Raising Chicks

Chicks are cute... Raising them isn't terribly difficult, but there are some Gotchas in there if you aren't careful. Most likely, you'll start out much like we did with your first batch - making do with what you have on hand as much as possible so it is not prohibitively expensive, trying it out to see if it will work for you.

You'll need a brooder if you are raising chicks by hand. Best to line the floor with paper for the first few days (some sources say paper is too slick, but we have not experienced any problems using regular newspaper). We prefer paper as a liner in the brooders, until the chicks transfer to wire cages or other accommodations. We do NOT recommend cob bedding! The chicks LOVE to scratch in it, and they have a ball with it. But it ends up in their feed, and water, and makes a royal mess. We suspect that sawdust bedding might do the same thing. So we just put down paper, and sprinkle some sandy dirt around on it for grit and scratch. They still toss it in their food and water, but it makes less of a mess, and doesn't pollute their water with chemicals (the cob is processed, and when it gets in their water, anything in the cob leaches into the water).

If your chicks arrive in the mail, they will be hungry, thirsty, and cold. Now, you may think that hunger or thirst is most important. No. Warm them up first. They behave differently after they are warm.

Don't try to warm them up by giving them warm water or mash. They'll just crowd it and perhaps kill a few by crushing or drowning, or they may get wet, and get more chilled.

Get them into your brooder, under some heat, as soon as possible. You can sprinkle some dried dill weed, savory or parsley, or some cornmeal or dry cream of wheat on the floor for them to peck at while they are warming up - that will help you see when they are warm enough to take interest in other things, and will give them a bit of food that won't be dangerous. When they stop huddling, then put in some mash and water. It should take 15-30 minutes for them to warm up.

You can feed them wet chick mash - either buy it and dampen it, or cook or ferment your own. It should have the consistency of slightly soft oatmeal. We seriously recommend fermented feed over cooked feed. More on that down the page further.

Now, we hear a lot about chicken diets. You have two choices, either buy chick starter, or make your own.

Chicks aren't rocket science. If you ask someone what to feed them, and they start in with a long list of artificial ingredients and nutrient percentages, then they are not thinking straight!

Chicks have existed for millenia, and they did so long before people started computing the "perfect feed". Nature already did that. The trick with chicks, is giving it to them in a form that they can eat, since mama is not there to help them, and giving them a sufficient variety of grains, greens, and meat proteins.

Finely cracked wheat, finely rolled oats, finely cracked hulled (not pearl) barley, cracked rye, cornmeal, dill weed, chamomile, dandelion, small bits of romaine, alfalfa seed, even dried herbs such as savory or thyme (be careful, some are not good in large quantities), millet, cracked shelled sunflower seeds, etc. Be sure to give them plenty of greens - the dried herbs are good for that in winter, as is chopped lettuce, cabbage, chard, kale, wheatgrass, alfalfa sprouts, or other veggies (chop them very fine).

Chicks LOVE alfalfa sprouts, and homegrown ones are good for them (a nice way to keep them in veggies at minimal cost, though you'll need more than the usual bitty sprouters). Other sprouted grains or legumes are also good - clover, radish, wheatgrass, barley, millet, oats, buckwheat, etc, are all good sprouts for chicks (we sprout their scratch grain, and some finch seed in a large tray). They can also have milk, and finely chopped boiled egg. You can cook up scrap meat, grind it, and feed that to them also - or chopped worms or grubs (ok, I find the scrap meat to be preferable until they can eat bugs themselves because chopping worms is just gross, and cleaning up puke is even grosser). Chickens are ominivores, not herbivores, so a combination of natural FOOD, including MEAT (or bugs) is what is best for them. They don't require things like soy meal and bone meal, those things are not food!

We start them on chipped sunflower seed and thistle seed mix, by adding it to their mash, about 2-3 days of age. It has a variety of trace nutrients, as well as oils and proteins that help to keep your chicks healthy.

During the first week, we make sure they have either cooked or fermented mash. After that, it really is best to get into a routine of fermented mash - you can just wet it down, but they just don't get the nutrition out of it as easily. It can be a little coarser each time, and by the fourth week, we can gradually switch to whole grains. We usually start putting some fermented whole grain in a bowl, separate from their regular feed, so they can start getting used to it - we did that on the second day with our latest batch of chicks.

