Raising chicks for beginners
Raising chicks for the first time can be an intimidating thing to do as a beginning homesteader. I remember the first time we received ducks and chicks for our farm. My feelings were excitement and panic at the same time.
What if I killed these sweet baby animals? What if they get sick and I can’t help them?
Over the last 5 years, I’ve successfully raised multiple flocks of chickens (and ducks!) from incubation to butcher weight and you can, too. Let’s get started.
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Tips from a homesteader on raising baby chicks for beginners and commonly asked questions.
What breed of chicks do I get?
Before you go chick shopping, know which breed you’d like to try first. But how do you decide on this detail?
Ultimately, it depends on your overall goal. First, decide if you want them for eggs, meat, eggs, AND meat or just to have as a nice pet. Here are a few quick points on how to determine your breed:
- All hens lay eggs, no matter what breed.
- Roosters are only needed if you 1. Would like a little extra protection for your flock, 2. Don’t have sound ordinances in your area (roos can be loud) and 3. Would like fertilized eggs. Hens will lay eggs whether you have a rooster or not.
- “Laying hens” are often a thinner, less meaty breed of bird which doesn’t make them the ideal hen to butcher.
- “Meat birds” are chickens that maybe grow slightly quicker and grow larger, making them a better option for butchering since the yield is better.
- “Dual-purpose” breeds are chickens that are both larger chickens and great layers. If you don’t have room for multiple flocks and know you want consistent eggs and meat, a hybrid breed is a great choice.
There are so many different breeds so it can be a little overwhelming at first. Luckily, there are some great resources like this one on the best chicken breeds for your backyard flock.
I’ve been raising a newer, dual-purpose breed of chicken called Dixie Rainbows for years now and love them. You can read all about Dixie Rainbows by clicking here if you’re interested.
Some of my other favorite dual-purpose breeds are Australorps and Orpingtons. I’ve also raised Rhode Island Reds, Americanas and New Hampshire Reds over the years with no large issue.
I’ve chosen my breed, now where do I buy my chicks?
You can start raising chicks by ordering them in the mail! Insane, I know. I was amazed when I found this out.
If ordering chicks through the mail isn’t your thing (and I don’t blame you), check your local Rural King, Tractor Supply and local feed stores.
A few things that will (or should) determine where you buy your chicks:
- Does the hatchery or store carry the breed of your choice?
- Will the hatchery or store have your breed of choice at the time you’ll need/want them?
- Does the hatchery or store take care of their animals?
Does the hatchery or store carry the breed of your choice?
I have to go ahead and tell you that the last two times I bought chicks, I ordered them online. We’ve also bought ducklings online. In the past, we’ve purchased chicks and ducklings from Metzer Farms and The Chick Hatchery successfully.
The pros of an online hatchery are that they often offer a wider range of breeds. This means if you’ve chosen a breed that is a little less popular, you’ll likely be ordering them online.
If you’re worried about ordering your specialty chicks online through your local post office, check with your local farm store and see if you can have them delivered there.
Additionally, keep in mind weather conditions and the state of your local postal service. Always give them a head up when you’re expecting a shipment of live animals.
Will the hatchery or store have your breed of choice at the time you’ll need/want them?
In my area, Rural King has chicks year-round and a wider variety of breeds. My local Tractor Supply starts getting chicks in late spring/early summer and will sometimes cater to special orders when possible.
We also have a local farm store that I’ve bought chicks from and have had the best experience with locally, but they have a very limited selection at limited times of the year.
Be sure to call around and ask many questions to determine where you should purchase your chicks from.
Does the hatchery or store take care of their animals?
I’ve received healthy animals from both of the above businesses. The fact of the matter is when shipping chicks are sometimes you lose one because of the stress of the move.
Most companies will replace dead chicks, but be sure to check the policies before choosing who to use. And, of course, mentally and emotionally prepare yourself for a possible loss.
I’ve never bought chicks from Tractor Supply but I’ll admit they seem to take better care of their chicks. I don’t mean to put Rural King on blast, and I do shop there when I have to, but I’ve seen bloody feces and dead chicks in their brooders early in the morning so I hesitate to buy chicks from my local Rural King anymore.
What I suggest is going to your farm stores early in the morning while they’re opening to see how dedicated they are to cleaning the brooders and keeping the maintenance up for healthy animals.
You don’t want to take sick chicks home, especially if you already have chickens that they’ll be co-mingling with. Additionally, a healthy group of chicks will provide you the option to continue a healthy bloodline in the future if you choose to incubate, but that’s a little advanced for now.
My local farm store had great chicks and they’re very dedicated to the quality of life and products at their little store. Do your research and make the most informed decision.
