So, you’re ready to get chicks? You’ve read our post on planning for your backyard flock. You’ve picked your breeds, checked your city ordinances and decided where they will live. Great. You’re about to embark on a VERY exciting, fun and rewarding adventure.
We were lucky enough to start our backyard chicken adventure with 2 full-grown, egg-laying hens. We had family friends who needed to get rid of their chickens and we gladly obliged. I was glad about this because getting chicks is intimidating! They ARE babies after all and babies are terrifying! But relax, it is really quite easy as long as you take care of a few key things. Read on to learn more about chick care.
Just like baby humans, baby chicks need lots of supervision and lots of attention. You shouldn’t get chicks if you have a long trip planned any time soon or if you are incredibly busy and away from the house for really, really long stretches.
First thing to consider is where you will get your chicks. The four main ways are:
- Feed Store/ Pet Store
- Local Farm/Person
- Mail Order
- Incubate Hatching Eggs
If you have a rooster, you might also be doing it the natural way – fertile eggs and a broody hen. However, since this post is geared to the backyard chicken keeper, I know most of us aren’t allowed to keep roosters.
We’ve gone two routes and had different results. We did a feed store once and a pet store once. The feed store was WAY better for us than the pet store. The feed store chicks were well cared for, strong and healthy. With the pet store chicks, we had to exchange one the first day we got it because it was sick, then one died and one of the remaining ones has been sick off and on. It could have been a coincidence but I don’t think so.
I have a friend who sourced some from a local chicken keeper and was able to get some really rare and beautiful breeds. On the other hand, the feed store that we use only carries very common, tried and true, birds. Something to consider.
Incubating can be fun but again, it is something that you have to really watch and be there to tend to. The incubator may do most of the work but you have to be there when they hatch and be able to monitor the incubator for malfunction.
Mail order is a popular option, especially if you are in need of a large number of birds or have your heart set on a specific variety. Some popular and reputable mail order sources include:
If you aren’t letting a mama hen raise your chicks, you’ll need somewhere for them to “brood.” Temperature is one of the most important things to successfully raising chicks and a brooder allows you to have good control. If done correctly, it will also keep your chicks safe from predators. A good rule of thumb is to be sure you have 6 square inches available in the brooder per chick.
We use pine shavings – Living World Pine Shavings in our brooder but you can use a variety of different things. We’ve used paper shavings before and they work well. You can also use dry straw. Pine shavings are the most highly recommended, but be sure they are pine and not cedar or some other hardwood. From what we understand, the oils that exist in hardwoods can be bad for chickens.
We have written a post in the past on our brooder that is constructed from a large plastic tote. It is good for a small number of chicks, easy to find the supplies and simple to make.
It is also common to hear of people using a cardboard box. You can see below that we started with a cardboard box the first time. We quickly ditched that method though because chick poop can be wet and they were also very messy with their water dish. The box was destroyed rather quickly.
Large scale operations and people brooding larger numbers of chicks will often use a galvanized trough. It gives the chicks plenty of room and the sides are high enough that they won’t be able to fly out at any point.
Food and Water
You will start chicks on “starter” ration and they will continue to eat this for several weeks (8 is recommended by most). We’ve always only had 4 chicks at any one time, so I buy a large bag of starter ration and as the bag gets low I slowly mix in layer ration. So far this method has worked for me. (As an aside, I was reading recently that you should do 8 weeks starter ration, 8 weeks grower feed and then switch to layer feed. Something to consider.)
Water is incredibly important for chicks and one of the main reasons that you need to be around to watch them closely. As they get older and friskier they may knock their water over (MESS) and or scratch all of their shavings into their water dish, leaving it unusable. A dehydrated chick is a sick chick and then a dead chick. Like human babies and toddlers, chicks are messy and destructive. They are learning and exploring. This means you will have lots of cleaning up and “fixing” to do.
You’ll want to be sure to buy a feeder – LITTLE GIANT Baby Chick Feeder Base Metal Feeder Base Jar and a waterer – Little Giant Screw-On Poultry Waterer Base designed specifically for chicks, as well. The waterer is important so that they can’t get in and drown themselves (especially for bantam varieties).
Right up there with water, the temperature is incredibly important to brooding chicks. It is important that your brooder space is equipped with a heat lamp – Zoo Med Deluxe Porcelain Clamp Lamp for Reptiles and a thermometer. (We no longer use a thermometer because once you’ve done it a few times, it is easy to tell what a cold or hot chick looks like, but at first, a thermometer is key.)
When you first get chicks, their brooder should be kept right around 95 degrees. You can decrease this temperature by 5 degrees each week until they are constantly living at the ambient temperature. (I do find that with keeping them in our unconditioned laundry room space, we do still need the heat lamp on at night near the end of their stay in the brooder.)
The easiest way to tell if your chicks are comfortable is to look at them. They will sleep a lot and if they are sleeping in a row, laid out pretty much flat and near, but not huddled under, the heat lamp, then you are doing well. Chicks that are piled on top of each other right under the heat lamp are too cold. Chicks that are spread out throughout the brooder or trying to stay far away from the heat lamp are too hot. You’ll get good at figuring this out.
Leaving the Brooder
Chicks can head out to the coop when they are about 4-6 weeks old. However, this can depend on a lot of different factors. The biggest factor being the weather in your area. Where I live, there is hardly ever a concern but you definitely don’t want to let your chicks first introduction the outdoors be freezing temperatures. They should be fully feathered before they are put outside.
We like to “harden off” my chicks. We do this by, around 6 weeks, putting them outside for a little bit of time and then bringing them in. Each day I leave them out for a little longer until one day we leave them out all day and only bring them in at night. We do this for a while and then eventually they start going to roost at night on their own and we feel comfortable leaving them out all night.
Our rule of thumb is better safe than sorry. All this work and it would be devastating to wake up one morning to a bunch of dead chicks 6 weeks after you got them.