Introduction to Keeping Chickens Part 3 of 5


As the arrival of your chicks quickly approaches, you will need to create a brooder.  This will be their home for about the next 6 weeks.  For their first week of life, the chicks will need the brooder temperature to be about 95 degrees F.  This is maintained by your heat lamp.  As each week passes, the temperature is lowered by 5 degrees until you reach the outdoor equivalent or they are fully feathered.  When we had our chicks delivered in June, temperatures were already in the 70s outside.  At six weeks of age, they transitioned outside.   Our mid-July temperatures were in the mid-eighties at that point.  We only used the heat lamp with the 250 watt bulb for about 2 weeks.  After that, I used a regular household light bulb of various wattages in the heat lamp.  Some people create brooders in their bathtubs, living space, or sheds.  Just remember that chickens are messy, sometimes stinky and produce dust in this stage.  Thus, we set our brooder up in the garage.

Your brooder can also be a large cardboard box, a wooden box, or a galvanized metal tub.  I used a wooden box on loan from a friend for my six chicks.  It was about 2.5 feet by 2.5 feet and stood about 2.5 feet tall.  Depending on the size of your flock, you may require a larger enclosure.  On top of my brooder, I added an old guard from a screen door.  This prevented them from flying out or into the heat lamp.  Upon the screen door guard, I rested the heat lamp.  Remember that the goals of your brooder include keeping the chicks warm, providing fresh air, protecting them for predators like household cats and keeping them free from drafts.  These all must be taken into consideration.  Line the bottom of your brooder with large thick pieces of cardboard cut to size.  Upon the cardboard, spread newspaper.  Next add some fresh pine shavings about 2 inches thick.

The day before your chicks arrive, fill the feeder and place it inside the brooder.  The feeder should be filled with a combination of about 25% grit and 75% feed.  When my chicks were about 3 weeks, I added a child-size shoe box lid filled with feed and grit.  My chicks enjoyed learning to scratch that way!  It also kept them entertained for hours.  They were practicing being big chickens!!  Remember that the feed will need to be refreshed daily as the chicks poop everywhere.

Next fill the waterer and place it on a level spot.   As the chicks get older they will explore.  They will spill the water and put pine shavings in the waterer.  Thus it will need frequent checking.  It is recommended that you check on your chicks about 5 times per day.  You never know what they will get themselves into!  As the chicks grew larger, I placed the waterer up on two bricks placed side by side.  This helped keep the water clean and they were less likely to spill it.  The waterer should be cleaned daily with white vinegar.  Keep in mind that you may need to change the water a few times a day based on its cleanliness.  It is very important to have clean water.  Dirty water can make your chicks sick.

Next test your heat lamp.  Place a thermometer directly below the center of the heat lamp in the pine shavings.  Hang the heat lamp about 18 inches above the pine shavings.  DO NOT rely on the clip to hang the lamp.  It must be secured in a different fashion to prevent fires.  This lamp gets HOT!!   Monitor the lamp for about 10 minutes and check the temperature.  If it is 95 degrees F, perfect.  If not, adjust it higher to make it cooler and lower to make it warmer. At this point, you are all set.  Now it is just a waiting game until your chicks arrive.


The post office will call you immediately once your chicks have arrived.  I mean this literally!  If your chicks arrive in the middle of the night, be prepared to go and get them right away.  Be prepared to be awake for a little while because you will need to tend to them immediately when you get home.  My call came in the afternoon.  I was so giddy.  When I arrived at the post office, they told me that I had a “peeping” package.  Sure enough, I did.  They peeped all the way home.  I did my best to peep back.

When you get home, do not open the box in front of the kids.   Sometimes, although rare, a chick will perish in transit.  If this happens remove the other chicks and after you tend to the live chicks, you should bury the dead chick deeply into the ground.  This prevents disease transmission just in case the little one was sick.  However, it was most likely the stress of the adventure that caused the death.  Be sure to call the hatchery and just let them know after you have addressed the live chicks’ needs.

Plug in your heat lamp.  Next, take each chick out individually.  First inspect the vent area.  If it is crusted over with poop, you will need to remove it.  This is called pasty butt.  Silkies are extremely prone to this.  If the crust is left, the chick will die.  I had to treat quite a few pasty butts along the way.  You will need to check all chicks for pasty butts every day.  To treat pasty butt, you will need to soak a paper towel in warm water.  Gently moisten the poop.  Do not pull as you will remove the chick’s skin.  Gently work the water into the poop by rubbing it between 2 fingers.  Try to remove as much as you can so that the vent is exposed.  After you remove the poop, coat the vent area with Neosporin.  You may need to repeat this over the next few weeks.  Think of it as bonding.

Immediately after dealing with the pasty butt, teach your chick how to eat and drink.  Remember, they will imprint on you as their Mother Hen.  Dip the chick’s beak into the water.  Make sure the chick drinks.  The chick will tilt its head up.  After the chick has taken a drink, dip the chick’s beak into the food.  Then release the chick and repeat with each additional chick in your new flock.  Watch the chicks drink and eat.  Watch their behavior as well.  Do some seem weaker?  Do some seem tired?  These are the ones that will require close monitoring for the next 48 hours.  It is possible some may still perish.  After they eat and drink they will nap like newborn babies.  Usually, they will nap together like a patchwork quilt.  Nuzzling closely and quietly, you can see their little bodies breathing.  It is so sweet.

You will frequently want to check on the temperature.  If the chicks are too hot, they will stay away from the lamp hugging the edges of the brooder.  If they are cold, they will huddle under the heat lamp.  If they are just right, they will explore and be spread all over.    Listen carefully to your baby chicks.  You might hear a pleasure trill!  It is the utmost sign of chicken contentment.  It is the purr of a chicken and it is the most adorable thing you will ever hear.

Published on Jan 28, 2013

Grit Magazine

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