Brooding Chicks 101

American Livestock Breeds Conservancy article on brooding

The Modern Homestead on both artificial and natural brooding!

Backyard Poultry Working with Broody Hens

One piece of advice I like to give new chicken owners is to make sure that their first batch of chicks contains at least one, if not two birds who can be expected to be good broody mamas. I like to use bantam breeds, but really the choice is up to you. Cochins, silkies and a large assortment of bantams will readily go broody, most of the breeds sold as layers do not go broody.  I recommend this so that you don’t have to build a second living space or try to integrate different age groups together (which can be an unsettling and difficult endeavor).

Brooding Chicks Day 1-3

The best way to do this is if you have a broody hen, like nature intended.  However, for people just getting started this will give you an idea of what you need and what to expect.

If chick brooding could be considered at all difficult, these are the most difficult days, when most, if any, fatalities happen.  That said, if you take just a few precautions, you shouldn’t lose one bird (unless they got cold in transit).  The two most important issues to deal with are warmth and hydration, listed in order of priority.  Chicks should be kept at about 95 degrees F for the first week, dropping about 5 degrees for every week until they are fully feathered, at about week 6.  Poultry can dehydrate very easily, so showing the chicks how to get water is important.

What you need prior to hatch day:

  1. A brooder (some sort of container; a large cardboard box, an old wading pool, an unused bathtub, etc)
  2. A heat source (a lamp works best, a red bulb is preferred but not required)
  3. Litter (dirt, sand, leaves, pine (not cedar) chips, shredded newspaper (not full sheets as that causes slipping), pine needles, and pretty much anything else that is absorbent and can be scratched up by the chicks)
  4. Feeder (either trough or hanging-this last is easier to keep clean)
  5. Waterer (plastic #2 and #5 are best-no metal as you’ll eventually be adding ACV and garlic)
  6. Food (either commercial chick starter (non-medicated) or your own recipe of whole/ground grains, this last will also require a source of grit)

Prepare the brooder before the chicks arrive, a cardboard box works great for small numbers.  Have the heat lamp set up for at least a few hours so that all the equipment is warmed.  Plain water is fine for now, but make sure it warms up under the lamp some.  Have a nice layer (2-6 in) of litter down.  I personally like some sort of dirt/sand mixture with a bit of turf from my lawn/garden.  It gives the chicks a readymade dust bath, plenty of stuff to peck at, and the occasional juicy treat.  If using commercial feed, then I recommend using non-medicated starter for the first 2-3 weeks up to 20 weeks.  Have some available in the feeder, but I also like to lay some sort of paper towel or shop rag down and sprinkle the feed on it for these first few days, until they learn to distinguish between the litter and the food.  If using your own mix, such as whole grains, make sure it is ground small enough that they can easily eat it.  Food at this stage is less important than water as the chicks have just absorbed the last of their yolk before hatching and so have a source of nutrients available for a few days.  You’ll want the feeders and waterers to be at about the height of the chicks backs, so for now that means on the litter.  As the chicks grow, raise the containers up, this also helps keep the water clean and the food in the feeder (they WILL dump it out if they can).

When you arrive home with your chicks, take them out individually and push each beak into the water until the chick swallows then release and continue with the next chick.  It’s probably not necessary to do all the chicks if you have quite a few, because as soon as one does it on her own then the rest will quickly follow.  Keep an eye on them periodically for the first hour or two to make sure that the temperature is right.  If they are huddled directly under the lamp, then it is too cold; lower the lamp.  If they are huddled far away from the lamp it is too hot; raise the lamp.  If they are just flopped all around in ‘chicken puddles’ then the temperature is fine.

These first few days they won’t have much energy for very long.  So you’ll see them running around and then 5-10 min later they’ll be dropped right where they were, legs all akimbo, looking dead.  Don’t worry, they have just exhausted themselves and need a quick rest before getting up to do it again.  The only thing to worry about is if they pile too many on top of one another (usually because they are too cold or too hot), then the bottom ones might suffocate.  They will make ‘chicken puddles’ though, so don’t worry if a few chicks sleep on top of each other.

Keep the water clean and you should have no problems.

Brooding Chicks Day 3 to Week 6

During this time the chicks will roughly double in size each week.

Keep their water clean and food available.

The first week they will get stronger each day and by the second week you won’t believe how much bigger they are than the little fluff balls you brought home.

By the third or fourth week you want to start weaning them of off the supplemental heat during the day (unless you have them outside in winter).  Start out with only an hour and slowly increase it as they get used to it, just don’t let them get chilled.  By the fourth and fifth week you want to increase the time the lamp is off to include portions of the time after sunset.  By the sixth week you want them to be outside without supplemental heat.  Some breeds are fully feathered by week 4, so you may need to change the timeframes some.

Brooding Chicks Week 6-18 & 18-20

This is a quiet time for you.  Keep the water clean and plentiful and food available.  Otherwise just sit back and enjoy the comedic antics as they discover new yummies.

Hens begin to lay sometimes between week 20 and 22, usually.  Chickens don’t like change, in anything!  So in order to change them over from chick starter to layer feed, you need to start early.  Begin in week 18 with adding enough layer pellets to their chick starter to be 15-20%.  Increase the layer feed every 2-4 days by 15-20% until you are only feeding them layer food.  Also add supplemental calcium (in the form of crushed egg or oyster shells) on a free-feed basis.  Table scraps are an inexpensive alternative to commercial feed.

Week 20+

Once you’ve switched to layer feed you don’t have much to do other than the regular care of your birds.  Make sure to give them a once over every day or two to make sure none of them are ailing and collect your eggs at least once a day.

Feed Tips

  • Whatever you feed your hens, remember that they don’t have teeth so they must have access to small stones to periodically add to their gizzards to enable them to grind their food up, commercial feed generally has this included in it.
  • Chickens are omnivores!  They will benefit greatly from the protein in meat sources, whether that comes from bugs, worms or table scraps is up to you.  However, if you truly must have your chickens be vegans that can work as well, just please make sure that they are getting all the nutrients they require to live healthy lives.
  • Three things to avoid feeding your birds (so I’ve heard):
    • Raw potatoes (potatoes are part of the Nightshade family)
    • Cooked chicken bones (could perforate their insides)
    • Refined sugars (whether cane, corn, soybean, this isn’t really something they should have in any type or quantity)  however, the natural ones in fruit are fine in reasonable quantities

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