Backyard Chickens 101: Caring for Baby Chickens

Monday, January 27, 2014

Backyard Chickens 101: Caring for Baby Chickens

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Have you ever wondered about raising backyard chickens?  

Next up in our Backyard Chickens 101 Series  - today I am sharing my favorite part of the process  - baby chicks. Here is what to expect, what you'll need to care for baby chickens, some great baby chicken pictures, and so much more!
Backyard Chickens 101 - Caring for Baby Chickens
On Feb 6th, 2012 we became the proud parents of baby chicks! We started out as merely liking the idea of having chickens to lay us fresh organic eggs on our path to “real food”. Goodness, we had not even ever touched a real chicken!  But it turns out we were really going to like having chickens!

Where to Buy Baby Chicks:

  • Hatch Your Own – you can hatch your own eggs either from a local farmer or mail order place like My Pet Chicken. Eggs are going to cost you an average of $4 each. Make sure you see check out our hatch here! (Note: Remember when hatching your own eggs you will get a 50/50 split of boy roosters and girl hens.)
  • Buy Day Old Chicks – You can buy day old chicks that are shipped to you from places like My Pet Chicken. Shipped Day old chicks cost $3 with the rare breed costing a little more. This is actually how we came to be chick parents! Read on – this post is about just that!
  • Buy Baby Chicks – Buy baby chicks locally. The advantage is you can buy fewer and pick out ones you like. The disadvantage is many times there are fewer breed varieties and you don’t get to bring them up from day olds (unless you talk to a local vendor in advance). You will be able to get girl chicks, but they don’t stock boy roosters.
  • Buy Older Chickens – This is the most expensive option, but you will not have to wait to get eggs as long. Laying hens go for about $20 each. You will not have a relationship (sounds weird to say) with the hen and will not know how she has been treated/raised. You also will chance bringing bacteria from the original pen (latent at that point) into your backyard which will affect other chickens. You will need to quarantine her first and introduce her gradually to the flock. If this interests you search the internet for some voices of experience.
Mail order baby chickens

How to Choose What Chicken to Buy:

  • We used this guide from My Pet Chicken to help us pick chickens that were cold-hardy, friendly, good with kids, and good layers. Then from there we narrowed it down by what we liked from there. We tried to pick chickens that looked different so that the kids could easily name & tell them apart – plus it would make a fun looking flock!
         Here is what we picked for our home in the Midwest:
  • If you order in the spring you can order as few as 3. If you order in the winter you will need to get a minimum of 15 so be prepared for what you are going to do with your extras! Ideas include: offering them to friends/neighbors, giving them to local farmers, offering them up on Craig's list (you can make your money back this way or more if you keep them until they feather out), giving them to a local nature center, eating them (when they get to 16-20 weeks), or selective culling.
  • They only have so many chickens available at a time so you will need to reserve a spot – the sooner the better. You pick a week they have available - for best availability order by January or sooner! The chicks hatch on Sunday/Monday and you will get a call letting you know they are being shipped on Monday. We had one chick that just didn't hatch and had to pick a substitute

Preparing for your Chicks:

You are going to need a place to house your baby chickens for the first 4-6 weeks of their lives. When they are this little they need some extra care. You can put them in a garage, basement, or as in our case – an eat in kitchen. Just make sure you have everything good to go and can maintain the temperature well before your chicks should arrive/hatch!
Caring for Baby Chickens

Here is what you need:

