Getting started with baby chicks? Robert Plamondon, author of Success With Baby Chicks, tells you what you need to know.
1. How should I brood day-old chicks?
For a complete list of steps, see my baby chick checklist.
Baby chicks need an external source of heat. Naturally brooded chicks are warmed by nestling against their mothers. Groups of chicks can maintain body heat by huddling together, which is why day-old chicks can be shipped by mail.
People brooding fewer than 1,000 chicks at once generally use electric brooders.
Large commerical poultry operations generally use big propane brooders with a central brooder and a metal canopy, or hover, that retains the heat. Each brooder handles up 1,000 or more chicks.
It is possible to brood chicks without supplemental heat in an insulated box with feathers or flaps of cloth hanging from the ceiling, retaining their body heat allowing huddling to work more effectively. But such brooders are tricky to use and less effective than ones that supply external heat.
Brooding needs to be performed in an area where floor drafts, predators, unsupervised children, and cats can be excluded. Some people brood their chicks in their homes, but after trying this myself, I can’t recommend it. The smell isn’t too bad for the first week, but it becomes really repulsive after that! And the entire room containing the chicks becomes coated with a dust composed largely of dried chick manure.
Brooders always present a certain amount of fire hazard, so there’s a lot to be said for brooding the chicks in isolated, cheaply constructed brooder houses with metal roofs.
Brooder houses generally have litter on the floor, preferably with a layer of softwood shavings at least four inches thick. Wire-floored “battery brooders” can also be used. These use wire floors with a droppings pan underneath. They are very easy to use, and the chicks do well in them, but they smell worse than the other kinds of brooders.
2. What kind of brooder should I use?
Many of the suggested brooder arrangements and even some commercial brooders assume that the chicks are in a heated room. This includes the classic “60-watt lamp in a coffee can” brooder, battery brooders, and even the electric hover brooder sold by GQF. If you have a heated room to put these brooder in, fine. If not, you need something more powerful.
A 250-watt heat lamp suspended 18-24 inches over the brooding area that is completely surrounded by a draft guard 12-18 inches high will brood 75 chicks at 50 °F minimum room temperature. (If the minimum temperature is higher, you can add one chick for each degree. If the minimum temperature is lower, subtract one chick per degree.) This method works very well, but is absolutely dependent on the presence of an effective draft guard, which you can make out of cardboard, plywood, roofing paper, or whatever.
The heat lamp must be high enough that all the chicks can sprawl out in its warmth. If it’s too low, they’ll push and shove to get into the beam. If it’s too high, they’ll let you know because of the ear-splitting peeps the emit when they’re cold.
Set your heat lamp up correctly, following my brooder-lamp safety tips. Make sure the bulb can’t fall to the ground. It can set litter on fire if it comes within a few inches of it. Hang it with a chain, and arrange it so the cord acts as a safety line in case it falls off the chain somehow. You can buy commecial brooder lamp holders that have a couple of curved wires in front of the bulb so it won’t touch the litter even if it falls to the floor. Don’t use the crummy clamp lights you find at the hardware store: they fall down (or fall apart) if you look at them sideways.
A better brooder uses heat lamps mounted horizontally in a plywood brooder box insulated with shavings heaped on top. Read how to build an insulated brooder in a couple of hours. It uses only a third the electricity per chick as a heat lamp, is less dependent on the brooder guard, and is excellent for cold-weather brooding. This type of brooder is very easy and cheap to build and has quite a track record (it was introduced in 1940).
3. How do I set up my brooder area for baby chicks?
Prepare your brooder area before the chicks arrive and fire up the brooder 24 hours in advance. The litter under the brooder must be warm and dry to the touch before the chicks arrive. The entire brooder house doesn’t have to be heated; in fact, you can brood successfully if the brooder house is well below freezing so long as the brooder is powerful enough to keep the area under the hover warm. In a very cold house, you need to put the waterers so they’re right next to the hover so the escaping heat will keep the water from freezing.
