So you've decided that this will be the year that you are going to become a bit more self-sufficient and are going to start raising chickens. Raising baby chicks is easy if you use these few simple tips. But let's start at the beginning.
Hopefully you've done your research into how many chickens you are allowed in your area, you've chosen the breeds you want to raise (based on their heat-tolerance or cold-hardiness, production levels, appearance, egg color etc), maybe even placed your order for day old chicks due in the spring or checked with your local feed store about when chicks will be available. Now what?
Now you need to get your 'nursery' ready for your new arrivals.
QUICK CHICK CHECKLIST
Here's what you will need before your chicks arrive:
Brooder Box - either homemade or store bought
Heat Lamp with Two Red Bulbs or Brinsea Eco-Glow
Starter Feed (either Medicated or Non-Medicated that is a personal preference)
Chick-sized Waterer with Marbles or Small Stones
Rubber Shelf Liner/Newspaper
Plain Pedialyte, Manna Pro Life-Lytes or Sav-a-Chick
BABY CHICK SET UP AND CARE GUIDE
The first thing you will need to do is set up a brooder box. I made mine out of a clear plastic storage bin (available at Lowes, Walmart, Home Depot and other places). Just cut out a 'window' in the top, cut a wooden frame out of furring strips and bolt on 1/2" hardware cloth for good ventilation. You can also use a cardboard box with hardware cloth bent over the top and secured.
Now you've got a nice place for your chicks to grow up, safe from your cats, dogs and kids. Brooders should always be covered because even without the threat of cats, dogs or kids, chicks learn to fly fairly quickly and you will have escapees in no time.
Newspaper should not be used alone on the bottom of the brooder because it is too slippery, especially if it gets wet, and can cause spraddle leg in chicks. Instead, rubber shelf liner cut to fit the bottom of the brooder on top of several layers of newspaper works great. The chicks can get a good grip on the shelf liner while the newspaper underneath absorbs spilled liquids. After a few days, once the chicks learn what is food and what is not, a thin layer of pine shavings can be added.
A well-secured heat lamp will be necessary to keep the chicks warm. Before they are fully feathered, they can't regulate their body temperature. A red light prevents picking and stresses chicks less than a white light will. The temperature in the box should be 95 degrees the first week, and then reduced 5 degrees per week.
I have a thermometer attached to one wall of the brooder so I can regulate the temperature by adjusting the height of the light, but the best way is to watch your chicks to be sure they are comfortable. Cold chicks chirp loudly and pile up under the light. Chicks that are too warm will hold their wings out, pant and stay in the far corners of the box. Comfortable chicks will move happily around the box, cheeping contentedly.
On the day the chicks are due to arrive, call your post office early in the morning and keep calling until the truck has arrived with your chicks. You will want to be there to pick them up as soon as they are unloaded.
Turn on the heat lamp before you leave the house to pick up the chicks so the brooder is up to temperature when you return. Fill the feeder with chick feed and fill the waterer with water so it can warm up room temperature by the time you get back. Cold water can chill the chicks and actually send them into shock. Put some marbles or stones into the water so the chicks won't fall in and drown.
A small dish filled with coarse sand or dirt can double as 'grit' to help the chicks digest their food and practice taking 'dust baths'.
Okay, your 'nursery' is ready and you're off to pick up the little fluffy, peeping balls of fluff.
It is a good idea to bring a small container of room temperature sugar water or plain pedialyte with you to the post office so the chicks can have a much-needed drink of energy as soon as possible.
A warmed eye pillow (like those filled with rice that can be microwaved and heated up) is also a good thing to bring with you to pop into the box to help keep the chicks warm for the ride home. They seem to like it in the brooder also as a sort of 'security blanket'.
Once you get them home with your box of chicks, check each chick one by one for 'pasty butt' and clean off any poop on their vent with a q-tip moistened with warm water or vegetable oil. Pasty butt literally stops up the chick so they can't excrete their poop and can be potentially fatal. It can be caused by stress or extreme temperature changes often endured during the travel from the hatchery.
(Continue to check butts for the first few days. Feeding the chicks cornmeal or ground raw oatmeal can help clear up pasty butt. Be sure and provide chick-sized grit if you feed your chicks anything other than chick feed.)
Dip each chick's beak into the water as you take them out of the shipping box and make sure each takes a drink before setting them in the brooder to explore and rest from their trip. There should be clean fresh water and dry feed in the brooder box at all times. Chicks are messy so check often to make sure they haven't tipped over their water or feed containers. They will get accustomed to their new home in no time. Even enjoying hopping up onto dowels to practice 'perching'.
You will generally have the option to get your chicks vaccinated against Mareks before they are shipped. Since most chicken runs have traces of Marek's not matter how vigilant and clean you keep them, and which is pretty much un-treatable, out of fear of carrying the virus inside with you to your new chicks, you might feel more comfortable getting them vaccinated.
You can also choose to give them medicated feed for about the first eight weeks. The feed will give them immunity to coccidiosis. After that, they should be strong enough to start to built up a natural immunity, so you will switch them to starter/grower feed which is unmedicated. Coccidiosis is the number one cause of death in chicks, so as an added precaution you can feed the medicated feed to new chicks.
If you decide not to feed the medicated chick feed, be on the lookout for any signs of red-tinted or bloody stools, lethargy etc. It could be coccidia, a highly infectious, potentially fatal, parasitic disease of the intestinal tract. There are commercial medications, such as Sulmet, that can be administered if coccidia is diagnosed, although I don't recommend ever administering Sulmet due to its lack of withdrawal period - meaning you should never eat eggs from that chicken. There are also holistic remedies available:
A bit of apple cider vinegar, such as Bragg, splashed in their water and some probiotic powder in their feed can also help combat intestinal problems in chicks. Probiotics are thought to guard against coccidia as well. Fresh minced garlic will give their immune systems a nice boost.
From the start I also give my chicks clumps of grass (dirt and roots attached) and weeds, soft cooked oatmeal, earthworms, and scrambled eggs as treats. The dish of dirt in their brooder acts as the necessary grit they need to help grind up the fibrous grass.
At about 8 weeks, weather dependent, I will start letting the little ones outside in an enclosed run or pen on nice sunny days, but bring them back into the house to sleep, until the temperature in the brooder box is the same as the overnight ambient temperature outside. At this point, I hope you have given some thought to your coop and run area because your babies are big enough to start living outside full time.
Raising chicks is a wonderful experience and I hope that this has given you some helpful tips to make it easier.
Visit my blog at Fresh Eggs Daily for information on how to integrate newcomers into an established flock, how to incubate and hatch your own chicks and more!
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