You are currently viewing The Best Beginner’s Guide ~ Homestead and Chill

The Best Beginner’s Guide ~ Homestead and Chill

Are you getting chicks for the first time, or simply need a refresher on how to best take care of them? Read along to learn everything you need to know about raising baby chicks in this comprehensive beginner’s guide. This article will cover the supplies needed, tips for arrival day, brooder basics, along with chick food, water, and temperature requirements. We’ll also explore key health and safety considerations, how to transition chicks to living outside, and adding new chicks to an existing flock.

Raising baby chicks is an incredibly fun and special thing to do. It’s also an important task! Without a mother hen, these vulnerable little fluff balls are going to imprint on you, follow you everywhere, and most importantly, rely on you for love, protection, and proper care. These tips will help you prepare to give them the best home possible.

A close up of a DeannaCat, holding four chicks cupped in two hands against her. Two chicks are brown and two are black and white. A close up of a DeannaCat, holding four chicks cupped in two hands against her. Two chicks are brown and two are black and white.
Welcome home, my sweets.

Disclosure: Homestead and Chill is reader-supported. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. 

Preparation and Supplies

Before the chicks come home, ensure you have all of the necessary supplies ready and waiting. This includes a brooder, heat source, and other essential supplies listed below. The chicks will need warmth, water, and food immediately upon arrival. If you ordered chicks in the mail, it may be best to take the day off work (or leave early) the day they’re due to arrive if possible. The sooner you can get them settled in their new home, the better the outcome!

Essential Supplies

Here is a list of the key items you’ll need for raising baby chicks:

  • A brooder box, which will be their home for the next 6 to 8 weeks. (More details below)
  • A heat source for the brooder, such as a classic red heat lamp or modern radiant heat plate. If you use a heat lamp, it must be hung in a manner that is very secure (they can pose a fire risk) and also easy to adjust the height. If using a heat plate, leave another light on nearby so the chicks can see their food and water, including overnight. Read more about about the pros and cons of each heater option in our detailed post on how to set up a chick brooder.
  • Absorbent non-slip bedding material for the brooder. Popular bedding options include pine or aspen shavings, hemp bedding, coarse sand, or chopped straw. Avoid using newspaper, cat litter, or cedar products.
  • Chick feed, explored more below.
  • Food and water containers, such as this simple set. Stick with small ones designed for chicks, which are most safe and take up the least room in their brooder.
  • A thermometer to monitor the brooder temperature at floor or chick level.
An above image of a large plastic tote with a heat lamp hanging above it. There is a small feeder and waterer on one end of the tote. This type of chick brooder is a good idea for raising baby chicks, however, they will quickly outgrow their space. An above image of a large plastic tote with a heat lamp hanging above it. There is a small feeder and waterer on one end of the tote. This type of chick brooder is a good idea for raising baby chicks, however, they will quickly outgrow their space.
The first time we raised chicks, we made a brooder from a large plastic storage tub. It’s a great start, but they’ll outgrow this within a few weeks! Note the tub also has a modified lid with wire mesh screen.

How to Set Up A Chick Brooder

A chick brooder, also known as a brooder box, offers baby chicks a safe warm space to live during their first most vulnerable weeks of life. A brooder is essential for chicks to survive without a mother hen, who would normally tuck the chicks under her body for warmth. It contains a heat source, food, water, and bedding.

  • You can make a DIY chick brooder out of a large plastic storage tote, plywood box, thick cardboard, metal feed trough, animal crate, dog playpen, or other sturdy container.
  • A brooder should have a secure, breathable, and removable lid (such as wire fencing) to keep the chicks IN and other pets or threats OUT. The chicks will be able to jump out or onto brooder walls within the first couple weeks!
  • Provide at least 1/2 square foot of brooder space per chick when they’re one to four weeks old, increasing to 1 to 2 square feet per chick at 4 to 8 weeks old.
  • A chick brooder should be kept in fairly warm and sheltered location, such as in a spare room, laundry room, or bathroom in your house, or in an insulated garage or shed. If in a chicken coop, it’s important that the chicks are protected and separate from any adult chickens. Keep in mind that chicks generate a lot of icky dust, so it’s best to keep the brooder away from the kitchen or bedrooms.

