Raising chicks can be a lot of fun, when you know what you’re doing. Some people wrongly assume that baby chickens are simple and dive right in without taking time to learn how to care for chicks properly and then end up with a disaster. Other people wrongly assume that raising chicks is difficult and not worth the bother and then never get a chance to enjoy the delightful little balls of fluff. Baby chick care doesn’t have to be difficult but the job of keeping your baby chickens alive and healthy is a big responsibility and can be time-consuming. So read on and I’ll teach you the basics of what you need for easily caring for chicks. How to care for chicks will turn into joyful pleasure, not stress and disaster.
When learning how to care for chicks, the first thing you need to decide is whether you’re going to buy your chicks or if you want to hatch them from eggs. You can buy day old chicks from many farm and feed stores, local farms, and online and mail-order direct from hatcheries. If you already have hens and a rooster, you’ll have your own fertilized eggs but you can also buy fertilized eggs from most of the same places where chicks are bought. If you decide to go with fertilized eggs, check out my pages on chicken incubators and hatching chicken eggs.
Once your chicks are hatched, or if you start with day old chicks, the first thing you’ll need for raising chicks is a chicken brooder. Chicken brooders are essentially a set-up to keep the baby chickens contained and warm. There are commercial brooders you can buy for your baby chick care but it’s also quite easy to put together your own homemade brooders. It’s smart to have this prepared well ahead of time before your chicks arrive so that you’ll be well prepared for caring for chicks.
Next, you need to decide on location for your baby chick care. Young chicks need to be warm and draft-free. So keeping them outside, unless you’re very experienced in caring for chicks, is not a good idea. Most people set up their brooders indoors or in a draft-free garage or shed. You’ll also want somewhere that is easy to access, as you will need to be checking on your chicks multiple times a day, refilling feed and water, and cleaning out the bedding regularly.
The bedding needs to be about 2-3 inches deep for proper baby chick care. You can use things like wood shavings (pine is best), ground corn cob, torn up paper towels, straw, and the like. Do NOT use a slick surface like flat newspapers or flat cardboard when caring for chicks. This will cause your baby chicks to develop splayed legs, a serious leg and hip deformity. They need a surface they can grip to. Chicks do not like dirty bedding. Therefore when raising chicks, you will need to change the bedding out regularly. Scoop out the dirty bedding at least 1-2 times daily and replace with fresh. And do a complete bedding replacement at least weekly. Also when raising chicks, you need to keep a close eye on their behinds. If they get poop stuck there, you need to gently clean it off with warm water and paper towels. Chicks can die from having their rear ends covered in poop. It blocks them up and doesn’t let their bowels work properly. So while caring for chicks, make sure any time you see poop stuck, get it cleaned off promptly.
Proper temperature is very important for keeping chicks healthy and alive. Part of your chicken brooder set up will include a heat source, generally a heat lamp with a 250 watt bulb. During the first week of baby chick care, you will want the temperature around 95 degrees F. Each week when caring for chicks, you should lower the temperature by about 5 degrees, by raising the heat lamp further away. It can be difficult to measure just how hot your brooder is though, so a good way to tell is by watching the chicks. If the chicks are all clumped together directly under the heat lamp and usually chirping loudly, this is a sign they are too cold. You will want to lower the lamp so it is closer (or get a better heat source if you selected a poor choice). If your chicks are all hanging out at the edges of your brooder box, this is a sign that it’s too hot, so you will want to raise the lamp a bit. What you want to see is your chicks doing a variety of things – a few sleeping under the lamp, a few eating, a few walking around, etc. If they are all busy doing their own thing, this is a good sign that the temperature is just right.
Fresh cool drinking water is another important factor when caring for chicks. However an improper water container can be dangerous as chicks can easily die if they get wet and cold or they can also drown. And of less seriousness, they also love pooping in water forcing you to clean and change it many times a day. So choosing a proper chick waterer is important for raising chicks. They are made to allow the chicks to drink but not be able to get into the water. This will keep them dry, safe, and not be able to poop in the water. Even with a proper waterer, you will still need to change out the water at least twice a day, as chicks stay better hydrated and healthier if they have fresh, cool water to drink. They do not like warm water and will not drink if it is too warm. So when caring for chicks you will also want to be sure the waterer is not too near the heat source. When you place your baby chicks into the brooder for the first time, be sure to dip each chick’s beak into the water to give them the right idea.
While caring for chicks, they require a high protein feed initially for proper growth and development. There are a number of commercially made chick starter feeds that are sold at any farm and feed store making it easy for your baby chick care. These are the best to use as you know your chicks are getting just the nutrition they need. However, there are also people that feed their chicks other things like chopped up hard-boiled eggs, oats, and other foods. If you go this route for raising chicks, you will want to research to be sure you are giving your baby chicks a proper nutritional balance, which can be tricky. So that’s why I recommend when learning how to care for chicks to stick with the commercial starter feed, which should be fed for the first 8 weeks. A chicken grower feed can be fed from 9-20 weeks. After that, they’ll be ready for adult feed.
Let your chicks eat all they want. They will not overeat. Chicks know to stop when they are full. It may seem like they are eating a lot and you may worry they are eating too much, but remember they have a lot of growing to do in a very short time, so they need all that food to sustain their rapid growth. If the feed you choose does not contain grit, you will have to add grit to the diet to help your chicks digest their food. Simply sprinkle the grit over the food like you would salt on your food.
Next, if you are raising chickens for meat, you will likely want to skip this step. But otherwise when caring for chicks, make sure to give them lots of attention and love. This is an important factor in baby chick care for bonding with them and making them comfortable with you. If your chicks are for pets, this is vitally important. But even if you’re raising chicks for future eggs, this will also be a big help having your chickens used to you. It will make your egg collecting much easier if your hens are acclimated to being around you and handled.
Your baby chicks are going to grow very fast and change right before your eyes. You will see feathers starting to come in on their wings within the first week or so. By 2 – 4 weeks, they will be capable of flying up a bit, so you will want to make sure you have some sort of mesh cover for your brooder so they don’t get out. Once they are around 3-4 weeks, you can begin to get them used to their outdoor chicken coop on warm, sunny days, as long as it is well secured against predators. Take them out there for longer and longer periods during the day but still bring them back to their brooder at night. By 5 – 8 weeks (once fully feathered), you should be able to leave them in their backyard chicken coop entirely, as long as the weather is fairly mild. With caring for chicks, I recommend even having your backyard chicken coop ready before your chicks arrive. As they grow so rapidly, the time will sneak up on you and you don’t want to be scrambling around last minute trying to get a coop and run ready.
How to care for chicks BONUS TIPS:
-Find a good avian vet or farm vet ahead of time. You don’t want to be in a panic if something medical comes up during your baby chick care. If you’re prepared with a good vet up front, you can promptly deal with any issues if they arise.
-Chicks do have the potential for carrying salmonella. When raising chicks, be sure to wash your hands after handling them and any time after handling their bedding or coming in contact with their poop. Along these same lines, it is best not to use your kitchen sink where you prepare food for washing their waterer or other items. It’s better to use your bathroom sink, bathtub faucet, or laundry room sink for cleaning up after your chicks.
-Also because of the potential for salmonella, as tempting as it is when caring for chicks, it’s best not to kiss your chicks or snuggle them too close to your mouth area.
-Baby chicks are fragile. Rough handling should be avoided. Young children should always be supervised around the chicks and taught to handle them very gently.