Raising Baby Chicks
What did I get myself into?
A couple weeks ago I knew nothing about raising baby chicks. In fact, until recently, the closest I ever got to a chicken was when I watched those cute commercials during the Easter season.
But that's all changed now. Today I'm the mother of 7 adorable chicks that have been the center of my world since the second I saw them. They're my first thought when I wake up and my last before I go to sleep. They even sleep in a cage in my bedroom (for now). And yes, I've given each of them a name that fits who they are. These little gals are very important to me!
After losing 3 of them because of my inexperience, I studied and read and researched everything everything about chickens. And now, after two weeks or raising baby chicks, I've certified myself as a chick expert (not really). I know two weeks may not seem like a long time, but it feels like it's been years.
UPDATE: This article was originally written in 2011 and as my knowledge and experience grows, I've changed the information in this article to reflect that.
Raising Chicks Using Trial and Error
About 2 weeks before Easter, my husband asked me what I was planning for the holiday. I jokingly told him that I was going to get some baby chicks and raise them. I expected him to laugh and tell me it was never going to happen, but instead, he asked how many I wanted. Until that moment, I had never thought seriously about raising chicks. I mean, I'm a city girl. I had never even seen a baby chick up close. I knew absolutely nothing about them, except that they're adorable. Realizing he was serious, I jumped at the chance. So we spent the next month preparing for chickens. We built a chicken coop. We researched how to raise baby chicks online. We talked to others that had raised them. We dug out the old chick box - the same one my father-in-law kept his chicks in 40 years ago!
Finally we decided we were ready, so we bought 10 chicks at our local Farmers Market. At first we just gushed about how tiny and cute they were. Their adorable little chirps were like music to my ears. And we laughed every time one of them pooped.
But after 36 hours of non-stop chirping, 14 cage cleanings, 40 spilled water bowls, 3 deaths and 2 near-deaths, we realized we were in over our heads. Even with all the research and all the advice given to us, we had no clue what we were doing.
So we did more research and we got more advice. I guess we'll just have to learn the rest through trial and error.
Meet my chicks - Dottie, Ashe, Earbud, Chippy, Thumper, Korma, Mira and CaliClick thumbnail to view full-size
How many chickens should you get?
Chickens are social creatures so the number one rule is Never Get Just One Chicken! In fact, the minimum I would suggest is 3. That way if one passes, the other two still have each other. You also want to be careful not to get too many. After a while, your chickens will establish their own "pecking order" with the dominant chickens ruling the roost. Flocks that are too big usually end up with too many dominant chickens and this can lead to pecking and cannibalism. If you want a bunch of chickens, the best thing to do would be to separate them into different coops.
If you already have a coop, figure out how many chickens it will hold and then get 2/3 of that amount. Why? Because 8 happy chickens will lay more eggs than 12 overcrowded stressed chickens.
Supplies for baby chicks
A cage or box
Baby chicks need to be kept indoors because they can't regulate their body temperature. During this time, they can be kept in any box that's large enough to fit them all, plus give them a little room to run. Cardboard boxes, big plastic totes, wire cages and wooden boxes are all safe to use. You'll also want a screen or netting to put on the top because as your chicks grow, they'll figure out pretty quick that flapping their wings while jumping will let them exit their box and find an entire new world to cover in poop.
Some people keep their chicks in commercially built brooders. Although they cost a bit more than a cardboard box, they also offer a bit more convenience.
A heat lamp
Chicks need to be kept warm at all times and since they're unable to regulate their own body temperature, they depend on you for their heat. During their first week, the air around them needs to be 95 degrees. It can then be lowered to 90 degrees for their second week. Keep lowering it by 5 degrees each week until they're ready to go outside. Most people use a heat lamp because they're effective, yet cheap. A 250 watt bulb will give off the necessary amount of heat. If you want to go the extra mile, get a red bulb so they don't have a glaring bright light on them 24 hours a day.