Visit our comprehensive guide for more details on how to set up a chick brooder – including several DIY chick brooder ideas, FAQ, and more.

A large square box which was made out of plywood has a heat lamp suspended over the top while hardware cloth and a sheet are being used as a lid. This is a great brooder for raising baby chicks. A large square box which was made out of plywood has a heat lamp suspended over the top while hardware cloth and a sheet are being used as a lid. This is a great brooder for raising baby chicks.
Our next DIY brooder: a 4×4 foot plywood box. For the first few weeks, we keep a divider wall in the middle and the chicks in just half the space – opening it up for more room as they grow. Note the heat lamp is hung very securely for safety (on a drum cymbal stand).

Arrival Day

When your chicks arrive, and before setting them loose in their brooder, carefully dip each chick’s beak in clean lukewarm water. This shows them where their water is, and helps to trigger them to start drinking on their own. One of the most common causes of lost chicks during the first days is dehydration and cold. Providing slightly warm water instead of cold water helps prevent their internal body temperature from dropping too much.

Once the chicks are in their brooder, try your best not to handle them for the first day. Let them settle in. They’ve likely been on a stressful journey! I know it is really hard to resist – especially for the kiddos – but it’s in the chick’s best interest.

Four chicks, all less than a week old, sitting on top of a dresser with a lace covering. They're fluffy. Two are black and white and two are brown and tan. There are plants and a ceramic chicken planter on the dresser top around them. Four chicks, all less than a week old, sitting on top of a dresser with a lace covering. They're fluffy. Two are black and white and two are brown and tan. There are plants and a ceramic chicken planter on the dresser top around them.
I know we’re super cute, but please let us settle in for a day or two before subjecting us to photo shoots Mom!

Keeping Chicks Warm

Warmth is one of the most important aspects of raising baby chicks. They need a constant, safe heat source to keep them the correct temperature at different stages of development, either from a red heat lamp or radiant heat plate. This replaces the heat that they’d otherwise be provided by huddling under their mama hen.

A brooder starts out very warm (90-95°F) the first week, and incrementally decreases by about 5 degrees each week as the chicks become older and their feathers fill in. See the brooder temperature chart below. It’s crucial to have a thermometer in the brooder (at chick level) to assess the temperature, and then lower or raise the heat lamp to adjust accordingly.

Chicks behavior will tell if they’re too hot or cold. When overheated, chicks will be extra lethargic, try to get as far away from the heat source as possible, and may pant. If too cold, they’ll usually chirp loudly and huddle together directly under the light. A comfortable chick will be active, move about the entire brooder, and take regular naps.

An image of five baby chicks huddled together under a radiant heat plate. It is elevated a few inches off the brooder floor and has yellow adjustable legs for changing the height. An image of five baby chicks huddled together under a radiant heat plate. It is elevated a few inches off the brooder floor and has yellow adjustable legs for changing the height.
Chicks warming themselves under a radiant heat plate. Photo courtesy of Heather J via YouTube

Week-by-Week Temperature Chart

FAQ: How long do chicks need a heat lamp?

Baby chicks need a heat lamp for about 5 to 8 weeks, depending on the location of their brooder and temperature outside. The brooder is kept at about 90-95°F degrees the first week, and gradually decreases by 5 degrees per week thereafter. By week 5 or 6, it may be possible to turn the heat lamp off during the day. At 6 or 7 weeks, chicks are fully feathered and can begin a gradual transition outdoors, but should be protected from temperatures below 40 to 50°F for a few more weeks. By week 8, most chicks have moved outside.

A graphic of a chick brooder temperature chart which shows what temperature the brooder should be during each week of the baby chickens life. These numbers are essential to know when raising baby chicks. A graphic of a chick brooder temperature chart which shows what temperature the brooder should be during each week of the baby chickens life. These numbers are essential to know when raising baby chicks.

Food and Water

In the brooder, keep the chick’s food and water containers near the edge of their “comfort zone” (e.g. not directly under the heat lamp, but not in the furthest corner away from it) so they don’t need to be too heated or chilled to get to it.

Chick Feed

What do baby chicks eat?

