Raising chicks from scratch – or nearly scratch – isn’t all that difficult. Folks have been doing it for thousands of years, and most pulled it off without all the technology we have today. Whether you purchase day-old birds from a hatchery or incubate fertile eggs instead, there’s little reason to believe that your efforts won’t result in one fine flock.
Keep the heat on
No matter your starting material, the first order of business is to keep things warm. If you plan to hatch eggs (without a broody hen to help), you’ll want to be sure your incubator is capable of maintaining a constant temperature of about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. You’ll need to keep a pan of water in the incubator, too – 60 percent relative humidity is ideal during most of the incubation. Turn the eggs several times a day for the first 18 days of the incubation, but during the last three, the chicks are moving into hatching position, so it’s best not to disturb them. If all goes well, the little chickens will bust out of their shells on the 21st day. They’ll be fine in the incubator for a day or so – the residual yolk sack will sustain them, no problem. In fact, the yolk sack is what makes it possible to ship chicks by express mail.
Once you have received your day-old chicks (from the incubator or post office), you need to introduce them to their brooder. The brooder can be as simple as a circular pen constructed with corrugated cardboard sides and an infrared heat lamp or two suspended above it – if your design is rectangular, insert curved cardboard in the corners to keep excited chicks from piling up. Cover the brooder’s bottom with an inch or two of clean wood shavings, ground corn cobs or other absorbent material. As you place the chicks into their new digs, dip their beaks into the water trough (to introduce them to it) and let them go. If they all converge beneath the lights in a tight group, they’re cold. If they form a ring around the light, it’s too hot. Raise or lower the lamp(s) until the chicks are evenly dispersed – contented chicks will peep with a murmur that is mesmerizing.
Stoke the furnace
In addition to warmth, chicks require a constant supply of water and free choice food – at least initially. Choose a chick starter ration from your local feed supplier or farm store. These feeds typically contain 20 percent to 23 percent protein. At about five weeks, switch your chicks to a growing ration – this feed will contain about 15 percent protein. At the same time, it’s important to offer grit for the gizzard and crushed oyster shell (particularly for layers) as a calcium source. If your birds are still confined, feel free to toss some fresh alfalfa, clover, grass clippings or even leftover salad greens (no salt or dressing) into their pen from time to time.
Cleanliness is key to successfully rearing a brood of chicks. Never let their feed get wet – it will grow moldy in a flash. Avoid the temptation to refill the waterer without first washing it out – parasites and disease can spread rapidly through contaminated water. Remove and replace wet bedding in the brooder; add more as the manure builds up. Chicken litter and used brooder bedding make excellent fertilizer – it’s best when composted.
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Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.