I was chatting with some coworkers in January when the subject of chickens came up. Coincidentally, four of us, myself included, planned on getting chicks in the spring. This got me to thinking; at thirty bucks a pop for shipping, why not combine orders and split the shipping four ways?
Mama always told me that thinking wasn’t my strong suit.
A few days after placing the order, it dawned on us that we would receive 13 different breeds in one box. How would we tell them apart? To cull our worries, I used photos of the breeds of chicks we had ordered to make a mini field guide, and e-mailed a copy to everyone. We were relieved to see that each breed had a very distinct looking chick. For instance, Australorp chicks are black and yellow, while Jersey Giant chicks are black all over; both Brahmas and Faverolles have feathered feet, but Brahmas are much darker than Faverolles, etc. So, fingers crossed, we shouldn’t have too much trouble identifying the chicks when they arrive.
Such is the cycle of joy and panic inherent to acquiring and raising baby chicks. Much of this anxiety is avoided when hatching and mothering duties are left to a broody hen, but for most urban and suburban chicken keepers, chicks hatch from cardboard shipping cartons, and mothering duties are shared with a centralized heat lamp. This may sound grim compared to a warm-breasted, softly clucking mother-hen, but truth is, great success can be had in artificial brooding. For the most part, this means providing access to the basics, and trusting our little peeps to manage the specifics on their own. Our challenge is determining what, exactly, those basics are. With this in mind, the following is my take on the basics of brooding.
The City of Madison limits us to four chickens, and this is the minimum I recommend. Chickens are social animals, so a solo hen will not thrive. Get just two, and you’re left with one when the other inevitably passes. Three is a good compromise, but four is even better, especially when it comes to maintaining a healthy pecking order (around a dozen hens and a rooster is ideal for social harmony, but you’ll have to move to the country for that).
Coop construction is another consideration when deciding how many chicks to get. Standard-size breeds need at least four square-feet of floor space, and ply-wood comes in 4’x8’ sheets. This makes it easy to design and build an 8’x4’ hen-house with minimum cutting. True, at four square-feet per bird, 8’x4’ should be large enough for eight chickens, but don’t forget about the floor space occupied by feeders, water dishes, and nest boxes, and the square-footage eaten up by wall studs. Also, four chickens in a 4’x8’ space is a good ratio (depending on ceiling height) if you’ll be using their body-heatto warm the hen-house in winter.
Once you decide how many chicks to get, you’ll need to source them. If you want a show quality bird, a local breeder is a good choice. That said, I don’t see much point in getting a show-quality bird if you are interested in urban homesteading. Show birds are bred for looks over utility, so hatchery birds are usually the better route. Meyer Hatchery is a good source because they’ll ship as few as three chicks through the mail. They also sell chicks through mypetchicken.com, which is a fun way to order your chicks online. Hatcheries employ professional “sexers” who can successfully identify the sex of a chick nine times out of ten. This is important for those of us inside city limits where roosters are illegal.
Another option is Tractor Supply Co. They hold their annual “chick days” in March and April, during which they sell hatchery quality chicks on their retail floor. Tractor Supply Co. has stores in Portage and Watertown.
Unfortunately, buying day-old chicks from a local farmer usually isn’t a good option for urban chicken keepers. Sexing day-old chicks is difficult to say the least, so farmers typically won’t guarantee the sex of a bird until six-weeks old. However, if you are okay with six-week old pullets, this is a great way to go.
Before your chicks arrive, you’ll need to have the brooder set up and ready to go. The brooder itself can be anything from a Rubber Maid carton to a cardboard box—just make sure it’s draft-free, well ventilated, and has a lid with a metal screen (chicks are surprisingly good jumpers). As for size, one square foot per chick gives them plenty of room to grow. The brooder should also be predator proof, so if you use a cardboard box, make sure it’s kept where gnawing animals can’t reach it.
For the first day or so of occupancy, line the floor of the brooder with a towel. Once the chicks have developed their footing, it can be replaced with straw or wood shavings. I find that wood shavings are easier to clean.