Baby chicks need special food, called chick starter feed. It is nutritionally-balanced for their needs and rapid development at this stage of life. As they mature, they’ll transition from starter feed to “grower” (intermediate) feed at around 8 weeks old. Some feeds are both a “starter” and a “grower” in one, which they can stay on until they graduate to a layer feed  – around 16 to 18 weeks old.

Should I use medicated chick feed?

Whether or not to use medicated chick feed is a personal decision. Medicated chick starter feed contains medicine that wards off a specific parasitic infection called coccidiosis, discussed more to follow. It’s not an antibiotic, and it doesn’t last in their system long. With our first-ever round of chicks, we went with the recommendation to use medicated feed for the first few weeks, then transition to non-medicated organic chick starter feed. They never got sick.

On the other hand, we decided to go au natural with non-medicated feed only for our next round of chicks. Unfortunately, they all came down with coccidiosis after their first little adventure outdoors. We ended up having to treat their water with CORID and switch to medicated feed for a while to clear it up. Yet I know many people who don’t use medicated feed and their chicks don’t get sick! That was just our experience.

To read more about the great medicated chick feed debate, see this chain in the Backyard Chickens forum.

A close up image from above of four baby chicks standing near their feeder. A mirror is nearby and pine shavings cover the floor, the walls being made of plywood.A close up image from above of four baby chicks standing near their feeder. A mirror is nearby and pine shavings cover the floor, the walls being made of plywood.

Transitioning to Layer Feed and Calcium

Around 8 weeks old, switch from chick starter feed to “grower” feed (unless they’re already eating a starter/grower combo feed). Do not give young chicks regular “layer” feed until they start laying eggs (or just before). Layer feed has too much calcium and too little protein for young growing chicks!

It can be tricky to figure out the best time to transition feeds if your young chickens come into lay at different ages. On average, most chickens start laying eggs around 6 months old (24 weeks), though some begin sooner – as early as 18 to 20 weeks.

At 20-22 weeks old, you can start transitioning to layer feed. I recommend mixing half grower and half layer feed until at least one young pullet starts showing signs that she’ll start laying eggs soon – and then transition to only layer feed over the next couple of weeks. See this article about when do chickens start laying eggs, including 5 tell-tale signs to watch for!

We also put out a source of free-choice calcium at this time, such as crushed eggshells or oyster shells (separate from their food.) Learn more about the importance of offering free-choice calcium for laying hens here, with important tips on how to save and prepare eggshells to feed them back to chickens. Never give extra calcium to chickens younger than 18 weeks.

Two chickens, one black and white and one brown and orange, are standing in front of a wire fence. Attached to the wire fence is small metal bowl with hooks, full of crushed eggshells for calcium. Some are spilled on the dirt below too. Succulent plants frame the image in the foreground. Two chickens, one black and white and one brown and orange, are standing in front of a wire fence. Attached to the wire fence is small metal bowl with hooks, full of crushed eggshells for calcium. Some are spilled on the dirt below too. Succulent plants frame the image in the foreground.
As soon as your chicks start to show signs of laying eggs, begin transitioning to layer feed and offer free choice calcium in a separate dish from their feed.

Water

Always provide fresh, clean water for chicks. Start with slightly warm water for the first few days to keep them warm and comfy. Many chicken keepers provide electrolytes, sugar and/or vitamins in their water for the first week or two. If the chicks were shipped, this helps them recover from the stress of that ordeal. Additionally, it gives any chick a good boost for a strong start. We personally like this electrolyte nutrient powder, and use it in a basic chick waterer.

Clean and change their water at least daily – possibly twice per day if they really make of a mess of it. If shavings get in their water, scoop them out. If you see poop in it, change out the water and sanitize the container with hot water and vinegar.

Keeping their water slightly elevated above the brooder floor will help keep it cleaner (such as hanging or on a short platform), but make sure they can still reach it easily!

Some folks like to use chick nipple waterers, similar to what a hamster or rabbit would use. Nipple waterers are easier to keep clean, but may also be difficult for the chicks to figure out or get enough water from… which is the last thing you want for day-old chicks. If yours can figure it out and thrive, wonderful!

Chick Treats and Grit

As tempting and cute as it is, avoid feeding baby chicks treats early on. They need to focus on their specialized food, and on growing big and strong! Once they’re several weeks old, you can introduce a few treats here and there, but it should never be more than 10% of their diet. Extreme moderation is key!

