Here at Hansen Woodland Farm, we are raising chicks and have developed this quick, but detailed how-to guide and checklist for the first weeks -- and beyond -- for our staff, but feel anyone raising chicks will find this information useful too.
For more details on any particular issue, please use the resources located at the end of the article.
Before Your Chicks Arrive: Setting the Stage-- Brooder: a safe place to keep chicks warm, watered, and fed. You can buy or build elaborate brooders, but many chick growers go with a large plastic tote or large cardboard box. Be certain to have the right size (with high walls) for the number of chicks. You can also start small and move to a larger brooder as the chicks get older. Finally, you'll want a (ventilated) lid to keep brave chicks from escaping once they get bigger.
--Brooder location: You want to keep the brooder in a warm, dry place; many people set it up in a garage, others do it in their house, while yet others do it in the chicken coop (if there are no adult chickens in the coop).
-- Heat lamp: Fairly essential to keeping the chicks warm and their temperature regulated, as they can't do so initially. You can use a regular lamp and lightbulb, but products made for this purpose (with a guard) are a bit safer and more consistent. Attaching heat lamp to a 2x4 across top of brooder works well as does attaching it to a floor lamp's pole.
--Thermometer: While not absolutely crucial, a thermometer will help you more easily monitor the temperature in the brooder. -- Bedding: Pine shavings in general are the best materials, but in the first week or so, we like newspapers with a layer of paper towels on top (because the chicks will try eating the pine shavings).
-- Waterer: Absolutely essential to have one or more waterers designed specifically for chicks; other systems will lead to sad results and death.
-- Feeder: You don't necessarily have to get chick feeders (though it's recommended); some folks use the base of an egg carton. If you don't use a chick feeder, be more vigilant about keeping the feed clean (from poop) and dry. Some experts recommend simply placing the feed on a paper plate for the first few days.
-- Chick starter feed: It's essential to use a feed specifically designed as starter for chicks; your main choice will be deciding between regular and medicated. Feed this feed for the first 8 weeks or so.
-- Electrolyte powder: If your chicks are arriving by mail, purchase the electrolyte powder (think Gatorade for chicks) to supplement their water starting the third day or so and give the chicks extra strength in those key early days. (Old timers used to put sugar in the chick water.)
-- Coop: Unless you're keeping the brooder in the coop, you don't technically need to have it ready now, but it's best -- as time will pass quickly. Every imaginable type of chicken coop exists -- and your goal should be to find/build the one that best fits your needs/code/number of chickens.
-- Pen: The healthiest chickens are the ones who forage the yard for their food, thus you should have a plan for where you'll let your chickens roam, from one nicely fenced pen to a series of pens, to a moving pen, to your entire backyard. The pen should be fenced/enclosed to protect chickens from predators.
Day 1: Acclimating Chicks-- Temperature: Brooder temp should be 90 degrees.
-- Water: First thing to do when baby chicks arrive is to take one at a time and dip their beaks in the water and be certain they drink; this step is absolutely essential to survival. Refill waterer often.
-- Feed: Once the chicks have had a drink, repeat the process with their feed.
-- Location: Keep feed and water on outskirts of heat lamp, ideally on opposite sides (with heat lamp in the middle) to keep water from feed.
-- Sleep: Expect the chicks to sleep quite a lot during this first week.
Week 2: Baby (Chick) Steps-- Temperature: Bring down brooder temperature 5 degrees to 85 degrees.
-- Water: Check and refill waterer(s) at least twice a day. Clean regularly with diluted vinegar.
-- Feed: Keep with the starter feed. Be vigilant about keeping feed free of moisture and chick poop. Using a piece of plywood or extra floor tile, raise waterer and feeder for less waste and mess.
-- Feathers: You'll begin to see small feathers replacing the fluff on your chicks' wings and tail.
-- Bedding: Switch to pine shavings -- about 1-2 inches deep; clean brooder before doing so.
-- Grit: Introduce a small amount of fine "chick" grit to chicks' diet -- needed to assist in digestion (which they would normally get if raised naturally outside).
