Raising Hens from Chicks

Baby Chicken

4-day old baby chick

Raising chickens turned out to be a lot more fun than I imagined. I was a bit nervous at first because we were venturing into the unknown, but after a few months I realized it wasn’t going to be difficult. In fact, as they got older, the easier it got.

Five years ago we bought our first batch of six pullets. All survived the first 4 years, but one by one they started dieing off for unknown reasons. No signs of distress, disease or injury. In fact, two of them just died on the spot. I think it might have been heart attacks, which from what I’ve read online, is very common in chickens. I think it’s the #1 cause of death, specifically in the fast growing breeds. The other two got very lethargic a couple days before they died. Really don’t know what happened to them, but they actually looked very healthy up until they died.

Anyhow, we now have two left and they are about 6 years old. But since we had so much fun raising and collecting the eggs, we decided to get six more. This blog entry will talk about what we do to raise our chicks when they’re only a few days old to when they’re old enough to be in the coop outside. I won’t focus on the different chicken breeds in this posting. That’s entirely too long a topic and to be honest, I don’t really have a whole lot of information on the advantages of the different breeds. Our selection is somewhat limited so I never researched it that much.

Purchasing

We purchase our chicks from a place called Big R. Pullets (hens) cost about $3 each. Straight-run chicks are a little less, but have a 50/50 chance of being either pullets or cockerels (rooster). If you are only interested in eggs for eating, you do not need a rooster. Fertilization is only needed if you are wanting to grow your own chicks from eggs.

We definitely don’t want a rooster. They can be very protective, mean, not to mention noisy. This is one of the main reasons we don’t buy from anyone else other than Big R, because rarely have people vent sexed their chicks to know if they are getting a male or female.

Containment (Brooding Box)

brooding box

Plastic tote for chicks

When young, we keep our chicks inside the house in a plastic tote. This stops them from wondering off and allows them to socialize with one another. This is also where they learn their “pecking order” at a young age.

Some people use metal feeding troughs, but those are more difficult to move around. I’ve also seen people use cardboard, but that to us doesn’t seem sturdy enough. The plastic totes can be purchased from Walmart for about $14 and make it very easy to lift and scoot them around as needed.

We put about 2 inches of shredded pine wood chips at the bottom as it helps absorb poop and water spills. The wood chips are inexpensive and also make cleaning simple. Even though the chicks peck at it, they are harmless.

The chicks will live inside the house in the brooding box for the next 5 weeks until they start getting feathers and the weather warms up outside. Once it gets to be 65°F and after they are about 6 weeks old, we move them into the chicken coop and keep them “cooped up” for about a month. This teaches them what “home” is.

Keep them Warm

Heat lamp for chicks

Too hot!

A heat lamp will be required to keep the chicks warm for the first 5 weeks since they cannot regulate their own body temperature. For 1 week old chicks, they need to be in an environment that’s around 95°F. We decrease the temperature by 5°F each week thereafter.

Be very careful with the heat lamp as it can easily start a fire. Get one that is sized correctly and can be positioned securely. For example, don’t get a 500w bulb in which you have to position it 6 feet away only to move it further away to lower the temperature in the following weeks. Get a lower wattage bulb that can be positioned closer.

We usually place a small digital thermometer in the tote make sure the temperature is right. The chicks will also let you know if they are comfortable. If they are avoiding the light, it’s too hot (see picture). If they are huddled together close to the bulb, they are too cold.

Noisy!

Chicks are noisy! So if starting them off in your house, make sure they are in a room where the sound won’t bother you. Behind one closed door may not be enough! This is where the plastic tote comes into play; it’s easy to move them around! Careful about putting them in the garage unless you know cats and other predators won’t have access. Their chirping will attract the undesirable looking for an easy meal.

Food and Water

Baby chick eating food

Baby chick eating crumble

Always make sure the chicks have food and water. They will eat a lot, and all the time! But they can’t eat the big chicken food pellets. You have to get them the starter crumble which is small enough for them to swallow with having to break it up with their beak.

I would recommend the chick food that has pre-biotics and pro-biotics. This will help with digestion. Medicated chick food is another option, but I’m not a big fan of that stuff. Especially with them being inside the house drinking filtered water and eating food from a bag (no diseases for them to really catch).

They will also drink lots of water. Once again, you can add add an antibiotic to their water. We however only use filtered water for the chicks. Make sure they never run out of either food or water. The chicks are going to double in size about every week, believe it or not. So if they even go a short time without either, it could have dire consequences.

Behavior

Chicks love to sleep, and I’d say they are borderline narcoleptic. One minute their grooming, stretching, or eating and the next they may be laying on the ground. They might stand with their eyes closed. This is normal. They might also gently peck at each others eyes. I think it’s just them figuring out their pecking order and we personally haven’t seen any damage to any of the chicks.

Health

Chicks butts (also called vents) can get clogged. It might be necessary to unclog them ,which usually means picking them up and gently pulling or loosening the poop that gets stuck. I’ve only had to do this once. So I can’t say it’s an issue, but it’s not a bad idea to check. We typically add  a small amount of organic apple cider vinegar to the water (only like a cap full for 1/4 quart of water). I’ve read online that the acidity helps keep things clean.

If a chick looks really lethargic or is always removed from the crowd, it’s probably a good idea to separate it from the others in case it is diseased. Sadly, it probably means the chick won’t make it. Just keep an eye on it.

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