How to Raise and Feed Baby Chickens for Eggs
Baby chicks are a sure sign that spring has sprung, but if this is your first time, raising baby chickens it can be intimidating. Don’t let it be! This post will show you how to be confident and prepared for your first flock.
- Shelter for Baby Chicks: Know what to have ready for their arrival and transition to the coop.
- What and When to Feed Baby Chickens: Once you get through the first few weeks, it gets easier, I promise!
- How to Give Them Water: This is very important upon their arrival.
- Why Heat is So Important for Baby Chicks: Don’t forget this vital step!
- What to do When Your Baby Chick Looks Sick: From pasty butt to stress and dehydration…know what signs to look for and what to do.
- When to Order or Pick-Up Your Baby Chickens: You can raise baby chicks all year long, but some seasons are a little easier than others.
- Where to Get Baby Chicks: There are so many options now, I’ll share what hatcheries I’ve used and what chickens are next on my wish list!
- Plus, a few words of wisdom from me to you on raising chickens.
Where do I put my baby chicks when they arrive?
What is a brooder?
When your baby chickens arrive, they will need a warm, dry and contained place to stay. For our first flock of nine chicks, I combined two plastic tubs to create one long tub with chicken wire on top. For our second flock of only four chicks, one plastic tub is just fine. However, they will need to move to a larger container as they grow.
This is called a brooder box.
You can make your brooder box out of almost anything. You need a box, or a large metal tub that will keep them dry, contained, warm and has ventilation of some sort.
There are fancy brooder boxes you can find online that are fun, but if you aren’t expecting to raise large hatchlings every year, I suggest getting resourceful and make something with what you have.
Make sure to clean the brooder often.
It will feel like a real chore, but the brooder needs to be cleaned often. Some say 1-3 times a week, but I like to clean my every evening for the first week while they are in a smaller container. (Depending on your set-up, you may get away with cleaning less in a formal store-bought brooder box.)
I like to use paper towels with a layer of bedding. Once they move to a larger container like a metal tub around 3 weeks, I can then clean only 1-3 times a week.
I like to start them in a smaller container to help with heat (the first week only), which I’ll mention later, and I feel personally like it makes them feel safer. Again, just for the first week.
Around two weeks of age, I move them to a larger container.
For our first flock of nine, I transitioned them to a large bathtub. I do not suggest that, haha! I think the sooner you can move them to a garage or screened-in porch the better. (Read my notes about heat and temperature below.)
A large metal tub, a kiddie pool with cardboard fencing, something like that, is a great transition shelter for the baby chicks in weeks three to six.
At four weeks, it’s time to transition outside more.
Weather-permitting, get your chicks, now looking like teenagers, outside! Use moveable fencing and chicken wire on the top to let them scratch and roam.
If you feel secure about your larger brooder situation (meaning nothing can get in or out), move them to a porch or outside of a barn.
At six weeks, it’s time for your Baby Chicks to transition into the coop.
This is when you need to be diligent to train your chickens to understand that the coop is their home. This is very important if you plan to free-range, meaning, you will let your chickens roam around.
You can be very hands-on if you like. They should naturally go into the coop from the run at sunset, but I would gather them and lock them in the coop every sunset and then open the door to the run manually every sunrise.
You obviously do not have to be so hands-on if you won’t have your chickens free-range, but they have an adequately-sized run to scratch and roam.
How to Integrate a New Flock with An Old Flock
During weeks 4-6 of the baby chicks’ lives, let them be visible to your old flock as much as possible. Position their moveable fencing close to the coop and run so the older flock can see them, but not touch them.
You will want to monitor these ‘visiting hours’ for about two weeks before testing the new flock to live with the older flock.
Some have suggested running a fence in the run as another way to peacefully integrate.
What do I Feed Baby Chicks?
How often do Baby Chicks Eat?
When your baby chicks arrive or once you’ve brought them home, you will want to introduce them to their food.
You will want to buy chick starter feed.
Do not buy adult chicken feed as those bites are too big for them. You can find chick starter feed at any Tractor Supply or through a simple online search. Scratch and Peck’s Organic Starter Feed is a great choice.
When the baby chicks are two weeks old, you can introduce chick grit to them.
This is important to their digestion, and again, make sure it’s specifically for baby chicks.
They will eat all the time. It will surprise you how much they eat!
I suggest providing tiny pieces of scraps around 3-4 weeks. They’ll be so happy and thankful for the treats.
Food and Water Containers for Baby Chicks
Don’t overthink it, just pick up something easy to clean from your local feed store. As the chicks get older, you will want to train them for what kind of feeding set-up you will provide to them later.
For my adult hens, I use a feeder they have to put their heads in and a nipple waterer, both elevated on pavers. Therefore, as the chicks get older, I will elevate their food and water so they get used to eating that way and their transition to adult food is easier on them.
Around eight weeks, they should be on adult feed.
I have a special recipe I use for my hens, but any good-quality chicken feed specifically for egg-layers is great.
How Do I Give my Baby Chicks Water?
When your chicks arrive, you will dunk their beaks into their waterer so they know where to find it. Be careful though, just a quick little dunk or they’ll drown.
Then, same as the food. As they grow, slowly train them to take their water as you prefer.
If you plan to transition them to nipple waterers like my flock, you will want to plan an afternoon of introducing that to them.
My hens were very quick to figure our the nipples, just a few minutes. All I did was push on the nipples to show the water pouring out. They got the idea very quickly.
I also like nipple-based waterers, because they are much easier to clean and keep the space around them cleaner.
