Brooding Chicks

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Day Old Buff Orphington Chicks

Brooding chicks from day old to maturity is a satisfying and enjoyable experience. Whether you are raising chickens for egg production or meat, the procedure is essentially the same. The number one key to success is advanced preparation.

The WORST possible thing you can do is call the hatchery, and place your order - then start buying supplies and getting everything ready. That is a sure recipe for disaster. ESPECIALLY on your first try. Your brooder and supplies have to be ready before your chicks arrive. Here's all the basics you need to get started off right!

Brooding Chicks - Day Old Chicks

Some folks seem to think that ordering day old chicks and having them shipped through the mail is somehow cruel or inhumane. However, there some simple facts that help understand why it's not nearly as big an issue as you might think.

curious day old chick

First - It's not unusual for newly hatched chicks to neither eat or drink for their first 48 to 72 hours of life after hatching - even when being raised by a mother hen. The last couple of days before a chicken hatches out of it's egg, it absorbs the remaining egg yolk into it's stomach. This helps provides nutrition and water for it's first few days of life, until it can learn to eat and drink on its own.

Second - Hatcheries will not ship chicks to you unless you place a minimum order - this is NOT to increase their profit margin as you might think. The fact is, hatcheries know from experience that it takes a minimum number of birds inside the packing crate to help the babies safely maintain their body temperature to stay warm. Any less, and they can get chilled and either get sick or die before they arrive at their new home. It's all about mass...(there has to be enough)

Third - Hatcheries have been safely shipping day-old chicks by the postal service for nearly a century. Day in - day out, day old chicks have been shipped successfully all over the US and other parts of the world.

If you're thinking about brooding chicks and are worried about ordering day olds from a hatchery...don't - It's important to remember that these guys are pros, AND their livelihood depends on your success. Like any other business, if they can't successfully get their product to their customer in "as expected" condition, they won't be in business for long.

A shipping box used to ship day old chicks

Don't misunderstand - shipping day old chicks IS stressful on them (but certainly not deadly if they are handled correctly). The key to success is to have everything set up and ready when the chicks arrive.

Brooding Chicks - The Brooder

A brooder made from a 150 gal stock tank - it cost me about $60 new at a farm store.

The first thing you need for brooding chicks is a container that will serve as a brooder. A brooder can be essentially any kind of container from a large heavy cardboard box, to a plywood shipping crate, to a galvanized stock tank.

You can even brood in the final pen that the birds will live in when they are grown - as long as it is secure from predators, isn't drafty, and not already occupied.

There is even a product called a "brooder ring" which is basically a roll of stiff cardboard or plastic that can be set up in a circle inside your final pen that can be used for brooding.

A brooder made form a shipping crate that I brought home from work (with permission of course!)

One of the most important things about your brooder is that corners have to be blocked. Especially if you have a large number of chicks in your brooder.  Baby chicks can get easily startled and can pile up in a corner, which can cause the ones on the bottom of the pile to suffocate and die.

If you're going to use a brooder container with corners, you'll need to staple or otherwise secure a curved piece of cardboard into the corners to block them. Don't just sit the pieces in there hoping they will stay in place. They will get knocked over very quickly.

One of the easiest things I have found for this is the top or bottom of a pizza box. They're tall enough that the birds can't get over them, and wide enough to make a smooth curve. You can see them in the picture below.

note the pizza box lids in the corners of the brooder

Another very important thing to consider when brooding chicks is where you will locate your brooder.  Rule number one - NO DRAFTS!!! Drafts are one of the worst things for your chicks - they can get chilled and die if they are exposed to constant cold drafts.

Pick a spot that is in a quiet area without a lot of unnecessary traffic. Remember - they ARE babies - calm, quiet and comfortable is the order of the day.

From day old to about 5 weeks, chicks need about a half a square foot of floor space each (give or take a bit). I successfully brooded 100 chicks in a 5 foot by 4 foot brooder, but by the end of the 5th week (moving day), things were getting fairly crowded, but it worked fine.

Finally, the brooder needs to be covered - I use 1/4 inch welded wire mesh (machine cloth). This serves three purposes:

First - It discourages predators from getting in (even a mouse or a shrew can potentially take a day old chick - especially a bantam chick or a guinea keet.

Second -  it lets you see in the chick brooder without disturbing the chicks unnecessarily.

A hardware mesh cover will keep birds from getting out and undesirable critters from getting in

Finally - It keeps the chicks from flying out. Within a week to ten days your new charges can start flying (quite well actually!). If they get out, they can get lost and may not be smart enough to get back in on their own. If they get chilled, you can loose them quickly.

Brooding Chicks:
Lighting and Warmth

A heat lamp needs to be suspended securely above the brooder floor to ensure successful chick brooding. It will have to be adjustable in height, so keep that in mind when placing it. Start out with the light close to the floor.

Adjust the light up or down so that the temperature on the floor is 95°F. Use a small thermometer to confirm the temperature, but don't leave it in the brooder when you're done. You will have to raise the light each week enough to drop the temperature by about 5°F each week.

Normally start your brooder at 95°F, but in hot weather, you can start at 90°. Once a week, raise the brooder lamp so that the temperature underneath is 5°F lower. After 5 weeks you should be around 70° - 75° F. At that point, they're ready to move to their pen.

Your chicks will tell you if they are too hot or too cold. If they are too hot they will move away from the light and may even pant. Look for a ring of chicks around the light, and none or very few under it. If they are too cold, they will pile up under the light and very few will wander away from it. You can adjust the light up or down a bit until they are happy.

A brooder lamp in use with a white or clear bulb.

Happy chicks will be evenly spread around the brooder, actively eating, drinking, and napping...LOTS of napping.

Always position the brooder lamp to one side of the brooder, allowing a place for the chicks to get away from the heat from time to time.

Lamp/Light Color - There is some argument about the color of brooder light bulb that should be used. The most common is clear/white, but red is also available. My preference is the White bulb - only because it's easier to actually SEE the chicks in the brooder.

Some claim that a red light will prevent pecking in more aggressive chicks. Birds are attracted to - and peck at - blood. A slightly injured or bloody bird can be pecked to death in very short order because of this. The red light is supposed to "mask" the color of blood, so that the birds can't see it.

I've always used white lights 24 hours a day, and have never had any problems. However you have to remember that the main purpose of the brooder light is to provide heat. Light is secondary. Red or blue lights won't harm anything, so if you want to use them there shouldn't be any harm in it.

Brooding Chicks - Bedding

It is essential that you have to have some kind of absorbent bedding in the brooder for the chicks to walk on. A hard smooth floor will result in spraddled legs, and loss of birds.

MY favorite bedding material is ground corn cobs. These are occasionally difficult to find, so a second best is wood shavings. Most farm stores will have both, as they are commonly used for bedding in horse stalls as well as for brooding chicks.

Bedding will probably need to be changed about half way through the brooding process, as it will get wet from waterers, and packed with loads of little chicken turds.

Use a flat edged dust pan to gently remove the old bedding from about half of the brooder, then just as gently replace it with new bedding. Then carefully and slowly "shoo" the chicks to the end of the brooder with the new bedding and repeat the process on the other half. The used bedding is fantastic stuff to spread on your garden, but spread it thinly, as chicken manure had a high level of ammonia and too much in one place can "burn" your plants.

Brooding Chicks - Food and Water

Your new chicks require a special blend of feed - called chick starter. It has a higher protein content than regular adult chicken feed. It comes in a form called crumbles which is small enough that the brooding chicks will be able to eat it easily. Use a chick feeder for feeding them.

Start your chicks with the feeder cover removed - you an add it back on after a few days.

Start with the top off at first, but after a few days, when they are eating well, you can put the top on it to help keep the food cleaner.

Leaving the lid off will let the chicks stand in the feeder - which means poop in the feeder, which means throwing some of the feed away.

Using the lid just lets them put their heads in through the feed holes to eat, keeping the feed relatively (but not perfectly) clean.

Feeder with the cover on - being used by our Blue Jersey Giant chicks

Medicated vs Non-Medicated Feed - Coccidiosis is a brutal parasite disease that is present in most soils. If you get it in your new chick flock it can be deadly and devastating.

If you have wild birds (sparrows, starlings, robins, etc...) around, then you have a risk of the disease being present. Chickens, like any other bird can develop a resistance to coccidiosis. However, I strongly recommend using medicated feeds when brooding chicks and for the first 4-8 weeks they are "on the ground" after brooding.

The medication in chick starter is NOT an antibiotic but a coccidiostat, which helps prevent your birds from getting the disease, until they are old enough to develop a resistance to it themselves.

Your new charges require clean fresh water as well. Use chick founts when brooding chicks to provide a constant supply of fresh clean water.

As the chicks drink from the fount, gravity allows more water to bubble from the reservoir jar above into the pan below.

Keep drinking founts cleaned daily

You should clean the fount and give fresh water at least every day (twice a day if they go through it that fast...). Either clean with hot soapy water or bleach water, and rinse thoroughly before refilling.

Brooding Chicks:
When Your Birds Arrive

OK - now you have everything set and you're ready to start brooding chicks...You've ordered your chicks...What do you need to do when they arrive?

When you placed your order, the hatchery should have given you a shipping date (the day the birds ship from the hatchery). Depending how far away you live from the hatchery, expect 1 to 2 days for arrival to you.

I make a point to stop at my local post office, and let them know that I have ordered chicks and when I expect them to arrive. The staff is usually willing to give you a call when the chicks arrive, giving you the opportunity to go straight to the post office and pick them up.

It seems that they usually arrive in the early mornings, so if you go pick them up straightaway, you can reduce some of the stress on your birds by getting them home all the quicker.

As soon as you get your birds home, place the shipping box inside the brooder and open it up - in case one or two try to jump out. Once you have confirmed that all is well they can be removed from the shipping box and placed in the brooder.

The birds in the photo at the right are actually Bourbon Red Turkey Poults, but the principle is still the same.

Newly arrived Bourbon Red turkey poults

There are two schools of thought at this point. some folks believe that you should take each bird out of the shipping crate individually and dip their beaks in their drinking water and then while it's still wet, into their food. The idea being to introduce them to their food and water right away.

If you have 10 or 15 chicks that may be a good idea. If you have 100 chicks, it seems like a pretty tall order, and at that point I'm more concerned with getting them under the brooder lamp and getting the little boogers warmed up. You can always watch them over the next few hours to see who is eating and drinking on their own and who isn't. The slow learners can always be introduced to their water and feed later in the day after things have calmed down.

A couple of helpful tricks that I have learned is, before you go to all the stress (on you and the chicks) of handling your chicks to dunk their beaks in water and food, You can try "pecking" with your fingernail on the edge of the feeder or fount. The chicks are hard wired to run to that pecking sound, and will almost always imitate what you're doing. It's how a mother hen shows her babies how and what to eat. I've had a very good success rate with this technique.

Another thing you can do is put glass marbles in the fount tray. Chicks are naturally attracted to sparkly/shiny things, and it will entice them to drink. Once you get some chicks feeding, generally the others will follow pretty quickly.

You can get occasional "slow learner" that never catches on. These are very rare, and generally don't survive past a few days. Beak dipping, may be your last resort in that case.

Brooding Chicks - Growth Rates

Baby chicks grow and develop fast - REALLY fast for their first 8 weeks or so. I never cease to be amazed at just HOW fast they really grow. To illustrate the point, here are some photos of Buff Orphington chicks taken at day old then at one week intervals out to seven weeks.

Newly arrived day old chick
one week old chick
two week old chick
3 week old chick
4 week old chick
5 week old chick
6 week old chick
7 week old chick

Once chickens hit about 8-9 weeks their growth rate slows down considerably. At that age, they are essentially as tall as they are going to get, they simply develop muscle and bulk from there. Most dual purpose or heavy breeds reach a reasonable butchering size at about 12 weeks. Recently I butchered a flock of 12-week old Buff Orphington roosters that dressed out between 2 and 2 1/2 pounds each.

Egg producers begin laying around 6 months old.

Brooding Chicks - Health Issues

There are several health issues that can become a problem while brooding chicks.

Spraddle Leg - If you keep new chicks on a smooth floor, they can develop a condition called "spraddle leg", which means that your chick's legs can slide out to the side because they can't get a solid grip on the floor.

Because they are growing so quickly, if you don't get it corrected right away, their legs will "set" and grow that way permanently.

One of the easiest way to avoid this is to prevent it in the first place. As I noted above, put some ground corn cob or wood shavings on the floor of the brooder. If the condition can't be corrected - the most humane thing to do is to destroy that particular chick.

If you already have a chick with this condition, it can often be corrected by "hobbling" their legs for 2-4 days. This can be accomplished by tying their legs together at the proper distance apart to bring the legs back under them. Some folks use a piece of soft yarn to do this.

My preference is to use a Band-aid. The square gauze in the center can be used as a gauge to tell the correct width to set the legs, and the adhesive comes off on it's own after a few days. Usually just the right time for the chick's body to have corrected itself.

Pasty Butt - Baby chicks are prone to getting feces stuck around their backsides. A little bit is kind of normal, but occasionally, after each bowel movement, the feces can build up to the point that the vent can get completely covered over and the chick can't empty it's bowels.

Obviously this is a deadly problem. Fortunately it doesn't happen very often, and it's quite easy to fix. Warm wet paper towels can be used to gently and gradually soak the poop 'til it's soft enough to break up and remove.

Once they are cleared, and you set them back down, the relief is obvious and often immediate. It's better to keep an eye out for this and clean them before the vent is entirely covered over. This doesn't happen often, but you need to be aware and look out for the condition.

Pecking - Chickens can be cannibalistic, and if one of the chicks gets injured - even slightly the others can (but not always) pick and peck at a tiny bloody spot and make it worse.

In most cases this will resolve itself, however, it can elevate to the point that a chick can be killed.

Some breeders will pay the hatchery an additional fee to have their birds de-beaked to prevent pecking in both chicks and adult birds. This procedure involves using a hot clipper to cut away and cauterize a portion of the top beak. Personally I'm not a fan of this procedure. If pecking becomes a problem in your brooder, try using a red light blub in you brooder lamp.

These health issues may seem a bit discouraging, but what you have to recall is that none of these are really what I would call common, and that all three are either easily preventable or treatable.

There are other medical aliments that can occur but they are extremely rare if you maintain good sanitary conditions and proper diet.

Brooding chicks from day old and raising them to adult birds can be an enjoyable and satisfying activity. Raising chickens for eggs, can produce some of the best tasting eggs you will ever eat.

Raising chickens for meat produces chicken that has a far superior flavor and texture than any store bought chicken you will find. Whatever reason you chose to raise chickens, starting from day old will assure that you know where the end products came from and what went in to them.

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Reputable Hatcheries:
(ones that I have used with good results):

Murray McMurray Hatchery

Mt Healthy Hatchery

Ridgway Hatchery

Related Links:

Raising Chickens

To Inoculate or not???

Most commercial hatcheries offer to inoculate your chicks before shipping them to you...for a price.

One of the main diseases they inoculate for is Marek's disease. Marek's disease is a viral infection that affects the nervous system, and can cause paralysis, blindness, and eventually death in chickens.

However it is fairly rare in most locations. I have never had my chicks inoculated, and - so far - have had no problems.

I have read and been told that Turkeys carry a similar virus, but is far less harmful, and that keeping a turkey or two with your chicken flock will expose the chickens to that virus, and in essence inoculate your them against Marek's.

Bourbon Red Turkeys

Apparently,it's kind of like back when Small Pox vaccinations for humans were made from the Cow Pox virus - a far less dangerous disease. I don't know if this is a fact, but I DO keep some turkeys as well as my chickens.

Ultimately, the decision is yours as to whether to have your birds inoculated. Usually, hatcheries only charge a couple of cents per chick to inoculate them, and there's no harm to the birds.

If you hatch your own chicks, chances they will not be inoculated, and many people do this with no problems. If you're not sure, talk to some local people who have experience with brooding chicks and raising chickens or a local livestock veterinarian to get their take.