks won’t drown. Nobody has ever accused chicks of being smart!
Chicks also need to have access to clean feeders. I prefer the long red feeders with the flip top lid with holes down it. You can buy them at any feed store. Chicks need 20% chick starter for the first 8 weeks, then you can switch to grower mash. You can choose to allow free access to food at all times, or alternate 12 hours with feed and 12 hours without. For laying chicks, I suggest free feeding. With broilers, they eat so much that it’s bad for them, so I would alternate 12 hours. Choose what’s best for you and your birds.
If you give your chicks treats (like kitchen scraps), you need to provide them with chick grit. Don’t mix it in with their food, put it in a separate dish. They will eat what they need of it. I wouldn’t suggest treats until they are at least 2 weeks old, but they love vegetable scraps. Chick grit helps to make sure they can digest their food properly. Side note: adult chickens need chicken grit too.
Health concerns with raising chicks
Chicks can be a little fickle. They require an attentive eye. Deaths will happen. Usually the highest mortality rate is during the first 48 hours, then it drops significantly as long as their basic needs are met. Hang in there, you’ll make it!
Humans can catch Salmonella from chickens. Always practice good hygiene. Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly after handling your chicks, feeders, or waterers. Some people have designated shoes for going into their chicken coop, and take them off outside to avoid bringing anything into the house. I wouldn’t say that’s a bad idea, I just don’t go to that extreme. We’ve never gotten sick from our chickens.
Pasty butt happens pretty frequently, but it’s not something you want to ignore. I get so sad for the chicks at some feed stores that have pasty butt. They’re not being taken care of properly. Still, I have to remind myself that it’s not a good enough reason to bring them home with me! Pasty butt is pretty much what it sounds like. Their butt, around the vent, gets caked with poop. Their down will have lots of poop on it that needs to be washed off. Don’t just pull it off – that stuff sticks like cement! You will need to wash their butts, then make sure they’re dried off enough before putting them back in with the rest.
Splay leg is a condition that happens with chicks sometimes. It has a couple different causes, but the most common is from chicks being on slippery bedding. This makes their legs “splay” and pulls their muscles and tendons. Think of it as doing the splits when you aren’t ready. Ouch! Another cause of splay leg is vitamin deficiency. If the chicks don’t get enough of the vitamins and minerals they need, they may develop leg issues, like splay leg. But normally, if you’re giving chick starter, this shouldn’t be an issue.
Coccidiosis is an intestinal disease that is caused by a parasite. This particular parasite is found in every chicken’s body, but under certain conditions these protozoa will multiply and attach themselves to the intestinal lining of the chicken. Coccidiosis cannot be spread to humans, nor can it be passed to different species of animals (except for other birds). Coccidiosis thrives in a damp environment, and is contracted easiest by younger chickens that haven’t developed an immunity to it. So please, please, make sure your brooder stays relatively dry, and your waterers and feeders are kept clean.
I do a variation of the deep litter method with my chicks, but only keep it in the brooder for a couple days until I clean it out. Normally deep litter is left in the coop for months before it’s cleaned out, but that’s just not possible with chicks. The brooder needs to be kept drier and cleaner than what is usually possible with deep litter. I also suggest buying hydrated lime from a building supply store. Every day or two, if the bedding seems too damp, sprinkle some hydrated lime onto the bedding and lightly fluff it in. It will help absorb some of the dampness.
Mites and lice
Typically chicks don’t contract mice and lice, since they are usually in a pretty clean environment and not in contact with older birds that may have the parasites. But it can happen, and you should know what to do if your chicks do get it! You can buy poultry dust at any feed store, for relatively cheap. Just follow the directions exactly. Basically, you just dust your chickens, avoiding the face. You usually have to repeat the treatment after 7 days. This is the best way, in my opinion, of getting rid of a mite or lice infestation.
A lot of people choose to use Diatomaceous Earth (also known as DE. I would love to be on this band wagon. Since I really prefer to use chemical-free, natural solutions, DE fits into my way of thinking very nicely. However, I believe DE is better for prevention, than dealing with a full-blown infestation. In fact, I put wood ashes and DE in my dust baths for my chickens all the time. But unfortunately, I just don’t believe that it has the power to treat bad cases. If you find yourself having to deal with this issue, please do some research yourself and decide what is best for your birds. Disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian, just a poultry enthusiast!
Injuries and attacks
While this may not be a health concern, per se, it is something you need to consider. Protect your chicks from injuries and attacks. Curious children can hurt chicks if they are not supervised. Family cats can eat all of your chicks when you go to bed. Been there! Make sure you have some kind of breathable “lid” that you can put over the brooder. You can fashion a lid out of some scrap wood and chicken wire, or use an old window screen. Just get creative on how you can protect your babies!
When your chicks get older
When your chicks get fully feathered, around 8 weeks, they can (and should!) have some supervised outdoor time on warmer days. The sunlight is good for them, and it will help them become more accustomed to temperature fluctuations.
Within a couple more weeks, they should be able to go into the coop with the older girls. Before you integrate, though, you should “introduce” them for about a week or two. Here is my best advice for adding new chickens to your existing flock, whether they are grow-out chicks or just new chickens: Put the new chickens in a wire dog crate or something similar inside of the chicken run. This will allow them to meet without touching each other. After that time, one night when your older birds are asleep on their roosts, simply put the new chickens on the roosts with them. Usually, when the chickens wake up in the morning, it’s not a big deal that there’s “strangers” sleeping with them. Just make sure your new chickens are big enough to “hold their own”.
Raising chicks doesn’t have to be intimidating. In fact, it can actually be lots of fun!
Chickens have been such a joy to me. Before I started on this homesteading journey, I didn’t really even like birds! Then I got 4 chickens, and I was hooked. They say that chickens are the “gateway drug” to raising other farm animals, and I thoroughly believe that. Check out this post on why you should have chickens!
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