Keeping chickens is immensely satisfying and surprisingly easy. It makes good, common sense that it would be otherwise farmers would have abandoned keeping chickens long ago. But with relatively little time and money you can start your own backyard flock of chickens and have the invaluable reward of knowing where your food is coming from, perhaps even supplying others with locally raised food, along with the pleasure of simply keeping chickens since watching your flock forage around you will bring peace and joy to your heart. It will.
Like a new or first time parent the idea of being responsible for new life can seem daunting and overwhelming. When you place your first chick order you aren't just expecting a 'baby' or two, you're probably expecting at the very least a half dozen! But don't worry! Your chicks (and you) will be fine as long as you provide them with a safe place, a warm light, soft bedding and some food and water. Unlike human babies you will watch your chick babies begin to thrive and grow in an unbelievably short amount of time which is a good thing because you will know right away if what you are doing is working or not.
To begin brooding baby chicks you will need a few things:
1. A Brooder. You can get as crafty, thrifty or MacGyver as you want here.
Basically you need a box with sides to prevent drafts and I highly recommend that your box have a cover. We have two brooders. One is a large Rubbermaid tub (pictured left). We simply cut the inside of the lid out and replaced it with chicken wire so that it still snaps on securely. This size brooder will accommodate up to 10 chicks for the first month or so depending on the rate of growth. Our second brooder (pictured right) was designed to hold at least 60 chicks for the first month or so depending on the rate of growth. You will know when it is time to move your chicks out of the brooder but generally it's after the first 5-6 weeks.
A lid is essential if you have small children and/or pets. Most of the time we brood our chicks in the Rubbermaid tub inside our house because we like hearing and seeing them. But chicks make A LOT of dust. So you may want to keep your chicks in a mudroom or the garage or some other place that you don't mind getting really dusty. The cost of your brooder will vary with the materials you use to make it. The Rubbermaid tote brooder was about $25 for the tote and the small roll of chicken wire. The chicken wire is simply stapled on with a staple gun and has lasted through three kids, two cats and three flocks of chickens. Here is a closer look. It's a great way to brood a small amount of chickens, easy to clean and when you are done brooding you can store all of your supplies in it! We used salvaged particle board and hardware to make our other brooder along with leftover chicken wire from the first brooder so it cost next to nothing. Look around you, what do you have? Can you turn it into a brooder? Go for it!
2. Pine Shavings.
We line our brooders and our coop with pine shavings and buy them in a huge bale at our local feed store. We have had great success with pine shavings. The only downside is that the chicks will kick it into the water and food but they will do that with any material you put in. Pine shavings are inexpensive and readily available. Our big bale costs $6 and lasts until the chicks move into the coop. You will know when it is time to change the shavings. The more area you give your chicks the less frequently you will have to change the shavings. Rule of thumb is to put down a 3 inch layer in your brooder.
3. Heat Lamp and TWO RED bulbs.
Heat is the most important element to keeping your chicks healthy during the first few weeks so the heat lamp is your most important supply. You can find the lamp at your local feed store, Tractor Supply and probably at a hardware store depending on where you live. You can buy clear or red bulbs. ALWAYS buy red bulbs. Chickens are prone to cannibalism so having the red bulb over saturates their environment making it difficult for them pick on a chick that may have gotten a peck for spending too much time at the food trough etc. With our last flock we neglected to have an extra red bulb on hand and when our bulb blew the closest feed store only had clear bulbs available. We purchased one, put it in the lamp, went about our day and night only to wake up to a chick with half of her wing pecked to an open wound. It was horrible. So, that day I drove further out to get a red bulb and that simple switch kept her wing from being pecked at any more and her wing healed just fine. Always buy a red heat bulb and always buy two. When one goes, replace it and get another extra to have on hand. The lamp will cost $15-20 and the bulb $5-8.
