How to Care for New Chicks

If you want some tips on how to care for new chicks, this article will tell you the things you need to know. A lot of people have been buying new chicks lately. Everyone seems ready to have backyard chickens so they can have fresh eggs. I have raised baby chicks for 20 years and have some tips on how I do it.

There are certain things you need to know and do when bringing baby chicks home and how to take care of them. It is best to know these things before you bring them home to be prepared beforehand.

Where to get baby chicks

Farm Stores

Local farm supply stores or feed stores are probably the easiest way to obtain chicks. There are several places near where I live, such as Rural King, Tractor Supply, and Orsheln. Rural King seems to have the best variety of different breeds. Rural King also usually has a good selection of pullets. Pullets mean female chicks. If the selection is a straight run, it means the chicks are unsexed and there is no way to know how many roosters vs hens you will have.

Too many roosters is not a good thing. Everyone has different accepted ratios of hens per rooster, but in my opinion you should have at least 10 hens per rooster. If there are too few hens for each rooster, a hen can be mated too often, resulting in broken feathers, bare backs/necks, or even injuries. Also, if you have too many roosters they will fight, plus roosters are just noisy!

Mail Order from a Hatchery

Chicks can also be ordered from a hatchery and the chicks will be shipped to you. Hatcheries usually offer sexed chicks for many breeds. I ordered chicks last year and it worked out well. When you do have them shipped, you need to be able to pick them up at the post office, which I did. I live in a very small town, so it was pretty easy. They are shipped when they are day-old chicks. This is what my chicks looked like when they first arrived. I also had 4 turkeys and 4 ducks in the box.

mail order chicks in box
Baby chicks just arrived in the mail

When you receive chicks in the mail, there are special procedures that you should follow on the first day as detailed in this article from Cackle Hatchery, where I ordered my chicks from. Some instructions include putting warm water in their special chick waterer and dipping their beaks in the water before releasing them. The other instructions below will apply of course, including heat source and food.

Incubating Eggs

Another source to get chicks is to incubate eggs and hatch them yourself. I did this about 15 years ago and it was a lot of fun! I have heard good recommendations on this incubator the Nurtura 360. The downside to hatching your own chickens is you don’t know how many roosters that you may hatch.

There is a theory that the more rounded an egg is at the top the better chance that the egg will hatch a hen. I have no idea if it is true, but I have been picking eggs out that are more rounded and putting them aside to possibly incubate in the next few weeks. We may find out how good that theory actually is! Hatching eggs can be stored in the refrigerator for a period of time before placing them in an incubator. One thing to know though, is that there is no guarantee that the egg that you pick to hatch is actually fertilized.

Chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch, this fact and other steps for hatching eggs are included in this article.

Mother Hen Hatch Her Eggs

Another way to hatch eggs is from a broody hen. We have had many of our hens hatch chicks and it is such a great experience. A couple years ago, three of my bantam hens snuck away and hatched chicks. Here is a very cute picture of one of them

Mama hen four chicks
Mama Hen and Four Chicks

Set up a baby chick brooder

There are many ways to set up a baby chick brooder. This article from the website Backyard Chickens discusses many different possibilities, including plastic containers, totes, swimming pools, and dog crates. I have used a tote for a short period for chicks, but my favorite brooder is a cage, such as a rabbit cage. At first, I use small ones and as they get older, I graduate to bigger cages. It just seems easier to me to use these cages to raise the chicks in. One thing is that you do not have to worry about them flying out.

chicks in brooder
chicks in brooder

Use pine shaving as bedding at first

When I first bring baby chicks home, I use pine shavings as the bedding. It is important to use the large pine shavings, not the fine. Also do not use cedar shavings as they can be toxic to baby chickens. The main reason for pine shavings is that baby chicks need traction right after they are born for a few days, or they can easily develop splay leg or spraddle legs. It is caused by using a slick surface such as newspaper right away.

Splay Leg (also commonly called “Spraddle Leg”) is a condition that causes young chicks to have one or both of their legs slip to the side of their bodies twisted out from the hip, making it impossible for the bird to walk or even stand. For treatment of Splay leg check out this article.

Pine shavings are also absorbent. When cleaning, I just put the baby chickens in a tote, then dump the shavings in one of my gardens and replace with fresh bedding.

Another option to use is to use a paper towel on the bottom of the cage for the first few days.

Using pine shaves when chicks are very young.

