Deciding to raise chickens for eggs is a big one, but how do you get there once you make that decision? You can either find ready-to-lay hens (pullets), or you can start from scratch by raising chicks of your own. Here’s how.
Pullets are advantageous because you get an older bird (chickens generally don’t start laying until somewhere around 18-24 weeks) without having to care for it for those first several months. You’ll end up paying a premium though, and the variety available to you can be limited.
Raising chicks is a great learning experience for kids, they’re cheaper (and cuter), and you should be able to find a pretty good variety. On the downside, you have to take care of them for months until they actually start earning their keep. They’re also messy, so be prepared to clean a heavy layer of dust off of everything in your garage/basement/mudroom after they get evicted.
Although we mostly do pullets now to replace any casualties, we started our flock by raising chicks several years ago. If you’re just getting started with chickens, I’d recommend raising chicks at least once. You get to learn as they grow, and they’ll also become much more comfortable around people.
Raising chicks of your own isn’t hard, but they do require a little more attention than older hens (as does any baby). However, the tips below should help make sure you’re well-prepared and ready to go when you bring them home!
Baby chicks need shelter, usually called a brooder. For me and many others, this is simply a large, sturdy cardboard box. It could also be an old feeding trough, a bathtub, or any number of things. Unless you’re raising chicks on a large scale, you shouldn’t need to build or buy anything special.
Something square or rounded is ideal – tight corners or narrow areas can lead to overcrowding and suffocation (chicks aren’t the brightest).
Add a few inches of bedding to the bottom. Pine shavings are great, newspaper is generally not. Go for something loose instead of something that will mat down and get slippery. Change the bedding regularly – chicks poop a lot and will probably throw more food and water on the floor than they actually consume. Keeping things clean can greatly reduce the chance of disease or other problems.
After a safe place to hang out, keeping the chicks warm is the most critical component. You’ll need a brooder lamp similar to this. Place it above the brooder, and use a red light bulb – the reason for this is that chicks (chickens in general) are attracted to red, so if one of them develops any kind of injury, the others will peck (and keep on pecking), often until the chick dies. The red light masks the injury, so they remain blissfully ignorant.
At first, you’ll want to keep the brooder temperature somewhere around 95 F, so toss a good thermometer in with the chicks. One rule of thumb: if you see the chicks huddled in a tight mass directly under the light, they’re too cold, so lower the lamp a couple inches at a time until you reach a happy place. On the flip side, if they’re all hiding at the edges of the brooder, it’s probably too hot, so raise the lamp.
The lamp is obviously hot, and dry pine shavings make for good kindling, so please be careful. Most brooder lamps should come with a cage that goes over the bulb; always ensure this is attached. Make sure the lamp is secure too; clamping it onto the edge of a flimsy cardboard flap is probably not the best idea.
As the chicks grow and develop feathers, they’ll need less heat. At about six weeks, or whenever their feathers start to come in, start decreasing the heat by about five degrees each week. Again, pay attention to their body language. At about ten weeks, they should be okay without any supplemental heat (and ready to move out!).
Food and Water
Baby chicks need ample food and water, and will probably need it to be replaced on a daily basis. If I haven’t hammered the point home yet, chicks are messy.
A high-quality chick starter feed served up in a small feeder should suffice for the edible portion. After about six weeks, you can start transitioning to a grower mash. And don’t forget to include some chick-sized grit or coarse sand (this is how chickens break down their food).
Make sure that the water is slightly elevated and the water level itself is not too deep. Basically, don’t throw a low tub of water in there. Low water vessels get dirty quicker, and chicks can also fall into larger containers and easily drown. A chick waterer propped up on a block of wood should work just fine. You may need to introduce your chicks to drinking by dipping their beak a couple times until they figure it out.
Cleanliness is key here. Since things will tend to get messy, replace the bedding every few days or so; more frequently if the living space gets trashed especially quickly.
Chicks are susceptible to some diseases (particularly coccidiosis), but they generally won’t need any special treatment if you things stay clean. Just be diligent – if one has something, it can spread very quickly.
Though not a disease, one thing to keep an eye out for is pasty butt. Occasionally poop will accumulate around the backside. If it builds up too much, this will quite literally clog the works up, and the chick will be unable to relieve itself, which can be a serious problem. If you see this, hold a damp rag over the accumulated droppings until they soften and fall off.
From a human standpoint (especially kids), make sure you wash your hands after handling chicks. Although they’re adorable, baby chicks are little petri dishes. Of course kids often end up with their hands in mouths and noses, so not the best combination.
It’s probably not a good idea to leave chicks unattended with small children or pets. They’re cute, fluffy, and squeaky, which is exciting to everyone. Handling them gently on a regular basis can be beneficial, however. Frequent contact will make sure everyone is used to people, which will come in handy when they’re grown.
If the weather is decent, chicks can start to go outside for short periods of time when they’re a few weeks old. Again, constant supervision is a must, but it’s a good opportunity for them to begin to become accustomed to the outside world.
Raising chicks is a fun little adventure, and worth trying at least once. It takes a little longer to reach the endgame (eggs) than buying laying hens, but it’s a good introductory experience to chickens. In about four or five months, you’ll have healthy, well-adjusted birds ready to start laying for you.