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Caring for New Chicks

If you are one of those folks that raises chicks continually as we do, the one thing that’s always the same is that there’s always something different. In that case the one thing you can always do is try to have as much ready as possible when they arrive.

When receiving chicks in the mail, always get the tracking number and keep up with where they are and be ready to pick them up at the post office. It is a good idea to call the post office with the instruction to call you as soon as they arrive and to hold them for you to pick up at the post office. This way you can pick them up a lot sooner and try to comfort them on the way to your home.

French Black Copper Maran chick photographed by Imogene Frazier

I always feel better starting them off somewhere in my home. Baby chicks don’t take much room, and they’re very vulnerable as day-old chicks. At this stage they only have fuzz on their body, and they’re very susceptible to become cold. Chicks that are cold for long periods of time can die from hypothermia. It’s a good idea to have the brooder box nice and warm ahead of time for their arrival. If you order your chicks by mail, the one thing you want to do for sure is to be ready when they get there.

Brooder partitions work well with day old chicks

A brooder box can be simple, and if you don’t plan to use it again it can be disposable. Simple partitions of cardboard set up on the floor in a circle is all it takes to make a brooder. Cover the floor with a sheet of cardboard and then layer with bedding and you have a brooder. A large storage container works well too for a couple of weeks depending on how many chicks you have. Try to provide ½ square foot per chick at the start.

Normally chicks will not start drinking or eating until their body has warmed. At floor level the temperature needs to be 100-degrees F directly under the heat source, but for the first few hours only. Then lower the temperature to 98-degrees F for the rest of the first day and then to 97-degrees the second day. Then take the temperature to 95-degrees for a week. The next week take temperature down to 90 degrees, which would be best monitored by a thermometer inside the brooder. There after take the temperature down 5 degrees every week until reaching 70 to 75 degrees. Bantam chicks should stay slightly warmer than large fowl chicks and need to be protected from all drafts.

Sometimes chicks arrive late through the mail, be prepared for a loss or weak chicks. It's always devastating to open boxes shipped in the mail to find tiny lifeless bodies or weak day-old chicks. I’m a pudding when it comes to dealing with dead baby chicks, and I would rather not experience that kind of thing, (ever!). But when you add new pure-breeds to your flocks sometimes getting chicks through the mail is the only option. It’s not a bad idea to have some sugar in their water to energize some of the weaker chicks. It can’t hurt to have Nutri-drench on hand. Nutri-drench is a nutrient-rich supplement made with molasses formulated to deliver energy and essential nutrients rapidly into their systems.

Large pine shaving as bedding is recommended for young chicks. Be careful not to use small pine shaving, as chicks tend to eat the small shavings and it will

Chicks on pine shaving in a cardboard box brooder

eventually either kill them or cause a health issue. Be aware that cedar and cypress shavings are both highly toxic to poultry. After you have laid about an inch-deep of the large pine shavings on the floor of the brooder, place a couple of sheets of paper towel over the shaving. Then scatter Chick Starter over the paper towel. This will help motivate the chicks to eat. Allow the chicks to eat Chick Starter from off the paper towel the first few days. It’s easy to roll up the soiled paper towel and dispose of it daily, replacing with clean paper towel and starter feed. Once chicks begin to show a healthy interest for feed, it's time to use trays and stop with the paper towels. I highly recommend disposable chick feed trays.

After you have collected your chicks from the post office and are placing them into the brooder dip their beaks into the warm drinking water mixed with supplement. To do this use your fingers and hold the chick’s head and do a quick dip of the chick’s beak into the water and then let go of the chick. Do this gently and watch to see if they have taken the liquid into their beak, sometimes they will tilt back their head and sometimes they will smack their beak. Be careful not to immerse their beak down to the nostrils.

We have found that if the water containers are set on top of a small platform it

will keep the shaving out of the water, and most importantly, chicks are less likely to fall into the water and drown. You can either purchase a stand or make one. We use 2 pieces of 2X4 cut 5” long with a small plank or plywood cut 5” X 5” then screwed on top the 2X4’s. Don't get it too high. Around 2 1/2" high works great for most chicks if you have shaving placed around it. Of course, you can find many other platforms that can be purchased if you can’t build one. Another way to prevent drowning is by placing marbles in the rim.

Once you have all your chicks inside the 100-degree brooder and have dipped their beaks in the water mix, sprinkle the Chick Starter feed over the paper towel, so they can see and hear the sound of falling feed. The movement of the feed will sometimes catch their attention and they will begin to peck at it. If one or two begins to peck the feed the others will copy them. Most baby chick loss is caused by the chick not starting to eat or drink mostly because they are too cold to move.