Paying attention to your chicks behavior is the easiest way to determine if they're hot or cold. If they huddle together directly under the lamp, they're too cold. If they are separated and trying to get away from the lamp, they're too hot. Chicks can easily die from being too hot or too cold. And as we found out the hard way, if they're huddling together from the cold, one or more can easily be smothered to death.
You'll need to line their cage with some sort of bedding to catch all the poop and to keep your chicks legs healthy. Because a smooth floor can cause Splayed Leg, I recommend laying a piece of wire mesh on the bottom of the cage or box. Then add 1" - 2" of absorbent material on top. Wood shavings, ground up corn cob, peanut shells, shredded paper towels, or straw are all good choices. If using wood shavings, make sure to use untreated, unscented wood. Most agree that pine shavings are the best, while cedar shavings are the worst. Because chicks poop a lot, their cage will have to be cleaned and have fresh bedding put down quite often. With 7 chicks, we have to clean their cage 2-3 times a day.
A water dish
It's very important that you don't use large bowls to water your chicks because they're very susceptible to drowning. They can even die just from getting too wet. If you ever find your chick wet and not moving too much, it's very important to get them dry as fast as possible. During their second day here, 1 of my chicks drowned in the water bowl and 2 of them almost died from falling in the bowl and getting wet. When I found them, they weren't moving and their breathing was labored. I laid them each on a washcloth and put them directly below our spare heat lamp. After an hour, they started moving again. After 2 hours, they were standing, but too unsteady to walk. Within 5 hours they were back to normal. We were using a tupperware container made for holding sandwiches as their water bowl. We had incorrectly assumed that by not filling it full, our chicks would be safe. For a temporary fix, we used a very small glass ashtray. It was too small for them to drown in and the heavy glass prevented them from tipping it over. But there wasn't anything stopping them from pooping in it.
So we got one of these chicken fountains. This fountain prevents chicks from drowning because the opening is too small for them to climb into. Now we just have to change the water twice a day and even better, we don't have to worry about them pooping in it!
A chick feeder
If you use a dish, bowl or plastic tub to feed your chicks, be prepared for a mess. For some reason, they'll fight over who gets to stand in the middle of the food. They'll walk through it, poop in it and tip it over. Because we didn't know any better, we started out using a small dish to feed them. Because of the mess, this meant cleaning their cage after every meal. In the first two days, we cleaned their cage 14 times!
So we ended up getting a chick feeder. Like the water fountain, this is too small for them to stand in. So they can no longer stand there and kick their food everywhere. We also don't have to worry about them pooping in their food and then trying to eat it.
If you don't want to buy a chick feeder (because you'll just have to buy a larger one in a couple weeks), you could also use a small pet food bowl with an overturned glass in the middle. It uses the same concept as a chick feeder.
What do chicks eat?
For the first 6 weeks, you'll need to feed your chick Starter Feed. During this time, a chick needs high levels of protein to survive. Starter feed is specially formulated to provide that extra protein along with the other nutrients necessary to keep your chicks healthy and strong. It comes in 3 types: mash, crumbles and pellets. Most already have grit in them, so that's one less thing for you to worry about. When choosing a starter feed, make sure to get un-medicated feed if your chicks have already been vaccinated against Coccidiosis.
At 6 weeks, your chicks can be switched to a Grower Feed (or developer feed). This feed is specially formulated to help your chicks grow strong while preparing their bodies for laying eggs. Use this feed until your chicks are 18-20 weeks old,
At 20 weeks, your chickens are ready to be fed Layer Feed. This feed has the extra minerals a chicken needs in order to stay healthy while laying good quality eggs. Supplementing your chickens diet with some will provide the extra calcium needed to produce eggs with thicker shells. Layer feed can be used until your chicken stops producing eggs. Crushed Oyster Shell
To save money, you can supplement your chickens diet with treats like whole grains, cooked spaghetti noodles, veggie peels, fruit, fresh grass, weeds and worms. Because chickens don't have teeth to chew up their food, they require grit to help break down and digest it. Grit is stored in the gizzards and as the food passes, the grit grinds it into smaller pieces.
