Beginner's guide to BABY CHICKS: What you need to know to get started!

Are you thinking of getting baby chicks?

Whether you have a yard in the suburbs or a patch of land in the country, keeping chickens is a rapidly growing trend, and for good reason. Chickens make amazing pets and not just because of the fabulous farm-fresh eggs you get. They're kid-friendly, low maintenance, and relatively inexpensive to keep.

I've discovered, after keeping chickens for the past several years, that they speak their own language, have hilarious personalities, and are incredibly entertaining to watch! But before you bring home your first flock of little feathered friends, here's everything you need to know about what equipment you'll need, and how to provide a safe, healthy transition for your baby chicks as they leave their mother (or the feed store), and make their new home with you and your family.

What equipment will you need? 

Chickens don't cost a lot to keep once you've gotten things set up, but there are some financial investments involved in the beginning. (However, there are ways to keep even these costs down, so don't despair). 

To begin, you'll need to make sure you have some basic equipment on hand in order to get your new pets off to a good start. Here is a list of the essentials. I'll explain each in detail below...

What's a Brooder?

When a mother hen nurtures her eggs and then continues to keep her chicks warm under her wings for the first several weeks, this is called brooding. Without the hen, however, you will need to provide an alternative to her toasty warm underside by creating a climate controlled environment for your chicks. 

This entire climate controlled environment is what the term brooder refers to. It involves not only the box or container you keep your birds in, but also the location where you place the brooding box, as well as the climate you create, and other factors. 

How to set up a brooder box.

You don't have to spend a ton of money on a special brooder. You can use something simple, such as a large cardboard box, or an inexpensive plastic storage tub (18 gallon or larger works well). Basically, your chosen brooder box should be:

  • Sturdy with tall enough sides to keep your birds in (at least 18 inches deep)
  • Something you can clean easily, (or in the case of a box, replace easily with another one when needed) 
  • Something that will allow you to lay a screen over the top

Some people use a spare bathtub. But not everyone has a bathtub they can sacrifice for weeks. Your chicks won't need a lot space at first. You can start with something small and cozy at first, but keep in mind, you'll need to be prepared to provide something bigger as your birds grow. 

Location, location. Where to place your brooder box.

Many people use the bathroom as the brooder room, but it doesn't have to be a bathroom. It could be a spare bedroom, a closet, the top of a dresser, or another space. Regardless of where you choose, you'll need the room to have these features:

  • Outlets to accommodate the brooder lamp
  • Be free of drafts, mold or dampness
  • Be someplace you won't mind having to clean (in other words, you won't mind if it smells, and gets littered with bedding and a thick layer of dust put off by the birds dander that will cover E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G)!
  • Have a door that can be secured to keep out small children, cats, dogs, or other pets.
  • Be a place you'll feel comfortable visiting the birds often to monitor temperature, check for safety issues, and of course give your new pets lots of cuddles so they get used to being handled. 

How to heat the brooder box.

Your chicks' brooder is in essence an incubator that must take the place of the warm underside of a sitting hen. In order to provide a consistent temperature, you should buy an infrared heat lamp designed for use with poultry. The red light helps to keep the chicks calm, and the color can help mask any pecking wounds (which will happen). Once a chick sees red blood, she will be drawn to peck at it more, because it's in a chickens nature to peck at bright colors. This could be fatal to a chicken of any age, but is even more of a risk with young chicks.

Besides the right kind of bulb, you should also buy a heat-lamp with a a cage. You can either hang the lamp over the brooder, or clamp it to the sides or on a piece of wood laid across the box. Whether you hang your lamp or clamp it to something, you'll need a way to adjust it up or down (closer or further from the chicks). The lamp and cage are important safety precautions. You may not think those small feather-balls can escape, but before you know it, they'll be jumping and flapping. A lamp and cage will protect the chicks from hitting the bulb and getting burned.

It's all about maintaining the proper temperature.

Temperature is going to be very important for the next several weeks as your chicks grow. Along with your heat lamp, you'll need a room thermometer to monitor the temperature in the brooder box. Your lamp should be placed over one end of the box, so the chicks can move underneath it if they're cold, and away from it if they're too warm.

You want the temperature in the brooder box to consistently stay at 90 degrees for the first week. Each week following, you will move the lamp a bit further away so the temperature reduces by 5 degrees per week. To check the temperature, lay the thermometer on the floor of the brooder box and take a reading just under the lamp. 

Below is the temperature chart you should follow over the 5 to 6 weeks that your chicks live in their brooder:

Week 1: 90 degrees
Week 2: 85 degrees
Week 3: 80 degrees
Week 4: 75 degrees
Week 5: 70 degrees
Week 6: Maintain 70 degrees until chicks move outside (which will be very soon)

Bedding options. 

Once you have your brooder box and location figured out, you'll need to select something to use as bedding in the box. There's several materials that can make suitable bedding for chicks. What you want is a loose material that is absorbent, comfortable, and able be to be scooped and sifted, much like a cat litter box. Good bedding materials include:

  • Pine shavings: Pine shavings have a nice aroma to naturally help control odor, they are easy to scoop on a daily basis, and they provide a soft comfortable material for chicks to nestle and scratch around in.
  • Coconut shells fibers: Natural coconut fiber usually comes in a shrink-wrapped brick. It provides excellent odor control. To use it, you just add a bit of water and stir, and it fluffs up to a consistency much like dirt, so it's a very natural material for chicks to scratch around in. It's very absorbent to help keep the chicks dry and clean (something that's hard to maintain at times). Coconut husk bedding makes great compost for the garden, too. 
  • Shredded newspaper, or other paper: This can work well and is very low cost. However, paper bedding will have to cleaned out more often. If it gets wet, it tends to hold moisture and just becomes soggy.

