I have very little experience raising chicks, solo and from scratch. I have plenty of broody hens that are more than willing to incubate and take care of any littles that they hatch. Even so, there is work on my part: monitoring incubation, assisting abandoned embryos to hatch, juggling accommodation, providing feed and water, cleaning and ensuring everyone is healthy. If I only had one clutch, or at least, one at a time things would be easier, but that’s not how it is at Bitchin’ Chickens. I’m often dealing with 3, 4 or 5 hens, who are either sitting on eggs or raising chicks. I love them, but it’s work.
You might be doing the same thing or hatching your own with an incubator or buying young chicks from your local feed store. If you don’t have a hen to carry the brunt of the workload, you’ll have to be prepared to do it all on your own. And best to be prepared before their arrival. That means having your brooder and all your supplies ready. And not just that, but a coop and run that they will be moving into in a few short weeks.
I have only hatched chicks with an incubator twice: once incubating them for the whole 21 days and another time, just the last four in an attempt to save them after the hen had stopped sitting on day 17.
For the last four seasons, I’ve also donated eggs to various elementary schools for their hatching programs. They receive the eggs- with bios and photos of the parents, some information on genetics (e.g. frizzles and naked necks, blue eggs, etc.) and support along the way – and then return the hatched chicks to me when they are one to two weeks old. I don’t have loads of experience, but I have learned a few things along the way that might be helpful for you.
My 13’x 8’ coop is divided into two sections: the main flock is on one side, with an automatic door out to a 1200 square feet fenced pen with overhead netting; the other side is used for supplies, as an infirmary or for young chicks. There is a manual pop door that opens on to a 4’x9’ fully wired pen, housed within my big pen. It’s a great way to introduce new birds to the existing flock – the see, but don’t touch, method. The chicks start off in that part of the coop which allows them a soft integration. If they had been hen raised that would be their mother’s job.
Brooder & Heat
I have a plastic rodent cage that I picked up for free. It’s 2′ x 3′, with a wire and clear plastic lid, which works well for the first two weeks and then, they quickly outgrow their space. Once that happens I replace it with a dog crate, which is placed at one end of their 2′ x 6′ pen. A heat lamp is placed at the other end so they are free to go wherever they want. I’ve tried to time my hatches during the warm weather, typically May and June, so I don’t have to use a heat lamp 24/7 for long.
You can use a variety of makeshift brooders (e.g. stock troughs, kiddie pools, animal cages) or build your own. It’s important that it’s roomy, not drafty, with a covered top (they learn to fly pretty fast) and non-slip bedding, like pine shaving. If they can’t get good traction, chicks can develop slipped tendon or spraddle leg.
- Chicks need to be provided with a heat source (lamp or plate) @35c/95f their first week, and then gradually reduced by 3c/5f each week thereafter.
- Young birds, before they are fully feathered around 6-8 weeks of age, can’t regulate their body temperature and can easily become chilled.
- Heat lamps are a potential source of coop fires so be careful to ensure you lamp is equipped with a wire cage around the bulb and is well secured.
- White lights are hard on their eyes so use a red bulb.
- Some folks prefer to use a heat plate. If so, make sure it’s big enough for the number of chicks you’ve got.
- Put a thermometer in the brooder so you can monitor for desired temperature and any fluctuations within the space.
- As they get older and the days are warmer I turn the lamp off for a few hours during the day to acclimate them to going outside.
Water is the least expensive, but most important aspect of a chicken’s intake, and often the most overlooked. If you’ve never raised chicks you’ll quickly discover they are messy: they toss shavings and poop in their water containers, which necessitates cleaning and filling them often. To ensure young chicks don’t drown in their waterers make sure to use containers designed for chicks or put marbles in the reservoir so they don’t fall in and become trapped. I set the water container up on a block, but they still manage to create a mess. Some folks find nipple or hanging systems more efficient. Spilled water can contribute to moldy bedding so change that often.
Chicks require starter crumbles for the first 6-8 weeks. They need high amounts of protein, but not the levels of calcium contained in layer pellets. You can either buy medicated or non-medicated feed. The former contains amprolium, which is a thiamine blocker, meant to disrupt the reproductive cycle of coccidia. If your chicks have been vaccinated against coccidiosis don’t feed them medicated feed as well.
I had never used medicated feed and never had an issue, believing that chicks exposed to pathogens in small amounts will build their immunity naturally. That philosophy worked for many hatches, but this year I had my first outbreak of coccidiosis, affecting one of the school hatches. I had cleaned their area and always used dedicated water and feed containers, but there must have been some oocysts (eggs) in the residue on the concrete floor. I think the combination of their splashed water and the warmth from the lamp created the perfect conditions of high heat and humidity which allowed the coccidia to thrive. I only realized there was an issue when one of the chicks died and two others looked hunched and lethargic. Upon closer inspection I found fresh blood drops on the shavings. I quickly added Corid (Amprolium) in their water and managed to save them all.
