Raising Baby Chickens—The First 60 Days
Getting and raising chicks is exciting and may even be a little nerve wrecking time for chicken owners. There are a few basic, but very important, things you can and should do to make this experience as hassle free and enjoyable as possible for yourself and the little ones. First off, let's start with the…
The chick's first home will be the brooder. (For brooder designs and ideas see our Incubators & Brooders section) The size of the brooder will depend on the number of chicks you have. Aim for at least 2.5 sq feet per chick, if possible, more is better. Overcrowding chicks can cause a host of problems and they will grow so fast, what seems very generous space-wise now will quickly get filled up!
The bottom of the brooder should have a layer of clean litter (pine shavings or similar is ideal). Do NOT line the bottom with newspaper or similar. Newspaper is slippery underfoot and can cause foot and leg problems in the chicks as a result. For very small chicks paper towels over wood shavings is recommended. This will stop them pecking at and eating the shavings while they figure out what "food" is. The litter should be changed out every couple of days, and never allowed to remain damp—cleanliness is VERY important at this stage. Baby chicks are prone to a number of diseases, such as Coccidiosis, which thrives in a damp environment. This and other chick health problems can be avoided with proper sanitation.
When the chick are around a month old, add a low roost about 4" off the floor of the brooder to encourage the chicks to start roosting. Don't put it directly under the heat lamp, it will be too warm there.
Temperature in the Brooder
The brooder can be heated by using a light bulb with a reflector, available at any hardware store. A 100-watt bulb is usually fine, though most people use an actual heat lamp. The temperature should be around 90*F degrees for the first week in the warmest part of the brooder and should be reduced by around 5 degrees each week thereafter, until the chicks have their feathers (5-8 weeks old). It's important that you provide warmer and cooler areas in the brooder, so the chicks can move around and regulate their body temperatures as they feel comfortable. A thermometer in the brooder is helpful, but you can tell if the temperature is right by how the chicks behave. If they are panting and/or huddling in corners farthest from the light, they are too hot. If they huddle together in a ball under the light, they are too cold. You can adjust the distance of the light (or change the wattage of the bulb) until it's right.
It is important that you make sure you use the correct heat bulb for your brooder. Teflon coated bulbs can be fatal, as this member learned: Seven dead hens within 4 hours, not attacked. UPDATE: Teflon Poisoning!
Food and Water for the Chicks
Make sure you always have fresh, clean water available for your chicks. Place the waterer as far as possible away from the heat lamp, and if you are using a bowl, fill it with marbles or clean pebbles to help prevent the chicks from drowning or getting soaked if they accidentally fall in. Chicks are clumsy little things and landing in the water bowl is an inevitable part of growing up for them, with often fatal results.
Even baby chicks will naturally scratch at their food, so a feeder that (more or less) keeps the food in one place is good. Again, cleanliness is important: the chicks will poop right into their own food, so you must clean and refill it often. Chicks start out with food called "crumbles", or "chick starter". It is specially formulated for their dietary needs and it comes as medicated or not. Medicated feed is usually medicated with a small amount of Amprolium drugs, which helps prevent Coccidiosis. Please note: you still need to be mindful of cleanliness in the brooder, even if you feed medicated starter. Like the flu jab, it's not a 100% prevention. Chick crumbles is a complete food—no other food is necessary. However, after the first week or two, you can give them small amounts of treats every day. Remember when feeding treats to offer the chicks grit to help them break down the new food. If you cannot find chick size grit, coarse sand works just as well. Here are some ideas for good treats for baby chicks. Though feeding treats is great fun, it should be regarded as candy to humans and fed in moderation.
Chicks are insatiably curious—after the first week or two, they can be put outside for short periods of time if the temperature is high enough. They MUST be watched at this age, however. Chicks can move fast, squeeze into small spaces, and are helpless against a variety of predators, including the family dog or cat. They are also amazing escape artists, so make sure they are in a secure enclosure! If they have bonded to you, they are likely follow you around. Chickens become fond of their owners, some will come when you call them (and some won't!). Keep outside time short for the first few days, while the chicks get used to the idea, and gradually extend the time they spend outdoors as they grow up. This will eventually make the transition to the coop easier for you and them too.
Keeping Chicks Healthy
Chicks are prone to a condition called "pasty butt" where droppings stick to their vents and clog it up, making it impossible for them to relieve themselves. If left untreated this can kill them. Check your chicks' bottoms every few hours, especially during the first 2 weeks. If you find a pasty bottom carefully soak and remove the plug, pat the area and dry and apply a little vaseline or vegetable oil to the area. Organic ACV (apple cider vinegar) in their drink water is found to help prevent this condition. A ratio of 3–4 tablespoons to a gallon of water is recommended.
For more on raising chicks see the Raising Baby Chicks section of the forum.