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Guide to Basic Chick Care

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Spring is the promise of new life and the time when everyone gets excited to add baby animals to their lives. Before you grab a handful of baby chickens, let’s make sure we do it right!

I hatched my first chicks in 2006! I have been hooked ever since. I have learned a ton over the years and I love sharing that with others. I wrote a book titled, Chicken Keeping Pure and Simple, if you want to check it out! Welcome to my chick care guide!

First Things First

WHEN

The ideal time to bring home chicks (for most climates) is Spring. This is because chicks need to be kept warm and in the Spring and it is easier to regulate their brooder temperature and allow them outside play time if there isn’t snow on the ground. If you live somewhere with a cold winter, keep this in mind. You don’t really want to keep them in the house for too long because as they get older, they become really messy and stinky! A garage, a shed, or even in the coop(as long as it isn’t too cold) is best.

That being said, I have also brought home chicks in three foot of snow and just adjusted my set up to keep them inside for a few weeks before they could go to the garage. But, as a beginner, warmer weather will be your friend.

WHERE

There are many places you can purchase chicks. I make it a rule to only buy from NPIP certified breeders or hatcheries. This means they are properly testing their flock for disease and it is being monitored by state officials. Chickens are great at hiding disease and chicks that might look healthy from down the road, might not be. You can also buy chicks from a farm supply store. If you do this, be sure they are lively, eating and drinking, and don’t have injuries.

You can also hatch your own chicks in an incubator or let a broody hen do all the work. Keep in mind, you will likely end up with half hens and half roosters. Or in my case the last time, 75% roosters! I like ordering chicks because you can choose hens if that is what you want.  The hatchery will vent sex the chicks to give you a higher chance of receiving females. It is usually not 100%.

HOW

Snapinsta.app 289673548 1261081817758945 3127714199143997687 n 1080When purchasing egg laying chickens, the breeds can be mixed or all the same. I personally like having a diverse looking flock and egg basket. I choose my chickens based on fun egg colors, feather patterns, cold hardiness, and personality. I have never come across a breed I didn’t like. If you go to your favorite hatchery’s website, they should have detailed information about each breed. It’s hard not to buy them all so try to start small and add chicks in later years. Chickens often slow down egg laying or stop laying later in life. Adding chicks every other year or so will ensure you have layers at all times. Make sure to build your coop big enough to support more chickens as time goes on.

WHAT

I have a diverse flock of 32 chickens consisting of mostly different breeds. I often get asked what breeds I think are best for beginners. My favorite breed is the Orpington. They are fluffy, friendly, and usually calm. I like that they don’t cause drama in the flock and they also come in many different colors including blue, black, splash (white with black speckles), buff, lavender, jubilee, chocolate and more. I love my wyandottes and Marans for some of the same reasons! Mixed breeds such as olive eggers, easter eggers, and green queens are so much fun and full of surprise feather patterns and egg colors. Browse the different breeds that are offered and see which ones you like the look of. Read about their temperament, egg laying ability. See what fits for you!

Brooder Setup

A brooder is the area your chicks will live in until they are ready to go to the coop. This area will need to last for about 6-8 weeks and they grow FAST! Be sure to pick something appropriately sized for the number of chicks you plan to get. Aim for 3/4 sqft – 1 sqft per chick. It is best to set it up before they arrive.

CONTAINER

I have used many things over the years. Everything from a cardboard box to a huge stock tank. Here are my favorite options. The best place to set up is in a garage that isn’t too cold. Ideally, you don’t want chicks in your house for very long. They create a lot of dust and it isn’t safe to breathe in the dust from the droppings. They will also stink! If I get them while outside temperatures are below 60, I will keep them in the house until they are 2 weeks old or until temperatures rise a bit.

purely chickens brooderFor up to 5 chicks: I love using a 40-50 gallon storage container. I got the black and yellow one from Lowes and cut out the middle of the lid. I drilled holes around the edges and used pipe cleaner to secure chicken wire. It is very DIY but it has lasted me for years and is very easy to clean and disinfect for the next set of chicks. Rabbit/guinea pig cages that you buy at the pet store also work well.

stock tank brooder purely chickensFor up to 15 chicks: I have a 2’x4′ metal stock tank from Tractor Supply. I made a lid out of hardware cloth (you could also use chicken wire) and it works quite well! It is heavy and hard to store, which could be a deterrent for some.

For 15 or more chicks: A popup playpen is a great idea. Be sure to cover the bottom with enough bedding to keep the fabric as clean as possible. You can also use puppy pee pads to line the bottom and cover those with bedding. Another great option is giant dog cage. You will want to line the bottom of the walls with cardboard or chicken wire so they don’t fit out the gaps while they are little (remember they will jump high so go up a few feet).

You can also build your own brooder. There are many ideas on Pinterest and Etsy!

HEAT SOURCE

Chicks need heat. But, they don’t need a heat lamp! Heat lamps are dangerous fire hazards and every year I hear of coops, barns, garages, and houses being burnt down because of one. No matter how secure you think it is, a loose floating feather, a faulty wire, or a flying chick can cause issues that lead to a fire. The red light is damaging to their eyes and having a light on 24 hours a day doesn’t help them learn a sleeping pattern. The constant heat is also not helpful in learning to manage in different temperatures so transitioning them out to the coop is more difficult.