They should have grit from the beginning - if you want to keep that cheap and natural, a cup of sandy dirt clods will be just fine, they'll peck out what they need. A bit of finely crushed oyster shell (look in the bottom of the bag) will provide calcium if you don't have eggshell to give them.

Keep it simple. And keep it natural. (Fermented foods ARE natural, and help to replace the variety of foods they'd get normally that you cannot really provide in a contained setting).

One possible recipe and routine for about 20 chicks is this:

Fermented Mash - 4 cups cracked wheat, 2 cups rolled oats, 1 cup cornmeal, 1 cup finch seed mix, water to cover, and 2 tbsp live culture yogurt (to ferment it and add healthy bacteria). At 2 days old, start adding 1 cup of shelled, crushed sunflower seed (sunflower seed and thistle mix is good). Ferment for at least 8 hours before feeding. Use out of that until it is down to about a quarter of it, then refill the grains and add water to thoroughly wet it down again. You can refill like that for a couple of weeks, then start a fresh batch. Older chicks can have a grain mix (oats, barley and cracked corn) substituted for the rolled oats and cornmeal, and eventually you can substitute whole wheat for the cracked wheat.

1/4 cup of meat protein per day up to 3 weeks old, then double - we use cooked and ground scrap meat that we save from butchering, but raw meat is also fine (it should not cause issues with cannibalism if your chicks are not crowded, and are well fed).

1 cup alfalfa sprouts per day starting at 2 days old, adding in more greens and increasing the amounts as the chicks grow.

Sprinkle salt, dirt, and oyster shell across the floor once a week or so. Adding these things to the floor puts the chicks into a natural environment and starts them foraging early.

 

Fermenting Foods helps make them more digestible, and more nutritious for the chicks - saves you a little on feed costs also. If you add yogurt to the mix, it ferments a little faster, and you add in even more beneficial bacteria (important if you want to avoid medicated feeds). It is easy to do, and they like it.

 

Brooding Chicks

If you ordered "day old" chicks, they may be anywhere from two days old, to a week old, when you get them. And you can end up with varying ages of chicks within the same order. You can tell the difference by the length of the wing feathers. New chicks have mostly fuzz. Week old have about half an inch to an inch of wing feather. Two week old chicks have wing feathers an inch to an inch and a half long, and they have the obvious beginnings of tail feathers.

Your chicks will stay in the brooder for about 4 weeks. They'll need the heat lowered in temperature, approximately 5 degrees per week (this may change in winter, they may need more heat, and they may need it longer). You can tell if you got it right by their behavior. If you put the lights on one side of the brooder, and the food and water on the other, this gives you a great barometer of chick comfort. If they cluster in huddles (smashed together) right under the light, without much interest in food or water, then they are too cold. If they cluster on the other end, away from the light, even when not eating, then it is too hot. If they stay mostly under the light, but not huddled together, and moving around regularly to eat and drink, then it is about right. One source said this did not work during the first week, but our chicks did this predictably from the first day.

I've read commercial poultry instructions, where they talk about what a problem pecking and cannibalism is, especially with chicks. Their solution? To clip the beaks! They keep the chickens in an unnatural situation, and then compensate by something equally unnatural. They blame this behavior on confinement, but I don't think that is it at all.

Commercial chickens are raised under brooder lamps. Now an interesting thing happened when we brought home our first laying hens. We had them in the garage, along with a bunch of other animals, some of whom needed long daylight. Those animals were not affected negatively by 24 hour lights, and we had no timer system or schedule worked out yet. So we just left the lights on. An interesting thing happened to those chickens. they got increasingly agitated and aggressive. We never noticed them bedding down at all. On the third day, we started turning off the lights at night, and all that stopped! The chickens bedded down at night, were no longer as vicious, and they began behaving normally even though they were still in confinement.