Also, remember, if you have fertilized eggs you can just hatch your own, which makes raising chicks every more fun!
Update: I have stopped shopping at our local Rural King because of the condition I’ve witnessed their chicks living in and the overall lack of caring from the employees responsible for the animals. I support our local Tractor Supply and mom and pop stores, solely. Please check into your local farm stores to make sure they’re treating their animals humanely.
What do I need in order to start raising chicks?
- Housing: Your brooder, where the chicks will live, can be very simple or very fancy. When Emerson and I started raising chicks we bought a large plastic storage container/Tupperware from Walmart and raised the chicks in our spare bedroom. Now we mainly raise our chicks in a wooden brooder I built out in the hen house.
The one thing you want to make sure of is that your chicks have enough room. I’m trying to nurse a chick back to health right now from being trampled. If your chicks don’t have enough room they’ll have to fight each other to get to where they’re going and your weaker chicks might not make it.
Additionally, your brooder needs to be free of cold drafts, but also well ventilated. Chicks can cold get quick, but also hot and sick from a stuffy environment. Don’t let this worry you, though! A big storage tub with some bird netting or chicken wire on top will do the trick!
- Heat source: Every brooder will need a source of heat for the first couple of months. Most people use a heat lamp, and I used to also, although they come with large safety concerns.
I recently starting using a brooder heat plate instead of a heat lamp for safety reasons, to conserve electricity and for a more natural approach at raising chicks. Read about brooder heat plates vs brooder heat lamps to learn more.
- Water Reservoir: You don’t want your waterer to be too ‘open’ because it’ll increase the likelihood of the chicks drowning in it. The first few times I raised chicks I put a few pebbles in the trough and I used this waterer.
I’ve personally never had a chick drown, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. I now use a larger waterer, the same that I use with my adult chickens, and it works just fine. I do raise my water reservoir up so that it’s at eye level with my chicks. This way they can drink, but can not easily get inside the trough.
Again, if you’re worried, you can always add a few pebbles in the trough to avoid the chick from submerging its head inside.
- Food and grit: I use the small, quart feeders and waterers when I have 10 chicks or less. If I ever have more, though, the small containers aren’t enough. There are a few different options for feeders.
There’s the trough and the hanging feeder (doesn’t HAVE to hang). The hanging feeder is perfect because it’s a slow feeder so I only have to fill it once every couple of days and the food is easily accessible.
You’ll need grit if your chicks won’t be free-ranging, having access to small stones, and what not to digest their food.
- Bedding: There are so many options for your bedding. Some people use shredded newspapers, puppy pads, or some other shredded paper. I use pine shavings because they’re more absorbent, smell great, and there are different options for size.
I use the fine shavings when they’re younger so it’s easier for them to walk on. You only need about an inch of bedding in my experience. Whatever you use, make sure it’s a safe material for your chickies and it’s easy for their growing legs to walk on. You want a material that promotes healthy and strong legs!
How do I keep my chicks alive?
First, know that chicks are tougher than you may think. Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way. There’ve been a few times in the winter that I turned the heat lamp off outside when it definitely should’ve been on.
The chicks survived when I expected them not to, but I definitely do not advise you to do what I’ve done. Raising chicks is fun, but mistakes are possible.
Your day old chicks need to have a spot in their brooder to go to if they’re cold. This spot will, of course, be underneath the heat lamp. For the first week, that spot should be 95º and I suggest you buy a simple thermometer for your first rodeo.
Every week, decrease the temperature by 5º. Around 6 weeks the chicks should have all their feathers and should be able to withstand temperatures of 70º. If you’re raising chicks in the deep of winter, I suggest keeping the heat lamp around if your brooder is big enough just in case. Your chicks can freeze to death but can also die of heatstroke.
Week 1 – 95˚
Week 2 – 90˚
Week 3 – 85˚
Week 4 – 80˚
- Always keep a thermometer in the brooder.
- Decrease temperature 5° per week thereafter.
Is all this stuff about raising chicks seeming stressful?
I’ll make it a little simple with a tip! If the chicks are all trying to get away from the heat lamp then your brooder is too hot. If the chicks are all huddled together under the lamp, they’re not warm enough.
You want your chicks evenly scattered throughout your brooder at night. In the daytime, they’ll rest a bit but should mostly be up and peeping and poking around the brooder, checking it out. I don’t use a thermometer anymore and you won’t always have to, either!
Since I’m located in Central Florida, I turn the heat lamp off during the day and on at night, so they have the option to get under it (depending on the month, of course).
Bonus Tip: When your chicks are resting, they’ll look almost dead. They’ll be laying on their side and all sprawled out. When your first start raising chicks as a beginner, I’d say definitely check them and make sure they’re not actually dead. Also, checking them will familiarize you with the actions of your new baby friends and get them used to their new owner!
