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How Do You Care for Baby Chicks?
Getting baby chicks is daunting. But luckily, their needs are simple, and as long as you know how to keep them warm, watered, and fed, they’ll grow up healthy.
In this article, we’ll go over the basics of how to raise baby chicks. Everything you need to know, beginning with a fertilized egg and ending with a fully-formed adult chicken. We’ve divided it into the main life stages that chicks go through, so regardless of where you’re starting, you can find the information you need.
Let’s get started and find out what it takes to raise a chicken.
The Egg Comes First
You don’t necessarily have to start with eggs when raising chickens. Lots of local farm supply stores sell chicks. But it can be easier to get eggs, especially if you know someone who has chickens. Or, you may already have chickens and want to increase the size of your flock. Either way, handling eggs and making sure they hatch is a delicate process, but very worthwhile.
How to Get Fertilized Eggs
As we already mentioned, getting fertilized eggs is pretty easy. You can get them from just about anyone who has chickens. But you could also purchase them. Check in your area for stores that sell farm supplies, or get in touch with local poultry farms.
Once you get your eggs, the most important thing is to prepare them for the incubator. You want to store them with the wider side of the egg facing up always.
Make sure to tilt them on a daily basis. This prevents the yolk from sticking to the shell, which can cause problems for the developing chick. Freshly laid eggs can survive 7-10 days outside of an incubator. So don’t wait longer than a week or so before moving them to an incubator.
Moving the Eggs to an Incubator
Now, let’s talk incubators. Incubators replicate what mother hen does while she lays on her eggs, keeping them warm and humid. It’s an essential piece of equipment in this process.
You can buy an incubator for anywhere from $50-100. They all have temperature and humidity controls and displays that show the relative humidity and temp inside the incubator. Incubators on the more expensive end also have motors that automatically turn the eggs.
Turning the eggs means tilting them from one side to the other. Fertilized eggs need to be turned around three times per day. If you don’t turn your eggs, the developing chick may become squished between the yolk and the shell, causing its tissues to get stuck to the eggshell. Then, as it develops, its fragile skin can tear, killing it.
Having an incubator that turns your eggs automatically is a very worthwhile investment. Turning the eggs is probably the most labor intensive part of this step in the process.
Conditions In the Incubator
Eggs need heat and humidity to survive. You’ll want to keep the temperature inside the incubator between 98 and 101 degrees at all times.
The humidity should stay above 50% at all times. Keep it at 55% for the first couple weeks. When the eggs are ready to hatch, you can turn it up to 70% to help them get ready. We’ll discuss this more in a minute.
So you have your eggs, you have your incubator ready to go. It’s time to “set” your eggs, or place them in the incubator. Remember, the wide end of the egg goes up.
Keep the humidity at 55% and the temp around 100 for the first nine days. At this point, you can take the eggs out individually and candle them.
Candling your eggs means shining a flashlight into them to see if they’re viable or not. When candling an egg, you’re looking for developing blood vessels. This signifies a viable chick is developing.
If the egg was infertile, or a chick was developing but failed, the egg will look clear inside. You may also see a faint red ring, but no blood vessels. This indicates the egg is a dud, and needs to be thrown out. Duds can create a rotten smell if left in the incubator.
The next major milepost comes at day 18, when the chicks are almost ready to hatch. On day 18, you’re going to change the conditions inside the incubator to help the chicks prepare.
To do this, turn the humidity up to 70% and stop turning the eggs. The chicks will respond by wiggling around inside the egg and positioning themselves upright to hatch.
In total, eggs usually take 21 days to incubate before hatching. When they start hatching it is critical that you don’t try to help or interrupt them. At the time of hatching, there may still be some blood vessels under the chick’s skin that haven’t fully dried up.
The egg shell will stick to these spots until the skin dries up and is ready to be exposed. If you remove the egg prematurely, it can tear the chick’s skin and kill it. Let nature take its course, and watch them do their thing.
If all of your eggs don’t hatch on day 21, don’t worry. Sometimes it takes a couple extra days. Wait until day 23 and candle them again. You should be able to tell pretty easily if the chick inside is still viable.
And just like that, congratulations! You’ve got a bunch of adorable little fluff balls. At this point they’re entirely helpless, and the job of raising them is only half done.
The First Six Weeks
In raising chicks, the most crucial period is the first six weeks. Baby chickens are essentially helpless for the first month and a half of life, and require a lot of attention. If you chose to have chicks delivered to your home rather than hatch them from eggs, this is where you should start.
Setting Up A Brooder
The first piece of equipment you need to pick up before getting chicks is a brooder. This is essentially an incubator that traps heat efficiently. The key to keeping your chicks alive until they’re ready to be outside is keeping them in a comfortable temperature range. Not too hot, not too cold.
