Starting your own chicks is relatively easy provided you follow a few guidelines. These instructions assume you are
purchasing day-old chicks from a local hatchery (or even mail order), hatching eggs in an incubator is a whole other
ball of wax. Prior to buying your chicks, do your research into what kind of chickens you want to get. Small-bodied
commercial chickens (White Leghorns) give you the best egg production to feed ratio. However, the chickens have
been bred solely for egg production and often lack "personality." These birds can be skittish around people, do not
forage well, and will produce only white eggs. Also, due to their smaller size they do not stand up to the cold as well as
the heavier breeds. These birds have been bred to live in cages in heated barns and simply will not tolerate frigid
On the other hand dual-purpose breeds (of which there are many) have historically been bred for both meat and eggs.
Their larger size and (usually) denser feathering means these guys can stand up to the cold better than their
small-bodied counterparts. It is also possible to get breeds that are good at foraging for their own food (if you give
them access to a large enough area). At least part of the year, they can partially feed themselves with what they can
scratch up from the ground (bugs, seeds, grass, etc.). The downside is you to feed them much more to get the same
amount of eggs and generally, they don't lay as many eggs per bird. These guys are of a reasonable size to breed for
eating as well. In the old days, farmers would raise a flock of dual-purpose birds to get eggs all summer and then as
winter approached, they would butcher most of the flock (to avoid expensive food costs during winter) for eating or
sale. Then in the spring… build their flock back up. Hence the origin of "dual-purpose" birds. Of course, at Swampy
Acres, we would never dream of such things. We keep our chickens around until they die of old age.
Whatever you do… don't go into your local feed store and just by any old chicks. You may end up buying "meat"
breeds… which are bred only to put on weight (for eating) and have dismal egg laying. Also, don't by "straight run"
chicks. As the name implies these are just "straight" from the hatchery… without any sexing. So you are going to wind
up with about 50% roosters.
Something also to consider is disease. Your first line of defense
in protecting your chicks from disease is good bio-security.
Medicated feed is not a substitute for good management
practices. Avoid buying chicks at poultry shows (where they
are exposed to all types of poultry disease). Also, keep your
chicks separate from other birds in your flock until at least 6
weeks of age. I can't underestimate the importance of
sanitation. Keep everything clean, and sanitize all your
equipment between runs of chicks with a bleach solution.
Chicks are pretty hardy and I have never had any serious
disease problems by following these simple guidelines.
One thing that seems to happen to me on occasion is "pasty
butt"… while technically not a disease I will include it here.
Basically what happens is excrement builds up on the outside
of the chickens vent and can actually "back them up" fatally.
Periodically check your chicks for this condition… it is quite
obvious as there is a big chunk of dried chicken poop stuck to
their rear ends. At any rate, you have two options here.. one is
soak this in warm water to soften it and then remove it. The
other option is to just rip it off… taking the "down" with it.
This is obviously more painful, but it does have the plus of
removing the down in that area and thus preventing future
build-up. I usually use a combination of the two methods.. as
it is really hard to soak a chickens butt for any length of time.
Anyway, keep these practices going for about 6-8 weeks. Then
(provided the weather is reasonably warm.. say 55 degrees
average daytime temperature). You can take your chicks out of
the brooder and slowly integrate them with the rest of your
flock. I hope you take some pictures along the way… as they
grow incredibly fast!!
Set up your brooder BEFORE you get your chicks. At this age they need to be kept at about 95 degrees…. So
you don't want them sitting around your garage getting chilled while you fumble around with your brooder
equipment. A brooder does not need to be elaborate and is required to meet only a few needs such as heat,
food, water, bedding, and keeping the chicks contained.
Containment: There are many things you can use to keep the chicks contained. I have used rabbit cages and
even large cardboard boxes. I have also seen people just use water troughs, or even just making a big
cardboard "collar" and placing it on the floor in a garage or barn. Whatever you do, make sure you do not
position the brooder in a drafty area. Particularly for the first few weeks, the chicks are very susceptible to
drafts and chilling. As a rule of thumb, you should have a half a square foot of space per chick from day 1
until week 6. So, a 2 by 3 foot rabbit cage will hold a dozen (for example).
1 day old chicks fresh from the store.
Heat: This is critical. Day old chicks can freeze to death very quickly if
not kept warm. I usually use a 250 watt infrared heat lamp bulb in an
aluminum clamp on light. Definitely invest in one of those with a ceramic
base (to handle the high wattage and heat) rather than a plastic one. I
usually hang it about a foot over the floor of the brooder. Also, be careful if
you only have one heat lamp. Although you can use only one lamp for up to
about 80 chicks, you need to check on them regularly. The reason is that if
the bulb burns out, they will chill quickly (heat lamp bulbs burn out much
faster than regular light bulbs). If you have enough space in the brooder, it
is wise to invest in two.
