Getting started raising chicks doesn’t have to be a daunting task.
With a few basic supplies, you’ll be able to successfully bring up healthy, happy chickens.
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There are many things you can use to raise chicks in. Over the years I have used rabbit cages, I built a brooder box, I’ve used a hamster cage from the pet store. But my favorite thing to use and will use from now on is a large, 50 gallon storage tote. It is inexpensive, and easy to clean.
To cover my brooder, I simply lay one of the baby gates I have, across the top. You want the lid to have ventilation, but you NEED a lid.
The first week or two, you may not need one. But you will be shocked at just how quickly the chicks are able to fly up and escape. They love to perch and explore.
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Another option, is to cut the center out of the lid and attach chicken wire for a permanent, reusable brooder lid. This would be especially helpful if you plan to raise chicks or other birds again in the future. The cover needs to allow for air flow, but you do not want to use fabric or cardboard, because that will trap heat in and may cause your chicks to overheat.
Bedding for the Brooder
To cover the floor of your brooder, you will need some sort of bedding. You will want something that is easily accessible, that you can change out often, and is safe for your chicks.
The best things to use are pine shavings, wood pellets for bedding, or shredded newspaper. I use pine shavings because they are absorbent, inexpensive and compostable.
Brooder Bedding Not to Use
Don’t use sheets of newspaper or paper bags. Using a smooth paper surface is dangerous to the chicks because it can lead to “splayed legs.”
Splayed legs is a condition where the chick’s legs spread out and do not properly support the chick. It can cause the chick to become lame and unable to walk, leading to death.
There are ways to treat the condition, but they are not always successful. It is better to start with a bedding surface that allows them to have grip. Smooth paper surfaces do not.
Don’t use cedar shavings. Cedar shavings may be great for other animals in other locations, but cedar contains plicatic acid. This acid is great for keeping insects away – which is why you see cedar blocks for storing with linens & clothing, or chests made of cedar wood.
However this acid is very caustic and can cause severe respiratory problems. Birds are very sensitive to respiratory issues (think of canaries in a coal mine) and cedar is not safe for your chicks.
Feeding and Watering Chicks
Chicks can not eat the same food you give chickens. They need a crumble, “starter” feed that is made for chicks. Chick crumble is usually a minimum of 18% protein to help the chicks grow and develop. Feed should be free-choice and readily available at all times.
When choosing your feed, look for a good quality feed. You do not need medicated feed. Medicated feed is only needed if your chicks are sick.
Once your chicks begin eating things that are not chick starter feed, they will need grit. Grit is simply sandy sediment that allows your chick (or chickens) to break down and digest food. You can purchase chick grit at the feed store.
I have never bought grit. I feed my chicks starter until they move outside. Once they are outside, they have access to grasses and bugs, but they also have access to the soil. They will naturally consume sediments that contain the needed grit.
Food should be given to them in a shallow dish. I like the small, screw together feeders or the one that screws onto a Mason jar.
Just like the food, fresh water should always be available. You’ll need to clean this out a couple times a day, as chicks will scratch and dust themselves in the bedding early on, making a mess of the water dish. They will also find a way to leap up and perch on top of the feeder and waterer right away. And of course, they will poop.
To keep food and water clean, I will set the food & water containers up on a block of wood or brick to keep it above the bedding and keep it a little cleaner, longer. Make sure it is low enough that they can reach it. As they grow, you can raise it a little higher.
How to Heat your Chick Brooder
Having a heat source is another vital thing for your chicks. There are a few options out there, so let’s take a look at the most common.
Heat lamps with a red heat bulb are a very common option, and one I have used myself in the past. They are inexpensive and provide good heat.
However, heat lamps can be a dangerous fire hazard. Chicken coops, barns and homes have been burned down because wood shavings were tossed around from the chicks/chickens movements and caught fire on the hot bulb.
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I had an incident once where the light came loose and slid down to the top of their brooder bin. I knew something was wrong when I heard loud, alarmed “peeping” coming from the brooder.
I went to check on them and found melting plastic coming down into the brooder. The string of melted plastic was scaring the chicks. That was the last time I ever used a lamp. Had I not heard the chicks, and gone to check on them, it may have ended in disaster.
Safer Choices…Ceramic Coils
Rather than putting a bulb in your lamp, you can use a ceramic coil that is designed for reptiles. These are readily found at pet supply stores. These radiate infrared heat, but do not pose the fire hazard that a bulb would.
We keep one of these outside for our farm cats, Stumper & Nubs in the winter to give them a nice, safe, warm spot.
Best Choice: Heat Plate Brooder
Incubator Plates are my favorite heater choice for raising chicks (or ducklings, goslings.) The horizontal plate radiates heat downward and imitates what a mama hen would do. The chicks can go underneath the plate to feel safe and get warm, just like they would hide under the feathers of their mama.
These heaters have different height settings and as the chicks grow, you raise them up to be right at the height of their backs. Chicks will need heat for about their first 5-6 weeks, or until they are fully feathered with real feathers.
What Temperature Do You Keep a Brooder?
If you are using a heat plate brooder, the only thing you need to do, is gradually raise the height of the plate so that it continually sits at “back height” for your chicks as they grow. However if you are using a coil or lamp, you will need to be a little more proactive in the temperature controls in your brooder.
When you set up your brooder, you will need a thermometer to monitor the temperature inside their environment. Chicks need to be kept warm, but the temperature can gradually cool to be typical moderate temperatures.
|Chick Age||Brooder Temperature (Fahrenheit)|
|under 2 weeks||90 – 95 degrees|
|2 – 3 weeks||85 – 90 degrees|
|3 – 4 weeks||80 – 85 degrees|
|4 – 5 weeks||75 – 80 degrees|
|5 – 6 weeks||70 – 75 degrees|
Your heat source, no matter which one you use, should be placed at one end of the brooder container. This allows the chicks to self-regulate their heat. They can go under the heat to get warm, but move away from it if they need to cool down.
You can also judge whether the heat source in your brooder is sufficient by the way the chicks will behave.
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With the heater at one end, chicks should be happily eating or drinking, but when they want to rest and sleep, you should notice them under the heat source together but not crowded.
If you check on your chicks, and find them crowding together under the heater, they are too cold and need more heat. Chicks will crush each other in an attempt to keep warm, and this can cause death.
Lower the lamp, closer to the brooder or use a warmer heat source.
If you look in there to see the chicks staying away from the heat source, it is too hot inside the brooder. Too hot can cause your chicks to struggle and lead to chick loss.
Raise the heat source from the surface of the brooder or use a cooler source.
Not too hot, not too cold, but this is your chicks resting when the temperature is just right.
Remember that the ambient temperature of the room or location where you have the brooder will effect the temperature inside as well.
Happy chicks will rest comfortably under a heat source that is the perfect temperature for them.
Following these steps, you will be able to raise a flock of happy chicks into a healthy, productive flock.