Water is the most important nutrient in a chicks diet.
Your chicks should always have fresh water available to them. Change it a couple times a day and make sure it doesn't get too warm or too cold.
Building a chicken coop
When your chicks are between 6 to 8 weeks old, they can be moved to a chicken coop.
Essentials for any chicken coop
A chicken coop isn't something that should just be thrown together. This is the house where your chickens will live out the rest of their days. If it's not well built, you'll leave your chickens vulnerable to predators, disease and dangerous temperature fluctuations. Taking your time and making sure to include all the essentials is the easiest way to keep your chickens safe, healthy and happy.
- The most important thing to do when building a chicken coop is to protect it from all sides. If your coop doesn't have a floor, shovel out 4-6 inches of dirt from the entire inside of the coop. Then put down a layer of mesh and a layer of chicken wire before shoveling the dirt back in. This will stop predators from burrowing underneath your coop. The walls should be made of wood and chicken wire and be buried 12" deep into the ground to prevent animals from digging their way through. Because the holes in chicken wire are too big for my comfort, we put two layers, making sure to criss cross the holes. Adding a roof will protect your chickens from any flying predators. We put a tin roof on our coop, although mesh netting will do the job just as well.
- Your chicken coop needs to be airy enough to prevent your chickens from getting a respiratory illness, but not so drafty as to prevent them from finding warmth during the winter. A combination of wood and chicken wire is the simplest way to achieve this. When building our coop, we made sure it was extra breezy. We figured if they got too cold in the winter, we could just seal up some of the wire with wood.
- Build your coop large enough to give each chicken her space. If you plan on letting your chickens out to roam free, then build your coop big enough to allow 4-5 square feet for each chicken. If you plan on leaving your chickens in the coop all the time, allow 8-10 square feet per chicken.
- Nesting boxes will encourage your chickens to lay eggs. Some say you only need 1 box for every 3 or 4 chickens, but I think every chicken should have their own. Hang these nesting boxes 1-2 feet off the ground and make sure to place them in the darkest spot in the coop because that's where the chickens feel the safest. To add comfort (and a soft landing for the eggs), add some pine shavings to every box.
- Chickens love to roost so roosting poles are essential (if you want happy chickens). A roosting pole is basically a perch for your chickens to sit on. They can be made out of any kind of wood, as long as the wood isn't too smooth to allow your chickens a good grip. Thick tree branches and 2x4's work best. Placing multiple roosting poles at different heights throughout your coop will encourage your chickens to roost in the air instead of roaming through the poop covered floor.
- Build your coop with easy clean up in mind. While it may provide the same amount of space, a narrow rectangular coop will be harder to clean than a wide square one. Depending on the number of chickens you have, a coop should be cleaned out and the bedding changed at least once a month. The best bedding to use is pine wood shavings laid 3" thick. When you replace the bedding, it's a good idea to add some diatomaceous earth (food grade) in with the pine shavings. This will help with the odor and prevent your chickens from getting mites or lice.
A little about laying eggs
- A hen will start laying her first eggs when she's around 20 to 26 weeks old. Those first eggs will be small, thin-shelled and sometimes discolored. Once her body gets used to producing eggs, she will lay them with more regularity and they will become bigger and have thicker shells. It's important that you check for and collect her eggs every day. This will get her used to you collecting them and could even prevent her from getting broody.
- Chickens experience molting once a year. Molting is when all their feathers fall out and they grow new ones to replace them. During this time, most chickens either slow down production, or they completely stop producing eggs until it's over.
- If your chicken has stopped producing eggs, there could be several causes:
Stress will cause a hen to stop laying. To get her laying again, you'll need to figure out where the stress is coming from and fix it.
Brooding is when a hen decides she's going to sit on her eggs until they hatch (even if they aren't fertilized). You'll need to be careful when you try to collect her eggs because a broody hen can get very defensive. When a hen is brooding, she stops producing eggs.
