10 Common Mistakes New Poultry Owners Make With Chicks
Reading Time: 7 minutes
Most of the mistakes people make when starting out with baby chicks can easily be avoided with a little advanced preparation. Here are 10 typical errors and how to avoid them.
Buying Chicks at a Flea Market
Livestock auctions, swap meets, and flea markets are good places to check current prices, meet breeders, and learn who has quality stock and who doesn’t. They are also the best places to avoid buying poultry because they bring together birds (and their diseases) from multiple sources, and you can’t always tell what the original source is. As an example, someone in my area buys large quantities of hatchery chicks and resells them at various flea markets, causing unhealthful stress to the chicks.
The best way to avoid potential problems created by sales that bring together birds from many sources is to acquire chicks directly from a hatchery, from a farm store that distributes chicks from a hatchery, or from a breeder of your acquaintance. Because such sellers are accountable, they are generally willing to work things out should a problem occur.
Getting an Inappropriate Breed
At the stage of being fluffy peepers, chicks look pretty much alike except for color. But a little online research, along with perusal of Backyard Poultry magazine, reveals that a number of different breeds are available, having different purposes, different characteristic temperaments, different climate tolerances, and so forth.
You don’t, for instance, want to end up with pudgy Cornish cross meat birds when you really wanted Leghorn laying hens. Likewise, you wouldn’t want to start with Sex Links or other hybrid layers if your plan is to increase your future flock by hatching their eggs, because the resulting chicks will lack the same uniform characteristics as their hybrid parents. And you certainly don’t want a typically aggressive breed for a child’s first experience raising a backyard flock.
Hatchery websites, along with books such as The Chicken Encyclopedia or Storey’s Illustrated Guide to Poultry Breeds contain a wealth of information on each breed’s primary characteristics. Consider such traits as temperament, climate tolerance, forging ability, size and rate of egg production.
If you can’t have (or don’t want) any roosters you shouldn’t start out with straight run chicks, which will average about 50 percent roosters. Look instead for sexed chicks, which have been sorted according to whether they are female or male, allowing you to purchase as many pullets (young females) or cockerels (young males) as you want. For most breeds, sexed pullets cost the most, straight run cost less, and sexed cockerels cost the least. Even if you pay more for all pullets, you won’t have to agonize over rehoming roosters after they have become family pets.
Straight run chicks — also called unsexed or as-hatched — have not been sorted by gender and therefore are mixed exactly as they hatch. Theoretically, a hatch should be 50/50, although nature loves to throw us a curve, and accordingly, some hatches have more chicks of one sex than the other. If you opt for straight run, have a plan for dealing with the surplus roosters.
Brooder Not Ready
Your brooder should be set up and ready for occupancy no later than the day before you expect your chicks to arrive. Getting ready ahead of time helps ensure that you have everything you need and, if not, gives you time to round up whatever might be missing.
Along with the brooder container, you’ll need a chick feeder, a chick drinker, a heater, a source of light (unless the heater is a light), feed, water, and bedding. Once everything is set up and ready to go, turn on the heat so the brooder has plenty of time to warm up.
Brooder Too Small
It’s easy to underestimate both the size of a brooder and the speed with which chicks grow. Failing to provide adequate space for the number of birds can result in such unhappy health issues like coccidiosis or cannibalism.
Initially, chicks don’t need much room, because they spend most of their time either eating or sleeping. As they grow, they become more active and will need more room, both to avoid stress and conflicts and to prevent a too-rapid buildup of droppings.
If your brooder is a disposable cardboard box, have on hand a couple of progressively larger ones to substitute as the chicks grow. Another option is to start out with a too-large brooder and block off a portion for the first few days to confine the birds close to sources of food, water, and heat. When the chicks need more space, simply open up the portion of the brooder that was blocked off.
Offering Feed Before Water
Whether your new chicks just came out of an incubator, were brought home from the farm store, or spent several days traveling in the mail, they will likely be somewhat dehydrated. They should, therefore, be encouraged to drink before they start eating.