Why Heat is so Important for Baby Chicks
Remember, You are They’re Mama Now
You must use a heat lamp or as I prefer, a heat panel for your baby chicks. Each week, you can reduce the heat by 5º F starting at 90º F until they move out.
- At week one, the brooder should be around 90º F.
- At week two, the heat should be reduced to 85º F.
- At week three, the temperature should be 80º F.
- At week four, the heat should not be below 75º F. This is when, if it’s in the 70’s or higher outside, they can start to explore the outdoors.
- At week five, the heat may not be needed so long as it is above 70º in the space you’ve provided.
Do pay attention to the baby chicks, as they will tell you if they are too hot. They may pant or act lethargic, staying away from the eat source and each other.
What to Do When Your Baby Chicks Looks Sick
From Weak Chicks on Arrival to Pasty Butt and Lethargy
The sad truth is that is it normal to lose a chick or two. I want to say that because no one ever talks about it until you lose one, then people will slide into your DM’s about all the chicks they’ve lost but never talked about.
Sometimes a chick is just weak. Or maybe the shipping experience was too stressful. Or something else you have no control over.
I just want to say it upfront, if a chick gets sick or you lose one, do not beat yourself up. Do what you can, and then let it go.
With that said here are a few things to help you keep your chicks healthy and thriving:
Use the electrolyte mix the hatchery provides
Most often the hatchery you’ve ordered from will include some powder mixes to put in the chicks’ water. Or, they’ll provide something to manually feed (aka dunk their beak into) them to help support their immune system after a stressful shipping experience.
You can be prepared yourself by buying some of these mixes yourself at your local feed store. I like to use electrolyte mixes in the chicks’ water the first week, then anytime a chick starts to look ‘off.’
When they arrive, and every day afterward, check for pasty butt
When a baby chick poops, sometimes the feces will harden on their rear causing a sort of manual constipation. You can image how devastating this can be for such a small chick unable to dispose of its waste.
The day the chicks arrive, then every day afterwards for the first two weeks, put on some gloves and check their little booties.
If you find any build up, dip a cotton ball in lukewarm water and just dab the rear until the hardened feces loosen. DO NOT PULL. Pulling may remove feathers that are important for their warmth or tear their skin.
If the butt is very pasty and a wet cotton ball does not work, try using olive oil (or some other natural oil) on the cotton ball.
What to Do When a Chick Looks Lethargic
I advice watching the chicks closely for the first two weeks—I mean, how can you not, this is when they are the most adorable!
You’ll be able to notice when a chick is sleepy and when something is wrong. Maybe the chick looks a little drunk and not quite as bouncy as the others.
Once you notice this, check a few things:
- Is the brooder too hot?
- Is the brooder too cold?
- Re-introduce the water and food to the chick with a gentle dunk.
- Check for pasty butt.
- If everything above seems OK, combine some save-a-chick electrolyte mix with water and direct that chick to the water once an hour for a few hours.
- Then leave the chick alone as too much handling may stress it out more.
We lost one chick in our first flock. I didn’t know about the electrolyte mixes until it was too late. She did not look good from the moment we opened the box, so who is to know if it would have helped. It was sad, but it was an important learning experience.
When Should I Get Baby Chicks?
Baby chicks can be raised year-round, but some seasons are easier.
I recommend ordering your chicks as soon as orders are available in December or January. Then, schedule your chicks to arrive close to the last date of frost in your hardiness zone. You can find that here.
This way, when your chickens are due to mature and move outside, you know they can handle the temperatures well.
I have many friends who love to get chicks in the fall, as many hatcheries have sales then, but for us and our small flock, a small spring chick order is perfect for us!
Where Should I Order Baby Chicks?
There are so many really good options for where to order baby chicks, it can be overwhelming!
From my experience, I have enjoyed working with Meyer Hatchery, but there are some smaller breeders on my radar I would love to work with such as:
- Alchemist Farm
- Open Gate Farm
- Sky Girl Farm
- A Rusted Roost
For your first flock, I think finding a breeder local to you is a great way to not only get a breed you know will do well in your area, but also connects you to someone who can mentor you in your first season of chicks.
Chickens Can Be a Total Joy
Chickens are wonderful. There is nothing like gathering the most delicious eggs each day. And I get so much joy watching each chicken’s personality develop. They’re so funny to watch!
But, chicken math is real and while it’s funny, I do want to encourage you to be aware of it. Because it’s easy to get overwhelmed and lose that joy.
Just like anything, it can be easy to look to the right an left and see bloggers and Farmfluencers aquire these big flocks of fancy chicken breeds and that is wonderful—it’s beautiful even for me to follow and dream!
However, when it comes time for you to start or build your flock, focus on you. What do you want? What is attainable for you in this season? What will give you joy everyday?
Do you want more eggs? Do you want colored eggs? Do you want chickens more for pets?
Is a small coop and three chickens enough for you in this season? Is adding more to your flock going to stress you out more or are you ready?
I skipped a year from adding more chickens to our flock because I realized our sweet spot is just under ten. Any more and we’re overwhelmed with eggs, and it’s just more to clean up.
Maybe you want to sell eggs or you have more land and so more makes sense for you, that’s wonderful!
All I want to do is remind you to seek the joy in owning chickens—because it can be a total joy.
Don’t get overwhelmed with all of the ‘rules’ or spending too much money on things you don’t need, or getting more chickens than you should.
All you need is good shelter, food, water, and a plan for them to have a healthy start to life. You can always do more or add on next season.
You’re they’re new mama, and as they say, mama knows best! You’ve got this.
If this was helpful to you, I’d love to know in the comments below! Or, tag me on Instagram (@katieoselvidge) when you get your baby chicks—I would love to see them and cheer you on!