Are you looking to add some young chickens to an established flock or considering hatching eggs to kick off your backyard flock? Either way, learning how to care for baby chicks is essential for your knowledge base as a chicken farmer.
You can break this down into planning how you will raise them, buying the right supplies, and making sure everything it set up correctly. Your most effective tool is researching and planning well in advance to make sure everything goes as perfectly as possible.
Keep reading as we explore the different methods for raising chicks, what materials you need and how you should use them, and what to look out for.
What You Need to Care for Baby Chicks
Before you create a shopping list of care items you need for your baby chicks, you should determine:
- Where you’re getting your chicks from
- What you already have
- How you plan on raising them up
The basics stay the same, regardless of what your care plan is. Chicks need somewhere warm to stay safe and sheltered from the weather and predators. They need plenty of food and water, and you should store the food and water in a way that keeps it clean.
The specific items you need, as well as any supplemental materials, vary depending on how you plan on raising your chicks.
Different Ways to Get Chicks
There’s more than one way to get a chick.
If you’re setting up your initial population or looking to diversify your flock, you may reach out to a local breeder for eggs or young chicks. Whenever possible, we recommend buying chicks or eggs from a local source. This minimizes the stress placed on the young chickens, increasing their odds of survival.
Local feed stores often get day-old chicks from nearby hatcheries, but you may have better luck purchasing directly from a breeder or getting eggs from a friend or neighbor’s flock.
Having chicks or eggs shipped to you should be a secondary plan, but it may be your only option if you live in a remote area or you’re interested in a rare breed of chicken. If you do this, make sure you’re set up well beforehand to give them the best chance at bouncing back.
With a Hen
If you plan on relying on a hen to do the bulk of caring for your baby chicks, you don’t need to worry about much.
Make sure you have:
- A secluded space for the hen to raise the chicks separate from the flock (while still being in sight)
- Proper shelter
- A feeder and waterer the chicks can access safely and easily
- Chick starter feed (the hen can eat this until she’s read to return to laying)
You should also have a backup plan in case the hen doesn’t take to motherhood as you would like. While she should provide a natural source of warmth and attention while raising the chicks, you may need to emulate it if things go wrong.
In a Brooder
Caring for chicks in a brooder is more common because you have more control over the environment and there is less that is likely to go wrong. Chicks that you raise without the help of a hen will need special supplies to keep them warm as well as a more hand on approach.
Using this method, you need:
- A brooder box (which you can easily make on your own using a cardboard box or plastic tote or purchase in a kit)
- A heat source (such as a heat lamp or heated plate)
- Feeders and waterers to keep things clean and available
- Chick starter feed
- Sufficient bedding (pine shavings or hemp work well)
Make sure you have the brooder set up before you pick up or hatch your chicks to minimize the amount of time they spend without heat and access to fresh food and water.
Beyond this, make sure you understand the demands of raising baby chicks so you can quickly respond to any issues that occur.
Caring for Baby Chicks with a Hen
If you have a broody hen, you can try allowing her to hatch and raise the chicks (mostly) on her own.
While you can let her brood in the box, it may complicate the process. Other hens may lay eggs underneath her, and you will need to remove or relocate these.
It’s best to move her to another area, but this may shut off her brooding instinct. Prepare a small space beforehand and move her at night for the greatest chance of success.
Put her where her flock will still be able to see her so she reintegrates easily with the chicks when they are grown.
Caring for baby chicks with a hen is very hands-off. As long as you provide sufficient food, water, and shelter, she will do the rest. The mother hen teaches them how to forage, bathe, and roost, and she will donate her own body heat to keep them warm.
Feed the group chick starter while they’re separate from the flock. The mother hen will not be laying eggs at this time, so she doesn’t need the extra calcium, and the babies need the extra protein while they grow.
After a few weeks, you can allow the hen and her chicks back into the flock.
Caring for Baby Chicks in a Brooder
Caring for chicks in a brooder is more common, but it requires more work on your part.
First, make sure you understand when your chicks will come in or your eggs will hatch (usually around day 21). You want to have everything set up well before this point so the chicks can go in the brooder immediately and finally start the rest of their life.
What to Use for a Brooder Box
It’s easiest to keep your brooder box inside so you can easily monitor the chicks, but this may not be possible if you have a large clutch.
Many choose to make their own using wood and hardware cloth or a plastic tote. If you have pets or small children in your home, make sure the brooder has a lid. Set the brooder in a quiet area free of drafts, but make sure it will be safe from any curious minds in your home.
Outdoor brooders are perfectly fine as long as you set them up sell-enough to protect from predators and inclement weather. These may be more inconvenient for monitoring or protecting your chicks, but they keep the smell and animals out of your home.
Bedding for Your Brooder Box
Bedding plays a major role in the comfort of both your chicks and yourself. It makes the floor easier to walk on, helps preserve body heat, and acts as litter to cut down on smells and mess.
Some popular bedding options include:
- Wood shavings: usually pine, but never cedar shavings; opt for larger flakes to limit dust
- Hemp bedding: expensive, but highly absorbent; minimal risk of dust
- Paper towels: cheap and often already available; requires frequent changes, but can more easily monitor chick health through their poop
You may also provide straw, but we recommend this in supplement to other bedding types and usually when your chicks are older. Straw can retain unnecessary moisture and bring in unusual germs.
