You did it, didn’t you? You went to the feed store and saw the tubs of adorable little fluff balls, and you just couldn’t resist. Your children were begging, and you just gave in. Hopefully if you bought your chicks at a feed or farm store, they helped you with the basics, but just in case, we are going to START FROM SCRATCH [see what I did there :-)] If you just bought one chick on a whim – go back and buy another. One chick will not be happy alone!
Your chicks will live in a brooder for their first few weeks. Here are the items you need to set up your brooder quickly and easily.
I suggest medicated starter feed. You may prefer to raise your chicks without medications, and this can certainly be done. I’ll do a future post about organic ways to keep your flock healthy. But in the interest of time – and because it is much easier for the new chicken owner – I’d suggest medicated feed which will prevent a big killer of young chicks – Coccidiosis. Medicated feed will not wipe out this bug, but it will keep it to a controllable level while the chicks build up an immunity.
The small round feeders at the feed store are fine for about 6-8 chicks. If you have more chicks, buy the long feeder that will accommodate more chicks eating at once. The food will get dirty with litter pretty quickly. I check the food twice a day and just pick out the worst of the litter before refilling. That’s the only way I’ve found to avoid throwing away LOTS of food because it WILL get dirty faster than they will eat it. Once they are a little older you can try putting the feeder and waterer up on blocks. The higher it is, the less litter they will kick in. But watch to make sure they can still reach in to eat.
I prefer the small round waterers from the feed store. You can buy one with a plastic jar, or one that you can screw your own mason jar onto. If you have lots of chicks you will want more than one. I figure about 6-8 chicks per waterer. If you use a bowl or a larger waterer, fill it with marbles for about the first week to prevent chicks from drowning. Check the waterer every morning and evening. Chicks will drink water faster than you think, and they will dirty it with litter even faster. I think that plenty of clean water is the best thing you can do to keep your chicks healthy!
The brooder lamp they sell at the feed store with the large metal shield is good. If it’s warm where your brooder will be set up, you might not need the high wattage heat lamp. A regular light bulb will fit in the same lamp. You’ll need to find a way to suspend it above the chicks. At our house we have an old IV pole that we use, but anything will work. Currently I have a small box with two early hatching chicks sitting on my dryer, with the brooder lamp clipped to a step stool. Use what you have. (A note of caution, don’t rely on the brooder lamp clip to hold it up. Tie it or use the cord as a sort of “safety”. You don’t want a fire because the clamp let loose during the night!)
The easiest for most people is a cardboard box. The next step up is a Rubbermaid style tote. Basically anything that will contain the chicks and block drafts will do the trick (DO NOT PUT THE LID ON THE RUBBERMAID TOTE). How big a box you need depends on how long the chicks will live here. If it is summer and you will be putting them outside in 3-4 weeks, you can get away with less room. If it’s cooler and they will be inside longer, they will need more room, but if you are using a cardboard box, you can always upgrade to a bigger box as needed.
My preferred bedding for chickens of any age is pine shavings. They are sold at the feed store and are pretty inexpensive. Put down a layer 1-2″ thick. Be sure to change them if they get wet. If your chicks are only a day or two old, you can cover the shavings with paper towels to keep them from eating too many wood chips.
Lid – might be able to wait
Depending on the location of your brooder you may not need this right away. If you have pets or pests that might climb in, you’ll need a lid right now. But in a couple of weeks these chicks will learn to hop and fly pretty high. The best lid I’ve found for my situation is a piece of chicken wire or hardware cloth. If you have pets that might jump in, you’ll want something a bit sturdier – perhaps a wooden frame around the hardware cloth to stiffen it up and assure it won’t collapse in if something jumps on top of it. If you have an old window screen, that can also be a good option.
Thermometer – optional
The rule of thumb is to provide a portion of the brooder that is 95 degrees for the first week of life (your chicks may already be older than this). Every week after that, you move the light away to make it 5 degrees cooler, until the light is no longer needed. I was very careful about temperature with my first chicks, but with each batch after that I have begun to use the chicks more to gauge temperature than the thermometer. If they are cold they will huddle together right under the light. If they are comfortable they will be scattered out playing or sleeping. If they are warm they might appear to be “panting” with their beaks open. The best way to make sure everyone is comfortable is to provide a box that is big enough that the brooder heater can only warm a portion of the box to the “optimal” temperature. The chicks can move in and out of the warmest areas to keep themselves comfortable.
Chick Grit – optional
You’ll need this if you will be feeding your chicks ANYTHING besides their starter feed. Chick grit is like regular grit, but smaller. Grit helps chickens digest their food. Your chicks will grow slightly better without treats – but it’s so funny to watch them trying new foods that you probably won’t be able to resist. I’ve noticed that chick grit may only be available at certain times of the year or not at all in some of my local stores. If you need it and can’t find it, there are options. You can buy a regular bag of grit and give them the dust that falls to the bottom of the bag. Or you can allow them to play outside in the grass for a little while every day (with supervision). They will find small bits of sand and tiny rocks that will work just as well.
Some people put their brooder in the house, but I’d recommend that you find a place in a sheltered place outside of your living areas. A garage is a good place. A shed can also work if you can regulate the temperature fairly well with your lamp. If you have a large coop you can put your brooder there, but be sure that the chicks are safely separated from the older chickens and that chickens can’t knock over the brooder lamp. If you MUST put your brooder in the house, just be aware that chicks produce a great deal of “dust” – actually the fluff that is quickly being replaced by real feathers. They can also be smelly depending on how careful you are about keeping their brooder clean.
Now you have the basics of taking care of your new chicks. We’ll go into more detail in future posts, but this will get you started and keep your chicks alive and healthy while you learn more about their needs.
Soon I’ll tell you about my own impulse chick purchase. (Yes – I’ve been there – I’ve done that)