-- Perch: Consider adding a small, chick-sized perch in brooder for "roosting 101" -- made easily with three small branches in an H-shape.
-- Socializing: If your chicks are going to be more than simply production birds, now is the time to acclimate the chicks to you.
Week 3: Keeping a Lid On-- Temperature: Bring down brooder temperature 5 degrees to 80 degrees by raising heat lamp about 3 inches.
-- Lid: Now's the time when you should start putting a lid on your brooder.
-- Waterer and Feeder: Consider raising the height again, placing them on a 2x6 -- and possibly switching to adult units to make it easier on your maintenance.
-- Brooder: If you started with a small brooder, it may be time to upgrade to a larger one to accommodate your chicks' growth.
-- Feathers: Lots more feathers are appearing and replacing the fluff.
Week 4: Life Beyond the Brooder-- Temperature: Bring down brooder temperature 5 degrees to 75 degrees by raising heat lamp another 3 inches.
-- Field trip: Depending on the season (assuming late spring/early summer), now is the time to introduce the pen to the chicks in small doses -- say 1-3 hours daily with supervision.
Week 5: Tweens-- Temperature: Depending on the season, the heat lamp is done, as long as the temperature does not dip below 60s at night.
-- Feathers: The chicks should be looking less like babies and more like miniature chickens, as adult feathers grow out.
-- Separating the sexes: It's hard to tell the genders of most breeds of chicks, but by now you should be able to by examining their feather development -- and it's a good time to separate the sexes -- the cockerels (young roosters) and the pullets (young hens) -- especially if your focus is on keeping only hens for laying. -- Pen: The chicks can take longer day trips to the pen.
-- Feed: It's now time to start mixing in adult chicken feed as you finish up your chick starter feed.
-- Feeders and Waterers: If you have not already, time to switch to larger (adult size) feeder and waterers.
Week 6: From Brooder to Coop-- Acclimating: Time for the chicks to flee the brooder for the coop! If they have not been raised in the coop, take time to help the chicks get used to their new digs.
-- Feed: Provide your chicks with chicken feed, table scraps, and other tasty treats.
-- Feeder: Consider hanging the feeder (at the proper height at top of chicks' backs) to make it easier on the chickens -- and less waste overall.
-- Pen: Being outside (depending on the season/weather) should now be part of daily routine for the chicks, bringing them home to the coop to roost for the evening.
Week 8: Expanding the Menu-- Treats: Chickens are omnivores, so a good mixed diet is essential. Be creative and help the chicks from being bored by hanging some of the treats (such as a head of lettuce) so the chicks can peck at them.
Week 12: Readying the Hens I-- Nesting Boxes: Assuming you are raising hens for egg-laying, now is the time to install/prepare the nesting boxes. These should be raised above the ground and away from roosting area (to avoid poop contamination), ideally offering some privacy. Lots of methods for constructing the boxes, from old drawers and crates to water buckets.
Week 16: Readying the Hens II-- Fake eggs: A great tip a veteran told us was putting a plastic egg (partially filled with sand to give it a bit of weight) in the nesting boxes to help your young hens learn.
-- Feed (layers): Time to switch to a layer feed for your young hens.
Week 20: Laying Begins-- Harvesting eggs: Once your hens start laying eggs (there may be a few misfires first), you'll want to check the nesting boxes for eggs twice a day (while you also refresh water/feed). Discard any broken or pooped-on eggs.
-- Nesting Boxes: Keep clean and fresh.
-- Extending the season: As fall arrives and daylight gets shorter, hens will slow down egg production for the winter. You can extend the season by placing a light in the coop that comes on in the late afternoon and stays on for about 5 hours -- giving the hens about 15 hours of "daylight."
Final Thoughts on Raising ChickensRaising chickens can be a fun and rewarding experience, providing a source of high-quality food. And for those considering raising other animals, chickens are a great gateway/starting point to test whether you have the time, ability, and skills to raise and care for animals.
Finally, always remember to check on zoning and community codes before moving ahead with raising chickens (and any other animals).
Additional Resources For Raising ChickensBest Books:
Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens Chick Days: An Absolute Beginners Guide to Raising Chickens from Hatching to Laying