In cold weather, it’s doubly important to prevent floor drafts through the use of draft guards about 12-18 inches high that encircle the brooder. This keeps drafts away and keeps the baby chicks from wandering too far from the hover. The colder the weather, the closer the draft guard should be to the heat, extending no more than two feet from the brooder. In hot weather, where overheating is a possibility, the draft guard can be larger, or it can be made of wire mesh instead of cardboard, so it keeps the chicks near the brooder without stopping drafts.
Baby chicks should have water available right way. It should be warm; day-old chicks are easily chilled. I use one-quart chick waterers placed on 3/4″ or 1.5″ thick lumber scraps about 4 inches square. This keeps the waterers from sinking too far into the litter. You want the waterers pretty close to the floor, though, because chicks have no instinct to search for water much above ground level. The quart waterers are just bases that screw onto one-quart mason jars. You can buy plastic jars, but they should not be used because thirsty chicks are attracted to the glass, which looks like water. Use 4-6 quart waterers per 100 chicks.
The chicks have a tendency to get soaked in waterers with wide bowls for the first day or two, and will die of chilling when this happens. It’s better to use little waterers at first. After a few days, you can put in regular waterers without risk. Remove the little waterers at a rate of one per day, so the chicks have plenty of time to learn about the new fixtures.
Ideally, the chicks should be fed about three hours after they’ve been placed in the brooder. This gives them time to drink first. Chicks tend to be dehydrated, and it helps a little if they drink before they eat. If you can’t absolutely positively be around three hours later, though, feed them at once. Their first feed should be given on flattish surfaces at ground level, since their instinct is to stand over (or in) their food and pick it up from ground level. The box lids from chick shipping boxes are the traditional first feeders, but egg flats are also good. Use one egg flat per fifty chicks. Some people just use a single thickness of newspaper to put the feed on. In any event, you want about one square foot per fifty chicks, and you want to put a thick layer of feed on it. The chicks will waste a lot of it, but this will only go on for a few days.
I like to have the regular feeders set up and filled from the very beginning. Other people add them at three days or so. Starting after three days, you gradually taper off the amount of feed put into the first feeders, and quit using them altogether at a week or so.
4. How do I avoid sick chicks?
The main threat to growing chicks is coccidiosis. Coccidiosis is an intestinal parasite that exists just about everywhere. It can take a heavy toll on chicks, starting from about three weeks of age. The parasite multiplies greatly in the gut of the chick, and vast numbers of “oocycsts” (think of them as eggs) come out in the manure. Chicks raised on litter floors scratch and peck at the litter, looking for food, and become infected. The explosive multiplication of the coccidia can lead to dead, stunted, and sick chicks.
Chicks that are exposed to only low levels of coccidia become immune without becoming sick.
Control is achieved by breaking the coccidiosis reproductive cycle. Chicks raised on wire floors don’t get coccidiosis becuase they don’t have enough contact with manure. Chicks raised on free range from a very early age tend not to get it because they also don’t have enough exposure. Chicks raised on old litter (used for at least six months) tend not to get it because the litter eventually harbors miscroscopic creatures that eat coccidia. Medicated chick starter contains drugs that suppress coccidia directly.
Wet litter, crowding, intermittent feeding, and any type of stress tend to increase coccidiosis. (If the feeders are empty, the chicks will spend more time nosing around in the litter.)
Like most diseases, coccidiosis outbreaks are hit-or-miss, with some flocks seemingly hit for no good reason, while others escape unscathed even when conditions are ripe for an outbreak.
If you have an outbreak of coccidiosis, switch to medicated chick starter immediately. (A lot of people don’t like the idea of using medicated feed, and are narcissistic enough to let their chickens suffer and die instead of doing anything about it. Don’t be like them! Once coccidiosis symptoms appear, you’ve already lost your chance to raise a drug-free flock. Do the right thing and end the suffering by treating the disease.
And no, non-drug interventions like the “milk-flush” method don’t work. Next time, try brooding only half as many chicks. The less you crowd ’em, the less trouble you’ll have.
Birds in pasture pens, on free range, and in cages rarely develop coccidiosis, but confined and yarded birds are at risk. While coccidiosis generally affects chicks, it can affect hens who have not been exposed early in life, and thus have no immunity.
