You’ll probably read more about chicken care in your first three weeks than you will ever again. Bringing home a batch of baby chicks is scary and exciting all at once. You want to learn everything you can to start raising chicks the right way.
Take a deep breath, we’ll guide you through exactly what you need for your babies, and cover everything you need to know to get through those first few weeks.
Your main job is to create a space for your chicks that is warm, safe, clean, and comfortable. There are a number of ways to do that.
Follow this guide and you’ll have nothing to worry about!
Chick Shopping List:
First of all, you’ll need to go shopping for your new additions! Chicks are simple creatures that don’t need much, but the following items are a must for you to get started!
- A brooder (bin, box, playpen)
- A heat lamp : make sure it has a ceramic base, a wire guard, and a 250 watt infrared heat bulb
- Chick Feed: This food is specifically meant for chicks, it’s not the same as layer or grower feed, which you’ll also see at the farm store.
- Chick feeder
- Water fount for chicks
- Litter / Bedding
Setting up the Brooder:
Lets start with the brooder. You can use practically anything to brood the chicks in, as long as it will keep them contained and keep other critters out.
Keep in mind that chicks grow quickly, and something that will comfortably fit them on day one may not fit them on day twenty.
Chick Brooder Options:
- Cardboard box
- Large plastic bin
- Steel trough
- Kiddie pool
- Wooden box
- Animal cage
- Empty fish tank
The best types of brooders have high walls, approximately 24 inches is best. Remember, those chicks will be jumping and flying before you know it, and they need to stay contained for their own safety.
Good brooders are also easy to clean, or easy to throw away. For this reason, bins, kiddie pools, and cages work great because they can be easily cleaned and reused.
Put a lid on it!
The reason for this is three fold:
- It helps to keep flying chicks inside
- Keeps curious pets and kids out
- It acts as a last ditch barrier between your heat lamp and your little babies if your heat lamp clamp fails.
Also, once your chicks learn to jump and fly, they’ll love to practice roosting on the edges of your brooder, and you can pretty much guarantee their cute little fluffy butts will be pointed away from their brooder, so their adorable poops will go all over your floor.
Avoid this whole issue by putting a chicken wire lid on the brooder.
We suggest putting the brooder in a quiet room in the house that can be closed off from the rest of the house and is well insulated.
You can brood chicks in a barn, garage, or in the coop, but it’s much easier and safer if you brood them in the house. This way it’s quick and easy to provide care and protection for that box of peeping babies. The brooder should be placed away from any drafts, windows, or heat vents.
Be sure the room you choose for the brooder can be closed off from kids and pets. Curious pets and unsupervised children can kill chicks in a heartbeat, and it’s not worth the risk.
Putting the brooder in an out-of-the-way area is a good idea for cleanup as well. Chicks produce a lot of dust, and whatever room you choose to brood them in will quickly become coated in a thick layer of it.
This is why we choose to brood our chicks in the bathroom. There’s no carpeting and very few decorations, which makes cleanup a breeze when it’s time to move them out.
All About Heat Lamps
A good heat lamp has a red heat bulb, a ceramic base, a sturdy clamp or chain, and a protective wire guard.
Make absolutely sure that the bulb is not a “shatter proof” or “teflon coated” bulb, as these have been shown to emit poisonous gasses that can kill chickens and other birds.
Heat lamps must be firmly secured above the brooder in at least two ways, but three is better. Too many chicks die each year from improperly secured heat lamps falling down and starting a fire.
The threat of death is bad enough, but imagine how devastating it would be for a brooder to catch fire within your home.
When we brought home our first batch of chicks, the heat lamp was set up on the edge of a plastic bin using only the clamp that it came with. The next day I checked on the chicks only to find the clamp had broken and the lamp was carefully balanced on the edge of the bin, where the plastic was melting from the heat. Had I not checked it that moment and fixed the problem, it could have been devastating.
Setting up the Heat Lamp on the Brooder:
You can never be too careful when it comes to heat lamps. Our heat lamp is set up by attaching the clamp that came with the lamp to the side of the brooder, then hooking a chain to the base of the lamp and hanging it from the ceiling.
We also keep a wire mesh top secured to the brooder, so if the heat lamp happens to fall, it falls on the wire mesh instead of inside the brooder.
This gives the lamp three chances for recovery if one type fails.
The heat lamp should be placed about 15-20 inches from the floor of the brooder. If you set a thermometer on the floor of the brooder it should read 90-95 degrees, if it doesn’t, adjust the heat lamp accordingly.
The lamp should be stationed over just one end of the brooder, so there’s a warmer side and a cooler side. This way if the chicks get too hot or too cool, they have some options.
Make sure the brooder is set up and warm before bringing chicks home to make their homecoming as stress free as possible.
The heat lamp will need to rise a little bit every week to make the brooder gradually cooler as the chicks grow. This will get them ready for living outside in the coop!
A good estimate is to make the brooder five degrees cooler each week, but learn to watch for the following warning signs that the temperature is off and adjust accordingly.
How to tell if your Chicks are Comfortable
Believe it or not, the best way to tell if your heat is correct in the brooder is to put the chicks inside then watch and listen.
Chicks that are perfectly warm will wander around the brooder, peep contentedly and sleep either in a chick pile or slightly spread out.
When chicks are too hot, they will open their mouths and pant, hold their wings out to their side, and sleep spread out.
