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Are you planning on adding a few little ones to your backyard or homestead this year? Raising baby chicks may seem like a smart idea, but you should know a few things before diving in.
Raising Baby Chicks & Baby Chicken Care
Who can resist these cute little fuzzy baby chickens at the local farm supply store? They look so sweet and innocent and are just begging for you to take them home. Plus, with the current cost of eggs, it seems like everyone is looking for alternative solutions.
I’ve recently seen a lot of posts discouraging potential new chick owners from buying baby chicks and that you should just wait out the market prices for the eggs. But all of us were beginners once, and if you think you should start raising backyard chickens and have the time and the means to do so, I want to encourage you to do it!
Even though raising baby chickens seems easy enough (feed + water = happy chickens!), it’s a little more complicated than it appears. Thankfully once you have a few tips and tricks under your belt it will be a breeze and your birds will stay happy and healthy and become the nice, producing flock you hope they will be.
I’ve raised chickens for many years. When I was little, we would have so much fun heading to the feed store and picking out the special birds that we would raise for the 4-H Achievement Days. Then, we would spend weeks obsessing over our little birds and watching them as they slowly outgrew their fuzz and gain lovely feathers in all different colors.
Of course, not every batch of birds turned out perfectly, and there were many bumps along the way, but hopefully, you will learn from our mistakes!
Let’s start in the beginning with that trip to the feed store.
Where to Buy Baby Chicks and What to Look For
Most feed stores carry the basic breeds that will grow to be healthy meat and laying birds. You can check out my favorite breeds here and learn why I like them.
If you want to raise birds for laying eggs, make sure to get pullets (hens); if you don’t care as much or are raising birds for butchering, you can stick with the cheaper straight run.
I’ve had one too many roosters chase me across the yard, so I stick with all the pullets. Remember, there is always a chance that you may have some roosters, even in a pullet bunch…sexing chickens isn’t always accurate when they are so young.
- Tip! Ask your feed store what day they get chickens in from their source, and come pick out your birds a few days later. That way, you know the birds made it through the shock of being transported and have a higher chance of being healthy.
If you do not want to buy baby chicks from the feed store, you can order them online from a hatchery. I’ve ordered from Hoover’s Hatchery, Murray McMurray, and Cackle Hatchery. All are good places to learn about the different breeds and pick what you might like the best.
Most online hatcheries will require a minimum order size (usually 15 chicks), so keep that in mind before you check them out. Chicks that are purchased online will come through the mail and be held at the post office for you to pick up on a date that you specify when you place your order.
What You Need to Care for Baby Chicks
While you are at the feed store, make sure to pick up several items.
You will need a chick feeder, a chick waterer, a chick starter feed, wood shavings, and a heat lamp set up. If you don’t have a rubber or plastic tub, you will also need one. A plastic tote or rubber animal waterer works well for a small batch of birds. Do not use a cardboard box with a heat lamp or heat of any kind.
If someone is around to help you, you can also ask them about baby chicken care, especially if you are getting a specialty breed.
- Tip! If you are getting a heat lamp, get a red one instead of a white one. It will help them sleep better since you need to leave it on 24/7, and it will also help discourage pecking on each other.
Your heat lamp’s light bulk should be 250 watts. Do not get a higher or lower watt bulb, as you will have a difficult time maintaining the temperature in your brooder.
If you do not feel safe with a heat lamp to warm your babies, look into one of these brooder plates. We are switching to one of these after a heat lamp fire last year. This one will work for 10-20 baby chicks.
The feed store will put your little ladies in a box with a bit of wood shavings for you to take them home. Head straight home so your birds don’t get too cold. Do not shake the box, and try not to jar it much while en route.
We have small baby chicks and own a small farm. It never ceases to amaze me the amount of people that buy chicks, ducks, and rabbits for their kids for Easter and are trying to find homes for them a week later because they had no clue how hard they would be to take care of. You are right, food and water do equal happy chicks if their other needs are met as well.Barbie, Little House Living reader
Setting Up Your Brooder
Once you are home, place the wood shavings in the bottom of the tub you are using, hang the heat lamp several feet above the area, and fill the food and water containers.
- Tip: If you are keeping meat birds and layer birds, they must be kept in separate brooders. Meat birds grow much faster and will peck on the others.
We keep our brooder box in our workshop, but you may want to keep it in a mudroom or a garage if you have one. It’s a good idea to keep it close by so that you can closely monitor the babies. The brooder box must be in an area free of drafts and little hands that might want to pick them up. Baby chicks are very susceptible to diseases, so they should have as little handling as possible.
For the first week for the chicks, the temp needs to be around 95 degrees in the bottom of the container; you can lower it slightly as they get older. You can keep a thermometer in the bottom of your brooder box if you’d like to be specific. We like to base our temperature on the behavior of the chicks.
- Tip! If your chickens seem listless and are lying around and hardly moving, lift the heat lamp up; they are too warm! Your chicks should be fairly active. Sleeping here and there is normal, but they shouldn’t be lying down all the time. If the birds are all crowded together and cold, move the light further down.
As your birds grow, keep their cage clean by replacing wood shavings as needed. Pine shavings or cedar shavings will work fine, whatever your local feed store has. Make sure they have a constant stream of clean water (you will need to clean the shavings out of the water several times a day).
Your birds must be in this small area for several weeks until they start to get their pin feathers. They aren’t ready to go without their heat lamp until they have all their feathers and it’s warm outside at night. You will also want to feed them the chick starter feed until they are at least 2 months old.
