A MINIMALIST GUIDE TO RAISING BABY CHICKS
If you don’t count that one time I put the kids in charge of egg-collecting duties and we had a surprise hatching of baby chicks in our coop, I believe this is my fifth round of baby chickens I’ve raised from day-old chicks to happy, successful egg-layers. Of course this in no way makes me an expert, but it does mean I’m no longer reading every website and book I can get my hands on, stressing about heat lamp height and brooder temperatures, medicated feed and coccidiosis. Raising baby chicks can be overwhelming and intimidating your first time, but I’m here to help you wade through all the information and give you the need-to-know facts.
I’ve raised chickens in my bathroom, my mudroom and now–my living room. And after all these years, I think I would call myself a chick farmer minimalist. I figured out exactly what I need to worry about and what I generally don’t. And I’ve learned what supplies I absolutely need and which are just “extras”. Last week, Elizabeth’s birthday present was a new batch of 6 baby chicks. We drove an hour away to find the ones we wanted–Buff Orpingtons and Rhode Island Reds–both of which are known for being gentle and good layers. (We also have a soft spot for Barred Rocks, but they were sold out.)
So I thought my chief chicken assistant and I would put together our Minimalist’s guide to raising chicks. If you want to get chicks but feel intimidated or overwhelmed, don’t! I promise it’s not as difficult as it sounds. It’s not overwhelming and they really are quite fun to take care of. We keep our chicks in the house until they out-grow the large tub we keep them in, which also coincides with warmer temperatures, their feathers coming in and their ability to be outside without the need for a heat lamp.
HERE IS OUR APPROACH–SIMPLIFIED + SCALED DOWN:
THE MINIMALIST’S GUIDE TO RAISING BABY CHICKS
WHERE TO GET YOUR CHICKS:
Most feed mills and farm supply stores will begin to carry chicks in early spring. You can also find them online from hatcheries, but will often have to buy a larger number of chicks in order to place an order. Oftentimes, you can also find local farmers or homesteaders who will sell chicks–check craigslist or local ag newspapers.
TERMS YOU SHOULD KNOW:
Straight run: This means that the chicks have not been checked to see if they are male or female, so you may end up with roosters or hens.
Pullet: This is a young hen, not yet old enough to lay eggs. Pullets will generally cost a few dollars more than a straight run. (FYI: Although you may be buying pullets, this is not always guaranteed. I’ve had a few surprises!)
SUPPLIES YOU’LL NEED:
- Large tub or trough: I have kept my chicks in large storage tubs, galvanized tubs and livestock water troughs. Choosing their home will depend upon how many chicks you purchase and the space you have, if you’re keeping them indoors. Remember, they grow quickly and once they have feathers will begin to flap and jump out of their container, so tall sides, or a screen for the top are helpful.
- Litter or bedding: We use mini-flake shavings (like sawdust) but you want something absorbent. I do not recommend using newspapers because it is too slippery when they are little.
- Heat lamp with clamp and bulb: This will be used for the first few weeks to keep them warm. Find a bulb for indoor use, and my preference is a red bulb vs. clear. The red light makes them less apt to pick and peck at each other.
- Chicken waterer: I like the one-gallon size and don’t recommend using a pan or bowl for cleanliness and safety reasons.
- Chicken feeder: They love to scratch in their food, so a slotted feeder helps to keep their feed clean and accessible. The one in the video can also be screwed to a glass canning jar and allows food to drop down into the feeder.
- Medicated chick feed “crumble”: I recommend starting your chicks on medicated crumbles because it helps prevent coccidiosis. I usually start with a 25-pound bag.
SETTING THEM UP:
Before you pick up the chicks, set up their home. You’ll want to have your feed and water separate from each other, and keep your water as far as possible from the heat lamp so it doesn’t get warm. I’m a bit of a worrier about the heat lamp falling into their pen, so a few years ago, I created a tripod with three gardening stakes that allows me to hang and clamp the heat lamp safely and securely. I spread the tripod legs out over their tub, like I’m setting up a teepee (this year, I put one of the three legs inside the tub because the sides were so tall), then I hang the lamp by it’s cord from the center of the tripod and put one loop over the tripod to hold it tight if it should drop or slip. And I also clamp the heat lamp to one of the tripod legs, over the chickens. You can get an idea for how I set it up below:
KEEPING THEM WARM:
This is the part that can get overwhelming if you’ve been doing lots of reading. The general advice is that in the warmest part of their pen, the temperature should be between 90-95°. This should be reduced by 5° each week until they have grown their feathers (about 5-8 weeks old). But here’s the easiest way to keep them at the right temperature: Watch them. If you notice the chicks are tightly huddled directly under the heat lamp, they are probably feeling cold. Move your lamp a little lower to give them more warmth. If they are spread out, staying out of the lamp, it is probably too close and should be moved farther away from the bottom of their pen. By observing their behavior, you’ll be able to provide the best conditions for their health, warmth and well-being. You’ll be able to tell when they are comfortable and happy.
KEEPING THEM HEALTHY AND SAFE:
Cleanliness is key with chicks. Give them fresh water and feed daily. Keep their bedding clean and dry. And pay attention to their bottoms. Yes, that’s right. One thing to watch out for is clogged poop on their bottoms. Just remove it gently with a warm, damp cloth and apply a little vaseline ointment, if they need it. I have NEVER had this problem, but felt like I should at least mention it.
KEEPING THEM HAPPY:
Chicks are ridiculously energetic, curious and fun. You’ll be surprised how quickly little personalities will emerge and you’ll fall in love. A few times a day my girls will take them all out of the pen and let them run around the living room floor, sit on their chests while they watch television and eventually, we’ll even take them outside the explore in the green grass on warm days. We will also start calling to them when we feed them. Our classic “heeeree chick-chick-chick” starts now so that they start to recognize our voices and know it means it’s time to eat. There have been many instances where the chickens were outside roaming free and we’ve spied a predator and needed to get them in the coop quickly. Using that call (and banging on their feed pans) sends them running to the coop where we can safely tuck them away. The more time you spend with them now, the calmer and more enjoyable they’ll be when they grow up.
WHEN YOU CAN MOVE THEM OUTSIDE:
Once they are fully feathered and the daytime and evening temperatures are milder, we move them out to the chicken coop for good. This usually also coincides with the week I start finding them jumping out of their pen, perched on the sofa, or I reach the end of my patience for a large tub of chickens in my living room. Your location, the length of your spring and your evening temps will determine when you can move them outside.
Of course my minimalist approach is in no way meant to replace good research and “studying up” before you take on the task of raising chickens. Adding any animal to your home should come with forethought and preparation. My approach and this post is simply meant to encourage you to go for it and not feel intimidated by the idea of raising your own chicks. There’s not much like the experience of caring for these tiny little balls of fluff and the joy and pleasure that comes with eventually collecting that first egg!
Any questions? Leave a comment or shoot me an email! And don’t miss our fun video with this year’s chicks!