Everything You Need to Know About Raising Chicks
Most people get their start in raising chickens by buying chicks. Let’s talk about the best places to buy chicks and the equipment you’ll need for your chicks for the first few weeks until you can put them in your chicken coop.
Where to Buy Chicks
When it comes to buying chicks, you have a few options. Many farm supply stores will have chicks in the spring that you can purchase. You might not have a lot of breeds to choose from, but in general, farm supply stores should carry some of the most popular breeds that are especially well-suited to your area. Also, if you buy from a farm supply store, you can start to make connections with employees who will be able to answer questions you have as you get started with your chicks.
You can also buy directly from a hatchery. Hatcheries will often ship chicks through the mail, but sometimes ordering through the mail requires you to buy a minimum number of chicks (often around twenty). If you’re only interested in buying a few chicks, a farm supply store will probably be a better option for you. If you’re trying to track down a rare or exotic breed, you’ll probably have to order from a hatchery.
You can also often find people selling chicks online on websites like Craig’s list. If you do decide to buy chicks from a seller you find online, make sure the seller is reputable. Wherever you buy chicks (whether it be a farm supply store, a hatchery, or a private individual) the seller should be able to tell you exactly what they do to ensure chicks are healthy: conditions under which the chicks are hatched, vaccinations, etc. It’s especially important to find out about these things if you decide to buy from a private seller.
When you bring your chicks home, you’re going to need a brooder to put them in until they’re four to eight weeks old. A brooder doesn’t necessarily need to be anything fancy. You can buy a brooder, but you can also use something as simple as a plastic storage bin or a cardboard box. Your brooder needs to be big enough for the number of chicks you have. A good general rule to follow is that you should provide a half square foot of space for each chick for the first month. After they’re four weeks old, your chicks will need a full square foot of space. Also, make sure the sides of your brooder are high enough that the chicks won’t be able to jump out. Sides that are around eighteen inches tall should keep the chicks in until they’re ready to go to the coop.
You’ll need to put something on the floor of your brooder. During the first few days, newspaper can be a good choice because food will clearly stand out from the newspaper and chicks will learn to eat. However, after the first few days, be sure to replace the newspaper with something else. Newspaper can be slippery and difficult to walk on for the chicks as they grow. Also, it can get soggy and lead to disease. Good choices for material are sawdust or pine chips. Make sure you replace this material every few days in order to keep your chicks in sanitary conditions.
It’s important to keep chicks warm, so your brooder will need a source of heat. If you buy a professionally-made brooder, it will probably have a heat source with a thermostat to help you regulate the temperature. If you use a homemade brooder (like a plastic storage bin), you’ll need to get a heat lamp along with a thermometer to help you regulate the temperature. Early on, it’s going to be especially important to keep your chicks warm. Initially, you’ll want the brooder to be at 95 °F (35 °C), and then you’ll decrease the temperature 5 °F each week:
Week 1: 95 °F (? 35 °C)
Week 2: 90 °F (? 32 °C)
Week 3: 85 °F (? 29.5 °C)
Week 4: 80 °F (? 26.5 °C)
Week 5: 75 °F (? 24 °C)
Week 6: 70 °F (? 21 °C)
Week 7: 65 °F (? 18 °C)
Week 8: Room temperature
In addition to using a thermometer to help you regulate the heat, you can also observe the chicks’ behavior to ensure that they’re at the right temperature. If the chicks are clumping in corners and trying to get away from the heat lamp, it means they’re too hot. If they’re all huddled together under the heat lamp, it means they’re too cold. You want your chicks to comfortably scatter themselves throughout your brooder. You can easily adjust the temperature by increasing or decreasing the distance between the heat lamp and the chicks. Just one final note about temperature: after the chicks are at room temperature, make sure that temperatures (especially at night) never drop below 50 °F (10 °C). If it’s going to be chilly, give your chicks some heat to help them adjust to cooler temperatures.
Food and Water
For the first eight weeks, it’s best to use commercial feed. Look for things called chick starter or chick crumbles. As your chickens mature, some of their diet can come from foraging and kitchen scraps, but early on, it’s important for chicks to get all of the protein, vitamins, and minerals that they need. Giving them commercial feed will ensure that they’re properly nourished. There are a couple of other things to consider regarding food. First, grit is an important part of a chicken’s diet. Grit allows your chickens to fully process and digest food. If your chicks are eating commercial feed, the food should be soft enough that they don’t need grit initially, but it will be important to introduce grit into their diet as the foods they eat become more varied. You can buy grit specifically formulated for chicks. Also, some chick feed is medicated. Using medicated feed can be a good way to help keep your chicks healthy.
In addition to feed, it’s also essential that your chicks have constant access to water. When your chicks first come home, dip their beaks in water to help them learn how to drink. If you buy your chicks through the mail, it will be especially important to help them get a drink of water as soon as you get them. You should have a one-gallon waterer for each fifty chicks that you have. Many people just starting to raise chicks have far fewer than fifty birds, so adjust the amount of water appropriately for the number of chicks that you have. Just make sure their supply doesn’t run out.
You can purchase waterers and feeders that are specifically designed for the purpose of raising chicks, but you don’t need to get anything too fancy. You can use something as simple as a plastic container, but make sure you trim down the edges so that your chicks will be able to reach the food and water. The edge of the container should be about the same height as the chicks’ backs.
Putting your Chicks in the Coop
You want to keep your chicks in the brooder until they are fully “feathered out.” Chicks are considered feathered out when their chick fuzz has been replaced by feathers. This generally occurs around seven or eight weeks, sometimes a little earlier (depending on the breed of chicken you have). Once the chicks have feathered out, they’re ready to go into your chicken coop. If nighttime temperatures are a bit cool (below around 50 °F or 10 °C), you’ll need to provide some heat for your chickens as they adjust to the cold.
Hatching Chicks from Eggs
All of the tips in this section have centered on raising young chicks that you buy. Purchasing chicks is probably the best option if you’ve never had chickens before, but it’s also possible to hatch chicks from eggs. Hatching eggs requires some special equipment, most importantly an incubator to keep the eggs warm. There’s more information about hatching chicks from eggs in another section.