The brooder is a key piece of equipment to make sure they stay in the comfort zone. You can purchase one of these for anywhere from $50 to $250, or you can make one with proper bedding and heat.
If you choose to make your own brooder, you’ll need a container, a heat source (like a heat lamp for reptiles), substrate, a food bowl, and water. There are lots of ways of setting brooders up, but those are the main components. When picking a heat lamp, make sure you use a red bulb. If chickens see blood on each other, they’ll peck at each other until they die. Red light conceals any nicks or blood on their feathers.
When you first get your chicks, you’re going to want to keep the internal temperature of the brooder around 95 degrees. Watch the chicks’ behavior. If they huddle under the lamp, it’s too cool inside. If they scatter and hug the walls furthest from the heat source, it’s too hot. Each week, reduce the heat by 5 degrees. Just remember to keep watching your chicks behavior.
Food and Water
The next concern is making sure your chicks have enough to eat and drink. Lots of homemade brooders are set up with water bottles that work similar to a water bottle in a hamster cage. This is a good way to make sure the chicks have enough, and that their water stays clean.
Keeping them watered is simple. If their water is low, top it off. If it’s dirty, change it out.
Food is a little more complicated. Chicks aren’t ready for pellets yet, so you need to feed them crumble [. We recommend using medicated crumble, as it will help keep them healthy when they’re most vulnerable to disease.
When your chicks are still little, you want to make sure they get a crumble containing 18-20% protein. Once they move outside, you can mix their pellets with a lower protein crumble (16-18%).
Things to Watch For
Chicks are prone to a number of different diseases, most of which are fatal. We’re talking about things like E.coli, salmonella, bronchitis, pneumonia, and rot gut. Because their immune systems are so weak, they will almost always die if they get sick at this stage.
To prevent illness in your chicks, be sure to keep their brooder clean. Giving them medicated food can also reduce odds of illness. Finally, we cannot overstate that chicks need to be kept at the proper temperature. If it’s too cold, they can develop pneumonia quickly.
Another thing to watch for is what’s called “muck butt,” “pasty butt,” or “poop butt.” This is essentially what it sounds like. As your chicks poop, their cloacas can be blocked by their own poop, which gets caught in their feathers and dries.
To treat poop butt, wash the chick’s rear under lukewarm, gentle running water until the poop softens. Then gently coax it out of their feathers. The key is to be gentle, as ripping it off can tear the chick’s skin.
After Six Weeks
After the chicks have been waddling around for six weeks, they’re ready to live outside. But that doesn’t mean they’re full-grown yet. You still need to plan your flock (which might mean integrating the new chicks with your current flock). Chicks at this age are a tasty snack for every kind of neighborhood predator. So you need to think about how best to protect them.
Feeding and Watering
For starters, you can start giving your chicks normal food, whether you use pellets, mealworms, or black soldier fly larvae. Mix the chicks’ food with lower protein crumble (16~18% protein) for a while, weaning them onto normal food. And as usual, make sure they have access to clean water.
Planning a Flock
The chicks you received as eggs were probably a 50/50 mix of hens and roosters. Obviously, this isn’t ideal for a flock. You want one male for every 10 hens. Having more can cause squabbles.
So it’s wise to give away some of your males. You can tell the sex of your chicks by vent sexing them.
If you already have adult chickens, make sure you quarantine the new arrivals for a few weeks and watch them for signs of health problems. You may want to partition your coop, or keep the new chicks in a smaller, separate coop until they’re larger.
Introducing chicks to a flock is its own process, and should be handled delicately. Getting the adults used to the new chicks should be done by separating them physically, where they can see (but not peck) each other.
After a while, you can supervise a few in-person visits between the new flock members and your adult chickens. Keep a close eye on them and don’t let them hang out longer than 20 or 30 minutes at first. With more contact, they’ll grow accustomed to one another and accept the new chicks as members of the flock.
Keeping Your Chicks Safe
Building a coop is a separate topic entirely. It takes a lot of hard work and sturdy materials to keep predators like raccoons, coyotes, snakes, and hawks away from your chickens.
Suffice it to say for now that you want to make sure your coop is airtight. You can prevent burrowing by making the chicken wire of the walls fan out underground around the base of the coop.
Make sure the chickens are covered with high gauge wire to prevent flying predators like owls and hawks from swooping in. As they keep growing and begin to lay their own eggs, make sure you remove them quickly. Having more eggs around attracts unwanted guests.
At this point, you’re on easy street. Chickens are incredibly low-maintenance and a lot of fun. You just need to take care of their basic needs and give them a safe place to sleep, and they’ll be happy and healthy for years to come.