There are a couple of materials that should not be used for chick bedding. These include:

  • Cedar shavings: These can cause respiratory problems in chicks.
  • Straw, or mulch hay: Straw or hay may be good later on for the chicken run, but for chicks, straw can be bulky to walk in and too coarse for their small fragile bodies. Also, straw is much harder to scoop and sift for the daily cleaning.

Proper ways to water your chicks. 

Chicks need to have constant access to water. This is because they store food in their crops and they need water to help in digestion. Also, chicks should never become dehydrated. Make sure they always have cool clean water available. There are a few regulation water dispenser styles that can work well for chicks. These include:

  • Free-standing (or hanging) chick-size water fount: If you use a water fount, make sure it is made for use with chicks. That means, the trench will be more narrow than an adult-size fount. I think this is a good way to water older chickens (pullets), but not very good for inside the brooder. Chicks can get rowdy. They kick up bedding which can fill and clog the water fount, and then create wet bedding. Also, it's easier for water to spill from this style fount, causing dampness in the bedding. (Speaking of getting rowdy, be mindful of the design of both your water fount and feeder. The one in the below image has a rounded top. This is good for a brooder, because soon your chicks will be testing their skills with games like "King of the Hill" on anything they can stand on top of. Water founts and feeder can also become ladders to the outside world. Rounded tops on things will prevent accidents).

  • Chicken nipple drink dispenser: For baby chicks, the chicken nipple drink dispenser is by far my favorite way to water baby chicks. When a chicken drinks, it lifts its head so the water can flow down its throat, which makes the chicken nipple a natural choice. The dispenser sits on a block or hangs inside the brooder so that the nipple is just above the chicks heads when they stand under it. Only simple training is needed before they quickly catch on to using this nifty invention. Keep in mind, 1 nipple can service up to 4 chicks, so if you have more birds, you should provide more dispensers. 

  • PVC pipe with chicken-nipples: Another kind of chicken nipple drinker, is the PVC pipe lined with drinking nipples. There are many ways you can do this with chicken nipples. But to do this, you'll need to design the system you want and buy the various parts needed.

There are a few water containers that should not be use with chicks. These include:

  • An open dish: Open dishes are too likely to spill, will inevitably become filled with poop and bedding material, and are a drowning hazard waiting to happen.  
  • Adult chicken water fount: A gallon-size water fount may have a trench large enough that a baby chick could drawn in it. Also, with this size fount, there's a greater possibility of water spilling and making the bedding wet, which could cause a fatal chill to your chicks. 

How to feed your chicks. 

Like using only regulation chick-size water fount, you should use feeders sized specifically for chicks. One style of feeder comes with a jar to fill with feed. This can be good if you have to leave the house for a period of time, as it will provide a continuous flow of feed to your chicks. However, one draw-back to this style is that the bottles usually have flat tops, (plastic or glass doesn't matter). Your birds will eventually play "King of the Hill" on this style feeder, and it could become a ladder to the outside world.

If you use a chick feeder with no bottle, you'll have to check and fill it more often with feed. This model is good for discouraging mountain climbers, but it may make it easier for the chicks to stand on the feeder and poop in the food.

If you want a feeder that will discourage mountain climbing and any kind of perching on top, or pooping in the food, a feeder with a sloped top is going to work best.

Are you ready to for this?

If you've been thinking of getting chickens, this is the time of year to do it. But before you take the final plunge, I have six tips for you:

  1. Get your outdoor coop set up first. Six to seven weeks may seem like plenty of time to build a coop, or get one set up from the farm store, but once you're busy caring for and playing with your new chicks, you may be surprised how quickly the time passes. I speak from experience. Even if you're dream coop isn't built yet, be sure you're prepared with a decent coop your birds can live in for time being. For tips on how to house your chickens, check out this article. 
  2. Be aware of how much space each of your chickens will need in their future housing. Don't make the mistake of getting too many chickens for the space you plan to provide. Chickens will become aggressive if over crowded. Again, for more on the proper space needed per chicken, check this article.
  3. Get acquainted with your local feed store. I have found that the folks at my local feed store have been vital to the survival of my chickens. Like me, I think you will find they will have lot's of helpful advice on how to care for your chickens as they grow. 
  4. Get a couple good resource books to help you with answers to your chicken-care questions. Chicken's are low maintenance, but there are things that can go wrong, and the more you know about what to watch for, the better prepared you'll be to spot trouble and treat it.

If you ask me, chickens are some of the most fun and funniest pets you and and your family will ever own. I hope you've found this article helpful. Welcome to the chicken lover's movement, my friend!

Let's chat: How long have you had chickens? What's the best part of the adventure for you? I'd love to hear from you in the comment below. 

Until next time...

Joy--Fearless Farm Girl,

"Farm girl: it's a verb, because it's what you do."

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