Beginners Guide to Getting Started Raising Baby Chicks

February 13, 2018

So you've decided to start raising chickens! I assume you've checked with your town or municipality and know the rules as far as how many chickens you are allowed, if you need a permit for either the chickens or their coop (or both), if you can have roosters, etc. And now you're ready to get started.
Raising baby chicks isn't difficult. They really just need to be kept warm, safe, and well fed and watered. But first you are going to need to find some chicks to buy! Spring is the most common time to start raising chicks because while they need to start off in the house under a heat lamp, by the time they have grown in their feathers and are ready to go outside around 6-8 weeks old, the weather should be warm enough.

Where to Get Baby Chicks

If you are only looking for hens (or female chickens), then your best best is to order them from a reputable hatchery such as My Pet Chicken. They offer "sexed" chicks (that means you can choose either females or males) and guarantee a 90% accuracy rate. They have a wonderful selection of various breeds, let you mix and match, and only require a low minimum number of chicks purchased per order (often just three).  They will ship your chicks to you anywhere in the country; you just go to your local post office to pick them up when they arrive.
Another option is to visit your local feed store. Depending on the store, they might have the chicks separated by sex and breed, or they might have them listed as "straight run" which means the males and females are mixed in together. If you definitely don't want roosters, you will want to avoid the "straight run" tub! 
Craig's List or a local farm are also places to check for baby chicks, but you will be taking your chance in many cases as to not only the breed but the sex you might be getting. You might not end up with true purebred chicken breeds, but if you're just looking for some baby chicks that will grow up to  be nice laying hens for you, that's likely going to be an inexpensive source for baby chicks.

Supplies

Before you bring your chicks home, you will want to assemble some supplies for them. All of these items can be found at your local feed store, or online from Amazon.com.
Brooder  (see below)
Heat Lamp with Red Bulb (see chart below) or Brinsea Eco-Glow 
Small Thermometer
Rubber Shelf Liner/Paper Towels
Pine Shavings or Chopped Straw
Chick Feed 
Chick-sized Feeder or Small Dish
Chick-sized Waterer 
Small Stones or Marbles
Plain Pedialyte or Sav-a-Chick Electrolytes

Brooder 

Your chicks will need to live in a in a box or other container called a "brooder" for the first few weeks.  You can use anything from a cardboard box to a plastic tote to a metal wash tub to a puppy playpen as a chick brooder. It just needs to keep them contained and safe from drafts, family pets, children or other household dangers. The top should be covered because it won't take your chicks too long to figure out how to flutter and flap and get over the top and escape! A quiet room in the house such as a mudroom, laundry room or spare bedroom is a good place for the brooder. Somewhere easy to keep tabs on your chicks but where any dust or smell won't bother you.
Since your baby chicks can't keep warm by themselves until they have grown in feathers (usually around 8 weeks old), they will need to be under a heat lamp. A red bulb is preferable to a white one because it can reduce aggression and pecking issues. The heat lamp needs to be left on 24/7, but the temperature can be lowered each week to gradually get the chicks accustomed to the outside temperature. It's a good idea to keep a spare bulb on hand in case the one you're using burns out. The bulb should be set up at one end of the box and the feed and water set at the other end. That gives your chicks the opportunity to move away from the heat if they wish.

Heat Lamp Temperature

1st week  - 95 degrees
2nd week - 90 degrees
3rd week - 85 degrees
4th week - 80 degrees
5th week - 75 degrees
6th week - 70 degrees
7th week - 65 degrees
8th week - 60 degrees

Some paper towels or rubber shelf liner on the bottom of the brooder for the first few days will keep the chicks from slipping (never use slick newspaper). After a few days you can add some pine shavings, although they do tend to be dusty, so I prefer instead to just use some chopped straw and dirt/grass clumps. The brooder litter will need to be cleaned out every day or so  as needed. Simply put the chicks back in the box they arrived in, dump out the brooder into the trash or compost pile and refill with new litter.
As your chicks grow bigger, they'll need more space, so be sure you are ready!


Water

When you first bring your chicks home (or pick them up at the post office), they might not be hungry but they will most likely be thirsty. As you put each chick into the brooder, first dip their beak into the waterer of room-temperature water (for shipped chicks, some sugar water or electrolytes for the first day or two is helpful).  This teaches them how to drink and shows them where their water is. The chicks should have access to fresh, clean water 24/7 while they're in the brooder, but since they are a bit top heavy and can easily drown, putting some stones or marbles in the water trough for the first week or so is a good idea. 
After the first day or so, you can add a few drops of apple cider vinegar to your chicks' water every few days. Apple cider vinegar will improve their overall health, boost their immune, respiratory and digestive systems and aid in nutrient absorption.

Feed

Chicks need to eat chick starter feed for the first eight weeks. You have a choice of medicated or non-medicated. I recommend the non-medicated. I believe that keeping the chicks in a clean environment with enough space that they're not crowded, and adding a few things (like apple cider vinegar, oats and garlic) to boost their immune systems is enough protection for them. Chicks should have access to their feed 24/7 while they're in the brooder, just like the water. 
I offer my chicks fresh, minced or crushed garlic. It has wonderful health benefits for them including improving respiratory and immune system health. I find that by offering it when they're young, they'll continue to eat it for life. I also add a bit of raw oats to my chicks' feed. They like them, oats are a healthy addition to their diet and the raw oats can help to clear up or prevent a condition called "pasty butt" that chicks (specifically those that are shipped) can suffer from. 
It's also a good idea to fill a small container with some coarse dirt. Like adult hens, baby chicks need the "grit" to help them digest what they eat. If all you are feeding them is chick feed, then technically they don't need the grit, but I suggest offering it anyway. That way, you can give your chicks the occasional treats (such as fresh herbs, weeds, scrambled eggs or leafy greens) without worrying.  They will also enjoy practicing dust bathing in it.
So there you have the basics of raising baby chicks. If your chicks are peeping loudly, they are likely hungry or cold, if they are standing with their wings held out from their bodies, they're too hot. Happy, healthy chicks will be scampering around the brooder, peeping cheerfully, although chicks do sleep a lot, just like any other babies!
While this information will help you get started with your first batch of baby chicks, there's still more to learn when it comes to raising backyard chickens. I've included the links to some other articles that might be helpful below.
Further Reading

What Kind of Chickens Should I Raise?
Basic Baby Chick Care
Brooding Chicks on the Cheap
DIY Chick Brooder
Homemade Chick Brooders
Breakfast of Champion Chicks
Common Baby Chick Ailments
Handy Feed Guide from Hatch to Laying Hen
Integrating your Chicks into your Flock

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