After a couple days I use paper. You can use newspaper. I actually ordered shipping paper and it works great.

Chicks need heat!

There are 2 main ways to provide a heat source for little chicks. A heat lamp or a heat plate.

I use heat lamps. Chicks need the brooder to be 95 degrees Fahrenheit during the first week and 90 the second. Each week, move the heat lamp further away to drop the temperature five more degrees. Use the chick’s behavior as your guide. If they move from the heat lamp or lay down and pant when the thermometer says it should be the right temperature, it means they have too much heat and need to cool it down even more.

I usually use the clamp with the heat lamp to get the lamp closer to the chicks when they first arrive. Sometimes I put one on top and one on the side, the main thing is just to watch their behavior as stated. After a couple days, I go to one lamp and set it on top of the cage and make sure nothing is touching the actual light bulb.

Never put their water source or food under the heat, you want them to have room to be able to move out of the heat if they want.

By the time they feather out at six weeks of age, they’ll no longer need a heat lamp and can go outside if the weather is decent.

Provide Plenty of Clean Water

Make sure the chicks have a fresh water source at all times. I use the standard 1 quart waterer for chicks. These are great for chicks because they are shallow and the chicks cannot fall into them and drown. There are also similar jars that fit onto a mason jar. If you use a bigger water dish, make sure you place small stones in the bottom.

waterer for chicks
Chick waterer

Chicks waterers are very hard to keep clean and have to be changed constantly, especially when you have the pine shavings in the brooder. You can also give your chicks electrolytes in their water.

Special Food for Chicks

Chicks need chick starter food or called grower feed. It is sold in crumble form and is sold as medicated or nonmedicated form.

When selecting a chick starter feed, first look for an option that is complete. Complete starter feeds are formulated to provide all the nutrients needed in one package. Look for: high protein, 18%, to support early chick growth, vitamins and minerals for development and ingredients such as prebiotics, probiotics and yeast to support chick health.

Next choose between medicated and non-medicated. Medicated contains amprolium which is supposed to help prevent coccidiosis to an extent. Vaccinated chicks would not need medicated. There are many schools of thought regarding medicated or non-medicated and several articles that you can read and make your choice. I do know that game birds such as ducks and turkeys should not have medicated so if you are raising them together, you would definitely choose non-medicated.

Pasty Butt

Always keep a close eye on young chicks and check them frequently, especially for pasty butt. Check their bottoms several times a day.

Pasty butt, also known as “pasted butt” or “pasting up”, is when the vent hole of a chick (the place where poop comes out) becomes clogged up with hard (or ‘pasty’) stools.

The stools stick to the chick’s downy feathers and don’t come off by themselves. 

The best way I found to remove it is to hold the chick’s bottom under warm water from a faucet. Try not to get the whole chick wet, just the area. Rub on the material with a cotton ball or some toilet paper until it comes off. Do not pull it off as it will cause pain to the chick. After doing this, dry the chick with a towel and maybe use a blow dryer on low setting.

Causes of the pasty butt are normally stress or too cold or hot of temperatures. If your chicks keep getting pasty butt, adjust the temperature.

Older Chicks

When your chicks are older and feathered out, they are kind of in a transition stage between chicks and adults. My girls and I call them teenagers. We start with the babies inside in brooders and when it gets warmer we have cages in the garage with heat lamps. Heat lamps are used at night until we are sure they are ready to be without them and depending on how cold it is. I try not to get my chicks until at least April so they do not have to be inside as long.

During the day we transfer the chicks in totes to their play area outside, which is chicken wire held down with posts and garden stakes in a big circle around a tree to provide shade. Then we wait until dark and gather them up and put them back in the cages. We wait until dark, because the are much easier to catch! They are usually huddled together in one area.

Some fun pictures of the chicks in their outdoor play area.

Chicks in their play area
Chicks outside

Transitioning to the Outdoor Coop

When the chicks have grown to adult size, it is time to transition them to the adult chicken area. My adult chickens have a fenced run with a large chicken coop. I also have an enclosed large dog kennel that comes off the back of my coop. This is how I transition them so that the adults get used to them. I put them in the kennel for a few days. I don’t find that it takes long.

I think if you have at least 8 to 10 that go out at the same time that it helps and if they have a large run. It is a good idea to transition them somehow so that the older and younger hens can get used to each other before you introduce them. Chickens can be pretty mean and you really have to watch out for bullying!

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