A Basic Guide to Raising Chickens

A basic guide to raising chickens. Raising chicks is easier than you might think — especially if you let a mother hen do the work for you. Includes tips on housing, feed and management of baby poultry, including chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese and guinea fowl.

| December 2008/January 2009

Newly hatched chicks can survive up to three days without food or water.

Newly hatched chicks can survive up to three days without food or water.

Photo by Fotolia/Le Media

This basic guide to raising chickens helps you start baby chicks off right by following this expert advice. Whether you order chicks through the mail or let a hen hatch eggs, you can raise chicks naturally, without antibiotics or vaccines.

A Basic Guide to Raising Chickens

Raising baby poultry is easy and a great deal of fun. Many people start with chickens, but you might also consider ducks, guineas, turkeys or geese. You can order chicks from a hatchery, buy them at a local farm store, or allow a hen to hatch eggs and raise the chicks for you. Raising purchased chicks is easy, but remember that they rely on you for their every need.

The Chicks are in the Mail

Just before hatching, a chick absorbs and stores the last of the egg yolk it’s been feeding on throughout incubation. This last bit of yolk can sustain the chick for several days before its first drink or meal, providing a window of opportunity for shipping chicks from a hatchery to your front door.

When your chicks arrive, open the box in the presence of the postal clerk or carrier. Shipments from a reputable hatchery are insured, and the hatchery will likely replace losses if there are a large number of fatalities. That sounds scary, but I’ve rarely had problems. It is not unusual, however, to have a couple of losses (either in transit or within the first day or two) of weaker chicks that just didn’t have a good start. Even in the best of circumstances, transit through the postal system is stressful for chicks. Provide them with warmth, water and feed immediately.

Setting up a Chick Brooder

A brooder is a warm, draft-free environment to replace a mother hen’s body heat. You can buy a commercial brooder, but it is cheap and easy to assemble one from materials on hand (a large cardboard box will work for a few chicks).

The brooder must have a heat source. Any lamp with 100- to 250-watt bulbs will work for about a dozen chicks. Or you can buy a special brooder heat lamp or use small electric heating elements. For temperature control, lamps can be raised or lowered. The closer the lamp is to the floor, the warmer the air at the chicks’ level. Secure the lamp or heater so it’s not too close to combustible surfaces (litter, cardboard or wood sides) — usually 18 inches or so, as recommended by the manufacturer.

leslie suitor
12/5/2011 9:04:19 PM

To prevent pasty butt on our chicks we add a dollop of molasses to their water each day as we change it. This keeps them regular. We also are very careful to run their little rears under warm water to soften up the poo before trying to remove it as their skin is very fragile and can actually tear. Try to just get the poo wet and not the chick as they get chilled otherwise. Be patient.

karen schoening
2/17/2010 4:21:14 PM

Hens can be used as foster mothers (brooders!) for ordered chicks too. I've had the best success with silkies and cochins, but have also used Ameraucanas and even a barred rock. Right now I have 2 silkie hens happily sharing 9 purchased chicks in a cage inside. They are inside because even though it's been warmer than normal we could still get extreme cold weather and snow here, and in the meantime there's a lot of water and mud where chicks can get trampled by the bigger birds. Plus I'm expecting another 15 chicks next week and I'm hoping to add them to the current family for a couple weeks before they go outside. One of these hens fostered 40 chicks at once for me last year -- they weren't all the same age but at night she tried to get all of them underneath her feathers. Chicks raised by a mom can usually go outside faster. They learn to scratch around for food and become self-sufficient earlier. I have had very few losses -- even the cats stay away from the pen when there's a mom inside. And the chicks seem happier to me, spending more time singing than peeping. The only downside is that when they grow up the new chickens tend to be less people friendly than chicks raised by me. Karen in MT

ann m
12/24/2009 10:11:03 AM

Chickens are fun. If you are considering chickens check out the heritage breeds at www.albc-usa.org. It costs the same to feed different breeds so why not have something that is a little less common and help preserve a heritage gene pool at the same time. We have Buckeyes, a good dual breed if you are looking for meat and eggs, and Welsummers which lay a really dark brown egg. Both breeds are beautiful and the Buckeyes seem to be more cold tolerant and lay during the winter too. Ann in eastern Ohio

4/24/2009 1:53:54 PM

I have 8 week old ducks in my backyard in town. I am anxiously awaiting eggs in a couple of months. Ducks are SO much fun and talk about personality! They are as good or better than dogs or cats (don't tell my dog that!) I can also feed them my kitchen vege scraps and use their poop for compost. Thanks Mother Earth for writing these articles as that is what got me started! www.whatupduck.com

nanette t
2/13/2009 9:11:46 AM

I love hatching out and raising baby chicks!! My brooder is rather simple. I use a heat lamp shield with a regular 100 watt bulb. I put straw on the bottom and change it regularly. I'm getting ready to build another biddy coop which is very similar to the one mentioned in another article. I keep them in it until they are about 2-2 1/2 months old. The advantage for this is that it allows the birds time to 'bond' with all of us which makes it easy for everyone. There is a joy in raising your own birds! ~Nanette

liz smith_1
2/10/2009 10:00:59 PM

I loved reading this article. Reminded me of when I was hatching my chicks. All of the 'girls' are healthy and I simply love going out for a fresh egg each morning. We've actually got so many eggs that we've started selling them locally. :D

nancy mckinnie
2/5/2009 9:39:50 PM

I live in East Texas and raise Boer Goats. I also have chickens and one goose. I look forward to learning more on this site.

2/5/2009 10:01:59 AM

We have Buff Orpingtons and Rhode Island Reds and we think the orpingtons are the very best. They are good egg layers, very quiet and make good brooders. They are also a good meat bird with very tender almost white meat. They make excellant pets as mine are. the trouble is I can't bear to butcher them. Our neighbors don't mind them either as they are so quiet.

1/8/2009 3:45:50 PM

Thanks for the info!!

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