Getting Started with Chickens: BEFORE You Bring Home Chicks
It’s important to prepare for your chicks well before you bring them home or they arrive in the mail. Chicks are fairly delicate, so you’ll want your brooder, heat source, and feed and water all set up so you can make them comfortable as soon as they arrive.
What You’ll Need For Your Chicks
Chicks are raised in a brooder for their first several weeks of life. Brooders can be as simple as a cardboard box, a plastic tote, or a stock tank, depending on the number of chicks you need to house. There are also kits available. A brooder should be secure so no chicks can escape, and so that no curious house pets or other animals can get into it. Also make sure that it has plenty of ventilation, but keep it in a draft-free environment.
I’ve used my DIY plastic tote brooder for two batches of chicks so far (six in the first group, eleven in the second) and we’re about to use it again for ducklings. It’s holding up beautifully and I have no complaints for such a small investment of time and money!
A Source of Heat.
You have two basic options for heat: (1) A radiant heat source, or (2) a heat lamp. There are pros and cons with each.
The Brinsea EcoGlow is one example of a radiant heat source for chicks. Premier 1 Supplies also sells a similar model. These heaters best simulate the heat chicks would have if they were being raised under mama hen’s fluff, and they’re much less of a fire hazard than a traditional heat lamp. However, they are a pricey investment. Make sure you buy one large enough for the number of chicks you have; they’ll all need to fit comfortably underneath it, with it touching their backs in order to stay warm.
The second option for heat is a traditional heat lamp. Depending on the ambient temperature in the room where you keep your brooder, you may be able to use a regular 75-watt incandescent bulb. If your chicks are in an outbuilding early in the spring, you may need a 250-watt red brooder bulb. For a heat lamp bulb and fixture, you’ll spend around $20, which is a fraction of the cost of a radiant heater. The downside is, heat lamps are dangerous and can cause fires.
NEVER trust the built-in clamp on a heat lamp. I like to use several methods to secure my heat lamp so that if one fails, a backup should catch the lamp and prevent it from falling into the litter and igniting a fire. First, I built a heavy, secure heat lamp stand. (If I can build it, you can!) This year in the barn, put this heat lamp stand perpendicular to the wall, and then used wire and a hook to wire it TO the wall, so that there was no way it could fall over. Next, I clamp the heat lamp to the stand. I wind the cord for the heat lamp around the frame of the stand so that it (theoretically) could catch the lamp if it had to, but so that there’s no actual tension on the cord. Last, I thread a piece of chain through the hanger-loop on the heat lamp, and wrap that around the heat lamp stand, securing it with a carabiner. If the clamp were to fail, the lamp would only move approximately 1/2″ before the chain would catch it. If the chain let loose too, the lamp might drop another inch, and the cord should catch it (less than ideal, but hopefully it will never come to that). If you choose to use a heat lamp, take a good look at where you’re placing your brooder and imagine every worst-case scenario you can come up with — your pet cat jumping into the lamp, the clamp failing, etc. — and try to come up with solutions in case those accidents should happen.
If you plan to use a heat lamp, it’s also not a bad idea to grab an inexpensive thermometer for your brooder. During their first week of life, chicks should be kept at about 90-95ºF. Each week after that, the temperature should be reduced by about 5ºF by moving the heat lamp higher away from the chicks. If you don’t have a thermometer, watch your chicks. They will tell you if they’re hot or cold. If they’re huddled together and peeping loudly, they’re too cold. If they’re spread out along the perimeter of the brooder away from the heat lamp, they’re likely too hot. (Note: Thermometers don’t work with radiant heaters, so you will only need one if you’re using a heat lamp.)
I like to use pine shavings for bedding in my brooder. They’re easy to find at almost any feed or big box store, very inexpensive, absorbent, and you can easily toss the soiled shavings into your compost.
Other options for bedding include puppy pads, straw, hay, or a combination of newspaper and paper towels. Puppy pads work great, but they get expensive very quickly. Straw and hay work, but can get moldy very quickly and cause respiratory illnesses. If you choose to use old newspapers, always put a layer of paper towels over the newspaper. Newspaper is far too slippery for chicks and could cause them to develop spraddle leg. A textured paper towel gives them some grip and prevents this.
Feeders and Waterers.
Chick feeders come in two types. Your first option is a 1 quart feeder, plastic or galvanized, that screws on to an upturned quart mason jar. The second option is a flip-top feeder, again plastic or galvanized. In the past, I’ve used the plastic quart feeder with no issues.
