Getting Ready for Spring Chicks
If you have your heart set on a particular breed or variety of poultry, the best time to place your order is in early January, or as soon as your chosen hatchery starts accepting orders for the new year. Some chicks sell out rapidly, especially the most popular breeds and the rarer varieties. If you delay ordering, you run the risk that your chosen source will sell out, and you will have to decide if you are willing to accept a substitute, select a different breed, or search for an alternative source.
Once you’ve chosen a breed, and if you don’t already have a favorite hatchery, deciding where to order your chicks is the next step. If you want a common breed that most hatcheries carry, your choices are wide open. But if you’re looking for a less common breed or variety, you will have far fewer hatcheries to choose from, and if you want more than one rare variety, you may not find a source that carries them all.
When you need, or can legally keep, only a few chicks, your choices narrow down even further, as many mail-order hatcheries require a minimum order, usually 15 or 25, to ensure that enough birds are shipped together in the box to keep each other warm during the long journey. Some hatcheries, however, specialize in shipping as few as three chicks, along with a heating pad to keep them warm — a service for which you will pay a premium.
When you place your order, the hatchery will ask when you would like your chicks to be delivered. Although the greatest selection usually is available from about February through June, March and April are the ideal months to brood chicks because the weather is starting to warm up then, but is still cool enough to discourage diseases. Furthermore, spring pullets will start laying in the fall and will typically continue laying throughout the following winter.
If you’ll be raising commercial-strain broilers, avoid the stressful heat of summer. Since they take only six to eight weeks to reach harvest weight, either start them early enough in spring to have them in the freezer before hot weather hits or start them in late summer so they will grow out during cooler fall weather.
Well before your chicks arrive, have your brooding facility set up and ready for them. Hatchlings are not entirely helpless, but until they grow a full set of feathers you’ll need to keep them warm and dry, well fed, and protected from harm. A properly designed brooder serves all the necessary functions.
The brooder starts with an enclosure, which can be as simple as a sturdy cardboard box or as elaborate as a commercially fabricated brooder with built-in feed and water troughs and a heater. If you are a first-time chicken keeper, the cardboard box option is ideal because it is inexpensive (possibly free) and is disposable once your chicks outgrow it. If you don’t plan to brood more baby chicks in the near future, you won’t have to find a place to store it.
If, however, you plan to brood chicks every year, you might want to design or purchase something more durable. A popular homemade option is a large plastic storage tote, set up in the spare room, laundry room, or garage. Another inexpensive option is an area brooder starter kit, designed for partitioning off a small area inside an existing building, which could be the very coop where your birds will live after they mature. The area brooder will keep them close to feed, water, and warmth until they grow big enough and smart enough to explore the larger facility without getting lost.
On our farm, where we hatch throughout the summer months, we use four permanent indoor brooders, two portable storage totes, and one permanent outdoor brooder with sun porch (and sometimes we use cardboard boxes for the overflow!). We start hatchlings in a tote, where we can closely observe that they are eating and drinking well. When they’re about a week old, we move them to a larger indoor brooder, where they have plenty of room to exercise and to move under or away from the heater as they prefer. If the weather is warm enough, as they grow they get moved again into the outdoor brooder before their final move into a full-size chicken coop with run.
Initially, baby birds don’t need much space, but they grow amazingly fast, and as they grow they need increasingly more room. If you start chicks in a cardboard box, plastic tote, or other closely confined space, giving them more room as they grow means either dividing them up into two or more boxes or periodically moving the entire batch to larger quarters. If you start chicks in an area brooder, giving them more room is simply a matter of expanding the chick corral until it is no longer needed.
The minimum space to begin with is about six square inches per chick. Bantams and light breeds can get by with as little as four, while broilers and the really big breeds need more like eight. Naturally, if you start with the minimum brooder size, you’ll have to increase the brooding area sooner than if you use a slightly larger brooder from the start.
Base the size of your brooding and growing space on common sense and observation rather than on a meticulous measuring of the floor space. You will know your birds are overdue for expanded living quarters if they dirty the brooder floor faster than you can keep it reasonably clean and they start running out of feed or water between feedings, indicating the need for a larger area to accommodate more or larger feeders and drinkers.