When your chicks first arrive you will need to keep the heat lamp directly over your brooder about 1 to 1 1/2' above them. Ideally this will keep an area of your brooder @ 90-95 degrees. It is very important that your chicks have a place to go that is not hot though so position your lamp to one side of the brooder. Each week you will raise your lamp a few inches until your chicks are 'feathered out' or the temperature is about 70 degrees. Watch your chicks! If they are always huddled together under the lamp you will need to lower it. They are cold! If they are huddled together on the 'unheated' side they are probably too hot! Time to raise your heat lamp! Happy chicks mill about the brooder.
PLEASE BE AWARE THESE LAMPS ARE VERY HOT! You will need to run the lamp 24 hours a day so make sure it is in a place where nothing can catch on fire! Always check the chord to be sure it is not touching the lamp itself and please do NOT let children touch or play with the chicks near the lamp.
Right now we have our lamps on chains hanging from a hook which makes it really simple to raise and lower it as needed. We have also clipped a lamp to a camera tripod, a door, etc. Look around you. Do you have a good spot to position your brooder to accommodate the raising and lowering of a heat lamp? Can your pets or kids knock it over easily? Is it close to a wall or flammable objects? Take these things into consideration when deciding where to place your brooder/heat lamp.
4. Food and water.
You will need a poultry drinker and a trough feeder. Both of these things are available at feed stores or Tractor Supply. Don't bother with a mason jar drinker. It's a base that you can just attach a mason jar too and while it is absolutely adorable they will outgrow it in a week and you will be cleaning it every hour so you'll just hate it and toss it in your garage. A gallon drinker is suitable for a backyard flock of 10-20 chickens. We have both galvanized metal and plastic ones like the one pictured above. It's a matter of preference and finances. We buy the plastic ones for $5 and use them only with our chicks.
A trough feeder like the one pictured above is nice to look at and keeps the birds from jumping onto the feeder and pooping in it. But, you can also just use an egg crate, a bowl or anything else you may have around so it's not an essential purchase.
When your chicks first arrive (assuming you have ordered them by mail and they are day olds) you will dip each one of their beaks into water/the poultry drinker as you transfer them from the box they arrived in to their new brooder. To do this just grab your chick in your hand and dip it's wee little beak into the water. They should take a little gulp right away and maybe even just start drinking on their own as soon as you set them down. At this time we also inspect our chicks and make sure they have arrived safe and sound. Wait an hour or so before offering them food. Although, our last batch arrived ravenous so we just waited a little while before placing their food in the brooder. Just give them time to settle in and take the time yourself to make sure they are healthy.
You will need to feed your chicks 'Chick Starter' mash. Chick Starter usually comes in 25-50lb bags and should be stored in a metal pail with a tight fitting lid. You will have many options for chick starter but most contain antibiotics. We are an organic operation so ours does not. I can't speak for certain about medicated feed but I think that you begin by feeding the entire bag of medicated feed and then switch to a grower mash. (Someone correct me if I am wrong) In our case we start by feeding organic chick starter for the first 5-6 weeks then feed organic grower pellets until our hens start laying at which point we switch to a layer mash. In any case, you will need a bag of chick starter mash, medicated or organic. Organic feed is considerably more expensive than conventional feed. A conventional bag will cost $11-15 while an organic bag will cost you $22-25. Yeah, it's really that much more.
Some chicks can become 'pasty' which is a somewhat polite way of saying that poop sticks to their butt. It can block the exit and cause problems. If this occurs simply use a warm, wet paper towel to wipe the poop away. We've only done this once and of course it was with our first flock which we worried and fretted over like first time parents but I haven't wiped a chicks butt since! If you are concerned that you have a pasty chick do NOT google 'pasty chick' with your kids in the room. I warned you.
And that's it! To recap:
Before your chicks arrive you'll need a brooder, pine shavings, a heat lamp, a bag of chick starter mash, a poultry drinker and something to put their food in.
Once they arrive, dip each of their beaks in water, turn on your heat lamp, observe them and then offer them food.
After they arrive, make sure they have fresh water and clean food every day. Switch their pine shavings as needed. Once a week raise your heat lamp a few inches but observe your chicks! If you are brooding in the summer you may need less artificial heat. And enjoy them while they are small. They only fit in the palm of your hand for a short while!