The chicks will "self-regulate" their own temperature. So make sure you
have enough area under the heat lamp(s), and also enough area away from it
so they can cool off if need be. You can tell how comfortable the chicks are
with the temperature by how they disperse themselves. If the chicks are at a
comfortable temperature, they are more or less evenly dispersed in the
brooder. If they are all as far away from the heat source as possible, they are
too hot. If they are all huddling underneath it and peeping loudly and
continuously, they are too cold. If they are all huddled to one or area they
may be feeling a draft. Adjust your heat lamp up or down, adjust the wattage
of the bulb (higher or lower) and move the brooder out of drafts to correct
these temperature issues as needed. As a rule of thumb, you should keep
day old chicks at 95F (measured 2 inches off the floor) from day 1, and
reduce the temperature 5 degrees per week until you get to "normal"
daytime temperatures. Generally after about 6-8 weeks they will not need
supplemental heat unless it is very cold (i.e. winter). To be honest, I never
bother with thermometers, I have had good luck with just watching the
chicks to see if they are comfortable.
Heat lamp with ceramic base
Bedding: There are all sorts of theories on what type of bedding/litter to put in your brooder. Pine
shavings, shredded newspaper, straw, etc. all seem to be acceptable. I have seen some people claim you
shouldn't use very small particles (like sawdust) because the chicks may eat it. I usually use straw or old hay as
it is readily available to me and seems to work well. I usually top dress the litter (as it gets dirty) a few times
before changing the whole mess every now and again. Whatever you do, make sure the surface of the brooder is
not smooth. You shouldn't use sheets of cardboard or newspaper, or let them walk around on the slippery
bottom of an aquarium. Without some type of ground traction, the chicks can develop a condition called
"spraddles" where the hips get dislocated. If this happens it can sometimes be corrected with splints, but
sometimes it is fatal. It is best to prevent this problem by giving the chicks something to grab onto with their
Water: I use one gallon plastic waters for the chicks. Although they are somewhat enormous for day old
chicks, you will find that within a few weeks they are starting to seem small. I find this size is a good
compromise so I don't have to have different sizes as the chicks grow. I put a block of wood under the waterer
to keep it above the level of the litter to help prevent litter from getting kicked into and thus fouling the water.
As the chicks grow I keep adjusting the height with additional blocks underneath. I try to keep the water about
chest height for the chicks. This seems to be the best compromise to keep the litter out/keep chicks from
walking in it but also be low enough that they can comfortably drink. Like the heat lamp, if you have two
waterers that is a plus. If one gets kicked over they will still have a spare until you remedy the situation. It is a
good idea to clean waters with a bleach solution the first time you use them, and then every couple of weeks. I
rinse mine out daily as they do get filthy. I have also heard of people using tube feeders (similar to hamster
water bottles) but I have no experience with these.
Food: I feed my chicks Blue Seal Medicated Starter for chicks. This is a mash… and looks very much like
"corn dust." I have read conflicting articles on the need for "grit" regarding chicks. Some say it is necessary,
others say forget about it. I have never provided grit under six weeks of age and have never had a problem with
this philosophy. Anyway, you do have the option of getting "non-medicated" feed if you are nutso about
chemicals. The "medication" is amprolium which is a cocciodostat… which is a fancy way to say it retards the
growth of the single cell parasite known as coccidia. This "suppression" of the parasites allows the chicks to
develop an immunity to the infection. This type of infection spreads like wildfire and can quickly kill your
chicks. To me, it makes sense to give them the medicated feed for the first 6 weeks. It helps them build
immunity while preventing mortality and any traces of the drug are washed out of their system before they
reach egg laying age (six months). Again, if you really don't want to… its up to you. In that case I would
DEFINITELY keep them isolated from other chickens in your flock as some could be carriers.
At any rate, I feed the chicks in plastic chick feeders, again up on blocks that I raise as the chicks grow. The top
of these feeders is pointed in an effort to get the chicks not to roost on them (and subsequently crap in the
food). This doesn't seem to work for me.. so I end up cleaning out the feeders every day. Just offer them food
"free choice" they will not over eat. After 6 weeks, I switch the chicks over to "Grower Ration" and then as
soon as they start laying (about 6 months) I switch them to "Layer Ration" for the rest of their life. DO NOT
feed layer ration to chicks under 6 weeks as there is way too much calcium in there for them. Likewise do not
feed starter feed to laying hens… obviously not enough calcium for egg shell production. In a pinch, you can
also feed baby chicks hard boiled egg yolks and/or instant oatmeal cereal… but this should not be a long term
diet for them.
Chick Starter Feed
Chick Waterer and Feeder
3 week old chicks in brooder
Pasty Butt Remedied
5 week old chicks