Caring for Chicks
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By Michelle Cook – It’s that time of year again. The sun is shining, the daffodils are blooming, and there is a distinct peeping noise at every farm store across the country. It’s time for chicks. If you’ve been wooed by those little fluffy yellow balls of cuteness, you are in for a treat. Chickens are a joy to have around. If you are new to the chicken game, fear not. I am going to take you through the ins and outs of caring for your new chicks.
The first step in caring for your new chicks is setting up a brooder. Your little fluffballs need to be kept warm and dry for their first few months of life. To set up your brooder you will need a draft proof container, a heat source, and some sort of bedding for your brooder. A lid comes in handy after about two weeks. As your chicks grow, they will want to test their wings.
The most important thing about your container is that is draft free. You can use a large cardboard box, a large tote, or a self-made wooden box. Anything that is large and sturdy will work. You want to have enough room for your chicks and a food and water dish. It’s also important to have enough room so the chicks can get away from the heat source if they need to. Personally, I use a retired 100-gallon water tub for my brooder. After a hard freeze created a crack in the bottom it didn’t hold water any more, but it works great as a chick brooder.
The lid for your container shouldn’t be airtight. Your chicks need to breathe. Netting, a fireproof blanket, or a screen will work great. You just need something to discourage the little darlings from flying the coop.
The Heat Source
There are two main heat sources available for your chicks; a heat lamp and a heat plate. Both work well to keep your chicks warm. A heat lamp is similar to a construction lamp but uses a red, 250-watt bulb to keep your chicks warm. Use the clamp of the heat lamp to attach it to the side of your brooder and shine the light down into the brooder.
A heating plate is a flat plate that sits in the bottom of your brooder and warms the floor of the brooder. There is space underneath of the plate for your chicks to nestle under the same way they would nestle under a hen. The legs are adjustable so you can raise the plate as your chicks get bigger.
You will find pros and cons to each type of heater and the topic is hotly debated on chicken boards everywhere. The biggest lesson here is to monitor whatever type of heat source you choose for electrical issues and overheating.
Another hotly debated topic in the chicken world is bedding for your brooder. There are some definite no-no’s but the rest will depend on what materials are available to you at a reasonable cost. One of the biggest no-no’s is cedar shavings. The cedar may smell great but the cedar oil can be toxic to chickens. Wet bagged mulch is another no-no when it comes to bedding. The dampness can easily cause your chicks to get cold and the bacteria in the mulch can make a young chick sick.
Here is a great list of bedding options for your new chicks:
- Pine shavings
- Clean hay
- Pine straw
- Shredded paper
Any of these beddings will work great for your little chicks. Choose one that is readily available in your area and make sure the bedding is a few inches thick to keep your little ones comfortable.
Now that you have the brooder set up, let’s talk about the basic care for your new chicks. Your chicks will need food, water, grit and a clean brooder.
Your local farm store will carry a variety of chick feeds. Look for a feed specifically designed for chicks (not chickens). This feed will be smaller and easier for your chicks to digest. You will also notice you can get medicated or unmediated chick feed. Medicated chick feed prevents coccidiosis (a parasitic disease of the intestinal track) in your chicks. If you keep your brooder clean and dry you may not need a medicated feed but many people, including myself, prefer to feed a medicated starter feed as an insurance policy against the disease. Once the chicks are older, they should be weaned onto a regular chicken feed without medication.
Chickens need grit starting at around two weeks of age. Grit is used in the chicken’s gizzard to help grind down the food. (Gizzards, not just for gravy!) Since chicks are not born with grit in their gizzards, you will need to provide some type of grit to get them started. Your local feed store will have grit specifically designed for small chicks. It’s called chick grit. Brilliant, I know. Pick some up and mix it in with their regular feed according to the directions on the package.
Water seems like a simple thing, and for the most part it is. Grab a waterer designed for chicks, fill it up, and stick it in the brooder, right? Almost. One word of caution when it comes to water. Believe it or not, even with small chicken waterers, chicks can drown themselves in their water. To prevent this, it’s a good idea to set the watering container up a small block for the first few weeks. This will keep the chicks from falling asleep with their beaks in their water trough and drowning.
Cleaning Your Brooder
If you have ever parked your car under a bird’s nest you will know birds poop, a lot. Chickens are no different. When your chicks are very young you may only need to clean out your brooder once a week, but as they grow older, you will need to clean the brooder more and more frequently.
To thoroughly clean your brooder, you will need:
- A small container to put your chicks while you clean
- Something to hold the dirty bedding (garbage bag, muck tub, bucket etc.)
