If you want to start your own backyard flock, we’re here to give you the low-down on raising freshly hatched chicks into healthy adult hens. But before you head down to your standard feed store to pick up chicks (pun intended), there are a few things you should know about caring for baby chicks.
Preparation is crucial before you bring home your baby chicks. We have two words for you: brooding box. Creating a comfortable, safe brooding area is essential to raising baby chicks into healthy adult chickens. There are some key components to a successful brooding area and we will walk you through all of them in this post.
Location, Location, Location
The first and arguably the most important aspect of your brooding box is the location. You will want to make sure that the area you choose is clean, safe from predators and away from AC vents, drafts, or excessive heat. We chose to keep our day-old chicks in our guest bathtub in a storage bin that we converted into their brooding box. To keep any cool drafts from disrupting the consistency of the room’s temperature, we closed the AC vent in there as well.
Once you figure out the where, you will need to decide what to put them in. A good rule of thumb for space is about ½ a square foot per chick. As mentioned above, we chose to use a larger storage bin for this purpose. But, a brooding box can be something as simple as a cardboard moving box or a commercial product made specifically for the purpose. We do recommend that you use something at least 12-18 inches high. Or even better, something with a breathable top. Chicks get curious and can jump quite a bit higher than you might expect. The last thing you want is for one to jump out of their box while you’re at work and get separated from their water source and their food source.
Constant Access to Water and Food
Chickens need about 1 quart of clean water daily for every 25 birds. Our chicks either drank, knocked over or kicked their bedding into their water on the regular. It pays to put multiple water sources in their box and to prop them up to about shoulder height. This will help ensure that you aren’t replacing water 10xs per day and it also allows the chicks to drink water from multiple places in their box. They are excitable little creatures and an often forget to stay hydrated. Having 2 or 3 water sources, depending on the size of your box, will help remind them.
You will want to use a good quality commercial starter feed with at least 20% crude protein for the first 6-8 weeks. From 9-20 weeks, it’s recommended that you switch to a chicken grower feed. When they hit the 20 week mark, then you can change to a laying feed which contains a lot more calcium for egg production. We do not recommend supplementing their diets with ground corn or three-grain scratch when they are chicks. The starter feeds offer a balanced, perfect nutrition for your chickens and is really all that they need.
One tip that we highly recommend is that you get the gravity feeder from your standard feed store. If you just put their food in a regular bowl, then your chickens will jump into that bowl and kick the food out all over the brooding box. As you can imagine, this is a huge waste of their food and of your money. The gravity feeder only allows them to access small segments of food at a time and keeps them from scratching it everywhere. It also gives all your chicks the ability to access food and thus a place in the pecking order. It’s definitely worth getting, since it’ll save you money and trips to the feed store.
If you’re anything like us, then you’ve heard all kinds of chicken myths. For example, Chickens can forage for their own food and survive in the wild! Or you can feed them anything at any age! But don’t be fooled. That’s not necessarily true. The starter feed you are giving them is a perfectly balanced diet and will give you the best chance at having a healthy flock of laying hens in the future. Any additional food that you give them at a young age just unbalances that diet.
However, if you must feed them treats, like we eventually had to (we can’t help but spoil our animals), then wait a few weeks until they start to get feathers. Their digestion can be sensitive as chicks and while they may be fine, we just didn’t want to risk making them sick. At about the 4 week mark, we began feeding them plain Greek yogurt mixed with dry oatmeal. They loved this treat! Plus, it’s packed with protein and it’s easy on their bellies.
We experienced no ill-effects from this and it made them much more sociable with us, since our presence was positively associated with treats. We couldn’t bring ourselves to feed them scrambled eggs because it just seemed wrong. But chickens are naturally cannibalistic and from all accounts, this is also a healthy treat for them. So, do with that what you will 😊.
Now that they are older, we feed them layer feed along with an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables. This encompasses anything that we are growing in our garden. My husband also likes to catch lizards, bugs and worms and feed them to the chickens. It’s a little morbid, but the chickens absolutely love it.
Ideally, you will want to set up your brooding box with the heat lamp running at least 36 hours before your chicks come home. We bought a reptile thermometer from Petsmart and kept it in their brooding box to ensure that we had a consistent temperature. It is ideal to hang the heat lamp above the brooding box, near the middle. Please note not to put your feed directly under the heat lamp and to be cautious if you’re using a cardboard box. We bought a red heat lamp as chickens gravitate towards this color and it discourages pecking.
If you’re uncertain of the temperature, don’t worry! Your chicks will tell you if it’s too hot or too cold. If it’s too cold, they will huddle under the heat lamp. If it’s too hot, they will get as far away from it as possible it. They will also fan out their feathers to cool off and fall asleep as far away as they can get from the lamp when it gets too warm. When the temperature is right, they will move around their box normally.
Chickens have a surprisingly sensitive respiratory system, so you will not want to use cedar or fine saw dust as these materials will irritate their noses. We used large pine shavings and that worked great. The most important part of the bedding is to make sure it stays clean and dry, especially the dry part. Chicks do not do well with cold or wet conditions. We dumped their bedding every day and replaced it with fresh shavings.
The sensitive respiratory system is also the reason to make sure that there is proper ventilation in your brooding box. You do not want to close your chicks up in a box with strong scented bedding and limited airflow. We kept our storage tub open, which provided plenty of ventilation.
We hope you have found our guide to caring for your hatchlings helpful! If you have any questions, feel free to message us and we will get you an answer ASAP. If you’re interested in learning more about raising chicks into healthy hens, please read our posts about chicken coops and chicken breeds.