I would venture to say…
The vast majority of homesteaders got their start by strolling the aisles of the feed store and happening upon those tubs of fluffy, chirping chicks. They’re hard to resist, y’all.
And as we all know, chickens are the gateway drug to the more hardcore forms of homesteading– goats, cattle, hogs… you know the drill.
Even though we’ve been doing this homesteading thing for nearly seven years, I still get excited when it’s chick time. I’ve been slightly disorganized with my chick-purhases the last two years (a new baby and a major home remodel will do that to ya…), so I’m rather proud of myself for ordering early this year.
We just got 15 Silver-Laced Wyandottes, as well as 30 Cornish cross meat birds. After having a mis-matched variety of layers over the years, I’ve decided to stick with one breed and plan to selectively breed them for desired traits. I figure it’ll be the next step in up-leveling our chicken operation.
Last year was our first year raising our own meat birds, and we’ve enjoyed the harvest so much, I couldn’t wait to do it again. We got 30 meat birds this go-round, and will order 30 more later in the year.
Preparing for chicks isn’t complicated, and as long as you keep a few factors in mind, you’ll be just fine. However, if this is your first time getting chicks, I totally understand how it can feel slightly daunting. After all, they can be rather fragile and you want to make sure you’re caring for them adequately. If you keep these five factors in mind, you’ll be just fine:
Preparing For New Baby Chicks
1. The Brooder
A brooder can be fancy or simple– it’s up to you. Basically, you just need some sort of “container” for the new chicks. If you turn them into a large coop right away, it’s easy for them to get stuck in crevices or corners, which can be deadly when it’s chilly outside. You can purchase fancy brooders, or just use what you have at home.
I personally have used large galvanized water tubs for years– they are tall enough they can’t fly out and they don’t have corners for them to get stuck in. Other options would be plastic tubs, crates, cardboard boxes, or even old playpens.
Once you have your brooder selected, you’ll want some sort of non-slip bedding on the bottom– we have always used pine shavings, but other options are puppy pads, paper towels, or even sand.
Plan on cleaning the brooder every couple day or two. You probably won’t have to completely strip it every day, but I check it frequently and remove areas of wet bedding or the super poopy stuff.
I don’t put a cover on my brooder, but if you have any sort of potential predators (including cats), I would definitely place chicken wire or mesh over the top. Just make sure you don’t use a cover that would block their ventilation at all.
You can get away with a fairly small-sized brooder at the beginning, but if you have a large batch of new chicks, plan on expanding soon. The little buggers will grow faster than you think!
I’m not a fan of using heat lamps for my big chickens, as they are such a fire hazard. However, heat is non-negotiable for babies. Chicks must be kept at 95-100 degrees for their first week or so of life, with the temperature gradually being decreased as they grow.
The simplest option here is a good old-fashioned heat lamp, obviously. However, If you go this route, be EXTREMELY cautious with it, as heat lamps can be considerable fire hazards. (If you are using a heat lamp, I would definitely not recommend using a cardboard box as your brooder, by the way…)
A safer option is a heating plate. Nope– these aren’t cheap– especially if you have a large amount of chicks. But you’ll likely sleep better at night not having to worry about the coop burning down.
I have this Brinsea EcoGlow Brooder— it works decently well for small batches of chicks.However, for larger batches I still use heat lamps.
I don’t use a thermometer in the brooder. Rather, I just let the chicks tell me how they are doing temperature-wise. If they are plastered against the sides of the brooder trying to get away from the heat lamp, I know they are too hot and I need to raise the lamp or move it. If they are huddled in a bunch as close to the lamp as possible, I know they are cold and I need to lower it or add another heat source. This is another reason heat plates are handy– the chicks can choose to stand underneath if they are cold and can easily get away from it if they are too hot.
Just like with any other living thing, water is a big deal for new chicks. When I first pull them out of their box, I gently dip their beaks into the waterer so they know it’s there.
I highly recommend using a special chick waterer of some sort, as an open bowl leaves your new flock at risk for drowning. I wrote up this DIY chick waterer tutorial a long time ago, and the method still works. Although to be honest, I just buy the cheap plastic waterers from the feed store now. 😉
Make sure the chicks water stays somewhat warm and full at all times.
I go the lazy route on this one and simply purchase the chick starter feed from the local feed store… Scandalous, I know. I’m sure there are DIY chick starter recipes out there, but honestly? New chicks have very specific nutritional requirements at this point of their life since they grow so quickly, and it’s easier to just grab a bag from the feed store. Not to mention, they don’t stay on the chick starter for very long before transitioning to either meat bird feed or layer feed. (At that point, it’s easier to get more creative, if you wish.)
I use this cute little chick feeder for the first couple of weeks, but it doesn’t take them long to be needing a larger feeder. And they’re messy little guys, regardless. They spill everything and walk in it as much as possible…
New Chick FAQ:
Q: Do I need to worry about sanitizing my brooder and all the accessories?
A: I suppose it depends on who you talk to. I used to go nuts “sanitizing” everything, but have since stopped doing that. A while ago I read Harvey Useery’s book where he talked about chicks potentially benefitting from healthy bacteria and microorganisms in their environment. This makes total sense to me as I know that’s totally how it works with humans (especially kids). Since then, I stopped sanitizing or bleaching anything when I’m preparing for chicks. I just give everything with a good scrub of fresh water and maybe a bit of natural soap, and that’s it. Now if I had been dealing with sickness or disease of any kind in my flock, I would definitely disinfect everything. Otherwise, I don’t worry about it.
Q: Can I mix species of poultry in the same brooder?
A: I do– at least for the first little bit. I’ve never had issues putting chickens and waterfowl together at first. Eventually the ducks and geese get pretty messy with their water, so I separate at that point. You’ll also want to separate eventually if you need to feed different types of feed (layer vs. meat bird, etc) But if you only have one brooder set-up, I wouldn’t worry about it initially.
One other consideration would be if you have weak birds combined with hardier birds. We mixed our layer chicks and our meat bird chicks this time around, and ran into troubles the first day when the more robust meat birds started to trample the weaker layers who weren’t strong enough to hold their ground… So if you are mixing, watch carefully for the first little while.
Q: What about electrolytes?
A: Again, it depends on who you talk to… Some folks recommend electrolytes in the water for all new chicks, while others say only use as needed. I’ve only ever used electrolytes for stressed or injured chicks– never for the whole flock. However, if your new batch of chicks are particularly stressed or seem to not be thriving as they should, I would recommend adding a chicken electrolyte solution to their water. You can grab these at your feed store or from the hatchery, or make your own. I whipped up a batch of homemade electrolyte solution this past week when we had several injured chicks and it was borderline miraculous. Here’s the recipe so you can make your own.