Thinking about ordering some baby chicks, or already have an order on the way? Here’s everything you need to know to care for your new arrivals:
What You’ll Need
Before your chicks arrive, you’ll need to have the following supplies on hand:
A Brooder – This is simply a place to keep your chicks for the first four to five weeks of their life. It can be a galvanized tub, a roomy box or even an old kiddie pool. We started ours out in a galvanized wash tub, and will be moving them to a kiddie pool when they get a bit bigger. Many hatcheries recommend giving each chick two feet of personal space by the fourth or fifth week.
Pine Bedding – to line the brooder. Avoid cedar shavings, as it will irritate their skin
A 250 W Red Heat Lamp Bulb – to keep the chicks toasty warm
A Brooder Clamp Light – to hold the heat lamp bulb
A Thermometer – to ensure you’re keeping the brooder at the right temperature for your chicks
Chick Starter Feed – If your chicks were vaccinated for Coccidosis, buy non-medicated feed. If you’re chicks weren’t vaccinated for Coccidosis, you can choose between medicated and non-medicated feed. Your chicks will be on starter feed for the first eight weeks.
Chick Grit – Chickens hold grit in their crop, and use it to help with the digestion of their food. This becomes important once they start foraging outdoors and eating foods other than their chicken feed.
A Chicken Feeder – to hold the chick feed. Plastic and galvanized versions are available. I use a galvanized feeder with a glass mason jar screwed into the top.
A Chicken Waterer – You can get plastic and galvanized versions of this, as well. I use a galvanized waterer with a glass jar.
How to Set Up the Brooder
The day before your chicks arrive, take a few minutes to set up their brooder. Spread pine bedding on the floor (at least an inch deep). Then, hang the heat lamp, and adjust its position until you get a 95 degree reading on the thermometer. Finish by filling up the feeder and waterer and placing them in a spot that where they will be warmed by the light, without being directly underneath it. This small amount of prep work will ensure that your chicks are as comfortable as possible when they arrive.
When Your Chicks Arrive
If your chicks are arriving by mail, they’ll probably be stressed, tired, hungry and thirsty when they get here, so give them a chance to settle in before you play with them.
Transfer them from the box that they came in to the brooder, and allow them to explore their new digs. If they haven’t made their way to the waterer within a few minutes, hold one of the chicks up to the water, and gently dip her beak into the water. Once you get one drinking, they’ll all quickly follow suit.
Spend some time watching your chicks to gauge their comfort. They’ll probably be cheeping like mad when you first stick them in the brooder, but should settle down once they get comfortable. Pay special attention to where the chicks are spending their time. If they’re bunched up under the light, they’re probably cold, and you’ll need to adjust the light, so that it’s closer to them. Likewise, if you find that they’re hanging out at the far corners of the brooder, you should take that as an indication that they’re hot and move the light further away. To maintain the health of your chicks, the brooder needs to be kept at 95 degrees for the first week.
Heading Off Problems
Check your chicks each day to make sure they aren’t pasted up. This is a condition where their poop builds up on the outside of their vent and prevents more poop from exiting. It’s a deadly problem, if it isn’t fixed; but it’s easy enough to remedy. Just wet a cloth with warm water, and use it to wipe off the hardened poop. If this doesn’t take care of the situation, soak the chicks rear end in warm water, and try again. As a last resort, you can use a toothpick to gently remove the obstruction from the vent. Pasting is usually a result of stress, so refrain from playing with any pasted up chicks until they’re back on track.
If you have other pets in the home, take steps to make sure your chicks will be safe when you aren’t around. This might mean covering the brooder with netting or closing off the room that they’re in.
Kids usually find baby chicks irresistible, and will want to hold them every chance they get. If you have kids, make sure they understand that they need to be extra careful with the chicks, and that they need to give the chicks breaks, too. Over-handling can be stressful for new chicks.
Feeding, Watering and Clean Up
Chickens are good about regulating how much they eat and drink, so keep their waterer and feeder full at all times. Check in on your chicks several times a day to see if there are any messes that need to be cleaned up. Food on the floor is fine, and will actually encourage scratching (foraging behavior); but any bedding that has gotten into the waterer needs to be removed. Rely on your eyes and nose to tell you when it’s time to change out the bedding.
As mentioned previously, the brooder needs to be kept at 95 degrees for the first week. Drop the temperature by five degrees the second week, and continue to drop it by five degrees each week. This will get your chicks acclimated to the outdoor temperatures. Pay attention to how your chicks react to changes in temperature, and make adjustments accordingly. They’ll tell you, if they’re too hot or too cold.
Once your chicks are two to three weeks old, they’re big enough to spend some supervised time outdoors. Take them out on a warm day, and allow them to explore and forage. Chicks store grit in their crop to help them grind up bugs, weeds and other foods, so make sure you add some grit to their diet before you take them out. And remember: at this stage, the starter feed still needs to be their main source of food.
Moving Your Chicks to the Coop
When your chicks reach four to five weeks in age, they’re big enough to move out to the coop. To acclimate them to their new home, keep them confined to their coop and run for the first couple of days. After that, you can let them free-range during the day (if you so choose), and be confident that they’ll return home at night.