The first day they will need a lot of rest. Refrain from handling or playing with the birds the first 24 hours. The best thing to do after having them situated is to give them time to recover and adjust. It is very important to get them eating and drinking. If they don't appear to be eating or drinking, sprinkle fresh Chick Starter over clean paper towel, and gently touch the beak of any chick into the drinking mix to be sure they know where it’s located. Then if they don’t appear to be eating, peck your finger in the feed to attract their attention. Repeat this at least twice a day for a few days until they look to be doing fine on their own. Adding crumbled scrambled egg on top of the feed gets the chicks off to a good start and encourages them to start eating feed right away. It is important to remove all uneaten eggs after 2-4 hours.

The recommended feed for day-old chicks are Chick Starter which is usually high in protein. Starter with 24% protein is what we use at our farm. Chick Starter is a poultry feed developed specifically to meet the nutritional needs of young birds, with nutrition to help your birds grow up healthy and lay quality eggs. Other chick starter feeds that have only 20% protein is also sufficient. The first few weeks of growth are important since chickens usually grow fast, their growing period is an important time to have them on quality feed. Most breeds will be laying eggs by the time they’re 5 months old.

After chicks have begun to show a healthy appetite, it’s time to put in feed troughs. Place feed troughs low enough so that the chicks can see and reach it easily. One foot long feeder troughs or one round feeder for every 25 chicks is recommended. Always keep feed available for chicks, and never let them run out of clean feed. Chicks tend to poop where they eat, so just as you would for any infant, clean the feeders out daily.

Make sure there is plenty of room for the chicks to walk away from the heat

Spraddle leg caused by slick surfaces

source in case they get too warm. Lay down several layers of paper towels on the brooder floor. Having a slick surface can cause spraddle legs on young chicks. Day old chicks need a surface that will prevent their feet from slipping.

It’s best to use new bulbs for heat lamps so you can be sure that it doesn’t go off in the middle of the night or when you’re not there. We have found using a drop light with a reflector shield is a good source of light. We prefer the 150-watt infrared bulbs over the 250 watts, but the choice is up to a personal preference. The recommendation is one light per 25 chicks, with the bottom of the bulb about 18 inches above the floor. While white light is okay, (eventually it causes stress or pecking), infrared light causes less stress. It’s very important to hang the light from something secure to ensure that it doesn’t fall and burn the birds or anything else.

The wattage of the bulb will determine how low to hang the light, which is why a thermometer is important. The thermometer should be at the same level with the chicks on the floor of the brooder. It cannot be expressed enough that chicks should have the option to walk away from the heat when it’s too hot or come back to the heat source when it’s too cold. Chicks’ behavior can tell you whether they’re too hot or too cold to let you know whether to lower or raise the light. Temperature is very important; therefore, a thermometer is highly recommended. Regular white bulbs are fine; however, red bulbs may work better to reduce feather picking. Also it is better because the constant bright light from bulbs can stress the birds and cause health issues and picking.

A mature chicken will fluff up their feathers to make a balloon around themselves with their feathers to hold in body heat, and sometimes you will find

Barnevelder chick enjoying the heat from the lamp

chicks try this same behavior to try to get warm. They will be inactive standing still like little zombies looking like frizz balls, then you will know they’re too cold. Chicks are basically naked until they gain their feathers and they’re unable to maintain their body heat. If you find they are grouped together in one area of the brooder they’re too cold. But if they look as if they were trying to escape the heat by hiding behind the water jug, or the feed troughs, or pressed against the walls they are too hot. Just a little observation and you can discern the preference of your chicks.

Sometimes chicks develop a problem known as pasty butt. This is where poop accumulates over the cloaca and clogs up over the opening. After it has become hardened or pasty over the opening, they are unable to have a bowel movement. This can be deadly if not removed. It’s easy to remove. Just use a warm cloth and hold it over the poop until softened and then wipe away the poop. Sometimes it takes a little more patience in softening the poop before it can be removed. Usually this problem disappears around a week.

Basically, taking care of chicks is simple. A warm clean place to sleep, food to eat and water to drink is all they really need, but a little affection doesn't hurt either. But like I said at the beginning of this article, it's always something different with each new brood. Chicks can bring a lot of joy and excitement. No matter the negatives, the joy that comes with the soft trusting chirps always exceed any obstacles.

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