Caring for Baby Chicks: The Tools You Need
It’s spring! The newly-hatched chicks have been delivered from the large hatcheries to your local feed store. You’ve already taken a trip to the feed store and mentally picked out the breeds you like and fallen in love with them, researching things about them on the internet. Now you’re chomping at the bit! Let’s go get your new brood.
There are more details to be found on the internet, but this is for people who want their instructions to fit on a sheet of paper, not a whole book. I wrote this article so that you might print it out and take it with you to the feed store to reference what items you need to buy when it comes time to brood your chicks.
Chicks come in to your local feed store starting in March and are usually kept in stock until about June. You can buy a small number of chicks if you buy them from your local feed store. If you live in the city, I’ll assume here you’re only going to be getting around 2 to 6 chicks. You can also mail-order chicks, but I recommend against it, especially for chicken-keeping newbies.
So let’s launch into it. This is just one chicken-expert’s method; there are of course others. The benefit of my method is that it gets cute, peeping, fluffy balls of adorable into your hand faster.
A Shopping List for Brooding Your Baby Chicks
You are going to make two trips to the feed store if this is your first time getting chicks.
First, from any store you like, get an extra-large Rubbermaid-type container. This will be your brooder. A “brooder” just refers to any heated container or area where you keep the chicks.
Then on your first trip to the feed store, buy the following items. Have a store clerk help you find these things:
- Baby chick grit
- A small bag of chick starter food
- A simple thermometer to put in the brooder
- A screw-on, galvanized waterer base
- A screw-on, galvanized feeder base
- 2 Mason jars (you can find these easily at a thrift store, too)
- A brooder heat bulb around 125 watts.
The cost for all the above items will likely be right around $50 to $60. However, things like chick grit, brooder lamp fixture, Mason jars, and thermometer are one-time purchases. Chickens are still one of the cheapest pets to keep. And again, if you’re frugal, you can find a number of these things at thrift stores if you keep an eye out, and are willing to wait and scavenge.
Assemble Your Brooder
Take all this stuff home, and set up your brooder. You are going to be making a dry run with your brooder before you buy your chicks, just like setting up an aquarium before you buy fish.
Put newspaper on the floor of your brooder container. Some folks say newspaper is bad for chickens feet “because it’s slippery” but I’ve never had a problem brooding on newspaper, and never could understand the slippery part. Put food in your feeder, water in your waterer, hang the brooder lamp starting a foot above the brooder top edge, and set the thermometer on the floor of the brooder.
Check the thermometer an hour after you set this up. Is it reading right around 90 degrees? That’s right around where you want it to be for newly-hatched chicks. If it’s too hot, raise the hanging brooder light. If it’s too cold, lower it.
Hot Tip: Don’t roast your chicks. It needs to be 90 degrees Fahrenheit in that brooder and not much more!
My trick for adjusting the temperature with a one-setting lightbulb is to hang the light fixture from a screw mounted firmly in the ceiling, directly over the brooder, and use a piece of wire. That way, you can easily raise or lower the light, with just a twist of the wire.
The rule of thumb for how warm a brooder should be kept is this: you reduce the temperature in the brooder by five degrees each week. But, I find that you also need to just observe the chicks; if they are keeping far from the light, it’s a bit too hot in there, so raise the light. Often things run hotter than you think they will.
What you do is simply raise the light every week so that the temp on the thermometer is five degrees less each week. So, when your baby chicks are a week old, the temp in the brooder will be around 85 degrees. When they are two weeks old, you’ll want the temp around 80 degrees, and so on.
Now your brooder is set up. You have feed, water, and heat; the essentials.
Now you can go back to the feed store and get your chicks whenever you want. Bring them home and put them in the brooder and they should feel right at home. Sprinkle some food directly onto the floor of the brooder as well as in the feeder for the first few days. Always keep fresh water in the brooder; never let it run out. Sprinkle a couple of pinches of baby chick grit on the floor of the brooder daily.
Sometimes manure will stick to a baby bird’s bottom and essentially block its cloacae which can kill a chick. This is called “pasting-up.” It is important to check for pasting-up daily for the first couple of weeks, and remove any pasting-up. Pull off dried manure gently or wash off with a cloth and warm water.
When your chicks are about 5-6 weeks old, they should have nearly all their feathers and you can put them in your wind and rainproof outdoor chicken pen, without any more heat.
If you’re careful, you can put two week old chicks (are you tired of having them in the house yet?) outside in your chicken coop or chicken tractor…IF you have made the house part of the coop into a “grower pen.” This just means you have temporarily sealed off the area of your pen which will be your future next box area, effectively making it into a brooder.
You can hang a heat lamp/bulb inside this part and put two to three week old chicks out there, provided you’ve tested the temp with a thermometer to see if your temps are at least around 60 degrees, and maybe even warmer right under the heat lamp. When the chicks get older, then you can open up the house/brooder part to the outside run part, so that the chicks can come in and out of the brooder area at will. So when you get your chicks, get to work building your chicken tractor so you’ll have it ready for them, in theory as soon as 2-3 weeks old.
However, the above might be something to try for the more experienced chicken-keeper. If you type “chicken coop fire” into Google News, you will come up with many articles about people who have mixed heat and chicken coops not very carefully.
Hot Tip: Be careful heating your chicken coop, they’re flammable!
Make sure you have commercially made “chick starter” as food in your chick’s brooder at all times. However, you can start feeding them your kitchen scraps after the first week if you want. I myself have put food scraps into a food processor and chopped it all up, and the chicks eat it right up. This will also help teach them to recognize and like food scraps. I also start giving them grass clippings at an early age. I just use scissors and trim the grass into very small lengths. You certainly do not have to do this. I did it because it was fun.
Use care in letting your children handle baby chicks due to heath reasons…Read here regarding such health information: http://tinyurl.com/yec5y7l
Also, should you ever raise up baby chicks in the future, you already have a lot of the supplies.
Note that this start-up cost does not include the chicken coop the chickens will eventually live in. But you can buy a fancy coop for over a thousand dollars, or you can build your own for $50 if you use scrap wood and stuff on hand. So that part is up to you!
Need more help? Ask over at TheCityChicken.com Facebook group! It’s fun and folks are really helpful.