Are you going “whole hog” into chickenry, obtaining your chicks from home incubation? Or, are you purchasing your baby chicks online or at your local hatchery or Tractor Supply? Either way, you will need to be very careful about raising these sensitive little nuggets. Especially the first few days, the period in which most chicks die. The baby chick brooder, the brooder heater, the bedding, the food, the water, and finally, the introduction of your chicks to the outside world-these are all important steps in a process that will transform your baby chicks into full grown chickens. Let’s talk about this process one step at a time, now.
The Chick Brooder
A brooder is simply a designated space to raise your baby chicks. It can be a box or it can be a fenced-in area. The important requirements for a brooder is that it can be made spacious enough, warm enough, and safe enough for your baby chicks.
You will read alot about DIY chick brooder boxes, using household items like appliance boxes, plastic tote boxes, and even bathtubs. If you’re raising a decent number of chicks, though, for example 10 or more, I don’t see how you can beat an “area brooder”, which is simply an expandable fenced-in area, usually in your home (like the garage or basement) that can be heated and secured from outside threats ( ie, cats, dogs, small children). In terms of space requirements, you’ll need to provide each of your chicks with at least a half a square foot of space for the first 4 weeks, then one square foot until they are about 8 weeks old. Too little space and you’ll start to see some bullying going on; too much space, and you’ll see them huddling together, having trouble staying warm.
This “playpen house” is actually an ideal area brooder and many reviewers on Amazon remark on how well built it was, and how easy it was to set up.
You can also reuse this playpen later when you need to isolate an injured or sick chick or chicken from the rest of your flock. At 13 square foot, you’ll be able to hold a couple dozen just-hatched chicks, or about a dozen 8-week old chicks. Be sure to appropriately “size” this brooder depending on how many chicks are in it. You can use cardboard or hardware mesh or a small box to make the space smaller if needed. Otherwise, your new baby chicks might end up wandering too far from their heat source.
One last thing: I ‘d like to talk with you about chick psychology for a minute-ok maybe a few seconds. When you have a bunch of chicks in a small area, bullying can start up at any time. Some serious pecking, to the point of death, or at least serious injury, can even occur. To relieve boredom and to give them something to do, I would recommend providing them with something they can perch on, whether its a brick or a branch-they love to practice roosting.
The Brooder Heater
Baby chicks need a source of heat. In their first week of life, they need an ambient temperature of 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit. As they grow, their heat needs are reduced by approximately 5 degrees per week, until around six weeks, when they have fully developed their feathers. Of course, a mother hen knows how to provide this heat instinctively. For us backyard chicken owners, it’s a little more complicated.
The most popular way to provide heat is with a heat lamp. It’s cheap, it’s easily set up, and, well, what could go wrong? Plenty, unfortunately. There have been many reports of baby chick burns, brooder fires, and even house fires from these lamps. In addition, with a heat lamp, you need to keep it on 24/7 to maintain the proper chick brooder temperature. And imagine your poor baby chicks trying to get some rest with a 250 watt lamp blaring overhead the whole time!
Nonetheless, baby chick heat lamps remain very popular, for the simple reason that they are so reasonably priced. I mean, unless you’re going to be raising a ton of chickens, you probably won’t have a problem as long as you’re careful about it. I would recommend you go with a good brand name, like the one below, for the bulb itself. And notice that the bulb color is red. That’s actually a good thing. If a chicken happens to be bullied/pecked upon, the blood won’t be immediately obvious to the other chicks, ie, they won’t “pile on” as they usually would if there was daylight lighting.
Now, along with the bulb, you re going to need to get a bulb holder. Since it will be subject to high temperatures, it is recommended that you get one with a ceramic/porcelain socket, so that it doesn’t melt, and also a bulb guard, in case it would ever fall to the ground (or in the flammable bedding!) This feature could prevent a fire.
This bulb holder by Woods certainly fits the bill. Plus, it has a nice clamp to secure it firmly to your brooder.
If you need to raise chickens on a shoestring, you might need to use a chick heating lamp like this. Otherwise, many backyard chicken experts are now recommending a brooder heat plate. Why is a brooder heat plate better than a heat lamp? Well, for one, there’s no fire danger. Secondly, your chickens can actually brush against it and not be burned.