  • Enclosed space (it can be a plastic storage bin, box, or corrugated cardboard with slits to fit together like ours. You can also buy chick starter kids that are all ready for you like this one.  Although you won’t need more than 2 feet by 2 feet for the first week - chicks grow quickly! You will need 2 square feet per chick before they go outside – so plan accordingly!
  • Absorbent Bedding – The best choices are pine shavings (super absorbent and affordable) and sand (absorbent, affordable, and easy to clean – although who wants a bunch of sand in their house) Do not just use newspaper that will rub off on them and will be hard for them to get a grip on and possibly produce defective feet. It will also not absorb well and chicks may get chilled and sick.
  • Heat Lamp – Chicks come from a warm incubator of 99.5F and they are going to need a warm environment of at least 95 F to start with. If chicks get chilled they can die. You will lower the temperature about 5 degrees a week until they are all feathered out and can maintain their own temperature.  You do this by moving the heat source up.  Red light bulbs (250-watt infrared heat lamp) are nice so the chicks don’t get over stimulated and can’t sleep at night.
  • Feeders – we have 1 feeder designed for chicks. We choose red because it attracts the baby chickens to the food. You will want to start with a food designed for baby chicks. We choose a non-medicated organic chick food. This stuff is expensive shipped so find a local seller. We buy ours for $10 for a 50lb bag.
  • Water – You will need 2 water dispensors. At the beginning you will want to add some small rocks so the chicks don’t fall in and drown. Once they are about 4 days old you can take them out. Note: Chicks love to dig and will very quickly make a mess in their water with their bowel movements and pine shavings. You will need to clean out their water frequently throughout the day. A clean environment will produce healthy chicks!Tinkertoy Chick Roosting bar
  • Roosting Poles – Chicks love to roost! The chicks will love it if you provide 6” tall roosts. We made them roosts from tinker toys.

Picking Up Your Baby Chicks:

Your local post office is suppose to call you when they arrive, but sometimes your phone number can be misprinted or they might get busy and (shock I know) forget! So best to call your local post office and tell them you are expecting live chicks. This way they will be on the look out for you. We were able to pick ours up from a special door before the post office opened. 
Baby chicks arrive in the mail - love the chirping box!Your chicks come in a small box. This is the only time in their life they can be shipped this easily because chicks don’t need to eat or drink for 24-48 hours after hatching. But when they get there they will be hungry and thirsty so make sure you have a home all ready for them!

NOTE: If you have sensitive children make sure to check the box before letting your children see the chicks. It didn’t happen to us, but on rare occasion a chick may die in shipping.

If once you put them in their new home they don’t start drinking pick a particularly spunky one and dip his beak in the water. Once one realizes where/what it is they will all follow.

The First Day of Caring for Baby Chicks

Baby Chicken Drinking
You are going to need to make sure the chicks are getting enough food and water. You will need to refill the food about every 1-2 days and the water several times a day (as they make a royal mess of it!)  Watch the chicks for:
    pasting up
  • signs of too cold (all huddle together under heat lamp)
  • signs of too hot (panting and hanging out at the outskirts of their brooder)
  • distress (loud chirping is a warning something is wrong – draft, we had a downright mean chick, tipped over water, etc.)
  • Pasting up (basically the poop gets stuck on their bottom and they can’t poop any more because there is now a plug. If you don’t help them this is a fatal condition.) Out of 15, we had 3 of our chicks with this – basically we helped them about once a day for the first couple days. Really not a big deal, easier than kids =-) Just put a warm wet paper towel on the area to help it come off; if it is really stubborn you may need to put their little bottom in warm water until it loosens up a little (just a couple of seconds). We did this a couple times and again, not to hard. Just know you are doing what is best for the chick even if they wiggle and protest. 
  • Don’t pull the black cord! If you notice a black cord/string attached to their back sign don’t pull it. It is actually their umbilical cord and pulling it could cause enormous pain and possibly permanent damage to the chick.

Children love holding cute baby chickensBaby chicks are super cute! they are like little balls of fluff at this stage. Most are yellow, black, brown or a combination of those colors.

After giving them a couple of hours to adjust to their new home, grab some food, and drink up- it is a great time to get in some chick holding time. They will just get faster and faster and poop more and more!
And if you thought kids grow up fast – baby chickens grow up in a blink of an eye!

NOTE: I have you have a chick who is pasted up or doesn't appear to be thriving please leave that chick alone. Always be sensitive to the chicks needs over the fun of holding them.

Easter Egger Baby Chick  Buff Orpington Baby Chick   Homeschool Kids love watching baby chicks all day long

One fun thing to do is to put some feed in your hand and let them peck at it. This is a great way to get them use to you so they will make good pets later on. In case you are wondering chickens have no teeth and it won’t hurt to have baby chickens peck at their food. If you are anxious (like we were) to give them “treats” – hold off for a week until they get a chance to start eating their main food that is going to help them to grow strong and healthy.

Next up . . . Backyard Chickens 101: Growing up Fast!

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