- A dustpan and brush
- Warm water and a rag for really gross spots
- Fresh bedding
Move your chicks to the small container and remove their food, water, and heat source. Dump the dirty bedding into whatever you are using for that purpose and then use the dust pan and brush to get up any remaining bits at the bottom of the brooder. If there is still some poop stuck to the bottom use the warm water to scrub it off. Make sure the area is completely dry before adding the fresh bedding and returning the chicks to your brooder.
It is inevitable that one or two of your new chicks will get sick. Some issues, like pasty butt, are relatively minor, while others, such as birth defects, are more serious.
Failure to Thrive
The most common issue with chicks is simply a failure to thrive. Remember, most chicks are hatched, sexed, shoved in a box, and shipped halfway across the country in their first 24 hours out of the shell. That’s a lot to deal with and some chicks don’t handle it particularly well. If you notice a chick not eating or moving as much as the other chicks, you might have a chick that just isn’t thriving in its new environment.
A chick like this will require special care and its own private quarters. Separate the chick from the rest so it isn’t competing for food and water and add a vitamin supplement to the water. There are plenty on the market such as Nutria-Drench, Poultry Cell, and Poultry Booster that can be mixed with the water to give a sluggish chick good nutritional support. These chicks often come around after a few days of special care and can be returned to their flock once they are back to normal.
While the name ‘pasty butt’ might not be the most technical name in the world, it is very accurate. Pasty butt is a condition where chicken poop sticks to a chick’s butt and blocks the cloaca. Clean one case of pasty butt and you will understand the term perfectly.
You will need a few cotton swabs and some warm water to clean up a chick with pasty butt. Dip the end of the cotton swab in the warm water and then press it on the poop to rehydrate it. When the swab becomes dry, repeat the process. As the poop becomes rehydrated it will start to resemble the consistency of toothpaste and you will be able to wipe the poop off of the cloaca. After the area is good and clean, you can add a bit of vegetable or olive oil to prevent reoccurrences.
Butt checks should be done daily for the first week or two to keep your chicks healthy, happy, and pooping away.
Injuries from other Chicks
Chicks in the same brooder will determine pecking order by…pecking each other, and the process can be a little rough. There will also be some other behaviors that would get any kid kicked off the playground. Your chicks will peck at each other, push at each other, they might even run over each other. All this rough housing can cause injury to an otherwise healthy chick. If a chick gets injured, the first step is to separate it from the other chicks. A chick with an injury (especially a bloody one) will become a target for the other chicks. Chicks will be attracted to the blood and peck at that area specifically.
Once you have the chick separated, clean any wounds with warm soap and water. If the bird is lame, do your best to support the injured area. You can wrap a leg with a little bit of paper towel and some tape for support or create a small nest with hay or clothes to keep the chick from injuring itself further. Add a vitamin supplement to the water to help the chick recover. Monitor for infection and consider if you want to use antibiotics. Consulting a vet might be useful.
Unfortunately, there is not a lot more that can be done for a severely injured chick. Do your best to support it and pray for a good outcome.
Sometimes a bird with a birth defect makes it through all the checks at the hatchery and into your brooder. This year was one of those years for me. I bought six chicks from a feed store and before we were halfway home, I knew there was something wrong with one of the little Copper Marans. When I got home, I figured out this poor little chick couldn’t swallow. Every time she tried to drink, she would gag, and the water would come spouting back out.
This type of birth defect is easy for a store employee overseeing a few hundred chicks to miss. If you find yourself in this situation, culling the chicken may be the kindest thing to do.
To learn more about chick illnesses and defects, click here.
I hate to end on such a sad note, so I want to tell you a little bit about chick treats. Watching those little chicks figure out that you are the keeper of the goodies is grand fun. You go from “ahhhhh scary giant” to “oooohhhh treat giant” this is when you will start to bond with your chicks. Your chicks can start having soft treats at around two weeks of age. I start mine with scrambled eggs and live earth worms. They love them both and every time I open the door they start peeping with excitement. After they have had grit for a week or so you can add crushed apple, grapes, and dried meal worms to their treat routine.
Now that you know how to care for your new chicks, let me welcome you to the world of chickens. These birds can provide plenty of delicious eggs and hours of entertainment. Soon you will be practicing chicken math and answering questions for the next wave of chicken lovers.
Michele Cook is a farmer, author, and communications specialist for the National Federation of Press Women. She raises chickens, goats, and vegetables on her small farm in the beautiful Allegheny mountains of Virginia. If she is not outside caring for her farm you can find her curled up in a chair with her nose stuck in a good book.
Originally published on Community Chickens and regularly vetted for accuracy.