I love having baby chicks. I have had chickens of many kinds for, gosh, probably 30 years, now. Hmmm I do want to speak a word of caution about the heat lamp. A 250 watt heat lamp is standard for this purpose and works perfectly, but PLEASE DO NOT prop or jury rig the light. Make sure it hangs securely and cannot be knocked down by children or pets. Add a small piece of rabbit or chicken wire big enough to cover your tote to keep the little peeps from jumping out. DO NOT use cardboard or anything flammable near that heat lamp. My family knows from experience that that light can catch paper or cardboard on fire in a matter of seconds. We had a power outage while brooding baby turkeys. They were well feathered, so my husband just put a piece of cardboard over them to keep them from getting a chill. He forgot to unplug the light. When the power came on at 3:00 AM, we were awakened by a raging fire. Luckily the whole setup was in a shed far enough from the house that we were safe. We did however lose a storage shed, woodshed, and a pickup to that fire. Lesson learned. I don’t want to scare anyone away from this wonderful experience. I just want to make sure that folks use their heads and take precautions to stay safe so they don’t have to learn the way we did. Happy hen raising!Jen, Little House Living reader
Issues With Raising Baby Chicks
Several issues can develop in baby chicks during this stage. These are the most common, so you know what to watch for.
Occasionally, some baby chicks die without reason. This is normal and can be expected from time to time. The chick might have had too much shock, gotten picked on, or had something wrong internally. Sometimes, it’s tough to say. Losing animals is a difficult part of farm life, but it is still a part of it.
If your chicks seem a little droopy and listless, and it’s not from the position of the heat lamp, they may need a little pick-me-up. Get some electrolytes that contain vitamins and minerals from your farm store or from Amazon here and add them to their water. I like to do this for the first few days they are home, regardless of how they act, to give them a boost.
If your chicks have poop stuck on their behind, it’s a condition called pasty butt, and it can be common when getting chicks from a hatchery. Very carefully, clean them off with a warm water-soaked towel as often as you notice this issue. Be careful not to pull out their fuzz and put them back under the warming light when you finish.
What to Feed Baby Chicks
Baby Chicks only need chick starter feed and water.
I’ve seen several other sources claim that chicks also need chick grit and probiotics and treats and all kinds of other things. While there might be merits to some of these claims, I’ve personally never fed my birds anything but chick starter, fresh, clean water, and the occasional electrolytes.
- Tip: If you want to give your baby chicks a nutrition boost, you can feed them mashed-up hard-boiled eggs. I’ve done this for the past few years, and my little babies always seem to like it.
I feel that you can make a lot of things as simple and as complex as you want to. If you feel like their digestive systems are somehow lacking, check into these things mentioned. Otherwise, make sure they constantly have access to clean water and food.
What to Do As the Chicks Grow Older
Once the birds have feathers covering their bodies and they are starting to fly out of the brooder you had for them…it’s time to move them into their new chicken coop.
You can switch them over to regular chicken layer feed now, and I would recommend getting a new, larger water and feeder if you bought small ones to start with.
If you purchased meat birds and layer birds, you must separate them into different coops, just as you had them in separate brooders. Meat birds should be fed grower feed, and egg-laying birds should be fed layer feed. Pellets or crumbles don’t matter; feed whatever your birds will eat.
You will also want to start giving them access to grit and, at about five months of age, oyster shells to help harden the shells of their eggs.
Have fun watching your flock grow! If you have little ones, it’s best to let them not handle the birds too much until they have pin feathers. Very young birds are at a higher risk of picking up issues from outside sources, so it’s best to err on the side of caution.
More Info on Raising Chickens
Get more info on Raising Backyard Chickens here on Little House Living; you can also check out this article on how we built a Frugal Chicken Coop (and used feed bags for insulation!). Plus, grab some tips on how to Save on Chicken Feed.
For even more info on baby chicken care you might want to pick up Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens. All of the Storey’s book are great for reference when you have questions.
Is It Ok To Keep Baby Chicks in the House?
Baby chicks should not be kept in the house; they should be kept in a garage or shed. They are loud and smelly, and they produce dust in the air that can be dangerous if you get too much of it in your lungs.
How Old Do Chicks Need to Be to Go Outside?
This depends on the time of year that you get them and the place where you are putting them outside. If you have a small coop or a chicken tractor and live in a temperate climate when the birds are young, they may be able to go outside for a few hours of the day within the first few months of their life.
If you cannot safely protect them from predators or it’s cold outside when you get the chicks, you need to wait until they have their feathers and can be in the chicken coop.
How Many Chicks Should a Beginner Start With?
You can get as many chicks as your chicken coop will eventually allow. Don’t get more than this if your coop will only hold 5-10. About 5-10 birds is good for a starter flock and a small family. If you have a large family or eat a lot of eggs, consider 10-20 birds.
I would not recommend getting less than 5 birds unless your neighborhood limits you.
Can You Feed Baby Chicks Lettuce/Mealworms/Bread/Cornmeal/Etc?
Stick with feeding only chick starter to your baby chicks in the beginning. Once mine are a few months old, I give them small amounts of kitchen scraps so they get used to foraging and scratching for food. This is not a replacement for their food, simply something to get them used to what I will be feeding them once they get to the coop.
Are you raising baby chickens this year? Do you have any questions? What tips do you have to share on baby chicken care?
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Merissa has been blogging about and living the simple and frugal life on Little House Living since 2009 and has internationally published 2 books on the topic. You can read about Merissa’s journey from penniless to freedom on the About Page. You can send her a message any time from the Contact Page.
This post on Raising Baby Chicks was originally posted on Little House Living in April 2014. It has been updated as of February 2024.