So you bought your incubator and you put in 12 or 18 eggs. After 21 excruciating days, you miraculously have a 100-percent hatch rate. Your little chicks are peeping at you and looking at you, almost if saying “Mama.”
Believe it or not, raising baby chicks is a lot easier than you might think. It just requires constant attention.
After 48 hours from hatch, they can be removed from the incubator. Chances are, the little ones are going to frantically run away from you — they are, after all, chickens.
Once you grab one, be very gentle and be sure to have your hand around their entire body so their wings are pinned down. If you don’t, they will start flapping and cause a ruckus, which can inadvertently break their wings or cause you to drop them. I have had instances where chicks have literally run to my hand when I put it in the incubator.
Once you have them out, it’s time to transfer them to their brooder. A brooder is essentially where they’re going to stay until they grow and get some feathers. It does not need to be anything spectacular. For my brooder, my dad and I took my old, wooden toy box and cleared it out.
Tim Lehman, owner of Agway stores in Mechanicsburg and Nescopeck, provided some alternative options.
“The easiest thing to do is to start out with a cardboard box, (and) keep it heated inside with the heat light,” he said.
For those looking for something from the store, Lehman explained there are plenty of options on the market. From plastic brooders for a handful of chicks to a steel brooder that can accommodate 600.
For the first week, the brooder needs to be kept at 95 degrees Fahrenheit. For every following week, drop the temperature by 5 degrees. A few thermometers will help gauge the temperature.
We installed a light on the one side of our brooder, which had a steel grate for one of its walls. Depending on the temperature, hard plastic paneling could be added to ensure the temperature was just right.
Chicks will give you some signs if they are too hot or too cold. If they are too hot, they will begin panting and move as far away from the heat as possible. If too cold, they will huddle together.
The type of heat light you use also can vary. We have always used a red, 250-watt heat lamp for a number of reasons. It seems to be more consistent with its distribution of heat, and I have been taught that the red bulbs deter chicks from pecking each other. Lehman agreed and said a typical 100-watt bulb simply will not create the heat that is necessary.
A layer of bedding should go down inside the brooder. For an easier clean up, my dad and I would place a black garbage bag under the bedding. When it came time to change it, we just pulled the black bag up with all the dirty contents.
While newspaper can be used, Lehman discouraged using it since it can be a slippery surface for chicks to walk on. Slippery surfaces can cause chicks to developed splayed legs, which can be a crippling condition.
“The best bedding that I’ve found is ordinary pine shavings,” he said. “They need a surface that’s cushioned and easy to walk on.”
Somewhere in the brooder, it’s also a good idea to put a small roosting pole inside the brooder. Though not necessary, chicks will naturally begin climbing onto it and sleeping on it.
It might even keep them from roosting on their feed and water containers. Don’t count on it, though.
Feed and water
Feed is relatively inexpensive for young chicks. If you go to any farmer’s market or farm retail store, chicks will need starter feed for the first few weeks. That’s a special mash containing protein and nutrients to help the little ones grow.
Lehman also recommended starter feed and discouraged giving the chicks treats or scratch grain. Though tempting to spoil them with treats, he said they would not get the nutrients and protein they need.
Water is particularly important, as little chicks will drink a lot. Be prepared to change the water at least two or three times a day, as chicks will do their business everywhere.
This is also an area about chicks that strikes me as highly bizarre. Chicks come from a naturally moist environment inside of their egg. After they hatch, they continue to have the instinct to return to that moist environment — and to them, their drinking water is the perfect place. They will instinctively want to submerge their heads in the water, which will result in them drowning.
Fortunately, this bizarre behavior can be prevented with a cheap bag of marbles or stones that would be placed at the bottom of an aquarium. Put down a layer of either of those in their water dish so they can still drink, but can’t submerge themselves in the water.
Also, a little parental instruction is needed to teach the little ones where their food and water is. Take one or two chicks and (gently) dip their beaks in the water. Before you know it, the rest of your flock will know exactly what to do.
Other things to look for
Though I have not seen it firsthand, disease can quickly wipe out a grown flock of chickens. Baby chicks are just as, if not more, vulnerable.
After you move chicks from the brooder to the coop (at about five to six weeks, weather depending), it is important to disinfect the brooder before incubating again. Before and after you handle your chicks, be sure to wash those hands to be safe.
Lehman said hand washing is particularly important if you have handled somebody else’s chickens. If you’re getting chicks from a hatchery, he recommended ensuring it reputable, as they typically will test them for diseases.
“Generally, you don’t need to vaccinate, and actually, most of the hatcheries — will vaccinate when the chicks are hatched,” he said.
Another mild condition to be mindful of is a condition called “pasting.” As the chicks do their business, it is possible that they might develop a hard crust of nasty stuff on their behind. This will actually prevent them from voiding, which will kill them. Should this happen, gently take the chick and run the crusty part under warm water. It should give way and begin to come off.
Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to pull it off.
It always amazes me how much work can go into what I thought were simple animals. Each chick tends to have a different personality — while one might be explorative, another might be laid back.
I have had some chirp loudly when I leave as if to call me back, while others have pecked my hand as I tried to pick them up. The incredible dynamics of these animals are what appealed to Lehman as well.
“They’re very easy to raise,” he said. “They’re fun to raise. They have personalities.”
After about five or six weeks, those chicks will be feathered enough to be sent out into the coop. After a few more weeks, roosters might begin to crow. A few more weeks down the road, hens will begin to lay eggs.
Once they do, you’re in perfect shape to take those eggs and start the process over again.