It's spring and chicken lovers everywhere are getting ready to raise new chicks, whether they're bought from stores or raised by a broody hen. It's a very wonderful, fun thing, and I'm getting "chicken fever" (as I call it) since soon I'll be getting a new flock of chicks. Whether you're new or starting your 40th year of chicken raising, it's always good to have a refresher and make sure you know what you need to.
Hopefully I'll be able to at least provide adequate information for you to get started. Another great reference is Gail Damerow's Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens. This and experience are where I have obtained most of my knowledge of chickens.
Choosing what breed(s) you want is probably the first step you'll take. You need do decide what you want your flock for: breeding, laying, meat, showing, or just backyard pets. If you want a few of these, there are many dual-purpose breeds that should be just right for you. I'll mainly focus on meat and layer birds. There are hundreds and hundreds of breeds (not all are official; see the American Standard of Perfection for information about all the official breeds) and what I list here is only the top for each. If you do your research, you'll find what you need.
- Sex-Links (For me, these are the best birds I've ever had! I highly recommend them!)
- Rhode Island Red
- Plymouth Rock
Brooding With a Hen
- Jersey Giant
- New Hampshire
Most hens, if they've successfully incubated their chicks, will also be a successful mother. I won't talk a lot about this method of brooding chicks because I've never done it so I'm not experienced. However, I will give you the information that I do know.
There are advantages to letting a mother brood. You don't have to do a lot of work, and the hen will teach her chicks the actual chicken ways instead of the human perception of chicken ways. But you do need to help a little. Provide a brooding pen where they'll be safe from predators and have enough space. If you have a small run for them to forage, make sure it's enclosed.
To feed, give the hen layer feed that's too high for the chicks but high enough for her, and the starter where the chicks can get it. Make sure you always provide enough water.
Hens can raise chicks of other breeds, mothers, or even species (although different species presents a high risk of disease). This can start a few weeks into setting. But whenever raising chicks with a mother hen, make sure she will actually do it. If she clucks a lot or shows that she's protective, you're probably fine.
However, like I said, I'm not learned on this topic, so I'm definitely not your best source of information.
Chicks in a Brooder
An alternate way to raise chicks is in a brooder. You can buy a brooder from the store, repurpose something, or build your own. No matter what way you do it, make sure it's easy to clean, it protects the chicks, and has enough space and warmth.
Without a mother hen, you need to provide a source of heat for the chicks. You can either buy a heat brooder bulb or a floor hover. Whichever you choose, start week one at 95 degrees and each week lower it by 5 degrees until you reach the outside temperature. Changing the temperature can be done by lifting or lowering the heat source, or turning it down if it has a control. However, this is not set in stone. Watch the chicks carefully to see what they need. If they're spread out and on the far edges of the brooder, lower the temperature. But if they are huddling under the heat lamp, raise the temperature. Keep the feed and water near the heat source.
Feed and Water
Chick feeders and waterers won't be hard to find at your feed store. Make sure that you have enough space in them that all chicks could be eating or drinking. When you first get your chicks, dip each of their beaks into the water so they'll know where it is. After they've gotten a good drink, make sure they know where the feed is by sprinkling some on the bedding if they're having trouble finding it.
Start the chicks on chick starter for the first 8-10 weeks, then gradually switch to grower feed. If your store doesn't carry them separately, there is also a combination: starter/grower feed. When they're 18 weeks old, slowly switch to layer feed. Clean the feeder at least weekly. Make sure chicks always have clean water (clean the waterer daily). You can also add different things like electrolytes to boost the chicks. These are not necessary, but can be helpful. Adding 3/4 lb. to 1 gallon of water gives them energy if they're looking droopy.
You could raise chicks on wire flooring, but I don't recommend it. It has a high risk of disease and isn't the best for their legs and feet, but it is easy to clean. I prefer to have bedding for my chicks, and my favorite is pine shavings. There are many things that you could use for bedding, such as chopped straw, pine shavings, shredded paper, and crushed corncobs. However, they all have advantages and disadvantages. Most of these get matted down quickly or don't keep in moisture. Pine shavings are very popular and they perform the best, but they don't compost easily and can be expensive. Choose what's right for you.
For the first week or few days, cover the bedding with paper towels so they can learn to eat the food and not the bedding. Make sure that your brooder doesn't have drafts and gives them enough space. If you find feeders knocked down or they start getting bored, you need to increase your space.
Chick health is of course important, but you don't need to worry about it a lot if your sanitation is good and you have the right space, food, and water. However, any chick is susceptible to disease, cannibalism, and injury and some just don't make it. If you find one chick dead, it's most likely the latter. But if there's a lot of deaths, you've got a disease on your hands.
Those little things that you do go a long way. Here are some tips to help you have a healthy flock:
- Clean waterers daily and feeders weekly
- Remove droppings from food and water
- Remove wet bedding around waterers
- Don't keep your chicks on a smooth surface (it causes splayed legs and crooked toes)
- Get vaccinations or medicated feed (don't get both or they won't work, and only get vaccinations for the diseases in your area)
- Watch your chicks' behavior carefully - it's a lot better to spend an extra few minutes observing your flock and knowing the usual than to have chicks dying because you didn't catch something early on
- Know about things that could happen
This comes from chicks eating their droppings from boredom or unclean feeders and waterers. You can get vaccinations or medicated feed to prevent this, but as mentioned in the tips, notice the OR. Getting both will just neutralize your efforts. This disease usually happens in 3-6 week-old chicks. Usually, by then they've had enough gradual exposure to become immune. The symptoms are listlessness, death, bloody or off-color droppings, and slow growth. You can get a fecal test to determine what kind you have and how to stop it.
Splayed Leg and Crooked Toes
Splayed leg happens when a chick's legs slip out from under them from being on a too smooth surface and they get stuck in the splits. Crooked toes can be caused by genes, smooth floors, and overcrowding. Both can be fixed with Band-Aids. To fix crooked toes, gently straighten them by wrapping them with Band-Aids. For splayed leg, make a hobble by using a Band-Aid wrapped around each leg with space in-between (make them go to the normal position). This is hard to explain, so you might want to do some research if you have this problem.
This sounds a lot worse than it really is, or at least how it starts out as. If you let toe and feather picking get out of hand, it can turn really bad. The main causes of this are boredom, hunger, and protein deficiency. You can get feed with a higher amount of protein, give them things for entertainment, and make sure they know where the food and water are and that there's enough of it. If they've really started it, you can switch to a red brooder bulb so everything looks red and they aren't attracted to blood.
Yes, this is a problem with chicks. And yes, you have to wipe those sticky bums.
Pasting is fairly common with chicks, caused by heating, incorrect feeding, or chilling. This is when chicks have sticky, soft droppings that stick to their vent and harden, blocking other droppings from coming out. If it is left for long enough, chicks will die. When they do get sticky bums, warm up water so it's not cold or hot, then get the chick's bottom wet. Using a paper towel, GENTLY pick off the pieces of droppings. After, dry it and you can add Vaseline to prevent more sticky bottoms and help if it got irritated from being cleaned.
Hopefully I've provided enough information to get you started. Raising chickens is a super fun, amazing learning experience! Good luck!
Raising Chicks -- All You Need To Know
It's spring and chicken lovers everywhere are getting ready to raise new chicks, whether they're bought from stores or raised by a broody hen....