And one brand name seems to be mentioned more than any other: the Brinsea EcoGlow Brooder, shown right here:
And if that’s not enough, a heat plate doesn’t produce any light like a heat lamp does, so it doesn’t disrupt your baby chicks sleep-wake cycles. And you know what it’s like when you don’t get your sleep! As you can see in the picture, as your chicks grow, you can raise the height of the heat plate on the stilts it comes with.
Now, whether you are using a heat lamp or a heat plate, you need to be sure you monitor the temperature of your brooder. I would recommend you buy one those inexpensive digital thermometers on Amazon. This one is a “Best Seller” on Amazon.
Experienced chicken owners will tell you that you don’t really need a thermometer to tell you when the temperature’s not right. If your chicks are all clustered underneath your heat lamp or heat plate, then chances are, its too cold.
On the other hand, if they are all scattered to the edges of your brooder area, and panting, its obviously too hot! Ideally you’d like to see them equally dispersed around your brooder, except for a small circular area, directly under your heater. Cold chickens are also noisy chickens! You will definitely hear from them if its too cold!
So you weren’t planning on letting your new baby chicks run around on the cold floor of your garage were you? Of course not. For one thing, their little feet don’t really get much traction at that age. For that reason, you can’t go wrong using a good high-friction surface like plasticized shelf lining, on the floor of your brooder. This will prevent a condition called Spraddle Leg, where the chick more or less does a split, injuring herself. Many chicken owners caution against using newspaper as a brooder liner for that very reason: it can get pretty slippery, especially when wet.
Now, these little fuzzy nuggets will be putting out alot of poop so you will also have to absorb it somehow. While pine shavings are ideal for this, may folks also prefer just putting down paper towels, saving pine shavings for the coop. Either will work just fine, its just personal preference.
The Chick Waterer
So you’ve got your brooder set up, along with your brooder heater and chicken bedding. Its time to bring on the baby chicks! Whether your chicks arrive in the mail at your post office, or you pick them up at your local Tractor Supply or hatchery, the first thing you will want to do with them is introduce them to water.
Make sure you are using warm water in your waterer. Baby chicks can quickly become dangerously hypothermic if given cool water. 95 degrees has been suggested, but as long as the water is a little warmer than room temp you should be OK. Pick them up one at a time and dip their beaks into the chick waterer trough. This is teaching them how to drink.
You don’t have to do with all of your baby chicks, just a few of them. They will teach the others how to do this. Make sure that they don’t have enough room to wander very far from the waterer ( see my comments above about spacing of chicks in the brooder above). If water is not immediately available to them, they can easily get dehydrated.
You should also know that chicks have actually drowned in waterers that were too deep or that were positioned too low to the ground. So a word to the wise: make sure the baby chick waterer that you buy is drown-resistant and is slightly raised off the floor of your brooder. Most owners do this by placing a kitchen tile or similar object, underneath it. This also has the additional benefit of keeping (some, but not all!) of the bedding material (and poop) out of the water. Backyardchickens.com recommends you put marbles or clean pebbles in the water to prevent drowning.
Here’s a well-reviewed chick waterer and feeder combo that is an Amazon Choice for “chick feeder.”
Now, I’ve been reading about chicken owners putting some sugar in the water. Some say they do it only if the baby chick appears to be weak, others do it with all of their new baby chicks. Some do it for a week, others just the first day.
When I look at what the major hatcheries are recommending, I see that McMurray’s Hatchery is recommending the addition of three tablespoons of sugar per gallon of water for the “first few days”. Tractor Supply (Hoover’s Hatchery) is recommending two tablespoons of sugar in a quart of water for the first 16 hours only, IF the chicks appear to be weak and lethargic. Welp Hatchery recommends one quarter cup of sugar in a gallon of water for the first hour only. As you can see, the recommendation for sugar in the water is all over the map. A prudent compromise might be adding three tablespoons in a gallon of water for the first eight hours, continuing a full 24 hours, only if the chicks are lethargic at that point.
Baby Chick Feed
In an earlier article, “Chicken Nutrition (Chicken Feed, Chicken Scratch and Chicken Grit!)”, I discussed the nutritional needs of chickens as they grow from baby chicks to full-grown layers.
When your baby chicks first arrive, along with teaching them “how to drink” (see above) you need to teach them how to eat, by dipping their beaks in the baby chick feed.
