chick care guide
Chicks are wonderful additions to any farm or homestead and are such a welcome sign of spring!
For those of you who have never raised chicks before you are in for such a wonderful surprise… learning just how much fun raising your own flock of chickens right from chicks can be! For those of you who have raised chicks before, this guide may offer you a few new tips and tricks!
We will cover the basics about what your chicks need and how to care for them but if you ever have any further questions then please do not hesitate to contact us and ask, ask, ask away!
Ready? Great! Here we go…!
Your little bundles need heat. Although their baby fluff is cute and fuzzy and great to snuggle, it doesn’t keep them very warm. They will need a heat lamp until they feather out (between 4 and 8 weeks). They will require a heat lamp for longer in the colder months and shorter in the warmer months.
Your heat lamp should hang roughly 18 inches from the ground. If you bought a brooder kit then the walls of the brooder kit are a good guide as they are usually 18 inches high. With each week and as they grow you can raise the heat lamp accordingly. Usually a few inches per week. If you find your chicks all huddling together under the heat lamp (other than when they are sleeping! They love snuggling while they sleep!) then your brooder is too cold and the heat lamp needs to be lowered. On the other hand, if you find that they are hanging out as far away from the heat lamp as possible then it is too warm and you need to raise it up.
Please be sure your heat lamp is secure so that you avoid having it fall down onto your babies!
In addition to a heat lamp your chicks will need a brooder. This can be anything from a brooder kit that you buy at your local feed store to a cardboard box or plastic tote (the tote can be easily cleaned and the cardboard box easily replaced, it’s a personal choice! I prefer to use the brooder kits as they are easy to fold up and store and easy to clean).
When your chicks are small they don’t require a lot of space but just keep in mind that they will grow quickly and you may need to adjust the size of your brooder to fit your growing gang.
I usually keep them in the brooder for a few weeks but once they get too big for it then you can take the walls down (but keep the heat lamp up) so that they can run around their coop and come back to the heat as they need it. Once they reach about 8 weeks old you can even give them some outside time in your yard as long as the weather is warm (around 15-20 degrees Celsius). For their own safety, please be sure to lock them up in the coop at night though!
The right kind of feed is vital to the well-being of your babies. We feed all of our chicks a Chick Starter by Masterfeeds but there are lots of other great brands out there! Whatever feed you do choose to feed your chicks make sure it is fresh and not stale or mouldy. You can check the production date of the feed on the tag located on the bottom of the bag. It will read something like 20170329. This is the year (2017), month (03) and day (29) that it was mixed and bagged on. Try not to feed your chicks anything older than three months old as it starts to go stale after that. Just check the bottom of the bag before you buy it and you are good to go. I always try to be an advocate for fresh feed. Sometimes a feed store will try to sell off older bags of feed to make room for the newest batch. Just ask for a newer bag if you find what they are offering is older than 3 months. If you get your feed home and find that it is stale or moldy, take it back! Your local feed store will happily replace it for you :) It is up to you to be on the ball and be your own flock's advocate - don't be afraid to ask questions and request the best quality for your feathered friends!
You may also choose to offer your chicks some grit (called chick grit) as this can help them to digest their food. As chickens don’t have teeth they reply on grit (like course sand) to help them mash up their food so that it can be properly digested. Most chick starter is easily digestible and your chicks will not require additional grit but you are still welcome to offer it! Once your birds start foraging outside they will find their own grit naturally on the ground (small stones and pebbles) so there won't be a need to continue offering it if they are foraging outside!
Just as clean water is important for us, it is just as important for your chicks. Their waterer should be rinsed and refreshed once a day or more often if needed. I like to add a splash of Apple Cider Vinegar (the kind with the mother still in it) once a week. The mother is the sediment that settles at the bottom of the jar. This can be purchased at health food stores. The ACV that you can buy at the grocery store doesn’t contain any mother and won’t have the positive benefits that the more natural brands will. Apple Cider Vinegar helps to keep their pH in balance as well as aiding in the prevention of internal parasites.
You can also buy electrolytes at your local feed store and add that to the water once a week to give them a boost of vitamins. Their small chick waterers will only require a pinch of electrolyte powder; however, when they get bigger and graduate on to larger waterers (like the 3 gallon hanging waterers) you can increase it to a teaspoon.
Whether you decide to infuse their water with ACV or electrolytes or not the most important thing is that they always have clean and fresh water! Be sure to wash their waterer once a week as well to keep it fresh and clean!
