Starting your backyard chicken brood with baby chicks is definitely the most rewarding and economical way. Not only are chicks less expensive (only $3-6 per chick vs $20-30 for pullet or hen), but you get to see them grow up and have a richer appreciation for them and the overall experience. Before jumping in though, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself to ensure you are physically and mentally prepared for raising chicks and ultimately chickens:
- Why do I want chickens? The economic math is currently not in favor of raising chickens for eggs or meat compared to buying from a grocery store. The reason to do it has to be beyond economical. It will take more time, more cost, more patience to raise your own chickens but the taste, personal satisfaction, and security of eating eggs from your own chickens is definitely worth it.
- Where will I put the baby chicks? Chicks need a constant 90 degree temperature their first week that decreases by 5 degrees each week after that until they are feathered (about 6 weeks old). During this time, they will need warm, dry shelter with access to an alternative heat source. The first time I raised chicks, I had the bin in the house but my wife and I couldn’t handle the constant chirping and noise. So now I’ve set up an area in my garage for the bin with the ability to hang in a heat lamp.
- Where will the chicks go when they outgrow their bin? At about 6 weeks, the chicks will be fully feathered and will start to outgrow the bin but will not be ready to be introduced to the main coop if there are other full grown chickens. They will be too small, too fragile, and still needing to be fed chick grower feed. For this, I’ve built a smaller separate coop using an old dog cage so the chicks can be isolated but start to get acclimated to the outside and with the chickens in the main coop next door. It will be important to still monitor daily and nightly temperatures to ensure it stays above 60 degrees and supplement heat with a heat lamp or bring the coop into the garage if necessary. This is also why I like to purchase my chicks no sooner than April so by 6 weeks, the winter storms should be done for the year.
- When can the chicks go in the main coop? At 16 weeks the chicks will be fully grown and can start to handle layer feed. They should also be able to handle themselves with other chickens. This is when you can introduce them to the main coop but keep an eye on them for the first day or two to see how they behave with the other chickens. If someone is getting bullied or being pecked to the point of drawing blood, you’ll have to isolate either the bully or the victim for a bit.
- What happens if I get a rooster? To the untrained eye, males and female chicks look exactly the same. Most breeders can tell with 80% accuracy which ones are female, but that still leaves a 1 in 5 chance that you could end up with a rooster. Fortunately, so far I have only gotten hens, but if I did end up with a rooster, I would put it on Craigslist for donation, and if there were no takers, I would raise it until it was 12 weeks old and then have it for dinner.
- This brings me to the most important question. Am I mentally prepared for raising chickens? Raising chickens is a full life cycle process. If you are not mentally ready to keep the coop and chickens clean and safe to ensure their health or to be able to deal with a chicken that is injured or suffering or that happens to be a rooster if your area doesn’t allow roosters, then you should keep getting your eggs and chicken meat from the grocery store.
Now that you are mentally and physically ready for baby chicks, here is my go-to list of items to gather:
- Bin or enclosure (17 gallon minimum)
- Chicken wire for the top of the bin
- Heat lamp
- 125W infrared light bulb
- Pine shavings
- Small shallow sturdy bowl for water (first 2-3 weeks)
- Waterer with a nipple for training them (should learn by week 3-4)
- Feeder (I prefer one that keeps the chicks from standing over the food and pooping into it)
- Chick Starter Grower Feed - I like the combo of starter grower because I can use the same mix until they are 16-20 weeks old. I look for ones with the pre and probiotics already in the feed. And I choose non-medicated since my chicks are raised inside in isolation with only 3-4 other chicks so the risk of bacterial infection is low.
- Probiotic - you can buy a powder or add your own to their water (yogurt, sauerkraut juice, etc.) or just get chick feed that already has this in it.
- Sand or chick grit (if they get pasty butt)
Now that you have the items you need, here is my daily routine for raising chicks:
- Check on the chicks at least twice a day.
- Change out any dirty, empty, or pooped in water or feed.
- Pick up each one at least once a day and check for pasty butt and any injuries or health issues. If one seems out of sorts, it may need to be isolated to see if it can get better.
- Check the temperature and adjust by raising or lowering the heat source. It also helps to concentrate the heat source onto one side to create a hot area and cooler area so the chicks can self regulate temps. Remember the target is 90 degrees the first week, 85 the second, 80 the third, 75 the fourth, 70 the fifth week. Then they should have most of their feathers and handle temps as low as 60 degrees until they are 12 weeks at which time they shouldn’t need an alternate heat source. Don't worry about being exact with this. Just looks for signs of them constantly hanging towards the perimeter of the bin which means they are either too hot or too cold.
- Change out the pine shavings every 3-5 days depending on how much they poop. Simply put them in a separate bin or box, throw out the pine shavings or add them to a compost pile, add fresh pine shavings, and then add the chicks back in the bin. Or get two bins and simply rotate them every 3-5 days.
- If children want to hold and play with the chicks, it is best to only have them handled 5-10 minutes at a time. This will make sure they can stay warm and not get overwhelmed.
This is the main health risk with chicks. What can happen is when a chick poops, some of it can get stuck to its backside fuzz and feathers. Then the next poop will stick to that and so on until it creates a blockage. Then the chick will get sick and eventually die because it can’t remove the waste from its body. Note this can also happen to adult chickens which is how I lost my first chicken having not caught it in time. Here is how to clean a pasty butt:
- Wash your hands or put on a glove.
- Fill a cup or bowl with lukewarm water.
- Grab the chick with the pasty butt and dip your fingers in the water and start to wet the poop and butt area.
- When the area is saturated, start to rub the poop with your fingers and pull it off with your finger nails being careful not to pull feathers, fuzz, or skin.
- When the area is clean, blow on the behind to dry the feathers. You can also use a blow dryer on the low setting.
- Add the chick back to the bin and monitor the other chicks. If they start to peck at the butt area, it could be a sign that the area is irritated or not dry. You may need to isolate the chick for a bit to allow the area to properly dry and heal.
- Make sure the chick is getting probiotics and add a dish of sand or grit to help aid the chick’s digestion.
- Check that chick more frequently to ensure no new poop starts to get stuck.