If they are too cold, they will peep incessantly, an ear piercing sound that just screams: “I’m incredibly unhappy!” Cold chicks may shiver and will sleep in a big huddle, each chick struggling to get underneath the others for warmth.
Other Heat Options for the Brooder
If the idea of heat lamps flat out scare you, there is another option. This brooder heater provides radiant heat off of a plastic, table-like base. Chicks can gather underneath it for warmth.
Although more expensive than a lamp, these heaters are considered to be much safer and also use less power.
Another benefit to these heaters is that they don’t emit light, which can keep chicks awake when they should be sleeping.
Litter / Bedding for the Brooder
When we talk litter here we aren’t referring to kitty litter, but rather using it as a term to describe the substance in which your chicks/hens will deposit their daily droppings.
There are definite do’s and don’ts when it comes to getting litter for the brooder. Chickens have very delicate respiratory systems and many types of litter will be no friend to their little lungs.
As chicks mature, they understand that their litter isn’t food, but before they get to that point they need to be protected.
Good litter for chicks is cheap, biodegradable, absorbent and safe.
- Paper towel
- Finely shredded paper
- Low dust pine shavings or aspen shavings
- Rice hulls
- Ground Cobs
- Hemp bedding
- Cedar shavings: Cedar is a very aromatic wood, and the shavings can be tough on little birds respiratory systems
- Clay Cat litter: clay based cat litter is very bad for chicks if eaten (and it will be) and the dust it produces is bad for chicks lungs.
- Flat newspaper: It’s too slippery for them to properly stand on, which can lead to growth problems like deformed legs and crooked toes. Flat newspaper is also not very absorbent and will need to be changed very frequently.
For the first few days with the chicks, we like to use paper towel in the brooder. This is due to the chicks nature to peck at and eat anything in their first few days.
They’re still figuring out what’s food and what’s not, so it’s best for their tender little tummies to not give them any options.
After about five days with the new chicks, we switch to pine shavings in the brooder. At this point they fully understand where their food is, and while they might peck at the shavings, they’re not likely to eat them.
Whichever type of litter you choose, make sure that it completely covers the bottom of the brooder, about an inch deep. Chicks should have sure footing, not a slippery surface to stand on, as it can lead to leg and foot deformities.
Depending on how many chicks you have and how big your brooder is, you will want to change their bedding somewhere between every few days to once a week.
Make sure it’s always clean enough for the chicks to sleep on comfortably, there shouldn’t be piles of poop in the brooder.
Chick Feeders and Feed
While it’s simple to feed chicks out of an ordinary bowl, it’s not economical for you to do so. Chicks are extremely messy and will spill and spread every bit of feed you give them.
You’ll watch as they stand inside the bowl, kicking the feed out with their tiny feet, and then complain to you that they’re starving to death.
This spilled feed will mix with their poop and spilled water and will have to be thrown out. Instead, buy a simple chick feeder from the farm store, which are designed to prevent spillage.
Medicated feed usually contains Amprollium, a medication used to help prevent Coccidiosis in chicks. Many chicks from hatcheries have already received a Coccidiosis vaccine, meaning they would not need medicated feed.
It’s not harmful to feed medicated feed to chicks that have already been vaccinated, but it’s unnecessary so be sure to find out what the chicks have been vaccinated against when you purchase them.
Non-medicated feed is pretty self explanatory. It’s just plain chick crumbles with nothing added. Many chicken keepers agree that medicating and vaccinating a backyard flock isn’t necessary because they tend to live in cleaner and less crowded conditions than on poultry farms.
As long as the chickens are raised in clean and healthy conditions and don’t come into contact with other birds, there should be very little fear of problems with disease. The choice to medicate is clearly up to you, just be sure to do some research before hand.
It’s not recommended to feed chicks anything other than chick feed for the first two weeks. This helps their gut get established, which prevents unhealthy conditions such as diarrhea, bloating, vent gleet, and intestinal blockages.
Once that time is up you can begin feeding them a few light snacks. Shredded lettuce or pieces of tomato are very popular.
You’ll delight in watching them play keep away with whatever treat you give them. Go very easy on snacks with chicks, their primary diet should still be chick feed.
You can start offering chick grit to the babies when you start feeding them treats. Grit consists of small particles that help chickens to break down food in their gizzard, but it doesn’t need to be purchased.
If you can take your chicks out for a field trip outside (given it’s warm enough), they will find their own grit in the soil.
We’ve never fed grit to our chicks or full grown birds and have never had any issues, but they do need to have the opportunity to find their own grit outside.
If you prefer to keep the chicks inside, chick grit is necessary. Offer it free choice in a separate bowl.
Water & Water Fount
Day old chicks are not too savvy when it comes to life. Although not very common, there is some risk that young chicks can fall into their water fount and be unable to get out, or fall asleep with their heads inside.
To keep this from happening many chicken keepers put marbles or stones in the bottom of the water fount, leaving only a trickle of water on top of the stones.
Chicks need fresh water all day every day. Most chicks will get the hang of drinking water on their own, but if any chicks aren’t drinking water, gently dip their beak in the water fount so they understand what it is.
Once they get the hang of it, they will quickly make a mess of their water. Clean and rinse it out several times a day and add fresh cool water for the little tikes. Chick poop in the water is one of the biggest causes of illness in chicks, so keep it clean!
We hope this guide has helped you to feel more comfortable and ready to bring baby chicks home! As long as you make sure they’re comfortable, safe, warm, and well fed, they’ll be happy little chickies!