In future, I would consider putting chicks on medicated feed (including the hen) until they transitioned to grower feed. Coccidia is ubiquitous – our chickens are probably carrying a manageable load at any given time. It becomes problematic when there is a heavy load, overwhelming vulnerable birds. Medicated feed won’t stop your birds from getting coccidia, but will hopefully will keep their numbers in check, allowing birds to build some resistance to them. Untreated coccidiosis can lead to intestinal damage, stunted growth and death.
When chicks are raised by a hen they are introduced to insects and plants from the time they hit the soil. I start giving brooder chicks small amounts of easily consumed produce when they are about two weeks old. The goal is to ensure that they are eating a nutritionally balanced diet and not getting too much calcium which can lead to kidney damage, like gout. If your chicks are housed indoors and getting food in addition to starter crumble also provide them with grit, which helps them process harder food.
Once you’ve integrated birds of different ages there is the question of what to feed them. I have a box that only the chicks can enter so they can access their starter or grower feed. When they move to the big coop everyone is on grower (with oyster shell offered on the side) so the chicks don’t get too much calcium. When the pullets start laying, the flock goes back to layer pellets.
Taming Your Chicks
When you raise chicks without a hen you have the opportunity to spend time with, and to handle, them. Folks often wonder why their chicks bolt on sight of their keeper. They are prey animals and we are large beings looming over them. It’s their instinct to run and hide. Get down at their level, sit quietly, bring treats and allow them to approach you. Be careful when handling chicks as they can easily be injured, especially by children who might not realize how delicate they are. Talk to them and get them used to associating your voice with food.
I can’t over emphasize the role that stress plays in the health of any birds, but especially young birds. Stress can take many forms and be the catalyst for bacterial or viral pathogens to reproduce and cause illness.
- It’s easy to underestimate how fast chicks grow. Make sure your brooder is large enough to accommodate everyone and does not lead to overcrowding.
- Ensure that all chicks are getting adequate amounts of food and water and aren’t competing for access. Monitor smaller or slower birds.
- Don’t mix chicks of different ages – at this stage a difference of a couple of weeks is a lot in terms of size and development.
- Remove birds with fixable conditions, like spraddle leg or curled toes, to a temporary infirmary.
- Temperature is critical. Chicks can get chilled easily, but overheating is an issue as well.
- Chicks are messy. Clean the brooder daily to avoid fecal contamination of food and water. Poop build-up releases ammonia gas which is hard on their respiratory systems.
- Stressors like overcrowding and uneven temperatures can lead to bullying and pecking. Always be aware of chicks that might be getting picked on and potentially injured. As soon as that happens, remove the victim to administer first aid and be careful when you return them. Remediate the potential conditions that are contributing to those issues.
Judging from hearing some other folks stories of integration- which sometimes include pecking, bullying and even death – I realize I have been incredibly lucky. My flock has been, for the most part, if not welcoming to newcomers, has at least not been aggressive. Most of my chicks have been added to the flock with their mothers. I find that there is occasional conflict, but mostly between the adults and never, directed at the chicks. The higher the hen’s status in the pecking order the easier their integration back into the flock.
When I have had chicks without a hen I have housed them in the pen mentioned above. The chicks are able to spend their days watching the flock, but protected by their wired pen. I find that the adults’ reaction is more one of curiosity than anything else. Simon, my rooster, loves chicks. He stands by the pen and watches them and is the first one to welcome them when I open their gate for the first time. Some roosters are not so gentle or generous.
The recommendation is to introduce birds of about the same size/age. It would take months until all my chicks were of comparable size as the main flock. I don’t have the time, nor the room, and frankly, think the sooner they are part of the flock the better. When they are about four or five weeks old and have already been living side-by-side with the flock I open their gate for a supervised introduction. There’s usually a big rush from the flock to enter the chick pen, not to see the chicks, but to investigate the possibility of food. Once that hunt comes to a dead end everyone starts to mingle.
I have plenty of places for the chicks to hide: shrubs, an open sided supply shed and in the main coop. They soon motor around and map out their territory. It doesn’t take them long to figure out where they live, returning to their pen each evening. Another couple of weeks like that and then they get transferred to the main coop.
The proviso here is my chicks come from my birds. If you are bringing in birds from another farm or hatchery you need to be aware whether they have been vaccinated (or not) and if they show any signs of illness. You don’t want newcomers introducing a pathogen to your birds, but conversely your birds, which may be carriers of a recovered illness, can infect young chicks that are vulnerable. Practice good biosecurity. Never integrate birds that are showing any sign of sickness. Quarantine is an opportunity to observe behaviour and symptoms.
Another part of integration is with family pets, particularly dogs which can do a lot of damage in a short amount of time. Never underestimate that the dog you love, and think of as gentle, can kill a flock in minutes. Always supervise your house pets’ encounters with your chickens until they are totally trustworthy. Even then, don’t be surprised if something goes sideways. Chicks must appear to them as fluffy wind-up toys.
Health issues to aware of in young birds: aspergillosis (brooder pneumonia), coccidiosis, curled toes, lice, mites, pasty butt, pecking injuries, rickets, roundworms, salmonella, slipped tendon, spraddle leg and wry neck. Learn to recognize what to look for and how to treat early.