More and more hobbyists each year are interested in raising a small flock of chickens in their backyards or on a small farm. Most owners know that the brooding period, a chicken's first 8 to 10 weeks of life, is crucial, but what's the best way to get your flock off to a good start?
First, decide whether you want your flock to be raised primarily for egg laying or broilers and consult with your local Southern States dealer for advice on the best breeds to choose for your area. Then, prepare for the chicks' arrival with this step-by-step guide on what to do when you bring your new chicks home.
You should start preparing your chicks' new home several days before they arrive. There are four key things to remember when making your plans:
A housing unit for chicks, commonly known as a brooder, can be a commercially produced metal enclosure or something as simple as a cardboard box. Your brooder should have solid walls at least 18 inches high to block drafts and be large enough that chicks can move about freely. When calculating space needs, University of Maine Cooperative Extension specialists recommend an average of one-half square foot per chick for the first four weeks, 1 square foot from four to eight weeks and 2 square feet from eight to 12 weeks.
A wire mesh floor, often found in commercially available brooders, may be beneficial to help keep the enclosure clean by allowing waste to fall through the bottom of the cage. Spread pine wood chips, ground corn cobs, rice or oat hulls about 2 inches thick on the floor of the brooder. Don't use cedar chips, which give off fumes toxic to chicks. You may choose to spread newspapers on the floor for the chicks' first week of life. This may help chicks learn to eat feed scattered on the floor of their cage. But after the first week, switch to another flooring material as newspaper on a flat surface may lead to leg and foot problems, and the moisture it collects may lead to diseases.
Use a heat lamp to keep the chicks warm. Attach the lamp so it hangs over the middle of the brooder, about 18 inches from the floor. Use a red bulb in the heat lamp to limit light levels; too much bright light might cause the chickens to pick at each other's feathers. The brooder should be kept at 95 degrees for the chicks' first week of life. You can reduce the temperature by 5 degrees each week until chicks are six weeks old; then keep them at 70 degrees. Don't move them to outdoor enclosures until they have feathered out and can handle average nighttime low temperatures.
Adjust the temperature by raising or lowering the heat lamp. To get an accurate temperature reading when checking the brooder, Mississippi State University poultry specialists recommend wrapping the bulb end of your thermometer with black electrical tape.
When the chicks arrive, watch how they react to the heat. If they huddle in the area underneath the heat lamp, the temperature may be too low. If they seem to crowd the edges of the enclosure away from the heat lamp and look like they might be panting, the temperature may too high. At the proper temperature, the chicks should be spread fairly evenly about the enclosure, peeping contentedly. Use caution anytime you use a heat lamp near flammable materials such as cardboard, newspapers or wood shavings.
When the chicks arrive, they may be very thirsty. Take each chick and dip its beak in water to help it learn to drink. If the chicks appear lethargic, University of Florida animal science specialists say you can add one-fourth to one-half cup of sugar to each gallon of their water.
Make sure fresh water is available to them at all times. Note that chicks prefer room temperature water. A 1-gallon fount (watering station for chicks) should suffice for a small flock of chicks. Mississippi State poultry specialists recommend two 1-gallon founts, four 1-quart founts or a 3-foot trough-style waterer for up to 100 chicks.
After the chicks have taken a drink, it's time to introduce them to food. Use a commercially available chicken starter feed for the first six to eight weeks, switching to a grower feed at about nine weeks. A commercial starter feed should have the proper protein levels and all of the vitamins and minerals they need to get off to a good start, and it may also include antibiotics to keep them healthy. Don't simply give them corn or grains—alone, these feeds won't provide enough nutrients. As with water, make sure food is available at all times.
In the first week, you may want to spread the feed on a newspaper to help the chicks learn to eat. Later, switch to a chick feeder, making sure it's large enough to allow all the chicks access. Mississippi State specialists recommend: 1 inch of feeder space for each chick for the first two weeks; 2 inches for up to six weeks; and 4 inches up to 12 weeks. The rim of the feeder should be about the same height of the chick's back.
Watch the chicks closely in the first hours after they arrive to make sure they are learning to drink and eat properly and that temperatures are comfortable.
Before the chicks arrive, make sure you give your brooder a thorough cleaning with disinfectant if necessary. As the chicks grow, make sure their area stays clean and dry. Wash founts daily and disinfect once a week. Keep contaminants and dirt out of the feeders. Limit visitors, who can bring in germs on their feet and clothes if they've been in other areas where chickens have been. Never allow your chicks to mingle with other flocks, and remove any sick birds.
Chicks may need to be vaccinated against diseases such as Marek's disease, fowl pox, Newcastle or bronchitis. Your supplier may have already performed some of these vaccinations. Check with your supply store to see what follow-up vaccinations may be needed and whether your chicks need antibiotics added to their feed or drinking water.
Remember that chicks can harbor bacteria; make sure children do not handle the chicks and then put their hands in their mouths. Always wash your hands after handling your chicks.
As your chicks grow, experts at your local Southern States store should be ready to assist you with further advice. With their help, and by following these tips, you should be able to ensure your chicks grow into healthy adults.