When chicks eat anything besides their feed (such as fruits, veggies, or grass) they need the addition of grit to help them digest it. Grit is like coarse sand or tiny pebbles that they consume to help to break down food inside their crop. The exception is very soft foods like scrambled eggs and watermelon. Yep, you can feed chickens eggs! Our babies loved scrambled eggs, which we put in the food processor with some of their feed to make it small and manageable for them.

You can either purchase grit, use clean coarse sand, or simply wait until they are outside. Since we are not in the habit of giving them grit in addition to their food, we just wait to give them treats until they’re playing outside (not necessarily living outside yet). There, they can nibble on bits of dirt that provide the grit needed to accompany a treat like finely chopped garden greens.

Four young chickens are gathered around a slice of watermelon. They're fully feathered chicks about 8 weeks old now. One is orange, one brown, one light grey, and one black and white. Four young chickens are gathered around a slice of watermelon. They're fully feathered chicks about 8 weeks old now. One is orange, one brown, one light grey, and one black and white.
Our 8 or 9 week old chicks enjoying their first watermelon treat – once they were already living outside with plenty of grit around.

Handling Chicks

When chicks are young, it is the best time to form a strong bond with them that can last a lifetime! One tip I read about long ago was this: don’t just suddenly reach down in and pluck them out of their brooder, especially at first. Instead, set your hand down on the floor of the brooder with some crumble feed in it, and let them approach you to explore.

Once they become more comfortable with you and their surroundings, feel free to take them out of their brooder for cuddles, but be attentive to their behavior. Chicks will shriek when they are scared or cold. Find a warm spot where they can cuddle up with you, or put them back if they seem stressed. Some birds will enjoy being handled more than others!

Two chicks sitting on a lap. They're several weeks old and are getting their real feathers, though they still have some baby down sticking out. One is perched on each knee. One if black and white, and one is mostly black and with face. Two chicks sitting on a lap. They're several weeks old and are getting their real feathers, though they still have some baby down sticking out. One is perched on each knee. One if black and white, and one is mostly black and with face.
Zoey and Luna – always wanting to sit with Mommy.

Chick Health and Diseases

When raising baby chicks, there are a few health issues that you’ll need to keep an eye out for. It’s important to know the signs, symptoms, and action tips for coccidiosis and pasty butt in chicks, and for the health of your family, salmonella.

Coccidiosis

Coccidia is an intestinal parasite that can affect chickens of any age, but is particularly common and more deadly for baby chicks. In fact, coccidiosis (caulk-sid-e-osis – the name for a coccidia infection) is the number one killer of baby chicks in a brooder. Here is what you need to know:

  • Cocciddia is carried and spread by infected chickens, wild birds, and their feces. It is present in the soil of many yards, particularly in wet conditions.  
  • All chickens are exposed to and carry coccidia to a certain degree, but develop a natural immunity to it over time. Baby chicks are hit especially hard because they have not yet developed a natural immunity. Due to their small size, they’re easily overpowered by it.
  • Feeding baby chicks medicated feed can help prevent coccidiosis. (Though there are some arguments against medicated feed, saying it prevents the chicks from developing their own natural immunity to it early on.)

Symptoms of Coccidiosis

The most obvious symptom of coccidiosis is bloody poop. However, some healthy poops can occasionally have a reddish tint to them, as chickens naturally shed a little bit of their internal linings from time to time. If bloody poops are persistent, present throughout the flock, and/or combined with diarrhea and other symptoms, it is likely coccidia at play.

Other symptoms of coccidiosis include weakness, reduced food and water intake, pale comb, decreased growth rate, and ruffled feathers. Baby chicks infected with coccidia will usually stand still a lot, all fluffed up, closing their eyes.

The only way to know for sure if it is coccidia is to have their feces tested by a veterinary lab. However, because immediate intervention is needed to save their life, I wouldn’t suggest waiting for lab results if the situation seems dire. If you notice these symptoms in your babies, read this post on how to respond to a suspected coccidia outbreak.

Pasty Butt

Pasty butt is another common health issue for chicks, also known as “pasting up”. It’s pretty much what it sounds like. When chicks are first getting their bowels moving, there is a chance for it to stick to their bottoms. It is even more common after a stressful journey like being shipped.

