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Recently I wrote an article about incubating chicken eggs. Whether or not you’ve ever experienced hatching chicks, it’s possible you’ve been around day-old chicks. And you can appreciate how raising baby chicks is different from raising adult birds.
In the event you have hatching chicks, or purchase them either from a feed store or a breeder, you first need a brooder. Because, just like incubating chicken eggs, you need a place to put the chicks. And that’s the purpose of the brooder.
The best brooder is a broody hen, because she can hatch and then raise her offspring. However it’s not ideal if you want a surplus of chicks. Or if the eggs aren’t due the same day, or you don’t have a broody hen.
And similar to incubating chicken eggs, temperature is just as important with raising chicks. So, if you purchase a brooder, it will have a heat source. Though, if you make your own, it will need one. But before we get into brooders and heat sources, let’s discuss chicks. How many do you want? Are you raising chickens for eggs? Or are you interested in meat production? Maybe a little of both? And how much space do you have? Having adequate space and shelter are 2 of the most important needs when raising and caring for chickens.
Raising Baby Chicks: Space
There doesn’t seem to be much consensus in the chicken community as to how much space individual chicks should have. I’ve seen numbers from 1/2 square foot all the way to 5x that amount or more. However, there’s more agreement when it comes to adult birds. But back to baby chicks. They will grow, so their space should too; plan on them being in their brooders for about 6 weeks.
For example, each year that we’ve hatched our own eggs we always first put the hatchlings in a 2’3″L x 1”6″W x 16″H Rubbermaid box. And we’ve hatched maybe 1-3 broods each year for the past 6 years. However we don’t have big clutches. The first and this last time we had 13-14 chicks each; the biggest broods. And that’s because we like to be able to spend time with the chicks, imprinting on them. Further, if you incubate your own eggs, you have to figure that you’ll get unfertilized eggs as well.
And we don’t keep them in the Rubbermaid box. Currently our newest group is in a 3’2″L x 2’0″W x 22″H wood and wire mesh box. It’s the luxury mobile brooder; it can be moved out to the yard, so everyone can see each other when the time is right.
Now I’m going to cover brooders and heaters.
Brooders and Heaters
- Conventional Hover Brooder: This looks just like a box, hence the Rubbermaid box. You can purchase one or make your own. And if you’re in a hurry, you can use cardboard. Also, the heater used in this type of brooder is infrared, which is ideal for lots of 200 chicks or less. And for every 50-75 chicks, provide a 250-watt red lamp. The red light is better, because it’s easier for the chicks to sleep, and it reduces pecking.
- Radiant Heater/Brooder: This combusts gas to heat radiant surfaces. Plus, it has more even heat distribution. And it can be used for larger operations.
- Hot Air Furnace: Forced air heats the air with gas, electricity, water, or diesel, and needs more ventilation. This type is also for larger scale operations.
- Pancake Heater/Brooder: The Pancake brooder is similar to the Radiant brooder, in that they both use gas. And usually just heats the birds on the floor like the Radiant brooder.
Raising Baby Chicks: Temperature
Now that you know about brooders and heaters, until the chicks feather out, the temperature in the brooder needs to start out at ~ 95°. But, week-to-week, decrease it by 5°, so the chicks can begin acclimating. By the time they reach 6 weeks old the temperature should be 65-70°.
You can keep a calibrated thermometer in the brooder. Or you can just watch the chicks and monitor their behavior. If all the chicks are huddled together under the light, cheeping or not, they’re cold. But if they’re spread out far from the light, wings held out from their bodies, and panting, they’re too hot. You want them moving around, displaying normal behavior: eating, drinking, sleeping, and playing. Therefore, if they act like they’re too cold or too hot, you can adjust the position and distance of the lamp until the chicks show you that they feel comfortable.
Furthermore, if using the 250-watt infrared red lamp, then have a back-up in case one goes out. In addition, some sites recommend placing the chicks in an unused room with the door closed. And then others warn of the dangers of this lamp and fires. While the danger is real, especially if out of sight, you should keep these tips in mind:
- Keep hardware cloth or steel diamond mesh as a lid so the chicks have some ventilation. Also, that way your chicks won’t jump on the lamp. Plus, the lid protects against potential threats, such as pets or other creatures. And the chicks won’t be able to get out.
- Use a lamp guard, so the hot bulb won’t be touching anything.
- If you use a clamp, even better! That makes it secure.
- And if using an extension cord, check for cuts, abrasions, and pinches. Don’t use a damaged cord. If it’s in bad shape, buy a new, thicker gauge extension cord, so it won’t be as prone to damage.
- Lastly, make sure the fixture is porcelain, not plastic. The difference is whether or not there will be a fire.