IMG 9508So what do you use instead? My favorite option is a brooder plate. It is a heated plate with legs that the chicks crawl under when they are cold and come out to eat, drink, and play. You start it fairly close to the ground and raise it as they grow. This setup is much more like the way a mother hen raises her chicks. Look for one with a cone lid so they can’t sit on top and do their business! I suggest getting a 12″ one 8 chicks or less. They come in larger sizes as well. Besides not being a fire hazard, brooder plates are great because they allow the chicks to wean themselves off heat naturally. You will be able to easily tell when they are done using the heat and ready for the coop because they won’t be going underneath it.

Keep in mind, if the power goes out you’ll want to have a back up plan for heat. One option is heating water on the stove and putting it in a rubber hot water bottle. You can also have a stash of hand warmers that you can put in with the chicks. Make sure the chicks don’t peck them open. I would wrap it in a towel. Replace both options often to keep the heat up. I do keep a heat lamp on hand in case a chick arrives too cold and needs heat fast. I use it while holding the chick under supervision and unplug it when we are done.

WATER

Chicks need water as soon as you bring them home. I like to add electrolytes and vitamins to their water for at least the first week. Make sure they have clean fresh water at all times. Clean water is a MUST for healthy chicks. You will want to check the water several times a day to make sure it is clean and full. When they first come home, tap your finger in the water and make sure they all drink before leaving them alone for the first time.

FOOD

growbuildraise scratch and peck instagram paid partners 2023 03 31 12 11 44 instagramYour chicks will need food as soon as you bring them home. It should be specifically formulated for chicks. They will be on chick feed for 18 weeks. Scratch and Peck Feeds has a starter feed that you will use for 0-8 weeks. After that you will use the grower feed for 8-18 weeks. There are two chick feed options. Medicated or not medicated. Medicated feed helps prevent coccidiosis for the first few weeks. If your hatchery vaccinated for coccidiosis, you do not use medicated feed. Some hatcheries have that as an option. Other vaccines do not play into this decision. If you choose to use unmedicated from the start, you will want to keep things in the brooder nice and clean.

I do not give my chicks anything except their chick feed until they are integrated into the coop. They really need all their food to be from the nutrients formulated in the feed until they are full grown. If you do give them treats or snacks, make sure they have access to chick grit to help them digest it.  They also need grit if they are eating the whole grain mash and their main food.

BEDDING

Pine ShavingsThere are many bedding options for baby chicks. You can use pine shavings, hemp bedding, puppy pee pads, or straw. I personally like hemp bedding because the clean-up is easy and I can put it straight into the compost. It is also pretty much dust free and helps control the smell. Avoid cedar with chicks as it is bad for their health. Change the bedding every few days and add a little to the top on the days you don’t completely change it. I like to give the container a wipe down with water and white vinegar before adding new bedding.

ROOSTS

Your babies should have somewhere to practice roosting. You can use any type of DIY roost made from thick sticks or pieces of wood. I like using ones that are about an inch in diameter. Roosts give the chicks something to do! They practice jumping up and down and get away from each other at various levels in the brooder.

Handling Chicks

handling chicks by purely chickensIt is important to always handle chicks with clean hands. Wash your hands before and after handling them. Chicks are susceptible to many illnesses. They are fragile and need you to keep them away from germs! If you have children, make sure they follow these steps as well.

I encourage you to avoid grabbing at the chicks.  This can cause them to fear you and this makes it harder to handle them when they are older.

OUTSIDE TIME

Chick outside purely chickensYour chicks will appreciate time outside of their brooder. If it is warm outside (60s and above) you can take them out in the sun to play. Pay attention to their cues. If they are scratching and exploring, then you can keep them outside! If they start to look panicked with loud chirping, you might want to bring them back to their heat.

Don’t be surprised when you see your chicks laying down on the ground.  They like to spread their body out in the sun or take a dust bath in a nice dirty spot! I love watching this part! It is a good idea to stay with them while they are outside.  Many predators could find your chicks such as birds of prey, fox, and cats!

MOVING TO THE COOP

Before moving the babies to their outdoor coop, they need to be fully feathered. This usually happens around 6-8 weeks. Once they are fully feathered, they no longer need heat to keep them warm. If you have been using a brooder plate, nothing else needs to happen but if you used a heat lamp, they need to be weaned off that heat so make sure you are dropping their brooder temp weekly. I like to move chicks out to the coop when the nighttime temps are above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

I like to keep them in the coop and chicken run until they are laying eggs. This serves two purposes. It helps them get to know their area and makes it more likely they will use the nest boxes instead of your favorite azalea bush as an egg laying spot. It also keeps them safe from predators while they are too little to defend themselves.

Spend some time showing them where their food and water is located. At dusk, you will want to show them where to sleep. Young chickens tend to want to huddle together on the floor of the coop. Sometimes you have to pick them up and put them on the roosts. This might go on for a few nights until they figure it out. If you have an automatic door, check on them until they all figure out when the door goes down and they need to be inside before that happens. Alternatively, you can keep them locked in the coop for a few nights before giving them access to the run. This helps them know the coop as home base.

Congratulations! You have a great base knowledge of what you need to successfully raise baby chickens. 

nikki bio photo scaledNikki Husted is the author of Chicken Keeping Pure and Simple and runs the social media channels @purelychickens on instagram, tiktok, youtube and facebook.  After deciding to stay home with her kids and quit her teaching career, she found that teaching people about chickens was just as fulfilling.  Her main goal is to share her love for animals and make chicken keeping easy for others. 

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