Pasty butt poses a number of threats. First, the stuck poop persistently touching their skin can cause irritation or even skin infections. Second, it can form a plug over their cloaca (the name for chickens one hole), preventing them from going to the bathroom and blocking their intestinal track.

Therefore, it’s critical to regularly take a peek at your chicks behinds, especially during the first week. We do a tushie check at least once per day. If you see a chick pasting up, DO NOT just pick it off in haste! Pulling could tear out feathers or even tender skin, causing injury. Instead, soak a cloth in warm water and apply a warm wet compress to the area for several minutes to soften everything up. You should be able to wipe it away soon.

Salmonella

The last health issue to be aware of when raising baby chicks is salmonella. Some chickens naturally carry salmonella. Not all do, but it’s important to be cautious either way. Furthermore, birds can carry salmonella without making themselves sick so it won’t be obvious like coccidia. Chicks don’t need treatment for it, but you need to be conscientious to protect yourself and your family.

As a best practice and precaution, it is always recommended to wash your hands well after handling chicks. Especially before touching your face, mouth, food, or other things around the house. This is particularly important for the kiddos, who are much more likely to ignore common sense hygiene.

Speaking of hygiene…

Brooder Cleaning

Get ready, because baby chicks poop A LOT! Chick poops are quite tiny at first, easily picked up after with a little piece of paper towel. Then their poops get bigger, and bigger…

Do your best to keep the brooder as clean as possible. This will keep your birdies happy and healthy, and also keep them cleaner for snuggles! If the brooder is inside the house, you’ll be motivated to keep it clean to prevent unpleasant aromas.

Clean their feed and water containers daily as needed, and clean up droppings just as often. We usually spot-clean (pick out poops) once or twice per day, and then change out the brooder bedding completely once every week or two.

Four chicks are sitting on top of a lace-covered dresser. There are mini red cups, dice, streamers, beer caps, and food bits spread about and knocked over. Balloons hang in the background.Four chicks are sitting on top of a lace-covered dresser. There are mini red cups, dice, streamers, beer caps, and food bits spread about and knocked over. Balloons hang in the background.
See! Look at what a mess these crazy girls can make. This was after their one-week birthday party “rager”. Call in the house cleaner!

Roosts and Entertainment

Chickens like to roost, even baby ones! We always provide a very short, stable, wide little roost inside the brooder that they can perch on. As they grow, we replace it with larger and taller versions. Flat wide roosts are more comfortable and easy for chickens to perch on than round dowels (for both chicks and adults).

The chicks probably won’t sleep on a roost right away, but once they do, it helps get them accustomed to roosting before they move into the coop. Furthermore, that means they’re that much less likely to try to sleep in the nest boxes later – which is a hard habit to break, and leads to poopy eggs.

Chicks are goofy and love checking out their reflections, so we always put a small mirror in their brooder. You can try to add other little “toys” though ours have never taken much interest in them. For safety concerns, avoid adding any small items to the brooder that they could accidentally eat. Like toddlers, chicks explore the world with their beaks.

Four small fluffy chicks are inside a brooder. Three are standing on top of a roost made from wood and branches. It is low to the ground, but they're still enjoying it. There is also a small mirror in the end of the brooder. The ground is covered in pine shavings. Four small fluffy chicks are inside a brooder. Three are standing on top of a roost made from wood and branches. It is low to the ground, but they're still enjoying it. There is also a small mirror in the end of the brooder. The ground is covered in pine shavings.
Our first flock of chicks enjoying a little roost.

Spending Time Outside

FAQ: When can baby chicks go outside?

Chicks should stay in their brooder full-time for the first two weeks. When chicks are 2 to 3 weeks old, you can start bringing them outdoors for short adventures on warm sunny days. Gradually increase the time spent outside over the next few weeks. By age 7 to 8 weeks old, they’ll be fully-feathered and ready to move to their outdoor coop full-time.

When you bring young chicks outside, it’s important to keep them confined, safe, and supervised. Provide access to food and water, and pick an adventure spot that has both sun and shade so they can choose what’s most comfortable. Monitor their comfort carefully, as they’re very susceptible getting chilled or overheated at this age! One of my good friends recently lost a chick that became overheated in the sun during an early outing on a hot day. Small chicks are also very vulnerable to predators, including cats, dogs or hawks.