Most chicken aficionados recommend pine shavings for chicks. And then switch to straw when they’re adults. In the past I used pine shavings too. However, when we lost our bunny, we had a whole lotta unopened bedding for him. So my husband wanted to use that for the chicks. Let me say, it’s far superior, in my opinion, to pine shavings for little chicks: there’s no dust, smell, and it’s more absorbent. Plus, since it’s paper, it’s safe if the chicks peck at it.
Don’t use newspaper. Not only is it non-absorbent and you’ll have a stinky problem, but it’s slick for the chicks. Thus, they could wind up spraddle or splay legged.
Spread about 2-4″ of litter on the bottom of the brooder. But you don’t need as much during warmer months. Though, if you have chicks when it’s cold, you’ll need more litter to help keep them warm.
Also, chicks are messy, like human babies, except they don’t wear diapers. So, to prevent disease, plan on changing out the bedding regularly. How regularly? I don’t know; that’s going to depend on the number of chicks you have. Obviously the more you have, the more they’ll scratch their feed, poop, pee, and generally make a mess. Additionally, the bigger they get, the bigger and sooner the messes will get.
Raising Baby Chicks: Food and Water
Always provide fresh, clean water for your chicks in a chick fountain; it’s the easiest set-up. And don’t be surprised to see chick poo in the water. That’s why it’ll need to be cleaned out. Additionally, in all of the broods we’ve had, I’ve never had any chicks who didn’t instinctively know how to drink or eat. But we’ve had a couple that had issues; my rooster who hatched 8 days early, so if we didn’t intervene he would’ve died. Thus, there might be extenuating circumstances where you might have to dip a chick’s beak into the water, to get them started.
Further, supply chick starter in a feeder, in an attempt to keep it in one area. But since chicks already know how to scratch their food, it’ll end up all over the brooder and look like perfectly good food. However, they’ll also poo all over the brooder, including their food. Thus, their poo will need to be removed and feeder refilled.
Their feed comes in medicated or non-medicated; medicated chick starter helps protect against coccidiosis. Though, it’s not a substitute for cleanliness or good practices. Also, their feed contains all the nutrients they need. But after a couple of weeks, if you want, you can try to offer them treats. However, don’t be surprised if they’re scared of you at first and your offerings, unless you have only a very small group. And if they are hand-raised, this is very rewarding, because in the long run they won’t be shy and will associate you with good things.
Chickens, including baby chicks, love to roost when resting. You can add roosting poles a few inches from the bottom of the brooder as early as 2 weeks after hatch day. But not all of them will perch that early.
However, your chicks could be totally different from mine. This is from my own experience and from others with similar flocks. I’ve read about flocks where the chicks were 12 weeks old before they were interested in roosting. So go ahead and offer them; but it’s ok if the chicks aren’t interested.
And you can use different things for roosts: Dowels, 1x1x8″ wood board, bricks, or sticks from your yard. Just make sure they fit the brooder, are secure, and offer enough space per chick. But, trust me, they don’t all roost until they’re older.
Furthermore, chicks look like they’re molting within a few days of hatching, which is good; it means their feathers are coming in. And that also means, on warmer days, you can bring them outside in the sunshine. But if you don’t have a small brood, keep them in a collapsible pen or rabbit cage that they can’t get out of. That’s to keep them safe from predators, including pets, accidents, or getting lost.
We’ve only had 2 broods we didn’t keep enclosed when going outside. And that’s because there were only 4 chicks both times with 3 of us chick-sitting. Otherwise, they’re always locked up at such a young age, because they move too fast and aren’t aware of all the dangers. Remember, at this point, they’re able to fly a little bit!
Raising Baby Chicks: Safe Handling
Should you handle your chicks? How soon and how often? Well, yes, handle your chicks. If you purchase them, ASAP. But if you’re hatching them, wait till they’re ready to be moved to the brooder. However, don’t handle the chicks for very long, especially if they don’t have their feathers, because they’ll be cold. And hold them securely. Don’t walk around or hold them like you would a baby on their backs. Because it causes them distress, and they have difficulty breathing. Here are some other tips for holding chicks:
- Wash your hands right after holding chicks and chickens.
- If washing your hands isn’t an option, use hand sanitizer.
- Supervise children when they are around and holding chicks; quick movements scare chicks.
- Avoid eating where chickens live; and avoid touching your mouth before washing your hands.
- And oversee the hand washing of young children.
Raising baby chicks is a fun and educational experience, one the whole family can enjoy. And they grow so fast. Furthermore, there are things you can do to help your chicks make the transition into adult backyard birds, ensuring their health and production.
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