Raising Your First Chicks

Reader Contribution by Carrissa Larsen
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Deciding to keep chickens is an important step for most people interested in being more self-sufficient and testing the waters for raising livestock. Chickens offer the reward of fresh eggs and endless hours of entertainment and can be kept in a lot of suburban and urban areas these days.

When you start your flock with chicks, you get the added joy of hand raising your chickens to be well socialized with people, and it’s a lot of fun to watch them grow. While chicks may seem tiny and fragile, they are surprisingly hardy, and will quickly grow into wonderful chickens, with little work on your part. Here are the most important factors to keeping your chicks happy and healthy:

The Brooder. Baby chick housing is the place where you keep your baby chicks confined is called a brooder. I’ve seen people with brooder set-ups from cardboard boxes, to kiddie pools, to plastic storage containers. It’s pretty amazing what people come up with. The things to consider when setting up your brooder are: it must have a heat source, a feeder, a waterer, bedding, a top (those little rascals can really fly sometimes) and enough space for the amount of chicks you have to be able to play and stretch their little legs. Most people like to incorporate a roosting bar so the chicks can have something to perch on. Make sure your brooder is easy to get into for cleaning and feeding, and in a secure place where it won’t fall over or be accessible to curious pets or small children.

Heat. Chicks need to be kept very warm, starting at 90°F and moving down 5 degrees every week. The traditional way to offer chicks heat is with an infra-red heat bulb over the brooder. You can put a thermometer in the brooder to check for proper temperature, and the brooder should be “pre-heated” before you place chicks in it. The chicks will let you know how they feel about the temperature – if it’s too cold, they will stay directly under the heat source in a cluster and cheep loudly in distress. If it’s too warm, they will move away from the heat source, and open their beaks in what looks like a pant. When the temp is just right, the chicks will be spread out evenly, go about their business, and make little noise.

We started off with the traditional red heat bulb. However, at 250 watts, this thing will kill your electric bill. It also poses a serious fire hazard, especially in the middle of the night when you can’t monitor it. Lucky for me, my chick raising buddies who had much more experience than I, suggested using the EcoGlow 20. This warmer is outstanding – it only uses 18 watts of electricity, eliminates fire hazard, and warms the chicks in a similar fashion to a mother hen. It also accommodates up to 20 chicks! It did take our chicks a little time to figure it out, but once they did, they absolutely loved it. As they get older they’ve enjoyed perching on top of it as well. I can’t recommend this warmer enough – it’s a life (and electricity) saver.

Feed. Medicated vs. Non-medicated? For me, one of my biggest questions was whether to feed my chicks medicated feed or non-medicated feed. There are a lot of different opinions on which feed is best. After a lot of research and careful consideration, I realized that there was really one big factor that it came down to – Coccidiosis.

Coccidiosis is a common disease in chickens and can be contracted very easily from contaminated soil or other birds. It is most prevalent in young chickens. Some chicks are vaccinated for Coccidiosis along with a Marek’s vaccine. If a chick has been vaccinated against Coccidiosis, a medicated feed will nullify the effects of the vaccine, which means these chicks will need a non-medicated feed. Chicks who have not been vaccinated for Coccidiosis receive protection from medicated feed. Be sure to check with your chick supplier as to whether your chicks are vaccinated for Coccidiosis.

Water. Fresh, easily accessible water is very important for chicks. However, your basic waterer will become filthy very quickly – I swear my chicks make a game of getting it as gross as possible, as quickly as possible. To help with this, you can elevate your waterer to help keep it from getting too much bedding in it, or getting pooped in. Make sure the water is very shallow for young chicks, as they can drown in it easily. Many people add small rocks or marbles to the water dish portion when chicks are very young in order to prevent this.

We saved our sanity over cleaning out the water a billion times a day by investing in a few Brooder Bottle Caps from The Chicken Fountain. This ingenious little invention is a watering cap that fits on the end of any soda bottle, and only costs $3 per cap. I was really skeptical at first, but the chicks figured it out quickly, and just love it. It has cut down on our chick maintenance by leaps and bounds. Get one of these!

Bedding. When your chicks are very young (a few days old) it is highly recommended that you start off with paper towels or puppy pee pads as bedding. This prevents their tiny legs from sliding apart and causing splayed legs. It also keeps them from eating things (wood chips, sand, etc.) that they shouldn’t. After about a week, you can change to another type of bedding, typically pine shavings. Hay is not recommended, for several reasons, and neither is newspaper due to harmful inks and the slippery surface. We use pine shavings, but I’ve heard of more and more people using sand, which can be scooped out much like cat litter, and provides grit and a dust bath. The most important thing to bear in mind is that chicks poop a lot. A LOT. They are smelly and messy, and bedding needs to be changed often to keep it clean and dry.

Treats. Stay away from most treats until the chicks are a few weeks. When you do introduce treats, make them soft ones – fruits, plain yogurt, hard-boiled egg, etc. Anything with a whole grain could cause serious issues since chicks don’t have anything to help process it unless you choose to provide chick grit. Even so, I would avoid hard treats like scratch, seeds, etc., until the chicks are older and have access to grit to process them properly.