For feed, you would start with what is called “chick starter”. Most importantly, this would have a protein level of around 20%, and it is typically provided as a “crumble”, which is a consistency halfway between “mash” (a powder) and “pellets”. For goodness sakes, buy a feed which is grown and also manufactured in the united States. Any why not go organic and non-GMO while you’re at it. It might cost a little more, but these are your precious little ones, and they will be producing eggs that you will be ingesting into your own body regularly. Not to get too morbid, but not long ago, 3600 dogs and cats in the United States were killed by the pet food they were eating. The company, Menu, apparently had sourced some of their ingredients from China, and the industrial chemical, melamine, had somehow found its way into the food.
Here’s an example of an excellent chick starter that checks all the boxes in my book:
Medicated Chicken Feed
A word about coccidiosis. This is a parasitic disease that lives in the intestines, that usually afflicts chickens from 4 weeks to 16 weeks old. Left untreated, it can be deadly. Its signs and symptoms are fairly obvious. Usually the bird looks dirty or disheveled. It’s very weak and inactive. Not eating much. Its comb becomes pale. Its droppings can become bloody or foamy in appearance.
The best way to prevent this disease is to clean out bedding regularly, and make sure that the water and food is clean (free from poop and bedding) In addition, you can request your hatchery to vaccinate your chicks against this disease (if they don’t do this already) when they are just a day old. This is very cheap protection, about 20 cents a bird. And you should know that vaccinated birds are still considered to be “organic” per USDA standards.
You can also prevent this by providing medicated chicken feed. This feed can be medicated with an anti-parasitic agent called amprollium, which prevents the disease. You should strongly consider doing this if you are incubating eggs yourselves or your hatchery doesn’t provide vaccination.
This is a good medicated starter feed. It is made in the United Sates. Unfortunately, it doesn’t say whether its ingredients have been sourced in the US as well. In fact, none of the medicated started feeds I was able to identify online could say that their ingredients were sourced in the US.
At six weeks old, you will want to transition your chicks to what’s known as grower feed. This feed has a slightly lower protein content. Make the transition slowly over a week so that they don’t get any GI upset. For grower feed, the same recommendations would apply: organic, non-GMO, and finally sourced and manufactured in the United States.
Paririe’s Choice is another good brand, not as well-known but again: non-GMO and sourced and manufactured in the US . Note that it is not labeled as “organic”, only “all -natural”. Does it matter? Who knows?
Around 18 weeks, your chickens need to start eating layer feed. This is similar in composition to the grower feed, but contains additional calcium, which is needed for shell production. You shouldn’t start this feed until they are definitely laying since the excess calcium can be toxic to your girls. While some breeds will begin laying at 16 weeks, like Leghorns and Golden Comets, it is normal for other breeds, like ISA Browns to hold off until 20-22 weeks.
Nature’s Best is a good alternative to Scratch and Peck. It is an organic layer feed offered by Tractor Supply.
What about Chicken Grit?
Chicken grit is made up of tiny stones that chickens use to grind up food in their gizzards. They don’t have teeth, right? (And then don’t have lips, either!!!) . While a chicken that eats commercially prepared feed exclusively will not need grit, all other chickens will. Why? Commercially prepared feed is already sufficiently ground up so that chickens can digest it just fine. However, if you are like most backyard chicken owners, you’ll want to pamper your ladies, so you’ll probably be giving them all kinds of things that may or may not be good for them! You’ll also most likely allow them to free-range to some extent.
Mealworms, table scraps, bugs, herbs, garlic-these are all very tasty (at least to a chicken!). But unfortunately, these treats require alot of grinding in the gizzard so that they can be fully digested in the intestines.
Chickens will naturally find some grit as they peck around, free-ranging, but its not a good idea to rely on them to get as much as they need. And if they don’t have enough grit, they can develop nutritional deficiencies at best and an impacted gizzard at worst.
So when and how do you provide chicken grit to your baby chicks? You should offer grit to your chicks as soon as you give them anything other than commercial feed. Chicks should get smaller-sized grit called…wait for it….Chick Grit! Now, alot of chicken owners will give them coarse sand ( aka construction sand) instead of buying chick grit. But, as you can see below, Chick Grit is so inexpensive, I don’t really see the point. Plus, as your chicks get older, ie, when they are 8 weeks old, you are going to have provide them with regular-size grit, called simply Chicken Grit or Poultry Grit.
