New homesteaders usually add baby chicks as their first animal-keeping adventure. While purchasing a flock of hens that are already laying eggs is a choice for some, most choose to order and raise baby chicks to keep start-up costs low.
Raising recently hatched chickens is fun for the whole family and allows you to build a good relationship with your flock. In this guide for absolute beginners, you’ll learn everything you need to know to prepare for your flock and how to keep them safe and healthy.
Step One: Order your baby chicks from a reliable hatchery, breeders, farm, or farm supply store.
This is important. Personal breeders, though more costly, seem to take better care of their chickens (in a humane way), but hatcheries often have more stock. Check reviews and ask around to make sure you order from a reputable source.
- For baby chicks that will eventually lay eggs, you’ll need to order “sexed females”. Pullets are females that are a bit older and closer to laying age and they usually cost more.
- Order meat birds if you want to raise your chickens for meat. In catalogs or online, meat birds can also be listed as broilers or roasters.
- Many egg-laying birds are also “dual-purpose”. They will lay eggs but are also a good size for meat birds.
- A straight-run order of chicks means that the chicks have not been sexed. You can end up with either males or females.
- Some hatcheries sell their chicks by hatch date. Pay attention to this hatch date, it will also tell you when your chicks will arrive. The chicks will ship the day they hatch, or the day after if you ordered online. You will receive them within 2-3 days of their hatch date.
Step Two: Gather Supplies for your baby chicks
To keep your baby chicks happy, healthy, and safe, you need certain supplies. Have these items on hand before your chicks arrive and you will have everything you need for their care.
A brooder is where your chicks will live inside until they are old enough to move outside to a coop. Some people use old water tubs or cardboard boxes.
A wonderful alternative is to use a pop-up puppy playpen. A play tent has a water-proof floor, 4 sides, and a zip-top roof that is well-ventilated. It will also keep them sheltered from curious children or pets.
Bedding for the brooder floor
Shaved pine bedding is the most popular choice for keeping the floor of the brooder clean for baby chicks. It is important to have enough so that you can regularly change out soiled bedding for fresh bedding. Baby chicks are very susceptible to bacterial infections and need clean bedding, so make sure you plan accordingly.
A heat source for the chicks
Traditionally, heat lamps have been used to provide warmth for baby chicks because they cannot control their body temperature in the early days.
Nowadays, there are some safer alternatives such as flat-paneled heating pads that are supported by 4 legs in which the baby chicks can safely rest underneath to warm up, just as they would with a mother hen. Whichever way you choose to provide heat for your baby chicks, make sure that you follow instructions carefully to ensure their safety.
In the first week, your chicks will require the heat source to be around 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Each week thereafter is reduced by 5 degrees until they no longer require supplemental heat and can be moved to their coop. The chicks will also give you clues about whether they need more heat or less heat by their behavior and then you can adjust accordingly.
Chick starter food
Chick starter feed is available at your local farm supply store or online. Make sure that the feed you purchase is specified for baby chicks, as their protein requirements are different from those of an adult chicken. Some starter feeds have medication in them to guard against coccidiosis, an infection that unvaccinated chicks can contract.
Some chicken keepers are for giving chicks medicated feed for a month or so, while others contend that it is not necessary and blocks important nutrients necessary for the birds. The best thing to do is to research it and decide for yourself what will be best for your flock.
Fresh, clean water is an absolute must for your chicks, especially when they first arrive. Baby chicks become dehydrated quickly and may even need help on the first day to learn how to drink from the waterer you choose. Traditional waterers are fine, but they require frequent cleaning.
Another alternative is to get a nipple dispenser waterer. These types of dispensers keep the water clean and won’t need much maintenance. You must mount them or place them on a secure surface for chicks to have easy access to them.
A small perch
Within a week or two, your chicks will need to practice perching. You can make simple perch out of small twigs or you can purchase them online. Having different perches also helps ward off boredom for your curious new birds.
A chicken first aid kit
Having a first aid kit on hand provides peace of mind knowing that you will be able to handle ailments and injuries as they pop up with your new flock. You can buy pre-assembled kits online or you can assemble your own.
Some basic supplies are gauze, bandages, medical tape, iodine, probiotics, apple cider vinegar, electrolytes, wound ointment, scissors, tweezers, nail clippers, latex gloves, and more.
Some keepers include various herbs and other remedies in their kits too. It also helps to print out a first aid sheet to keep in your kit with instructions on how to tend to various ailments so you are not scrambling for information as you need it.
A small cage or kennel for sick or bully chicks
Sometimes, for reasons beyond your control, you end up with a sick chick. When this happens, it is important to be able to separate them from the rest of the flock until they can heal or to prevent them from spreading illness to others.
Another reason you may need a separate unit is to separate bully chicks from the other. Pecking order is a true reality for chickens and it is how they establish their social order. Normally, this is not a huge problem, and they quickly settle into their order with fuss.
But occasionally, a chick will become a bully and begin hurting other chicks further down the pecking order and they will teach other chicks how to bully as well. Being able to remove them from the flock is an effective way to deal with the problem and avoid further injuries.
Step Three: Care for your chicks
All that is left to do is care for them and get to know them. Baby chicks are curious and you will soon discover that they have their unique personalities. With a few safety measures in place and regular care, your little flock will begin to grow and thrive.
The first few days:
- Show your chicks where their food and water are on the first day that they arrive. Gently pick up each one and touch their beaks to their food if they have not eaten yet. Do the same with the water, touching their beak to the water a couple of times so that they know where it is. You may need to do this a couple of times throughout the day, but usually, one chick catches on quickly and teaches the rest of them. They are very curious and smart.
- Show the chick their heat source by lifting them gently and placing them under the heat. They will catch on quickly that this is where they will need to go to warm up.
- Try to keep touching and holding to a minimum. Chicks need a few days to get used to their new environment.
- Keep noise to a minimum. Barking dogs, excited children, loud television, or radio can all be stressful to baby chicks; so try to minimize these sounds for at least the first few days.
After a week:
- Examine your chicks for any wounds, vent blockages, dirty feet, etc, and treat accordingly. Paying attention to their behavior will clue you into any potential issues that might need to be addressed. If you discover a sick chick, separate them from the flock until you know what the problem is to avoid spreading the illness.
- Hold your chicks for short amounts of time more regularly to get to know them.
- Change the bedding as needed.
- Continue feeding fresh water and feed daily
- Watch them grow!
Step Four: Graduate them to a coop
After about six weeks, and as long as outside temps do not dip below 65 degrees Fahrenheit, your chicks should be ready to graduate to their outdoor coop. A good coop keeps your chicks protected from the elements and predators, has good ventilation, has roosts, and provides enough space for them to comfortably move about. An adjacent chicken yard is also helpful in guarding against boredom and allows them to forage if you do not plan to allow them to free-range.
Keeping chickens is a rewarding endeavor. With the right preparation and precautions, your flock will provide years of enjoyment, food, and usefulness to your homestead. For more homesteading posts like this, visit this page to follow our adventures!
Happy chicken keeping!