Raising Baby Chicks


I was just wondering if you could lend some tips on raising chickens because I am going to raise them as part of a school project. Thanks, Adam


There are many reasons why you might consider raising chickens. Perhaps you would like your own source of fresh eggs or meat, pest control for your garden, or free fertilizer. For kids of all ages showing birds can be a great hobby. But chickens are not a short term project. They require time, food, water and housing. You'll need to provide them with a coop and a fenced area where they can have access to fresh air and grass.

The first step is to decide what breed of chicken you would like to raise. If you are growing them for eggs or meat, there are breeds especially for those purposes. But if you just want bug and weed control in your garden along with some free fertilizer, any breed will do. Also consider the amount of space you have available to house the chickens. Some breeds are better suited for urban situations. I raise bantam chickens in my city garden. They are smaller than a standard bird so they are ideal for the small coop. If you want to show your birds at a poultry show you will definitely need to do some homework in choosing a breed and learn the points necessary to make a great show bird. Once you have selected your breed, you will need to prepare for the arrival of the new babies.

1. Chicks should be kept indoors or in a heated brooder house until they are well feathered, which takes about 5 – 8 weeks of age. The size of the brooder depends on how many chicks there are. You will need to have enough room for food and water dispensers and areas where the chicks can move around and lie down to sleep. Plan for 1/4 square foot for each new chick up to 1 month old. Set up, clean and disinfect the area where the chicks are going to reside. Lysol is a good disinfectant to use. Use a plant mister to get the disinfectant into all the cracks and crevices.

Keep in mind that as they grow, you will need to be able to expand their space. After 30 days double their space until they can be moved outdoors into the coop, which is usually after about 60 days. If you don't have a formal brooder, use a cardboard box with walls about 2 feet high. The chicks will need good ventilation to keep their surroundings dry and be in an area free from drafts. They are very curious birds so your box will need a screen on top to prevent the chicks from hopping out and predators from getting in, including the family cat or dog. Keep in mind when choosing a location for your chicks that they create a tremendous amount of very fine dust as they grow so you probably will not want them in the kitchen.

2. The brooder can be heated by using a 100 watt light bulb with a reflector or an infrared lamp. This should be placed on top to one side so the chicks can choose whether or not to be under it. A thermometer is helpful as the temperature should be 95 – 100 degrees F for the first couple of weeks, and then be gradually reduced by 5 degrees each week thereafter until reaching 70 degrees and they have their feathers. If you do not have a thermometer look for signs that they are too hot. They will move away from the light, spread their wings for ventilation and pant. If they are too cold, they will huddle together in a ball under the light. Plan to be able to adjust the temperature by moving the light closer or further away or increasing or decreasing the wattage of the bulb. You can also cover the box or cage with a cloth to retain heat and keep some of the dust under control. Be careful not to have the light so close to the bottom that it can burn the chicks or the bedding. Also make sure the floor is not too cold. If necessary you can layer cardboard underneath the box for insulation.

3. Add bedding. The bottom of your brooder will need to have clean litter to catch the droppings. If using newspaper to line the bottom you can spread paper towels over it so it is not slippery. A slippery floor can cause their developing feet to be deformed. You can also add wood shavings, finely chopped straw, peat moss, sand or shredded newspaper. With the newspaper liner on the bottom it is easy to roll up the old bedding when laying down fresh. It is probably best not to use wood shavings or straw until they learn what their food is. Whichever litter you choose make sure that you have plenty so you can change it daily. Never allow the bedding to remain damp or dirty. Sanitation is extremely important and most problems with chicks can be avoided with proper sanitation. Also, make sure that everyone always washes their hands after handling the chicks or working in the brooder.

4. Provide food and water. The chicks must always have clean water. Use a dispenser that is small enough that they cannot get into the water and drown and has a broad enough bottom that will not tip over. If needed, you can put clean marbles in the tray to help keep the chicks out. Chicks instinctively peck at whatever is at their feet, so initially you want them to be able to walk around in their food tray. Put the feed in a shallow cardboard flat bowl or box approximately 2 inches high. Do not allow the feed to get wet. If it does get wet, replace it with dry feed. After about 3 days you can switch to a feeder designed to keep the chicks out. You will have to clean the food and water dispensers every day, maybe even twice a day. You will have to buy a special food for chicks called starter or crumbles. It is specially made to have all the nutrients they need for proper health. You can purchase this feed plain or medicated. If you choose the non-medicated food you will need to pay much stricter attention to cleanliness and sanitation so your chicks do not get coccidiosis, which is a parasite found in chick droppings that can make the chicks very sick.

5. When the chicks are about a month old, add a low roost about 4 inches off the floor. This can be something as simple as a wooden dowel. The chicks will jump on it and may begin sleeping there. Do not put the roost directly under the light. Place bedding under the roost for absorption of droppings. After 6 weeks you can switch from starter feed to pullet grower feed until they are about 4 months old at which time they can be put on regular layer feed. A pullet is a female chick less than a year old and a cockerel is a male chicken less than a year old.

6. Your chicks will need a supply of grit for digestion if they are fed anything other than starter or crumbles. You can purchase chick sized granite grit through your feed store. Oyster shell is not grit nor should you give oyster shell to chicks. Once they are old enough to go outdoors, they will probably get enough grit foraging in the dirt.

7. When the chicks begin to feather they can be put outside for short periods of time on warm days. Make sure that they are enclosed and that you constantly monitor them. It doesn't take a curious chick very long to get into trouble checking out some place he shouldn't be. They will scratch in the dirt and forage for things to eat.

8. You can put a small container of fine sand in the brooder for them to dust in and for grit. Dusting is what chickens do to help keep themselves clean and free of mites and lice and it is fun to watch. They will dig a hole and immerse themselves, rolling around trying to get as dirty as possible.

Now you are completely set up and ready for the new babies. Turn on the heat lamp at least a day before your chicks arrive to make sure the disinfectant is completely dry and the area is heat soaked. Fill the dispensers with fresh feed and water. When the chicks arrive, pick up each chick, dip his/her beak lightly into the water and set them in the food tray. This orients them to where the water is and what their food is. Check on them frequently to make sure they are not too hot or too cold, that their food and water are clean and whether their litter needs changing. When you are around them, move slowly so as not too frighten them. If they are frightened, they can run into a big pile and sometimes a chick can get trampled or suffocate. If you are like me, you will find yourself fascinated by the antics of these new little birds and spend hours watching them.

Things to watch for:
Pasting – Sometimes chicks have a problem with what is called 'pasting. This is where the vent area (or rear end) becomes covered with hardened droppings. Check for this often and use a moistened towel to clean it off. The white paste surrounding the droppings is the urine. Suspect coccidiosis if you see blood in the droppings and call your vet.

Coccidiosis – Disinfectants are not effective against coccidia, so sanitation is of the utmost importance. You can hang water and feed dispensers or put them on wire covered platforms at a height level with the backs of the birds so they cannot defecate or scratch litter into them. Use anti-roosting wires to prevent them from roosting on the feeders and water dispensers and keep these clean at all times. Change litter frequently and keep the feeders full as chicks that are foraging and scratching among the droppings can ingest these parasites.

Mix roosters into the main flock when they are 8 weeks old so they will not be picked on or considered a threat by the older roosters.
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