Chick Raising 101
Chick Raising 101
By Lou Horton
Buy chicks or hatching eggs?
It is almost always less expensive to buy hatching eggs but there are drawbacks to getting started that way, especially for a novice. First, there is the problem of getting hatching eggs through the mail. The living germs of fertile eggs will not stand much jarring. A couple of drops along the way by postal people may be enough to kill the germs even if there is no exterior damage to the egg. They simply fail to develop and appear to be infertile.
Once the eggs arrive, then they must be incubated and that often presents a problem for the inexperienced poultry raiser. The temperature and humidity must be controlled carefully and incubator management is generally learned gradually (usually the hard way).
Even beyond the things previously mentioned, buying chicks gives the prospective poultry raiser a few additional advantages. First of all, the supplier is likely to have spotted and removed any chicks with obvious defects: bad legs, crooked toes, etc. In some breeds, some color defects can be spotted even in day old chicks (such as blue breeds which will throw black and silver chicks as well as blue ones).
For the first 4-6 weeks of their lives, chicks must be supplied with heat unless they are being raised by a broody hen in warm weather. The brooder is basically a box (or a circle) with a heat source which allows the chick to move closer to the heat or away from it. Heat lamps designed for the purpose are often used but for small groups of chicks, a 100 watt bulb suspended 6-8 inches above the chicks may suffice. How does one know when the heat is correct? Let the chicks tell you. If they huddle under the heat source, they need more heat. If they stay away from the heat source consistently, they are probably too hot. If they move easily in and out, the heat is about right.
Mason jar type waterers and feed pans shallow enough to be used by chicks are also necessary. For bantam chicks it may be necessary to put marbles in wide mouthed waterer bases because they must not be allowed to get into the water source. Within reason, the roomier a brooder is, the longer the group of chicks may inhabit it. Brooders which only supply perhaps six square inches of space per chick may only be adequate for a few days because chicks grow very fast. Their need for more floor space will naturally increase with their body size. Overcrowded chicks will not thrive as well and bad habits such as feather picking can sometimes develop due to overcrowding.
After the first few days, a mesh top should be provided for the brooder if it does not have one because the chicks will begin to grow wing feathers and will be able to fly out of the top.
Floors in brooders may be either solid or made of wire. Wire floors (with dropping trays underneath) are easier to keep clean but some people prefer solid floors bedded with shavings. Use only pine shavings because some other types of wood shavings can be toxic to the chicks.
It is important that young chicks in particular not be subjected to drafts but they should have good access to fresh air.
The appropriate feed for chicks from day one until at least 8 weeks of age is a medicated "start & grow" feed. It is fortified with all the nutrients that they require, comes in crumblized form which is easy for them to eat, and it protects them from the one disease that kills more chicks every year than all others combined: Coccidiosis. Note: as of 1/1/2017, chick feed containing a coccidiostat will not be available. It is imperative, there to keep a water soluble for of Amprolium on hand as a preventative and treatment. After 8 weeks of age, it is OK to put them on a feed which is somewhat lower in protein content. Start & Grow is usually 18-20% and the grower feeds are usually about 16% protein. Unless they are allowed to range outside, they should be supplied with fine grit to aid them in digestion. Of course, fresh, clean water is to be available at all times. Avoid scratch grains as the primary feed as it is too low in nutrients. White chickens should not be fed corn if they are to be shown as it will give the plumage of white birds a yellow cast.
Weeds and grass clippings are usually enjoyed as a treat but they must not have been treated with insecticides or herbicides.
Housing past the brooder stage
Chicks will outgrow their original brooder space within a couple of weeks due to their rapid growth rate. The raiser must anticipate this and have roomier quarters prepared in advance. Most go the route of putting the chicks in a floor pen in an outbuilding. Such buildings must allow for heat to be supplied for a few weeks more even if the weather is getting warmer and heat may be necessary only at night. One of the most important features of growing quarters is that it be predator proof. That means protection from not only raccoons but also mink, feral cats, etc. I cannot stress too much how important this is. One visit by a predator can destroy an entire flock in a matter of minutes.
A shed with an attached run is ideal so that older chicks can benefit from the sunshine (on nice days) and so they can have access to grass/weeds/bugs. If at all possible, a solid or wire top for the pen is wise as it will protect the chicks from hawks during the day and owls after dark on those occasions when their keeper arrives late to close them in for the night.
Protecting chicks from parasites
Once the chicks have grown past their downy stage and have been coated in their first actual feathers, they become susceptible to external parasites, namely mites and lice. A good remedy is to sprinkle Sevin powder into their litter about once per week. An alternative would be to use a spray under the wings at the tail vent of each bird every couple of weeks. Internal parasites such as round worms can be prevented by worming the birds one or two times per year. The medication is usually dissolved in their drinking water and then repeated in 10 days.
Separating males from females
At some point, (usually at about 3 months- 4 months of age) the young males will begin to squabble among themselves and to mate the young females. The more confined and crowded the birds are, the sooner such behavior is likely. At the least, the males should be provided with separate pens from the females at that time. If one is concerned that the squabbling among the males may get serious, it may be necessary to provide the most aggressive males and/or the ones to be shown an individual pen so that feathers/ combs, etc. are not damaged. It is almost never a good idea to mix adult chickens with growing young ones unless they are family units. When penning young males together, I do find it useful to add a cock bird who normally will "keep the peace" by smacking around the cockerels when they get rowdy.
Preparing the chickens for the show
One thing which most people learn early on is that it is much easier to keep the chickens clean by providing clean bedding which is changed regularly and by keeping the birds away from mud than it is to wash them and get stained feathers clean.
The topic of preparing birds for show is an extensive one and I have written a separate article to deal with that subject. Under the "Getting Started" tab on this web site you will find an article titled "Ashbrook's notes on fitting birds for shows" I believe that you will find the many tips there to be quite useful.
Originally published: 04-20-2011
Last updated: 12-03-2016