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One day in November 2016, we got a box of happiness at our post office…16 fluffy day old baby chicks! Our first venture at raising livestock. The books/websites had been read, our homemade brooder box was ready, and we had a bunch of excited children! Chicks aren’t as scary as they may seem. They are pretty hardy little things, but you still have to remember basic needs. Here are some of the things we’ve learned and experienced as well as some things we’d change in the future. Some of the basic needs for baby chicks:
Brooder and Heat
We researched various brooder boxes months before we bought chicks. Really all you need is a little separate space for your babies. Most anything works. People have built boxes, used large cardboard boxes as well as plastic tubs. Our choice in the end was a 50 gallon tote from Wal-Mart. We cut a window in the side (so they could see us throughout the day) and an opening in the lid. It was then covered with hardware cloth and zip-ties. You don’t want to use chicken wire as the holes allow the babies to escape. The bedding of choice was pine shavings. These worked well and were easy to clean. Our brooder box was cleaned about once a week and we dumped the spent shavings into the compost.
As for heat, most people use a heat lamp that you can get at any feed store or Tractor Supply Co. However, we decided against the heat lamp for various reasons. First, they get extremely hot. All it will take is a bit of dust, stray feather, or being bumped for a fire to start. There are many coop fires due to heat lamps as well being used in the winter. Research this if you are choosing to use a heat lamp. Second, you can’t regulate the temperature. There is a formula that you must start chicks at 95 degrees for the first week, then drop 5 degrees each week until you get to 70. However, that didn’t jive with us. When you see a mama hen with her chicks, those chicks aren’t kept at 95 degrees the entire time and the hen doesn’t drop her temperature 5 degrees each week. Instead, she takes her babies out (even in extreme cold temps) and they run around and scratch. When they get cold, mama hen lays down and they get under her to warm up a bit. After they get warmed up, they are out foraging again. Third, we felt the light disrupted their sleep/wake cycle.
What we used instead was a mama heat cave. We took a bit of welded wire and fashioned a cave shape. On top of that we placed a heating pad. (You need a heating pad that does NOT have an auto shut off feature like this one) On top of the heating pad was a towel that covered the entire cave. The towel was covered with press-n-seal to keep from getting chicken poo all over it. You then push down the back end of the cave so that the front is higher. This allows chicks who need more warmth to go to the back and those that do not, can sit in the front. This worked beautifully for our babies. They would run around the box and then run under the cave when they were cold. Some people use a Brinsea Eco Glow which mimics similar features. We love our heat cave because it mimics the mam hen much more than the heat lamp with less risks of fire and pasty butt (from being too warm and not able to get away from heat).
What we will do different next time: While we loved our brooder, our chicks outgrew it fast. 15 (we lost one baby due to abnormalities) babies in the box got a bit snug at around 2.5-3 weeks. We then moved them to a dog exercise pen that we put a tarp underneath. In the future, our babies will be brooded in our in-coop brooder we made. We have access to electricity right beside it to plug in our mama heat cave. We now use our brooder for when we need to isolate a bird due to injury or sickness.
When you first get your chicks, they will need water immediately. They just survived a 1-3 day journey through the post office without water. They can survive 72 hours on their egg yolk which is why they are shipped at 1 day old. As you take each bird out of the shipping box, gently dip each chick’s beak in the water. This will let them know where it is and give them a taste so they come back for more.
What we will do different next time: Next time we have chicks, we will do the “magic water”. We follow a few methods from Abundant Permaculture, one of which is “magic water”. It consists of a bit of apple cider vinegar (with the mother), garlic, and a little honey. This gives them probiotics, energy, and a little garlic for combating coccidiosis and other ailments. This will give them a better start after their long journey.
You will definitely need some food for your babies. What we started with was Organic Starter Crumbles. This is what we were able to find from our local Tractor Supply Co. These worked great and they ate happily. We used two different kind of feeders. One was a galvanized slide feeder which worked great for allowing more chicks to eat at each time. We also tried the round red feeder/water that you see in the feed stores. These were nice as they took up less room. I don’t think I like one over the other. I have actually used the slide feeder without the top to give them fermented food.
What we will do different next time: Next time we will give them fermented feed from the start. We found they wasted the dry feed a bit more and that the fermented feed benefits them early on just like the “magic water”. I’m already doing the fermented feed with my older birds, so it will be just as easy with the babies in the future. (look for a post coming up on making and fermenting your own feed as well as the benefits)
Birds need grit to digest their food. If they are on starter crumbles, you will not need grit right away. But it is good to give to them. If they have any treats or anything other than crumbles, they need grit. We found parakeet grit to be perfect for little chicks. It’s also less expensive than buying chick grit. You do not want to use oyster shell with chicks as the added calcium can affect their kidneys. They can have oyster shell (or crushed eggshells) around the time they should start laying and beyond.
TreatsTreats are not necessary for chicks, but they are fun. Chicks can have treats from day one. However we wait until day 3-4 as we want them to get a good start and make sure everyone is well. We have given our babies dried mealworms, live mealworms, earthworms and crickets that our children collected outside, greens (ours loved kale), and fruits or veggies. We tended to give them treats in the later part of the day after they have gotten their share of their regular food. You don’t want the treats to take precedence over their feed.
We also took them outside a bit to enjoy some fresh air and scratching. They loved it!
We hope our experience helps you in your journey with chickens! Please let us know if you have other questions by leaving a comment and we’ll answer to the best of our knowledge. Here are some of the books we have loved and found extremely helpful. (most links contain affiliate links)
Storeys Guide to Raising Chickens
Fresh Eggs Daily (about raising chickens naturally)