So you have decided to raise chickens, and have poured over the catalogs determining which breed you want. After hours, and very possibly days, you’ve agonized over each one, and finally narrowed it down to something manageable – in other words, you didn’t give in and order two dozen of every variety. The chicks will be here soon, so you really need to know what supplies you need and how to care for them – BEFORE they arrive. If you have ordered them, they will arrive at the Post Office in a cardboard box with holes in the sides, and they need to get out of the box and into their new home as quickly as possible.
Hatcheries can ship chicks this way because for the first 24 hours the chicks are ‘feeding’ off of the yolk sac which is drawn into their body during the incubation process. They are packed in tightly to prevent harm to the chicks during shipping, as well as to keep them warm. But this is only a temporary situation, and the sooner you remove them from the box and get them to water, the better. They may have food in their tiny bellies, but they need water quickly.
A day before your chicks arrive you need to set up the brooding area. You can use different things for this purpose. If you have the available money, you can purchase a moveable brooder like those that the feed stores have. Be prepared, however, to spend $325 and up for one of these, and that is just the box – no wheels. If you have just a few chicks, you can opt for one of the kits, which is either plastic or cardboard panels that make a rough circle. These start at around $25, but do not include the lamp, the waters, feeders or litter. Or, you can opt to make your own – from a cardboard box to a large plastic bin, or an old #2 Washtub. Just be sure there is enough room for a lamp, and a feed/water station. There are dozens of great ideas on the internet. Just take the time to research and make the one that best fits your needs. In our case, we have two oval galvanized water troughs. These have sides high enough to hold in the heat and to keep the chicks from escaping. Keep in mind – although we raise 4 to 6 dozen chicks at a time, the water troughs aren’t large enough to hold them after a few weeks of growth. Just before it gets too crowded, we move them to the feed side of the coop floor, which is fenced off from the main coop. An added benefit to this is that it gives the larger chickens time to get used to them, and lessens the bullying sure to come when integrating the new chicks in with the old flock.
To prepare the brooding area, you need to first lay down your litter. First, put a layer of paper towels (if the area is small), or feed sacks (if the area is large, like ours) across the entire floor area. If you opted to purchase a commercial type brooder, you need to line your poop drawer with newspapers. This is the only recommended place for newspaper though – if your chicks are going on the floor or in a homemade brooder, don’t use newsprint. It is too slick and the chicks can’t get enough traction, which can cause leg problems and damage. Stick with paper towels, feed sacks or some other absorbent, non-slick surface. Once your paper is down, spread about a 2” or better layer of litter. Pine shavings work well, and you can get them in blocks at most farm supply stores. Litter needs to be changed every day to two days, or as soon as it becomes damp. Dampness can be a death sentence for chicks through decreased body temperature and the spread of Coccidiosis, a parasitical disease that loves moisture.
Next, determine where you will put your light, and get it hung. A note about bulbs – we use brooder specific bulbs in ours, but a 60 to 100 watt incandescent bulb will work. You can also use a heat lamp, but beware of the dangers. If not properly installed and watched, these can all too quickly start a fire. Make sure any lamp you use has a porcelain base, and not plastic, because plastic can melt. White bulbs work just fine, but red can also be used. Red are more expensive, but help to reduce pecking, because everything already looks red (chickens are attracted to red, so if a chick or chicken has a spot of blood on them, the others will begin pecking it, and end up killing the chicken). Hang your light so that the temperature underneath it reaches between 90 and 95 degrees. Make sure, though, that there is plenty of area for the chicks to get away from the heat if it gets too warm for them. The easiest way to determine if the temperature is off either way is to watch the chicks. If it’s too cold, they will huddle together tightly under the light. If it’s too hot, they will scatter across the brooder as far away from the light as they can get. Each week, raise the lamp high enough to decrease the temperature by 5 degrees. Do this for approximately 5 weeks, or until the chicks have feathered out.
Once your light is in place, add your waterers and feeders. Place both of these as far away from the light as possible. About an hour prior to putting your chicks in the brooder, turn the light on to get the area warm, about an hour or so before you get your chicks. When your chicks arrive, gently lift one, dip its beak in the water once or twice, dip it in the food, and then set it down. Repeat until all of your chicks are safely in the brooder. Although this isn’t an absolutely necessary step, it does help orient them to where their food and water is. Water needs to be freshened at least once a day, even better two or three times. Food, on the other hand, may need to be replaced more often. If you use a feeder designed for chicks, (the small round metal type with holes around the circumference) they love to stand on top of it to get to the food. In doing so, they poop in their food. Be diligent in keeping the food as clean and fresh as possible. Chicks will naturally want to scratch at their feed, so to prevent them from scattering it all over the brooder and wasting most of it, I recommend the longer, rectangular feeders designed for chicks. You can get them in metal with a sliding top, or in plastic that is hinged and snaps closed. We use both – right now we just have the red plastic ones – but they still have to be checked and cleaned regularly.
If you have chosen a small brooder, you will have to upgrade to a larger container as they start to grow and get crowded. Once they have fully feathered, approximately 2 to 3 months, it will be time to begin orienting them to the outside run. If these are your only chickens, then just make sure there isn’t any place in your run area that will allow them to escape or predators to enter. Trust me on this – EVERYTHING likes chicken. If you have other chickens, you will need to watch the new ones closely for a while to prevent bullying. One way to do this is to find something to entertain the older chickens – throw in a huge pile of grass clippings or an old bale of hay they can scratch around in, or hang a head of lettuce from a rope and let them play tetherball. The more you can do to distract them from the new kids the better. Just understand. There will be some pecking and bullying going on. It is the nature of the chicken beast, and where the old phrase ‘pecking order’ comes from. There is a hierarchy in the coop that is maintained religiously. Another thing you can do is wait until it is dark. Very quietly slip the new chickens in the coop with the older girls, and in the morning, the older ones will be a bit confused as to the placement of the new comers.
Now that the biggest portion of the work is done, it is time to sit back, enjoy your babies and start thinking about all those delicious fresh eggs you’ll have. Be prepared though. Chickens don’t start laying until they are roughly 6 months old. But that gives you plenty of time to start collecting egg recipes! Don’t forget to stop by the kitchen – several friends have contributed some great recipes for you to try.
Note: If you ordered meat birds the process is somewhat different. If you are interested in this, let me know and I’ll do an article on that, as well. If you have never done it, I recommend you trying it at least once. Fresh raised meat is so much better than the grocery store variety, that there really is no comparison!