Anti-coccidial drugs are very effective. At the very least, a flock of chicks that is looking poorly and are in the coccidiosis danger zone (3-7 weeks) ought to be switched to medicated chick starter immediately. This will be most effective if you do it right away, because medicated chick starter has low doses that are designed to prevent coccidiosis, not cure it. With a serious outbreak, you need to put a coccidiostat in the water, since sick chicks that will not eat will still drink.
A little sermon. A lot of people believe that drug substitutes such as garlic and herbs and spices are as effective as drugs, but they are not. They may have some value as a preventative, just as exercise may have value in preventing heart attacks in humans, but only a few of us would make someone having a heart attack out to run around the block.
It’s not the salad mixin’s in the feed or the geraniums in the window boxes that keep baby chicks healthy, it’s basic maintenance. If they get sick, head into the coop and fix everything that’s not right: wipe the waterers clean, remove wet litter, keep manure out of the feeders, and make sure the chicks have easy access to plenty of actual chick feed that’s actually nutritionally balanced.
And no matter how many ground-up unicorns and rainbows went into the feed you’re using, replace it with Purina medicated chick starter, or some other standard brand.
5. What should I feed baby chicks?
For the first two days (only), it’s a good idea to feed baby chicks nothing but chick scratch or cracked corn. If brooder or shipping temperatures are too low or too variable (or if there is a draft that chills the chicks), chicks tend to “paste up” and have dried feces (or “poop,” as it is technically known) attached to their rears, which can plug up the works and even kill them. A whole-grain diet for the first couple of days reduces the volume of poop and reduces the problem. After two days, chick starter should gradually replace the grain. This can be done by feeding grain in the first feeders and chick starter in the regular feeders.
In general, chicks need to be fed a balanced diet, which means one that’s been formulated by a poultry nutritionist, not one of the harebrained recipes that you’ll find floating around the Web.
Chicks, like older poultry, can balance their own diets pretty accurately if offered a variety of foodstuffs, but all of the ingredients have to be available in palatable form. This is mostly a game that’s played with older chickens. In the brooder house, it’s best to rely on a nutritionally balanced chick starter.
If you are raising broilers, use a broiler feed such as Purina’s Flock Raiser or Nutrena’s Meatbird. We’ve had excellent results with both. Birds raised in confinement beyond three weeks should be fed medicated feed from the start. Birds moved to free range early in life will do fine on non-medicated feed.
If you want to mix your own feed—don’t. If you insist, you will need a vitamin/mineral premix to supply all the nutrients that are hard to find an an affordable, palatable form. Most small producers who custom-mix their own feed use a recipe from Fertrell Corp. along with Fertrell’s Nutri-Balancer premix.
6. How much brooder space should I use? How much floor space?
I recommend 10-14 chicks per square foot of brooder canopy. Manufacturers often exaggerate the capacity of a brooder, giving the number of chicks it can handle at one day of age, and not mentioning that they will need much more brooder space in a week or two. If you crowd the brooder, all will be well for the first two or three weeks. After that, the chicks will outgrow the brooder and there may be deaths due to crowding as they stuggle and fight to get into the heat. If this happens, reduce the number of chicks per brooder next time, and, for the current batch, increase the heated area — for example, by using a heat lamp and raising it high enough that the warmed area is large enough to hold all the chicks comfortably. This will work even though the higher bulb will provide a lower floor temperature. With box brooders, raise them up on blocks to increase the transition area between the warm inside and the cold outside.
It’s best to use at least half a square foot of floor space per chick for the first two weeks and one square foot after that. You can get away with less—most of the time, sort of—but crowding is a trouble magnet. It causes problems to appear that simply wouldn’t happen with more space, and they get out of control fast. With crowding, you’re more likely to see cannibalism, coccidiosis, piling (where frightened chicks crowd into corners and suffocate each other), wet litter, ammonia smells, runts, dirtiness, and death.
Try one square foot of floor space with your first batch of baby chicks to avert disaster while you’re still learning the ropes.
7. I have more questions!
Great—I have more answers. It’s all in my book, Success With Baby Chicks.