Insufficient nutrition will stop egg production. Each egg needs a large amount of protein and calcium in order to form correctly. If your hen isn't getting those nutrients, the eggs have nothing to form from.
Age can also affect egg production. Like humans, a hen can only lay eggs for so many years
- To predict what color eggs a chicken will lay, look at her earlobes. White earlobes mean white eggs, while red earlobes mean brown eggs. This is true for just about every chicken breed except the Ameraucana, Easter Egger, and Araucana breeds (they lay eggs colored similar to easter eggs).
- You don't need a rooster for your hens to lay eggs. Anyone that tells you different should be ignored and mildly chuckled at later. The only time you need a rooster is if you want your hens to lay fertilized eggs so you can hatch the chicks.
What I've learned about chicks
Chicks eat a lot!
Because chicks don't overeat, they should always have food available in their cage. They'll only eat what they need, which may seem like a lot until you factor in how fast they grow. Just remember they only take 20 weeks to accomplish what it takes us 18 years to do: grow to adult-hood.
Don't forget that water is just as important as food. A chicks body is 50% water, so they need a lot of it to thrive.
- Yes, there is a way to make them quiet down.
If chicks are chirping loudly, it means they are uncomfortable or unhappy. If you can figure out what they want and give it to them, they will stop chirping as much. Make sure not to look past the obvious. My chicks chirped for 36 hours straight before we realized the bulb in the heat lamp wasn't strong enough to keep them warm. Once we changed the bulb, the silence was like heaven.
- Every chick has their own personality.
Seriously! Each of my chicks acts differently. Some are shy. Some are outgoing. Some are brave. Some are scared of their own shadow. Some are loud and annoying. Others are so quiet, you forget they're even there. Each chick is different and special in her own way.
I think only having 7 chicks has allowed me to get to know them better. It's allowed me to see each chick as an individual instead of just one of the thousand egg-layers.
Or I could just be going nutso.....
- Chicks aren't "easy pets"!
Baby chicks require almost constant attention. First thing in the morning, I refill their food and water. Then I transfer them from the smaller cage we keep them in at night to a larger cage we keep outside. Then I have to clean the small cage. This all takes about 45 minutes and 6 trips up the stairs. During the day, I have to constantly refill their water (they drink a lot) and watch to make sure no neighborhood cats try for a chicken dinner. I also have to monitor the temperature in their cage so I know whether to give them more sun or more shade. If it rains, I have to run outside and put their cage on the covered porch. The last time that happened, I strained a muscle and ended up snuggling with ice packs for 3 days. At night I warm up their small cage and then transfer them to it. Most of the time they just stretch out and go to sleep. But of course, they always wake up and start squawking halfway through the night.
- Chicks are entertaining!
I could watch these chickies for hours without getting bored. They chase flies. They play Queen of the Perch (their version of King of the Mountain). They try to bath in their food. They knock their water dish over and then squawk at me like it's my fault!
From the father hen (Earbud) to the shy guy (Chippy), from the self harmer (Thumper) to the amazingly calm chicky (Ashe), from the sneaky rascal (Korma) to my two little miracles (Mira & Cali); all their individual personalities come together to create an amazing little family that I feel honored to be a part of.
- Sometimes chicks don't mesh with each other.
When my chicks were all grown up, I noticed Korma never hung out with the rest of the group. He was always by himself. He even slept outside the coop. Then I noticed that when he tried to socialize with the other chickens, the other roosters would attack him. He started wandering around the neighborhood and finally he wound up at my neighbors house. My neighbor has a bigger chicken coop and about 3 times as many chickens. Seeing that Korma fit right in, I talked to my neighbor and he decided to take him into his own coop. Korma still comes to visit every once in a while, but today he's happy being the lead roo of his own coop.
I wrote this article in June 2011. Today all my chicks are grown and one even has her own baby chicks. It's a little different experience this time around because Thumper is taking great care of them. So I get to just sit back and enjoy these 5 new little chicks :)
© 2011 Othercatt