A brooder needs a reliable and adjustable heat source. The hatchling’s body has little by way of temperature control, although a group of chicks can stay warm by huddling together in a small space — which is how they survive being shipped by mail.
In a brooder, chicks need a source of warmth until their downy coats give way to feathers, starting at about three weeks of age. As they grow, they need gradually less external heat, because their bodies generate more warmth that helps heat up the brooder. The brooding temperature, therefore, must be systematically reduced as they grow.
Most homemade brooders are heated by either an incandescent or an infrared source. Incandescent heat is created by a source that produces light by being heated; in other words, a lightbulb. Infrared heat is generated by electromagnetic energy and does not involve light. Confusingly, the most common brooder heater is an infrared heat lamp, which falls in the middle by being primarily heat producing while also emitting light. Each option has advantages and disadvantages.
Since a lightbulb provides both heat and light, the brooder doesn’t need a separate source of light. However, unless you’re really careful about adjusting the heat level as chicks grow — by reducing the bulb’s wattage or by increasing the distance of the bulb from the brooder floor — chicks can readily overheat. Further, growing chicks benefit from a period of night-time darkness, but a bulb can’t be turned off without also turning off the heat.
For these and other reasons, all my brooders use infrared panel heaters. The popular EcoGlow panel heater has screw-in legs that allow limited height adjustments. I much prefer the Infratherm pet heater, which hangs from chains that allow it to be raised as high as necessary to accommodate the tallest birds.
A panel heater is considerably more expensive to purchase than a light-emitting bulb, but it lasts longer and is more energy efficient, making it cheaper in the long run. It also does not easily break or shatter, produces uniform, sunlike warmth without creating hot spots, and emits no light, letting chicks rest at night. Because a panel heater does not produce light, the brooder needs auxiliary light during the day so the chicks can see to eat and drink.
A panel heater won’t shatter when splattered with water, like a hot lightbulb does, making it ideal for brooding waterfowl. Do not be tempted to use shatter-resistant light bulbs coated with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, also known as Teflon), sold in a variety of forms including heat lamps, floodlights, and rough service work lights. As these bulbs heat up they emit a gas that will kill your baby birds!
Flooring and Bedding
Baby poultry start pecking almost from the moment they hatch. Until they learn what is edible and what is not, they may fill up on bits of bedding, which can jam up the works and prevent nourishing feed from getting through. So start with bedding that cannot be readily swallowed and make sure your birds are eating well before switching to loose bedding.
A solid surface with a little feed sprinkled over it will give the babies something edible to peck. The surface needs to be rough enough to prevent their little legs from slipping out from under them. I use plain white paper toweling to line the brooder floor. As the paper becomes soiled, I add another layer on top. By the time the toweling gets messy faster than I can add a new layer, the birds are big enough to get along without it. At that point, I roll up all the paper and replace it with loose bedding, or sometimes I spread loose bedding on top of the paper.
An alternative to paper towels is nonadhesive, non-slip shelf liner, which is washable and therefore reusable. It is durable, yet soft and cushiony for hatchlings to rest on and walk on. The rubbery surface is especially beneficial for birds that have trouble with their little legs slipping out from under them.
After just a few days, usually less than a week, chicks will have strong legs and will know where to find edible feed. They will also generate greater quantities of poop, making the first bedding increasingly more difficult and time-consuming to maintain in a sanitary condition. At that point, loose bedding becomes a better option. The little birds will peck and scratch in the loose bedding, and maybe carry bits of it around in their beaks or bills, but don’t worry. Unless they are left with an empty feeder, they typically will not fill up on bedding.
Ideal bedding is fluffy but not dusty, absorbs moisture and droppings, has no objectionable odor, doesn’t cake or mat, is nontoxic, and is easy for growing birds to walk on. Unfortunately, no one type of bedding is 100 percent perfect, but many options come close.
