This is part two of a series on ordering and caring for chicks. For part one, click here.
So the post office, a friend or the feed store calls and says that your chicks are peeping away wanting to be picked up. What do you need to have ready before you can bring them home?
1. A brooder. There are many different types and styles of brooders but the main things to worry about are size and warmth. When I get chicks I use an empty plastic tote, about 5′ by 2′. That’s approximately the right size for 8-10 chicks, and you can use larger brooders and block off a section until the chicks are bigger. Chicks can hop, fly, and bounce within just a week or so, so you want to make sure that your brooder has a lid and higher walls.
You will want your brooder up at waist level, cleaning and dealing with it on the floor is difficult and also more risky if you have preparatory pets like cats or dogs. You don’t want the chicks exposed to the elements, but they can be kept in a barn, mudroom, or shed as long as you take precautions to keep them warm. Chicks are very dusty so you probably don’t want them in the house.
2. Light and warmth. It’s important not to get your chicks too early in the spring. They need 24 hour lighting and like temperatures around 95 F. It’s recommended to cover the brooder with a warm blanket at night to hold in the heat, or remove the light entirely if it is a very hot day. There are heat lamps specifically designed for chicks, but we use a regular clip-on shop light at our home with a 60 watt bulb. It is always better to watch your chicks behavior and the temperature and make adjustments than to stick to a rule of thumb that might be damaging their health.
3. Bedding. The most appropriate, best bedding for baby chicks is pine shavings. Spread the shavings about 1″ thick and clean at least once a week (more as they start to get bigger).
4. Feeder, waterer. Feed stores sell a variety of very appropriate feeders & waterers for baby chicks. Try to keep both raised off the bedding as much as possible while still being easily accessible, since shavings tend to get in the food and water if they are at ground level.
5. Appropriate food. You will want to begin with starter feed. You can use medicated feed at first to avoid disease. Chicks generally switch from starter feed to grower crumble around a month, and on to layer pellets at 6 or 8 months. Chicks (and grown chickens) need 24 hour access to food, so leave the feeder full at all times.
6. Roosts & play things. In the first week, your chicks will probably mostly huddle, peep, and eat. But once they start bouncing and trying to fly, there’s no stopping them. It is great for them as they learn about the world to have things in their brooder like a small roost, low enough for them to hop onto, and a clump of fresh grass or special mealworm treats. You don’t want your chicks to be bored, and the more things you can introduce to them early on, the easier time they’ll have as grown up hens. For the same reason, once they are a few weeks old, if the day is warm you should let your chicks out to play. Never leave them unattended outdoors, but they love and benefit from a few hours in the sunshine if the weather permits.
Baby chicks are fairly delicate creatures and especially if you got yours via the mail, you need to make sure they are healthy first and foremost.
Chicks do get a condition called “pasty butt” which means that their droppings block their vent opening and they cannot pass more droppings. If this isn’t cleared up the chick will die, so it’s important to check them and clear any debris away with a warm paper towel and Q-tip or toothpick.
If you do have a sickly chick, separating it and giving it special care can help it to bounce back. Don’t handle a weak chick too much as this may cause their system unnecessary stress.
At about 5-6 weeks your chicks will be ready to move outside into a coop, and by about six months in age you should start seeing fresh eggs.