Tips from an intermediate homesteader on raising chicks for beginners.
Raising chicks can seem intimidating to a beginning homesteader. I can say that because I was a beginning homesteader only two and a half years ago! Since then, I’ve successfully raised multiple flocks of chickens from incubation and you can, too. Let’s get started.
In this guide:
- Where do I buy my chicks?
- What do I need to start raising chicks?
- How do I keep them alive?
- Will my chicks get sick?
- How to deal with pasty butt
Where do I buy my chicks?
You might not believe it, but you can start raising chicks by ordering them in the mail! In my area, Rural King has chicks year-round and Tractor Supply seems to get chicks starting in late spring/early summer. We also have a local farm store that I’ve bought chicks from. 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, but I’ve seen bloody feces and dead chicks in their brooders early in the morning so I just hesitate to buy chicks from my local Rural King.
I feel that some of the employees do not treat the little chick-a-dees well. 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.
My local farm store had great chicks and they’re very dedicated to the quality of life and products at their little store. They even have a rabbitry in the back, which is awesome!
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. These are the two stores we’ve purchased baby animals from:
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.
I’ve received healthy animals from both of the above businesses. The fact of the matter when shipping chicks are sometimes you lose one. Most companies will replace dead chicks, but be sure to check the policies before choosing who to use.
Also, remember, if you have fertilized eggs you can just hatch your own, which makes raising chicks every more fun!
What do I need in order to start raising chicks?
- The Brooder: Your brooder can be very simple or not. 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 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.
- The Heat Lamp: The heat lamp will be a special lamp you buy from a farm store or online. You’ll need a way to adjust the light closer or further from the chicks, and we’ll go over that in just a moment. I used to use a clear bulb and now I use a red bulb.
Using a red bulb heats your area up a little warmer and reduces the risk of your chicks picking their feathers or if wounded, pecking at the open wound. Some even say the red bulb reduces the likelihood of restless chicks. I can’t speak to whether it’s true or not, from my experiences.
Note: 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.
- The 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. Again, if you’re worried, you can always add a few pebbles in the trough to avoid the chick from submerging its head inside.
- A Spot for Food and Grit: In the link above for the waterer, it comes with a feed container also. I use the small, quart feeders and waterers when I have 10 chicks or less. I currently have 19 chicks in my brooder so 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 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, (it’s August) I turn the heat lamp off during the day and on at night, so they have the option to get under it.
Bonus Tip: When your chicks are resting, they’ll look almost dead. They’ll be laying on their side and all sprawled out. When beginning, I’d say definitely check them and make sure they’re not actually dead but also checking them will familiarize you with the actions of your new baby friends.
Will my chicks get sick?
I’ve only had one sick chick while raising chicks. The chick had bumblefoot and he got over it. I separated him, which you should always immediately do if you believe you have a sick animal. I 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 chicks waterer every time you fill it up, just be sure to not add too much! One thing I have had to deal with a few times is what we call “Pasty Butt” and it can be deadly.
This is when your chicks vent (where the stools, and eventually eggs, come out) becomes clogged with hard poo. The poo sticks to the chicks ‘downy’ feathers and they have no way of getting the hard poop off. As you might have already realized but this prevents the chick from pooping.
Pasty butt is common while raising 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.
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”!
How should I deal with pasty butt?
- Materials Needed:
Coconut Oil (Some use Vaseline or olive oil)
Pick up the chicks 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. Dip your Q-Tip in the 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 chicks 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 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.
- Symptoms include:
- 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. Make sure you have all the materials BEFORE getting home.
Have the food, water, and bedding in the brooder and have the light setup 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 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!
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