I use shredded paper when I have sufficient quantities of paper to run through a crosscut or micro-cut paper shredder. The small bits of paper thus produced are easier for baby birds to walk on than longer strip-cut paper, which can tangle around their legs and trip them.
When I run out of paper, I use dust-free kiln-dried fine-cut pine shavings. Although fresh pine contains phenols and other volatile compounds that can cause respiratory problems, most of the phenols have evaporated from well-dried shavings. Properly dried shavings don’t have a strong pine odor. Cedar shavings smell stronger than pine because they contain more phenols, and should not be used as brooder bedding. Soft hardwood shavings like poplar and aspen lack phenols, but are not always readily available.
Ducklings and goslings generate a lot more moisture than chicks, creating a challenge in keeping their brooder clean and dry. Some waterfowl keepers use bath towels, changing to fresh towels as often as necessary to maintain a healthful brooder environment. Another option is puppy pee pads or human incontinence pads (also called bed underpads), which soak up moisture and odor.
To avoid messy bedding altogether you might brood waterfowl on a hardware cloth floor with a water-collection pan — such as a plastic underbed storage tote — underneath. The water collector may be dumped and rinsed out as needed without disturbing the birds in the brooder.
Water and Feed
When your chicks arrive, they will be thirsty, so the first order of business will be to let them drink. Fill drinkers well in advance, so the water will be brooder temperature or use warm (not hot) tap water. A thirsty little bird that gets too much cold water can go into shock.
While land fowl may be slow to drink, waterfowl babies — particularly ducklings — can be a little too eager. When offering first water to ducklings, make sure they don’t overdo it. A dehydrated duckling that drinks too much at once, even if the water is plenty warm, can go into shock. When ducklings crowd the drinker, let them drink for 10 to 15 minutes, then remove the water for 15 to 30 minutes. After they have had four sessions at the drinker, with time to rest in between, they should slow down enough for you to safely leave the water in the brooder.
To help the hatchlings find nourishment, sprinkle a little feed on the brooder floor or in a shallow tray where they can easily find it. Once they eat up all the starter on the floor, they’ll look around for more to peck and will find the feeders.
Baby poultry need a finely crumbled ration or chick starter, which is available at most farm stores. Compared to feed designed for mature birds, starter is higher in protein and lower in calories. Never feed layer ration to babies, as its higher calcium content can seriously damage immature kidneys.
Various commercial brands are designed specifically for baby chickens, turkeys, or waterfowl. I have raised chicks, poults, keets, ducklings, and goslings all on starter intended for chickens without ever having a problem, but I don’t feed for maximum growth and I don’t use any medicated feed, which is intended to prevent coccidiosis.
Medicated feed that is not formulated specifically for waterfowl should never be fed to ducklings and goslings, because they do not need the same medications as landfowl and because they do not eat the same quantities of feed and therefore may overdose on a medication not intended for them.
However, ducklings and goslings raised on chicken starter will suffer from niacin deficiency, which may be avoided by adding eight ounces of brewer’s yeast to each 10 pounds of starter. Brewer’s yeast is available at supermarkets and health-food stores, although livestock grade brewer’s yeast from a farm store is cheaper.
To make sure you can get it when you need it, purchase feed ahead of time so you will have it on hand when your chicks arrive.
So now you have your brooder set up, feed and water in place, and the heater running to warm things up and ready for your chicks. Before the chicks are due, notify your local post office that you are expecting them and ask that you be called when the box arrives. Most hatcheries will post your phone number on the outside of the box.
You can expect your chicks to arrive within one or two days of being shipped, which is usually on a Monday, so the chicks won’t have to endure being left in a closed post office over a weekend. Arrange to retrieve your chicks from the post office so they won’t have the stress of spending additional hours riding around in the mail carrier’s vehicle.
When you pick up the chicks, open the box while someone at the post office watches, so you will have verification for any claim you may have for losses. Chicks occasionally die in transit, either because they weren’t vigorous to start with, or because they were mishandled along the way.
Thankfully, most chicks arrive in good health, cheeping loudly because they are tired, hungry, thirsty, and eager to settle into their new home.
Originally published in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine.