Having chickens is a bit like having children – the most important things you learn are the things you learn after you have them. So this is not everything there is to know about how to brood chicks, it’s just everything you need to know to get started.
We moved out here to the Boondocks over a decade ago, my first experience with country life, with the express purpose of having our own small farm. At least, that was my express purpose. But you know what? I was too, excuse the pun, chicken to do it. I read all the books, visited all the blogs and talked with all the experts but still, I was hesitant. What if they’re like plants and I kill them all?!
I put off my mid-life long dream of backyard chicken keeping for a really long time until a local farm had a chicken buy-swap-sell and I unexpectedly brought home three little pullets (those are baby hens, by the way). Even after all that research I still did a lot of things wrong but they were all alight in the end. And the most important thing I learned is that you can’t know it all until you just start doing it. So this post is meant to give you the confidence to send you on your way to having your very own backyard flock. Ready, set, GO!
How to Brood Chicks
Selecting Your Chicks
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First and foremost, get them from a reputable source so that you can assume they’re disease-free. This year I added 20 new chicks to my flock. Admittedly I got caught up in my feels during Chick Days at Tractor Supply and made yet another impromptu decision to bring home all these new babies. If you’re sensing a pattern here, you’re getting to know me very well. The good news is we desperately needed a new coop anyway and this was just the incentive we needed. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all!
Know Your Breeds
Second, what breeds are best for your family, your available space and your climate? For example, some chickens can fly better than others (I’m looking at you Americauana in that tree!) so if keeping them behind a fence is a necessity you’ll want to make sure you have a tall enough fence or are willing to clip their wings to prevent flying over. Also, please note that wing clipping is an easy enough technique but you should know what you’re doing before attempting it. Another consideration is that some breeds are fine with confinement, but it can cause problems for others. Know your breeds before making a decision and decide ahead of time whether they will be allowed to free-range or whether they will spend most of their time confined.
If you’ve got small children, a docile breed like the Light Brahmas is a good choice. Plus, if you live in a colder climate this breed, with its feathered legs, is cold hardy and will continue to lay through winter. Other breeds are ideal for warmer climates.
Speaking of egg laying, color, quantity, and sizes of the eggs may also be considerations. Some chickens lay white eggs, others brown. And some lay blue, green, olive and chocolate colored eggs! It’s fun to have a rainbow variety of eggs in your fridge, but consider how many eggs you desire since some chickens are better layers than others. Also, have some idea what you might do with any extra eggs. Giving them to neighbors is likely a very welcomed idea, but so is a local food pantry. You might even try selling them at a farmer’s market, roadside stand or to local restaurants. Check with your local agricultural department on rules, regulations and licensing requirements if you decide to go this route.
Verbiage to Know
Finally, some verbiage you need to know. Dual-purpose means they are good breeds for egg laying and butchering. But a breed like the Cornish Rocks, for example, are strictly meat birds and are not intended to keep as egg layers/pets.
Straight run vs pullets – straight run basically means, you get what you get and you don’t care a bit. There might be some hens in there, there might be some roosters in there or they might be all one or the other. Pullets are hens. If you know you want a rooster, some places mark these little guys with a special dye on the forehead so that you know if it’s a rooster or not. Tractor Supply has Chick Days twice a year but chicks are available year-round online.
For my brooding house, I use this large, oval stock tank from Tractor Supply. It’s easy to keep clean and the sides are high enough to keep everyone in for a while. Plus, it gives me easy access to freshen their food and water which I do about twice a day or as needed. Depending on the number of chicks you are brooding, you could also use a plastic storage container or cardboard box. Once they grow you’ll want to cover the top with screen wire or other breathable material so they don’t get out before they’re ready. I used chicken wire and clamps because it’s what I had on hand and because it still allows me relatively easy access.
For bedding, you can use sand (the playground kind), paper towels, or pine shavings. There’s some debate about the pine affecting chicks’ sensitive respiratory systems. I’ve used it successfully, but it’s certainly a personal preference.
No matter the type of bedding you chose, keep it clean! I clean my brooder out completely at least every other day and I keep the pine shavings for compost. A clean brooder is one of the most important parts of the healthy chicks puzzle.
You’ll want to offer them a place for roosting as they grow. This is great training for when they move into the big coop.
When deciding on brooder housing you’ll want to consider space requirements for the breed(s) you’ve chosen and their grown rate. For example, this 6′ tank was plenty big enough for my 20 new chicks in the beginning, but as they started to grow, some faster than others, I’ve had to separate them.
Speaking of great brooder housing, when I separated my bigger chicks (9) and my smaller chicks (11) I left the smaller chicks in the stock tank and put the larger ones in my DIY garden box since I hadn’t gotten around to planting it yet. We just brought it into the garage along with the stock tank. That was my husband’s genius idea! It’s twice as much to clean, but a cramped space can spell trouble so it was definitely worth it.
Another personal preference is the type of heating you choose. I don’t use a heat lamp since they can be far more dangerous. I have a Brinsea brooder, available at Tractor Supply, that offers a safer, more stable source of heat. Regardless which you choose, make sure they have a way to get away from the heat if they need to. Overheating can be just as deadly as getting chilled.
Chicks should be kept at 95 degrees, reducing by 5 degrees each week, until you reach room temperature.
Food & Water
Keep fresh water and plenty of food available at all times. They’ll likely scratch around in whatever medium you choose as bedding and get it into their food and water, but it’s good for them to learn to scratch since it’s a skill they’ll need when they’re older. As they grow, train them to use a nipple watering system. It is so much easier to keep clean and will allow you transition them to a self-watering system in their coop.
Food can be another personal choice. Should you go with medicated or non-medicated? If you had asked me the first time I would have vehemently told you non-medicated, hands down. But then one of my first chicks got Coccidiosis and I very nearly lost her. The only reason I didn’t is that I wound up giving her and, because it’s contagious, the rest of her flock mates, a Coccidiostat (which is the same thing found in medicated food). Now I choose the medicated food for the first 16 weeks. I then switch to non-medicated, organic. Both are available at Tractor Supply. Vaccinated chicks should not be fed medicated food.
Handle Gently. And Often.
See that rooster in my hand up there? He’ll get to be 2 1/2ft tall and up to 12lbs. We need him to be sweet. Part of your success with your flock will depend on your being able to handle them, as in physically pick them up, to check for injury or sickness. But you also want them to be friendly. Choosing a breed like the Brahma, known as the gentle giant, child-friendly breed, also plays a large part in the enjoyment of your flock. So, know your breeds and get them used to being handled by you and your family. Gently hands, always.
Things That Can Go Wrong
Overheating, chilling, dehydration and starvation are your four biggest, and most common, worries. The good news is, they’re pretty easy to prevent and most of it is common sense. Keep them away from drafts; we brood our chicks in the garage. Keep their food and water clean and fresh and take steps, like I had to above, to prevent overcrowding.
My current group of chicks started pecking one another causing minor injuries that were easily treated, but would have continued and gotten worse had I not given them more space. Pecking can happen for a variety of reasons like the brooder needs cleaning causing dropping to stick to tiny toes. This can encourage toe pecking. It can also happen as baby chicks begin to grow feathers. There’s just something so appealing about a fresh new quill beginning to bud; this was my problem. Separating them and giving them more room helped to prevent this from continuing.
Also, somebody will probably fall into the feeder, especially if you have an open top feeder like mine. In fact, it’ll probably happen multiple times and it’ll likely be the same culprits over and over again. This is when you’ll start getting your first look at personality! Just keep a check on the brooder and gently remove them until they get old enough to fly out on their own or big enough not to fall in.
For wound care, I highly recommend Vetericyn, which can be found at your local Tractor Supply. It works miracles! I keep it on hand at all times. They make it specifically for chickens and other pets, too.
Early on, another of my chicks developed “pasty butt”, which is a cute term for something that can actually be deadly. It generally occurs within the first few days of life, but it can also happen as a result of chilling or overheating. It’s when droppings dry and hardens around the vent preventing a chick from being able to eliminate waste. I simply ran her tiny little bottom under a gentle stream of lukewarm water to allow the droppings to soften and, ever so carefully, rubbed it away. The process took about 5 minutes because you want to take special care not to pull any feathers or skin when removing the excrement. Once she was all clean up I used a blow dryer on the low setting to dry her feathers, because wet feathers can encourage pecking, before I placed her back in the brooder. We never had another problem with it after that.
Immunity & Sickness
Chicks shouldn’t be exposed to adult birds until they’ve had a chance to develop a natural immunity, which is the result of gradual exposure to infectious organisms. Chickens are masters of disguise when it comes to being sick. They have to be. Sick chickens pose a threat to the flock and therefore are susceptible to pecking from other flock members trying to eliminate the threat. Once you notice someone isn’t feeling well, they’ve like been sick for awhile. See below for recommended reading and how to spot sickness before it’s too late.
The likelihood that your backyard flock will make you sick is pretty slim, especially if you follow common sense protocols like always washing your hands after handling chickens or cleaning the coop/breeder, and removing shoes worn in and around the coop before heading into your home. For more safety and regulatory info please visit the CDC’s website: Keeping Backyard Chickens.
Two must-have books are The Chicken Health Handbook and the Chicken Encyclopedia. If you can only get one, get The Chicken Health Handbook. I also really enjoy the following websites: The Chicken Chick, Fresh Eggs Daily, and Backyard Chickens. These are all really great resources for any chicken keeping info you might need.
Ready for a coop?
Please join me for a series of posts all about our new coop build as well as basic chicken care all leading up to the reveal of the DIY fancy farmhouse chicken coop!
If you’re not down to DIY your coop, these are my fav pre-fab coops. All of TSC’s online coops are an extra 10% off now until April 30th with discount code COOPS10.
This is a sponsored post written in collaboration with Tractor Supply. Thank you for supporting the brands that make Southern Revivals possible.