Food and Water
Make sure you have an appropriate diet for your chicks, such as chick starter or grower feed. We also recommend against using medicated feed, as this can complicate medicating your chicks later on if needed.
Feed the chicks in troughs or gravity feeders low enough that they can see and reach them easily. Ideally, you want at least one feeder for every 25 chicks (although you can place more if you notice crowding).
Chicks will not eat for the first 24 to 48 hours after they hatch, and shipped chicks will not eat until they are warmed up and settled in. It’s still important to have food available at this time.
If you’re worried they aren’t eating enough, you can scatter the feed on the ground or add a crumbled boiled egg yolk on top to encourage them to eat. Just make sure you remove the yolk after 2 to 4 hours and any contaminated feed.
Chicks should have water available at all times, either through an automated watering system or a gravity waterer. Chicks drink about double or triple what they eat, so you may need to provide extra water and refill them often. Generally, you want about a gallon per 25 chicks.
Newborn chicks may not understand how to drink water, so you may need to dip your chicks’ beaks in it to get them started. The same is true for any chicks you have shipped to you, regardless of their age, to ensure they hydrate as soon as possible.
Do not medicate the water for the first four hours, and warm it between 90°F and 105°F for the first two days. This should help them maintain proper temperature, and once it hits day three you can leave it at room temperature.
Special Chick Diet Considerations
Chicks on starter feed do not need grit until you introduce something else into their diet, such as insects. Wait until this time to start offering it to your little ones.
Chicken breeds that grow faster, such as the Jumbo Cornish Cross, should have their food limited starting on the 14th day. Removing food at night slows their growth enough to let their slower-growing skeleton catch up to their muscles.
The new recommendation is to provide Amprol for 7 days in your chicks’ water rather than through medicated feed. This allows more accurate and even dosing. After a week has passed, many choose to keep probiotics in the water to promote good gut health and digestion.
The most popular options for keeping your chicks warm include a brooder plate and a heat lamp.
While brooder plates are newer technology, they’ve taken off for a few reasons. They’re more effective at keeping chicks warm because they provide an even area of warmth. Brooder plates are also safer to use because they only reach about 125°F and less likely to cause a fire on contact.
Heat lamps are much cheaper and usually safe (as long as you keep an eye on them). They may be more effective in colder climates or if you’re dealing with breeds that are especially difficult to keep warm, and you can easily opt for a higher watt bulb if you find what you’re using is insufficient.
Make sure the chicks stay in the brooder where they can keep warm as much as possible for the first few days. You may also adjust the temperature or location of your heat source as their feathers develop or they tell you more about their comfort.
|Days Old||Suggested Temperature|
|0 o 7 (Week 1)||~95°F (to 105°F on first few days)|
|8 to 14 (Week 2)||90°F|
|15 to 21 (Week 3)||85°F|
|22 to 28 (Week 4)||80°F|
|29 to 35 (Week 5)||75°F|
|36 to 42 (Week 6)||70°F|
|43 and Beyond||Room/Outside Temperature|
Chicks should disperse evenly if your brooder is comfortably heated. If it’s too cold, they will crowd around the heat source. If the heater is too hot, you will notice them staying far away.
Make sure you place it on one side of the brooder to create a “hot side” and a “cool side”, allowing the chicks plenty of room to regulate their temperature as needed.
Special Situations and Considerations When Caring for Baby Chicks
While raising chicks is fairly straightforward, there are some common issues you should prepare for.
The most common problems are dealing with chicks failing to thrive (usually those who have had a rough journey) and chicks suffering from a pasty butt.
Joining an online backyard chickens forum or chicken farming group is one of the best ways to receive quick, knowledgeable advice when disaster strikes.
When Chicks Had a Rough Journey
Traveling through the post is stressful for young chicks, and they may need some extra attention when you pick them up. Chicks that remain lethargic after a few hours may need an extra push.
Some chicken keepers add 4 tablespoons of raw organic apple cider vinegar with the mother to every quart of water they have for the first few days after their chicks arrive. The idea is to provide them beneficial electrolytes and build gut health to give them a fighting chance.
For extra nutrients, hard boil a few eggs and add the crumbled yolk to their food. Just make sure you remove it after about 2 hours to prevent spoilage.
Pasty butt is a common occurrence when chicks undergo a lot of stress, temperature variation, or an inconsistent diet. When the poop crusts over their back vent, it prevents them from defecating normally and allows bacteria to build up.
Remove the stuck poop using a warm washcloth. If this doesn’t work, try running warm water over their rump before trying again (but make sure you dry them off).
Caring for baby chicks is easy if you know what you’re doing, but you must be prepared to give them the best chance at life.
- Have everything set up well before your chicks are expected
- Do your best to limit their time in transit, waiting at the post, or sitting cooped up at your local feed store
- Have a backup plan for if (when) things go opposite of your initial plan
Getting the chicks is the easy part. Keeping them thriving is much more difficult. Do not hesitate to comment with any questions you have to ensure your chicks the best start in life.