Will my chicks get sick?
I’ve only had one sick chick while raising chicks. Always immediately remove any chick you might think is falling ill and place them in a healthy, clean quarantined environment. Your sick chick will still need food, clean water and heat.
The sick chick I had come down with bumblefoot. I separated him, mixed coconut oil in his food, fed him kale and carrot bits, and put apple cider vinegar (ACV) in his water and after 2-3 weeks he was back to normal.
As a preventative, you can add a little ACV to your chick’s water every time you fill it up, just be sure to not add too much! The general rule of thumb is 1 tbsp per gallon of water.
One thing I have had to deal with a few times is what we call “Pasty Butt” and it can be deadly, but isn’t if you’re paying enough attention and act soon enough.
This is when your chick’s vent (where the stools, and eventually eggs, come out) becomes clogged with dried poo making them unable to pass anymore feces. The poo sticks to the chicks’ downy’ feathers and they have no way of getting it off. As you might have already realized, this prevents the chick from pooping.
Pasty butt is common while raising baby chicks that have been sent in the mail because they’re going through the stress of being shipped, getting a little hotter than they should, not having access to water, etc. Pasty butt can also happen if you abruptly move your baby chicks to the chicken coop instead of slowly integrating them. Be sure not to stress your little chicks out!
If you see that your chick has pasty butt, you need to act immediately. If you’ve ever been constipated you’ll know that it’s nothing to wish upon another being. Sorry for “TMI”! It’s important to note that pasty butt is not the same as a prolapsed vent.
How should I deal with pasty butt when raising chicks?
Materials you’ll need
Coconut Oil (Some use Petroleum Jelly/Vaseline or olive oil)
Directions for treating chicks with pasty butt
Hold the chick with your hand over its wings so it can’t flap around and hurt itself. Gently turn the chick over and wet its pasty butt and vent area. Dip your Q-Tip in the Pretroleum Jelly/coconut oil and dab it on the dried feces.
NOTE: Be extremely careful while doing this. You don’t want to rip the dried poop from the little chick’s booty because you can open a wound and hurt it.
Slowly alternate from dipping the Q-Tip in water and oil of choice until the poop starts to soften. You can then start to slowly peel the poop off with the Q-Tip. Change the Q-Tip as often as possible and never, ever, ever penetrate the vent hole with your Q-Tip.
This can severely harm the chick. Just a heads up, your chick is going to be really pissed off. The first time you do this won’t be pleasant for either party, but it must be done.
Once you’ve successfully removed all the poop from the rear, smear some clean coconut oil on and around the vent (NOT IN!) and put the chick back in the brooder.
Ways to prevent pasty butt
- Have a large enough brooder so they can comfortably get under the lamp if too cool and away from the lamp if too warm.
- Don’t feed treats at a young age. 0-10 weeks they should be fed “Starter” feed, 10 weeks you switch them to “Grower”, and around 18 weeks you can give them regular “Layer” feed. This is a great page that breaks it all down for you.
- Always provide clean water. Water is so crucial!
- If you decide to give your chicks treats, you should also provide grit.
- Check on them! I check my peepers once a day for pasty butt. This might be the best way to prevent chicks from getting it.
Severe pasty butt symptoms
- Not eating or drinking
- Protruding Vent
- And, of course, a nasty looking poopy backside.
This seems hard. Should I even start raising chicks?
It’s not as hard as it seems when you read about it! It’s a little stressful at first because you have these cute little peeping pets that are now your responsibility but, if you pay attention, they’ll tell you what they need.
Just make sure you have all the materials BEFORE getting home. This way you can decrease your stress levels and the stress of your new chicks.
Have the food, water, and bedding in the brooder and have your heat source secure and set up to where it needs to be. Check on them as often as you can (and want) when you first start. This is how you learn, folks. I still check on my little ones 3-4 times a day and I’m almost 5 years into this lifestyle! It’ll all be worth it once your young chicks reach egg laying age and your backyard chicken replaces the egg aisle at the store!
And remember, the internet is a wonderful resource. If you ever have questions, ask the internet. I welcome you to ask me, also, and I’ll give you my best answer possible! Just email me at Chelsea(at)growwhereyousow(dot)com.
Now, go out and start raising chicks and have fun! It’s a wonderful experience and an amazing process to see these bitty animals morph into adult hens and roos.
More on raising chickens:
- Egg Production and Why it Changes
- The Art of Laying an Egg: How about that homestead hen?
- Raising Meat Chickens for Beginners
Is a round brooder necessary or is a rectangle one fine? Please and thank you
That’s a great question, Alexus! Either of them is perfectly fine as long as there’s enough space for the number of chicks you’re raising!