Updated: Jan 10, 2022
In this blog we will go over what you need to know when raising chicks. How to care for them and what you need to know to keep them happy, healthy but most of all alive. These are things that we have learned along the way that helped us and will hopefully help you successfully care for and raise your chicks.
Why do I need to give special care to my chicks?
Most baby chicks are hatched by people in incubators. Because of that there is no momma hen to care for them. This makes you your chicks mamma hen. For the next 8-12 weeks your are going to have to keep these chicks warm and safe from harm. You do this by housing the chicks in what is called a brooder. A brooder is like a chicken coop but just for baby chicks. The brooder is what you house your chicks in until they are ready to move outside to a grow out pen. Ideally it should be warm, secure, away from predators and draft free. There are all types of brooders from simple DIY to commercial set ups. Find what works for you and work from there.
First thigs first the brooder.
When deciding what type of brooder to use, think "is it easy to clean"? Having a brooder that can be cleaned out easily is a time saver. Baby chicks like all baby's are messy and trust me you are going to have to clean the brooder out often. How often depends a lot on how many chicks you have in there and how old they are. As chicks get older and bigger they start making more of a mess. This causes people to sometime move their chicks outside to soon. It is good to have 2 brooders available. One for baby or younger chicks and another for when they are needing more space. We typically move chicks to a large wooden brooder around 4-5 weeks. They will stay in that larger brooder until they move outside at around 8-12 weeks depending on the time of year. It is recommended that chicks under 8 weeks don't move outside until the night time temperature is above 60 degrees. This is to ensure they are fully feathered out with a good layer of down feathers and can regulate their own body temp.
Setting up your brooder.
There a few things that all brooders need. That is bedding, added heat, food and water. Lest talk about each one and why they are important for your chicks overall health.
When setting up your brooder you are going to want to pick a location that is draft free, away from any predators this includes your pets. Once you have your location picked you will want to set up your brooder before you bring home your chicks. You will need to have some type of bedding for the brooder. The bedding helps to insulate the brooder floor, while giving them something to scratch in. Bedding also helps give them something to grip when walking so they don't slip. If the floor is to slick it can cause the chick to get leg problems like Splay Leg or even a slipped tendon. When choosing what bedding to use there are options. Some common ones used are pine wood shavings, chopped straw, wood pellets or a combination of these. Try them out and see what works for you.
Just like with bedding there are a few choices when it comes to how you will heat your brooder. The most common is to heat the brooder with a heat lamp. Shown in the photo is two different options. The one on the right can be found at any feed store. The one on the left is from Premier 1 Supplies online and is the only heat lamp deemed barn safe. Both will need to be lowered and raised to maintain optimal temperature.
If spending a rope from above your brooder makes you uneasy this heat lamp stand might be a good fit for you.
When using a heat lamp it is recommended that you place the heat lamp 20 inches above the litter surface to prevent the bedding from getting to hot.
We heat our brooder with a heat lamp but do it a bit different. We first attached the lamp to the lid of our brooder, them plug the heat lamp in to a lamp dimmer cord. Doing it this way eliminates the need to lower and raise the light. It allows us to keep the lamp in one spot, making it less of a risk of falling. When it is time to adjust the heat we simply dim or brighten the light. Making heating our brooders easy peasy.
If none of those ways are for you, then maybe a chick heating plate is the way to go. How they work is the plate hovers over the chicks like how a mother hen would.
The chicks go underneath to warm up. Just don't let your chicks get over crowded. They need room to move around underneath. Luckily heating plates come in many sizes so finding the size you need is a breeze. You will need to adjust the height too as they grow otherwise they can't fit under it.
How Warm should you have your brooder?
That is a great question, we talked about what to use to heat your brooder but not why or to what temperature. The temperature of your brooder really all depends on the age of your chicks. As you can see in the photo newly hatched chicks need it warmer than week old chicks. The most accurate way to gauge the temperature in the brooder is to placed a thermometer at the chicks' level. You can also tell by how the chicks are moving around the brooder. If the chicks are to hot they will be as far away from the heat as possible. They might be laying on their side and not moving a lot. If they are to cold they will be huddled under the heat. Most likely they will be chirping loud. I like to say "Cold chicks are noisy chicks". If you reach the Goldilocks temperature, not to warm not to cold. Then your chicks will be moving around the brooder.
Now you have your brooder set up time to talk feed.
The best way to keep your chicks health is to feed them healthy. There are 4 different types of chicken feed. Layer feed that you feed to your adult birds. Flock Raiser that can be feed to a wide range of poultry of all ages. Chick grower for older chicks that are not yet ready for layer feed. Then there is chick starter, this is the feed you will feed your new baby chicks. Some brands will sell a feed that is a combination Starter/Grower. That is ok for baby chicks too. The main difference between all the types of feed is in the amount of protein & calcium inside the feed. At different stages of life your birds will need certain types of feed for optimal health. For example, with Adult birds, typically you would want a feed that has 16-18% protein. Layer feed in addition to lower protein also has high levels of calcium that the hens need for egg development. This higher calcium level in the layer feed if fed to chicks can cause kidney damage. So you will want to make sure your chicks are only fed feed that is safe for chicks.
When you set out to select your chicks starter you will be faced with the option to go Medicated or Non-Medicated. Medicated feed has small doses of Amprollium to prevent Coccidiosis. Coccidiosis is caused by protozoan parasites found in the soil and very common in young chickens. If caught early it is very treatable. You are able to prevent Coccidiosis with good biosecurity and husbandry. The thought behind medicated feed is to give small doses of Coccidiosis treatment (Amprollium) as a way to build up a immunity. We choose not to feed medicated feed and focus more on prevention. But if your farm has a known Coccidiosis presence than maybe a Medicated feed is right for you.
The next decision is to go organic/non-GMO or not. This really comes down to feed cost and if organic or non-GMO is important to you or not. All feed types are going to have the same nutrition facts, only the ingredients differ. Also most times there will be a higher price associated with organic and non-GMO feeds. When choosing the right feed for you it all comes down to what works for you. What works for one might not work for another. What I like to tell people is find the feed that has the most to offer with the highest protein levels that fits in to your budget.
One thing often overlooked when it comes to feed is Grit. Grit should always be offered to chicks in addition to their feed. Grit is required for chickens of all ages for optimum feed digestion and to develop healthy gizzards. It acts like teeth grinding the feed making it more digestible. When raise by a momma hen chicks learn to eat small rock found when scratching in the ground. Since your chicks are being raised in a brooder with no access to the ground you will need to offer them this supplement. That can be done by adding a dish full of grit to the brooder for chick to free feed on or by adding it sparingly to their feed 4-5 times per week, like adding salt and pepper to your food.
Last but not least, every brooder needs fresh water.
The water should be always kept clean and room temperature. Giving baby chicks water that is too cold can chill the chick.
The first couple days after hatching we like to add both electrolytes and probiotic to the chick water. We found this to help give the chicks an extra jump start. It also help reduce stress from shipping. If you choose to try this be sure to change it out daily with a new batch.
When our chicks get older and are ready to make the transition to the outside we like to add raw apple cider vinegar (ACV) to their water. We do this about 1-2 weeks before they move outside. This help to change their pH balance making it harder for them to get Coccidiosis. (ACV should be changed out daily for optimal benefit. We use the brand in the photo and find it works best for us.)