Pine shavings and only pine shavings will do. You should line their brooder (and coop once they are older) with pine shavings as they not only smell nice but they absorb liquids and odors. NEVER use cedar shavings as they contain oils that are very harmful to chickens. I would not recommend buying your shavings at a pet store as they only sell small packages and they are very expensive! Your local feed store will have large bundles of shavings (77 litre bundles) for less than $10. This is definitely the way to go as you will go through a lot of shavings!
Hay is for horses, straw is cheaper. You might be familiar with this saying (or not!) but it’s a good one to remember. Hay is for eating and straw is for bedding. Chickens do not eat hay. Do not give them hay. As they are not ruminants (like cows, horses and goats) they cannot digest the long fibres of hay and will get impacted crops and fall ill.
You need to find a good source of straw and use that for bedding. Usually a local farmer is your best bet to find straw as it is not something feed stores carry. I like to put down shavings with straw on top as their bedding. Use only shavings when they are small, once they get bigger you can add some straw for bedding on top. Straw can be slippery when they are small and they might have a hard time walking on it and they can develop leg issues as a result.
Be sure the shavings and straw that you purchase are not moldy. Moldy bedding will make your lovelies sick.
When I refresh my coops I like to lay down fresh shavings and leave the bale of straw intact (cut the strings holding it together but don’t spread it) and your chickens will have a ball scratching at and spreading the straw themselves. This makes for hours of entertainment!
**Tips As They Grow**
Chick starter – hatch until 8 weeks old
Chick grower – 8 to 16 weeks
Layer – 16 weeks +
Most feed stores sell a chick starter/grower - this is a dual purpose feed which will sustain your chicks through their starting and growing stages. We feed our chicks a Starter/Grower by Masterfeeds which has always produced great results!
Your girls should start laying between 20 and 24 weeks – usually closer to 24 – and your hens and rooster can eat the same feed at all stages!
*Crushed Oyster Shell*
Once you put your birds on layer you need to offer them crushed oyster shell in a separate dish. This provides them with the extra calcium they need to lay eggs with nice strong shells. This can also be purchased at your feed store.
Would you prefer to make your own source of calcium? For free? Great! I've got a secret to share...egg shells! Yep, all those glorious eggs your girls are nourishing you with can nourish them too! Crack your eggs for breakfast, lunch, dinner or baking and save those shells! Put all your shells on a baking sheet in the oven at 350F for 10 minutes. When the timer goes off turn off the oven but leave the egg shells in the oven for another 20 to 30 minutes as the oven cools down. Take them out, let them cool completely and crush them up! Then they are ready for your girls to enjoy :) Easy peasy and free!
Yes, unfortunately it sometimes happens. One of your birds gets sick…what do you do? Personally, I cull. At the first sign of illness I cull the sick bird to prevent whatever they have from spreading. In my experience this is the only method that works. I’ve tried medicating but it has never worked. This is a very personal decision though. Some people will go to the ends of the earth to try and help a sick chicken but that involves a lot of expense and the outcome is rarely positive. Please keep in mind that it is easier to replace one sick chicken than a whole flock. If you ever have any questions about a possible illness in your flock please do not hesitate to contact me :)
Injury is very different from illness. Whereas illnesses can be hard, if not impossible, to cure, injuries can often be healed. I always try to help an injured bird (unless it is a very bad injury and they are clearly suffering). Always keep a bottle of Blu Kote on hand to spray on any open wounds. It is a disinfectant as well as a way of covering up the blood. Chickens love the colour red. They will peck at anything red. They also love the taste of blood. If one of your birds gets injured and is bleeding the other chickens will start pecking at the blood and will potentially peck your injured chicken to death. That’s why it is very important to spray open wounds with Blu Kote. It does stain though so don’t wear your best coat into the barn! After I have treated an injured bird I like to separate them from the flock until they have healed. I do this especially if it is a larger wound. It gives them time and space to heal. If it is a small wound then you can try to put them right back into the coop but do keep an eye on them to make sure they are not being pecked on.
Mmm… who doesn’t like a chicken dinner? We humans do! But so do many other types of animals! Foxes, hawks, coyotes, mink, fishers, badgers, raccoons and dogs also love a fresh chicken dinner. Snakes, skunks and rats may not eat your chickens but they love to steal and eat their eggs! Please make sure you protect your girls and boys from being someone else’s meal. A secure and enclosed run and coop work wonderfully. You can let them out to free range under your direct supervision but turn your back and poof! One of them might just disappear. Predators are incredibly sly and will happily spend all day and night plotting how to get their hands (or paws!) on your birds as soon as your turn your back. Many predators hunt during the day, not just at night, so never let your guard down!