How will you feed grit to your baby chicks? The easiest way is to just sprinkle it on their feed, as if you were salting it. While some chicken owners will mix grit in with the feed, I think it makes more sense to provide it in a separate dish. Why? Well, your chickens’ need for grit will be totally different than their need for feed. Its not like they are going to overdose on grit if you mix it with their feed, since any excess will be simply pooped right out. (Most of the time, anyway-apparently some breeds can overdo it and have problems.) Its just that it seems wasteful to do it this way, plus it adds an extra step to feeding your girls.
Now when your chicks get to be eight weeks old, they will need a larger size grit particle, so you give them Chicken Grit, or Poultry Grit, not Chick Grit.
Now, instead of putting the chicken grit in a small dish like we did with baby chicks, regular size chicken grit is best placed in a special container, that every backyard chickenista seems to own ( yes, I wish I had invented it). This special container does three things: it keeps the grit dry, it prevent the chickens from pooping on it by having a pointed roof on it, and it is big and heavy enough not to get knocked over by your Jersey Giant! Its been estimated that a typical chicken will need about a teaspoon of grit per week.
Here it is: isn’t it amazing? (just a touch of sarcasm, here). Anyhow, I think you will be very pleased with this little addition to your chicken run.
Next, let’s talk about oyster shell. For some reason, people get oyster shell confused with chicken grit. Not sure why since they have totally different roles to play in chicken health. Oyster shell provides extra calcium that your layers are going to need once they start laying. Even though layer feed contains supplemental calcium, you will need to supplement it even further with oyster shell. This will ensure that your egg shells are strong and that your chickens bones are strong.
How much oyster shell should you give your chickens? As much as they will eat. Just don’t give it to them until they start laying, so that they don’t get too much calcium. You put it in the same container that you use to give the grit. There are three compartments in that container. I don’t know what the third compartment is for. Maybe Snicker Bars (just seeing if you’re still awake) .
Pasty Butt in Chicks
Not to get too graphic, but remember the last time you were constipated? I mean really uncomfortable, bloated, with an achy belly? Now, multiply that times 100. And now make it deadly. That’s pasty butt in a nutshell. Also called pasting up, this is where their feces sticks to their fluffy butts and eventually seals off their vents so they can’t poop any more. Pasting occurs more often in brooder-raised chicks.
This serious condition is not uncommon among baby chicks in the first 10 days of life. It is caused by stress: the stress of being transported with possible chilling, the stress of being in a new environment with possible overheating or underheating, and the stress of eating new food (or water, with too much sugar in it). It may also have something to do the baby chicks’ digestive tracts being immature-they don’t have fully developed digestive enzymes.
So, at least once a day, pick them up and observe their vents for pasting up. If a chick is pasted up, here is the best way to remove the hard dropping. Run some warm water over the chick’s butt, while gently picking away at it with your fingers. You should be careful not to pull on the chick’s down, which could cause a skin tear. Also, don’t allow the entire chick to get wet or it can become chilled. After you have cleaned it off, dry the area well with a paper towel. Then rub some vaseline over the area. This will help prevent this from reoccurring in the future.
Just A Few More Things
In general, you want to be vigilant with your chicks but don’t go crazy! Make sure you replenish their food and water a couple times/day, and clean it all up so that there are no droppings or bedding material in them. You’ll want to change their bedding at least once/week, but maybe more frequently. Your nose will know!
You’ll want to hold your new babies. But don’t do it too much. Maybe 15 minutes at a time, tops. Remember that small children may not be as careful as you are. If a chick is dropped, it could be fatal.
Around six weeks, turn off your heat lamp or plate, as long as the ambient temperature is greater than 30 degrees. Take your chicks outside during the day only, in a playpen so that they can’t go far. Start out at only an hour or two, then gradually extend the length of time they are outside. Watch them like a hawk (and watch out for hawks and other predators).
Bring them in immediately if it rains or snows since they are still in danger of getting too chilled. Keep them inside at night. After about 8 weeks, they should be fully acclimatized to the outdoors and can stay in their coop full time as long as it stays above 30 degrees. And make sure the coop hasn’t developed any holes for drafts or predators to come through.
Finally, enjoy your backyard chickens. They are amazing to watch. And they are even more amazing through the eyes of a child who may have helped you bring them to this point!