Red Wicket Market Farm is a small farm 25 minutes from downtown Columbus, Ohio, near Slate Run Metropark. Breeding Black Ameraucanas and Black Copper Marans to the Standard of Perfection, as well as some Olive Eggers just for fun.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

How to Care for Day-Old Chicks

We officially have too many chicks. There are 76 babies out in the brooder, which is the most I've ever had at one time. Luckily, 76 chicks aren't any harder to care for than three; it just takes more of everything. More space, more feeders, more waterers, more shavings, more lights. If you're getting chicks this spring, here are the basics. You'll need:
  • A box of some type to act as a brooder. For a few chicks, a Rubbermaid container works fine. For more, you'll need something like a refrigerator box or cattle watering tub. Always make it bigger than you think it needs to be; those babies will only fill a tiny corner of it at one day old, but will grow quickly. Almost all chicken behavior problems (like serious pecking or cannibalism) are due to overcrowding. IF you want something more permanent and reusable than an old box, you can build something that looks like this:
 
  • A screen or similar thing to use as a brooder lid. Sure, there's no way those little babies are going to fly out on the first day. Give them a week, however, and they'll be standing on top of the waterers and jumping for freedom. It's gotta be a screen or something with lots of holes for air flow.
  • Use pine shavings or fine straw in the bottom. Don't use cedar shavings like are used for guinea pigs, as they can be toxic. Also don't use sawdust, which is so fine the babies can ingest it and it can cause a bowel impaction.
  • You can buy chick waterers at your local farm store. These work very well for chicks for a few weeks; once you're refilling them multiple times a day you'll want to go to a larger waterer. Place them on something like a wooden block or a couple of bricks in the brooder to keep them a bit elevated and stop them from being tipped over. Wet bedding brings disease.
 
See the shavings in the waterers? Little beasties will fill the waterers with shavings almost as soon as you set them down.
  • Chick feeders can be purchased at the same time as your waterer. They are almost always red, and have dividers so lots of chicks can eat at once, but the chicks (mostly) can't sit on top of the feed and poop. One feeder is big enough for 25 chicks. Again, once you're refilling feeders more than once a day, it's time to move to something bigger. Don't let your babies run out of food.
  • Heat lights are very important. You'll want a heat lamp housing, which you can get at lots of different places, like a big-box hardware store or Walmart. The bulb, however, is trickier. You must us a RED 250-watt heat bulb. Yes, I know. Clear heat bulbs cost $1.99 and the red ones cost $7.99 for the same darn bulb with a red coating on the lens. I also know that you won't find the red bulbs at just any store, and you'll have to make a trip to the feed store or TSC or Rural King to get one. I'm aware, and it annoys me too. The problem is that the bulb manufacturers know that you have to have the red ones, so they jack up the price. You see, that heat bulb has to be kept on 24/7 to keep the chicks warm. How would you feel if you had a super-bright light on you twenty-four hours a day? A bit cranky? You bet. Using white heat lamps will lead to chick cannibalism and chicks that grow poorly.
     
    • Chicks need more protein than grown hens, so do use chick starter rather than laying feed. If you had your chicks vaccinated for coccidiosis, then use unmedicated feed; the medicated kind will stop the vaccine from being effective. If you did not have your chicks vaccinated, used a medicated chick starter that contains a coccidostat. This is NOT an antibiotic. Coccidia is not a "germ;" it's a parasite that lives in soil and causes terrible diarrhea and rapid death in lots of baby animals. Medicated chick starter protects against ONLY coccidia; if your chicks get a disease or are sneezing or have any other problems, medicated feed will NOT cure this. If you don't want to use medicated feed then only buy vaccinated chicks. Vaccination is the only "natural and organic" way to prevent coccidia.
    Now you have everything set up, so it's time to add the chicks.  Take them out of their box and dip their beaks into the a waterer. They do hate this, but it's necessary. If you see the chick swallowing water, you're good to go. If they don't swallow, dip them again. The point is to make sure they know where the water is. After they've had a drink, let them go into the brooder. Some people say to keep the shavings covered with paper towels for the first three days; do this if you feel you want to. I have never, ever done this and never had a problem with any of the hundreds of chicks I've brooded.

    Once the chicks have had their drink and are roaming about the brooder, check on them every half hour for a while. If they get too cold, they will die. If they are too hot, they will die. If you're the precise type, keep them at 99 degrees (right under the light) for the first week, then decrease the heat five degrees for each subsequent week. If you're a bit looser, just pay attention to how the babies behave. If they all huddle together under the light, they're too cold. Lower the light or add another light. If you really can't get them warm enough, this is an emergency. Swaddle your brooder in blankets to keep the heat in, or the babies will die. If the chicks fall asleep in a ring around the outside edge of the light, they're too hot--raise the light. If they are pretty evenly distributed around the brooder, they're good to go.
    We had to swaddle the brooder this year despite FOUR heat lamps. It got cold in February!
    Don't make all of the brooder hot. The chicks will go explore the cooler areas o the brooder, then come back under the lights to get warm if they need too. If it's too hot in the brooder and the chicks can't get away from the heat, they'll cook.

    These are the basics of raising chicks. If you want chickens that like to be petted, you'll need to take your chicks out and play with them several times a day. Being pets is not really the default status of chickens, so you do have to work at it and keep it up. If you don't mind that your chickens won't want to be petted when they grow up, you can skip this step. They'll still be wonderful to watch and will still make delicious eggs.