Though they won’t eat your birds they may bite them and can spread disease and injury this way. Be sure to keep your coop and run secure from rats and mice. If you have an outdoor cat they will do an excellent job of keeping the rodent population in check! Our barn cats are wonderful little workers and often come to us bearing a mousy treat just to show us what a good job they are doing! They always get a good snuggle and a little treat for their job well done! I personally have never had an issue with our cats bothering the chickens. Or the chicks for that matter! Our cats love sitting by the chicks and keeping their eyes on them (out of protection, not meal planning!). This being said, before letting your cat frolic unsupervised with your birds make sure he/she is well behaved and understands that these birds are friends, not dinner!
Keep all chicken feeders off the floor (hanging them from the ceiling is a great way to keep them out of rodent reach!) and avoid feed spillage as this attracts rodents. Keep your coop clean and check often for holes and/or tunnels. Tend to repairs asap! This will keep your birds safe and cozy :)
It is also a good idea to keep your bags of feed off the floor. We like to use pallets to store our feed bags on. Another idea would be to pour your feed directly into a feed bin (Rubbermaid garbage bins make wonderful feed bins!) so that rodents can't chew holes in your feed bags to get at that tasty meal! If you do happen to find holes chewed in your feed bags then move them right away! If you can't keep rodents away from your feed then keep your feed away from them! Try storing it in a different building or in your house to avoid rodents finding your secret hiding spot!
The most common external parasites are lice and mites.
Lice are really not as big of a deal as you may fear! Any chicken who is spending time outside is likely going to come in contact with lice. These mainly come from wild birds who like to visit your lovelies. Fear not, a good dust bath will help your girls and boys rid themselves of these unwanted parasites. Making sure that your chickens always have access to a dust bath will keep them clean, by keeping them dirty! In the warmer weather your chickens will happily dig in the dirt outside and roll around in it but in the winter, when dirt is hard and frozen and buried under two feet of snow, you can place a large tub in their coop and fill it with dirt (saved from the summer!), DE or ashes! We love giving our birds wood ash from a wood burning stove as it is great for dust bathing in and the charcoal bits are really healthy for them to eat!
Mites are a much more difficult issue to deal with but luckily not as common. It may involve having to treat your chickens with medication and clean out and sanitize your entire coop.
Internal parasites may also require the use of medication to eradicate.
Last, but not least…treats! Only healthy treats will do!
Dos: fruit, veggies, greens, meat, seeds, dried meal worms, rice, pasta, yogurt, kefir, eggs (hard boiled and scrambled are favs!). Marigolds, comfry and chamomile are also great treats for chickens!
Don’ts: junk food, fried food, rhubarb stems or leaves, avocado, citrus fruits, coffee grinds, too much bread (a little occasionally is ok but definitely don’t overdo it!)
I always keep a scrap bin in my fridge where I put all the odds and ends from our kitchen to feed to my birds. I often feed them sunflower seeds, dried meal worms, hard boiled eggs and kefir. These are my favourite goodies to feed them. Only feed dairy products once a week though as too much will give them the runs!
Don’t feed your chicks too many treats in the beginning. Some scrambled egg is great as are fresh greens but until they are full grown keep the treats mainly to fresh greens and scrambled eggs. Do not feed dairy until they are laying age either as too much calcium when they are small can cause kidney failure.
And NEVER feed chicks layer feed (for the same reason as listed above). If you happen to run out of chick starter and can’t get any for a few days then feeding them scrambled eggs works perfectly! In fact, before feed stores started carrying chick starter (or any type of chicken feed), farmers would feed their babies scrambled eggs as they are full of protein (and chicks need lots of protein to grow big and strong!)
There are lots of websites that list treat dos and don’ts if you ever have a question about a certain food. Or, of course, you can always ask me!
I think I’ve covered just about everything I can think of right now! Again, if you ever have any questions (no matter how silly you think they might be!) please do not hesitate to call or email me for advice! I’m always happy to help!
I hope you enjoy your new venture with chicks (and chickens) and feel free to send me updates! I love seeing how our lovelies are thriving in their new homes :)