For food and water, the Co-op sells feeders and water dishes that are gravity fed by mason jars. The feeders have individual, chick-sized holes that allow chicks to eat without competition from their brooder-mates. The water dishes are made of red plastic, a color that chicks are instinctively drawn to. Both are made in Minnesota by Miller Manufacturing.
Use a feed that is specially formulated for chicks. It should be at least 19% protein to support their rapid growth. Willy Street carries organic 19% protein chick starter-feed milled locally in Westby, WI. It’s available in bulk or 50-lb. bags, and can be fed until point-of-lay. Make sure not to feed your chicks layer feed, because the extra calcium can damage their kidneys.
The most important part of the brooder is the heat source. A 250-watt red heat-bulb works well, as the red light discourages picking. Use a metal hood with a ceramic socket, and hang it from an adjustable chain over the brooder (don’t hang it by the cord). The temperature directly below the heat source should be 95 degrees, which you can test by placing a small thermometer at chick height. Position the heat lamp so it leaves some cool areas in the brooder. This allows your chicks to regulate their own temperature. The chicks will tell you if they are comfortable or not. If the they stay huddled under the heat-lamp for extended periods of time, the brooder is too cold. If they spend their time at the farthest point from the heat, the brooder is too hot.
Maintain 95 degrees throughout the first week, then reduce the temperature five degrees each week thereafter by raising the lamp (this is where that adjustable chain comes in handy). Your chicks should be almost feathered out by the time you hit room-temperature, in which case you can ditch the heat-lamp. Just don’t let them get too cold at night.
When you open your box of chicks (enjoy this moment—soon there will be non-stop poop cleanup), the first thing you’ll want to do is inspect them for signs of illness. If all is well and everyone is chirping happily, pick them up one by one and gently dip their beaks in water—they should instinctively take a drink. Pushing water this way is a crucial first step as they will be dehydrated after their trip from the hatchery.
After they drink, encourage them to eat by sprinkling some food on the brooder floor. This will trigger their scratching and pecking instincts. Once they find the food dish, you won’t be able to keep them away.
Food and water should be available at all times. Clean the water dish daily, or whenever it gets clogged with debris or fowled by droppings. The feeder should be cleaned every time food is replenished.
Clean droppings daily, and refresh the bedding at least weekly or whenever it becomes soiled beyond repair. As long as the brooder is dry and fresh smelling, you should be good to go.
Handle your chicks gently every day. If you interact with them regularly, they will quickly grow accustomed to your presence and even bond with you. This is one of the main benefits of brooding by hand. I spent a lot of time with my current hens when they were chicks, and now they follow me around the yard like puppy dogs, and fall asleep in my lap when I pet them (precious, ain’t it?).
Don’t be too overbearing though, and try to interact with them on their level. I keep the brooder raised off the floor a few feet, and cut a door in the side of the box so I don’t have to approach them from over-head. Chickens of all ages abhor anything that comes from over-head. Your chicks will be nervous and flighty if you constantly reach your hand down from above to pick them up.
At about four weeks you can add a stick to the brooder for roosting practice. This is also a suitable time to take them outside during the warm part of the day so they can stretch their legs and get some sunshine. Keep them confined with a make-shift fence of some sort, and never leave them unattended.
I won’t go into health problems here, as any book on chick-care will be a better resource than me. On that note, I recommend Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow. Every chicken owner should read this book and keep it on hand for trouble shooting.
When they are around eight weeks old, and if weather permits, you can move your pullets to their permanent housing. If you are introducing them to an established flock, keep them separated by a screen for the first few days. I use a dog crate placed inside the run. When you finally do allow contact, expect some bullying from your laying hens as they teach the newbies their place. Monitor this behavior, but don’t get too upset, it’s perfectly natural. Eventually the pecking order will be reestablished and social harmony (or your chickens’ approximation of it) will resume.
Another important step when introducing pullets to an established flock of laying hens is saying bye-bye to the layer feed. Adult hens will subsist just fine on starter feed as long as they have access to a calcium supplement. The pullets will avoid the supplement, and you can resume layer feed when everyone is producing eggs.
Raising chicks is tons of fun and uber-rewarding, but be prepared for the worst. Chicks have a high mortality rate and are always getting in to mischief. But don’t despair, all the work and drama will be worth it when you get that first egg.