Two images in one. On the left, DeannaCat is sitting inside a pink dog playpen on the grass with four chicks that are about 2 weeks old. She is holding one, and the others are exploring on the ground. On the right, the same four chicks are a couple weeks older and larger. They're playing in a larger area with wire fencing around it. Two images in one. On the left, DeannaCat is sitting inside a pink dog playpen on the grass with four chicks that are about 2 weeks old. She is holding one, and the others are exploring on the ground. On the right, the same four chicks are a couple weeks older and larger. They're playing in a larger area with wire fencing around it.
When they’re really small, we keep our chicks confined in a pop-up doggie play pen during outdoor excursions. Later, we let them explore a larger fenced area or run.

Adding New Chicks to an Existing Flock

If you already have chickens, it’s very important to carefully and gradually introduce and integrate new chicks to an existing flock. Older chickens are prone to picking on new smaller chickens, to the point of causing injury or death. The pecking order can be brutal! Never add just one new chicken to an existing flock.

  • Start by letting the older chickens see and get used to the presence the younger ones for several weeks, but keep them separated by a secure fence. For instance, by sectioning off the existing chicken run.
  • It’s safest to combine flocks when chickens are closer to the same size. Never introduce chicks younger than 8 weeks to an adult flock. If possible, wait until the young ones are at least 10 to 12 weeks old.
  • Since they can’t see in the dark, slipping new chickens into the coop at night can make a smoother transition.
  • Chickens will compete for resources. Add additional food and water containers to reduce competition.
  • Ensure there is plenty of roost space and room to move around in both the coop and run. Bullying will be much more intense in confined, crowded areas. It’s best practice to provide at least 3 to 4 square feet per chicken in the coop, and about 10 square feet per chicken in the run. Offering free-range of an even larger space during the daytime (if safe) is ideal!
  • Supervise the introduction, but know that some scuffles will be inevitable (expected and normal) as the two flocks establish their new pecking order. Try not to intervene unless the behavior is overly aggressive or causing injury.
Three smaller pullets are inside an enclosed run made out of 2x6 wood and hardware cloth, the birds are looking through the fencing at a larger chicken just outside who is watching them closely. Three smaller pullets are inside an enclosed run made out of 2x6 wood and hardware cloth, the birds are looking through the fencing at a larger chicken just outside who is watching them closely.
You can look but you can’t touch! The littles are about 6 weeks here.
Four young pullets are in an enclosed space that has green wire fencing separating them from two larger chickens just outside the fencing. Four young pullets are in an enclosed space that has green wire fencing separating them from two larger chickens just outside the fencing.
Letting our big girls and young chicks (7 to 8 weeks old) spend time in the backyard together, separate but visible to one another.
A large plywood brooder is inside of an outdoor chicken run, there is green fencing separating the brooder and run from the rest of the run and larger coop. Three smaller pullets are picking around on the ground while another is roosting on the edge of the brooder wall. When raising baby chicks, you may have to adjust their living quarters as they grow. A large plywood brooder is inside of an outdoor chicken run, there is green fencing separating the brooder and run from the rest of the run and larger coop. Three smaller pullets are picking around on the ground while another is roosting on the edge of the brooder wall. When raising baby chicks, you may have to adjust their living quarters as they grow.
It was warm enough outside to move our chicks out at 6-7 weeks old, but they were still too small to integrate into the “big girl” coop for a few more weeks. So we created a temporary baby coop out of plywood and fenced it off in their own section of the run.

And that concludes everything you need to know about raising baby chicks.

I hope you enjoyed the read, and learned plenty of helpful tips about raising chicks! Feel free to ask questions, and please share this post if you found it useful. You may also like our guide on raising backyard chickens. It covers tips beyond chickhood – like coop and run details, predator-proofing, and more.

Finally, don’t forget to savor these precious few weeks! Spend as much time with your babies as possible. Take lots of photos. Your chicks are going to change from sweet little fluff balls to gangly, super-awkward, teenage dinosaurs in the blink of an eye!

You may also like:

DeannaCat's signature, "keep on growing"DeannaCat's signature, "keep on growing"

Source link

Leave a Reply