For waterers, again there are plastic and galvanized options that hook to a 1 quart mason jar. There is also a 1 gallon waterer if you have lots of chicks and are going through the quart jars too fast. When your chicks are very small, put a few clean, small rocks or marbles into the water so that if they fall in, it’s shallow and they won’t drown.
Also consider purchasing and using Sav-A-Chick Electrolytes & Vitamins mix and using it in your water for the first few days, especially if you’re receiving your chicks via mail order. It helps give them a little boost after so much chaos in shipping!
You’ll want to purchase special feed for your chicks that’s properly formulated and crumbled to a size small enough for them to manage. Your biggest decisions will be organic or not organic, and medicated or non-medicated.
Medicated chick feed typically contains the medication amprollium, used to help prevent coccidiosis. If you purchase chicks that you know have been vaccinated against coccidiosis, do not use medicated feed — the medicated feed will nullify the effects of the vaccine. So what if your chicks aren’t vaccinated? Personally, I still don’t bother with medicated feed. Keeping your brooder dry and clean, and make sure your chicks aren’t overcrowded, and you should be fine. If you want the extra assurance though, medicated feed is an option.
If you decide to go the route of coccidiosis-prevention through natural means or if you have vaccinated chicks, you can consider a non-medicated feed. One example would be Tractor Supply’s DuMor Chick Starter, which is readily available and inexpensive.
Finally, there’s organic, non-GMO, non-medicated chick feed. Depending on where you live, these feeds can be difficult to find and quite expensive. One that I’ve seen highly recommended online is Scratch and Peck Feed’s Organic Chick Starter, though I haven’t tried it yet myself.
Note: We’ll go further in-depth on chick feeds and nutrition in a future post, but if you’d like to learn more now about feed for chicks, check out this post form The Chicken Chick.
How to Set it All Up
Once you’ve gathered all your materials, you’re ready to set everything up! Fill your brooder with bedding. Fill your feeders and waterers and place them in the brooder, using a piece of wood or a rock to elevate them off the bedding slightly. This will help keep the chicks from soiling the food and water as quickly.
If you’re using a heat lamp, try to put it on one end or in the corner of the brooder, away from the food and water. This gives the chicks a warm area and a cool area so that they can run back and forth and regulate their temperature a bit on their own. Plug in your lamp and place your thermometer on the bedding directly under it. Adjust the lamp up or down so that the thermometer reads approximately 90-95ºF. Secure your lamp carefully, with several backups if possible.
If using a radiant heat source, place it in the brooder at the opposite end from the food and water, and adjust the hight so that it will just touch the backs of your baby chicks. You’ll need to make adjustments as your chicks grow so that they can easily wiggle under it, but always keep it low enough so that it touches their backsides.
Things to Consider for the Near-Future
You’ve got your chick-setup all ready to go, but remember, those little peeping balls of fluff will outgrow their brooder faster than you think! Anyone who has raised a brooder full of chicks inside their home can tell you: in a few weeks, you’ll be MORE than ready for them to go outside. Bigger chicks get messier, creating a layer of dander/dust that gets everywhere, and fouling their brooder much more quickly. So, some things to consider:
- A Chicken Coop. This seems obvious, but so many times people buy chicks early in the spring, assuming they’ll have time to throw together a coop by the time the weather gets nice. I was guilty of this my first time around raising chicks. I ended up buying a coop (and thankfully got it at a 50% of clearance price) so that I could get something together quickly. If you plan ahead you’re much more able to bargain-hunt or save money by building it yourself.
- Full-Size Feeders and Waterers. As they grow, your chickens’ appetites will expand also. Obviously, that quart-sized feeder isn’t going to cut it, nor is the tiny waterer. You’ll need to upgrade to bigger feeders and waterers appropriate for the size of your flock. If you live in a cold climate, you may also want to purchase multiple waterers (so you can rotate them indoors to thaw) or a heated bucket/waterer for the winter.
- First Aid Supplies. It’s never fun to have to spend money on medications when you don’t NEED them, but inevitably accidents happen when the feed store is closed, so you really should have some basics on hand. Here’s a great guide from Lisa Steele on essential items for your chicken first aid kit.
This post is the second in the series Getting Started with Chickens. See also: Part 1 – Picking Your Chicks
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