Dehydrated chicks that get cold water as their first drink may develop a condition called pasting — also known as paste-up, pasty butt, or sticky bottom — which occurs when soft droppings stick to the vent area and harden. Pasting is less apt to occur when chicks drink before they start eating, and the first water they drink should be brooder temperature. The water will be warm enough if you filled the drinker when you set up the brooder. Otherwise, fill it with warm (not hot) tap water.
Dipping the chicks’ beaks into warm water as you place them in the brooder helps them learn where the drinker is and encourages them to drink more, ensuring timely rehydration. After their beaks have been dipped, some of the birds may start drinking right away, others may not. That’s okay. As long as one chick drinks, the others will follow the leader.
Wrong Kind of Feed
The easiest way to make sure chicks get all the right nutrients is to feed them a commercial starter ration containing a mixture of grains, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Chick starter ration is available at most farm stores. If you are tempted to mix your own chicken feed, wait until you become experienced at raising poultry, have basic knowledge about their nutritional needs, and can recognize deficiencies well enough to make rapid corrections.
If you happen to run out of chick starter, or you forgot to buy some before bringing home your chicks, you can make an emergency starter by mashing cooled hard-boiled or scrambled eggs. Never feed layer ration to baby chicks, even as an emergency measure; the higher calcium content required by laying hens can seriously damage immature kidneys.
Unsuitable Feeders or Drinkers
Feeders and drinkers designed specifically for chicks come in several styles. Regardless of the specific design, feeders and drinkers should be easy to clean. They should be designed so chicks can’t roost on top or step directly into, and foul, the feed or water. Most farm stores carry feeders and drinkers that are intended for baby chicks.
Even when feeders and drinkers are designed for chicks, they aren’t much use if the chicks are discouraged from using them. An example might be placing a feeder or drinker too high for chicks to reach. Another example is placing a feeder or drinker directly under the heat source, where sleeping chicks might block the way for a hungry or thirsty chick.
Too Much Or Too Little Heat
A chick’s body has little by way of individual temperature control. Given sufficient space to move around within a brooder, baby chicks need a reliable and adjustable source of warmth. As they grow, they require progressively less external heat, because their bodies gradually generate more warmth that helps heat up the brooder. The brooding temperature, therefore, must be systematically reduced as they grow.
The best way to determine if the brooder is not too hot or too cold is to pay attention to how the chicks act. If they crowd close to the heat and peep shrilly, they’re too cold. If they crowd away from the heat and pant, they’re too warm. If they evenly distribute themselves throughout the brooder, whether they are sleeping or actively eating and drinking, they are comfortable.
Failing To Predator Proof
The safest type of brooder is one that entirely encloses the chicks and has latches that must be purposely opened when the chicks need care. If the brooder is set up inside your house, exuberant children and excited pets can harm delicate chicks without meaning to. If it’s in your garage or other outbuilding, it may attract such predators as weasels, rats, and snakes that can squeeze through incredibly small openings.
As tough as baby chicks appear to be, they are actually quite delicate. Children (and adults!) need to be aware that handling them too often or for too long at a time can be stressful to the chicks. Squeezing a chick can be especially detrimental. Holding a chicken tightly enough to restrict the movement of its breast and ribs can inhibit breathing and cause the bird to suffocate, which may occur when a child gets a too-tight grip on a baby chick and “loves it to death.”
The best plan is to avoid handling baby chicks and be content to observe them while they are in the brooder, letting you spend as much time as you like watching them grow. Meanwhile, make sure they remain warm, dry, and well fed, and they will reward you with many hours of enjoyment.
While chicks may be slow to drink, ducklings can be a little too eager. When offering first water to ducklings, watch to make sure they don’t overdo it. A dehydrated duckling that drinks too much all at once can go into shock.
If ducklings appear anxious to fill up on water, let them have access to the drinker for only about 10 or 15 minutes, then remove the water for 15 to 30 minutes. After they have had four watering sessions, with intervening rest periods, they should slow down enough for the drinker to be permanently returned to the brooder.
Originally published in the April/May 2016 issue of Backyard Poultry.