Monday, March 11, 2013

Getting baby chicks for the first time? Here' s what you need to know

If you walk into your local farm/feed store during this time of year, you are likely to be greeted by the sound of peeping chicks. Beware! Do NOT go and look at the chicks (or ducks, turkeys, rabbits, or whatever cute and cuddly creatures the store might be selling) unless you are prepared to bring some home. It has been scientifically proven that it is impossible to see baby poultry in a feed store without birds coming home with you. That's what I tell Hubby Dear, anyway. (Remember how I got into raising turkeys?)

I highly recommend that folks who can raise poultry, should. It is fun and an easy way to become more self-sufficient. Before you decide to bring home those sweet, fluffy chicks, however, you need a few basic supplies and a little bit of knowledge. I will lay out those essentials in this post.

Supply list: 

1. A brooder - A brooder is simply a confined area where baby poultry can be safely raised under controlled conditions. It can be as simple as a large cardboard box, an old stock tank, or a plastic storage tote. Hatcheries also sell brooder kits like the one pictured below.

We bought our brooder kit from Randall Burkey

That brooder was fine for 17 chicks for about 2-1/2 weeks. After that time, I gradually increased the size  of the area they had to roam. Day old chicks can do well with 6 sq. inches of space per bird, but you will need to increase that to 1 sq. foot by the end of the first week and 2 sq. feet per bird by 2-3 weeks of age. Chickens need 4 sq. feet of coop space and 10 sq. feet of run space per bird as an adult. They grow quickly so have a coop or at least a plan for a coop in place before you commit to getting chickens. 

Note: Chicks can and will fly. Turkeys are even more prone to aerial feats. You better have a plan to keep your birds inside the brooder once they can fly (about 2 weeks of age or so for chickens). Take it from me that it is not fun to step on a pile of turkey poo because your poults decided to be adventurous.

2. Brooder light – Mama chickens keep their babies nice and toasty by snuggling them under their wings. Assuming you don't have a broody chicken kicking around your place, you will need to be the mama for your birds and give them heat. Brooder lights are very inexpensive and easy to adjust for the correct temperature. You want the area directly under the light to be 95 degrees at chick level. Decrease the heat (by moving your light up) by 5 degrees every week until the temperature inside the brooder is the same as the ambient temperatures. 

The brooder light is on one side. Some folks claim using a red light decreases incidences of picking,
but as long as the chicks have adequate room and don't get bored, that is not likely to be a problem for you. 

Place your brooder light at one end of the brooder so that your chicks can get away from the heat if they get too hot. I always make sure the food and water is in the cool zone. The best way to tell if the temperature is correct is to watch their behavior. If they remind you of a day care run amok, things are probably just fine. It is normal for them to sack out in a pile under the heat lamp every so often. All babies need plenty of sleep. 

3. Bedding - You need an absorbent, non-slippery material for your chicks to live in. I use pine shavings, which are sold in compressed bales in any feed store. They smell nice and are very absorbent. I put about 3" of shavings in the bottom of my brooder and then cover it with a layer of paper towels for the first four days or so, changing the towels daily. After the chicks have learned to eat their starter feed and not pine shavings, the paper towels are no longer necessary. Do NOT use sheets of newspaper as bedding. They can be too slick for baby chicks and can lead to leg problems. Do NOT use cedar shavings because they cause respiratory problems.

Bales of pine shavings and lidded trash cans for feed storage - two essentials for  us.

I turn the litter regularly (actually, the chicks do an excellent job of that) and add more as necessary. You might be surprised to read this but my chicken coop is very rarely stinky. It doesn't smell like much of anything, to be honest. To quote the very inspiring Joel Salatin, "if you smell manure, you are smelling mismanagement."  The key to this is the deep litter method. The deep litter method is beyond the scope of this post, but if you are interested in learning the best way to manage manure, I suggest reading Harvey Ussery's book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock.

4. Chick-sized feeders and waterers - You will want an appropriate-sized feeder and waterer for your chicks. I like to start out with the small quart-sized ones and move up to larger containers as they grow.

Midnight the Australorp getting her first drink. Note the marbles.

When you bring your chicks home, it is a good idea to gently put their beak in the water and make sure they take a sip. You can also put marbles in the rim of the waterer to make sure the chicks can't get in and drown.  

Lunch time! 

5. Chick starter - Chicks need to eat food especially formulated for their rapid growth. I buy bags of chick starter/grower, though some feed companies separate out those two categories. Each chick will eat about 10 lb of starter to reach 10 weeks of age, so buy accordingly. I try to keep a month's worth of feed on hand at all times, but no more than that lest it grow stale.

If you have ducklings, they can eat chick starter, but they need additional niacin. My ducklings get brewer's yeast added to their feed, which provides this essential nutrient. Turkey poults also appreciate the niacin and a higher protein "meat bird" starter will support their extra growth.

6. Chick-sized grit - The chicks won't need grit until they start eating foods other than chick starter. My chicks get treats of mashed hard-boiled eggs, torn dandelion greens, and other healthy goodies starting at about one week of age. At that time I give them access to a container of grit.

Three week-old chicks enjoying a snack of mashed hard-boiled egg

That's it! It's really not difficult and it is extremely rewarding. Good luck to those of you embarking on raising poultry for the first time this spring.

Resources I recommend:

  1. The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers by Harvey Ussery 
  2. Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, 3rd Edition by Gail Damerow


  1. Can you tell me how long I should expect to have my chicks in a brooder? We have 9 chicks coming mid April and a similar brooder to what you've shown. I will have a coop up and ready shortly after they arrive, but I want to make sure I have enough space for them until they are ready to be outside ( we live in VT).

    1. They need to be in a brooder until they can handle the temperature outside. That means they need to be fully feathered - sometime between 5-8 weeks old - and/or acclimated to lower temperatures. You start them out at 95 degrees in the brooder and cut the temperature by 5 degrees every week. Once the temp inside the brooder matches the outdoors, it is perfectly safe to move them outdoors. Chances are in VT, they will be fully feathered first. :)

      Last year I moved my chicks outdoors at 2 weeks of age. I set up their brooder inside the coop and gradually increased the amount of space they had access to. It was unusually warm last year, but I was able to move my heat lamp out of the coop sometime in May.

      I hope this helps. Enjoy your chicks!

  2. Thanks for all the excellent advice! Great article/post!