Some breeders say that chicks do better under colored lights - red or blue. There may be truth to this, but there is also a Gotcha in it.  If you cut the light, and reduce the spectrum, they at least get a simulation of night and day, they don't have white light around the clock that way. If they are under bright white lights 24 hours a day, it is bound to affect their brain chemistry just as it does ours. We found that when we switched from white light to red lights, that the chicks started bedding down more in groups.

The problem with it is that the red light does not provide a means of generating Vitamin D in the chicks. Exposure to light stimulates the production of Vitamin D. Chicks only under colored lights, without additional significant lighting in the room, may have health problems that can raise the mortality rate of your chicks.

So we have determined to stick with non-light heat sources when possible, and red-light if that is all we can afford (non-light heat sources are more expensive), and to keep giving our chicks natural day and night light as much as possible, with heat coming from a different source than the light. We have not had problems with cannibalism at all, and very little pecking so far. We have found that we have to use supplemental white light in the middle of the day though, to get enough light on the chicks.

You can pretty much make-do where a brooder is concerned. A box with a clamp lamp is a traditional way of handling it. You will need feed and water dishes - but even a shallow container with 1 1/4" holes around the edge of the lid will do - something like a Ziploc or Glad sandwich size plastic container, or a short sour cream container. You want something that minimizes the risk of getting into it, or of pooping in it (though chicks will poop on everything anyway). If you can afford it, the chick feeders/waterers from the farm supply store will do well, but chicks can still drown in them. They do make a non-drowning waterer which has only a half inch wide tray instead of a one inch wide one, and this is pretty much required if you have quail chicks. Bantams fall somewhere in the middle.

Any heat source that will provide concentrated heat in the brooder is also usable. The best is a non-light reptile type heater, but colored heat lamps are also acceptable. Think creatively, and use what you have if you are only raising a batch once in a while.

Currently, we are using a small animal cage as a brooder (a large rabbit/guinea pig cage with a deep tray bottom). This is working well, it contains the chicks well, lets us see them well, provides a nice tray in the bottom to contain them when small, and to hold the bedding and catch the spills. We started out using halogen work lights - that is all we had - but switched to red brooder lights after about a week.

Long term, if you raise chicks as a regular thing, you'll want to create something that is easy to clean, and that helps you minimize common problems.

Problems

You'll see references to various things that can happen with chicks. Two of the most common are "Poopy Butt", and "Spraddle Leg". You'll see various theories about them.

Frankly, I can't tell you anything about Poopy Butt. Our chicks have never had a problem with that. Maybe a diet thing, maybe a breed thing.

Spraddle leg is often blamed on the flooring. The chicks legs will go wide out, and they'll have trouble standing. Their legs WILL slip out from under them if they are on a slick floor. But it ISN'T a floor problem. It is a DIET problem. Most likely a vitamin or protein deficiency. Some of our chicks did have this. We found that they were chicks with other problems as well, and they did mostly die.

We found that in feeding them a variety of foods, some chicks will eat everything, some not. In fact, they usually MOB the greens when we put them in. But some of them would sit, with their backs to the food, and not react. They just would not eat what was not in their feeder. And those are the ones that would die. I think the survival instinct to eat a variety of foods just was not there. Over time, I think we can breed chicks that have a higher survival rate than hatchery chicks.

We also found that as chicks started feathering out, their protein needs increased. Feathers take more protein to produce. Frizzle breeds seemed to have more deficiency problems at this stage than standard feathered chicks, suggesting that if you want to raise frizzle breeds without using commercial chick feed, you may want to increase their protein sources at about 3-4 weeks of age.

We also had a couple of chicks with Wry Neck, or Crooked Neck. They went down fast - seemed to get trapped under something, and then the other chicks would run all over them. Their necks were twisted, and they did not stand well, they tended to flap and move backward. This can be caused by several vitamin deficiencies, including Vitamin D from a lack of natural light, and some other vitamins. If you feed the chicks green sprouts, and chipped sunflower seed, just adding those to their mash, they'll pretty much get what they need from their food.

The thing we found also is that while we DID lose some chicks (more on the first batch than from successive ones), we did not lose more statistically than people do who feed them on commercial chick feed. Over time, we can improve those odds tremendously.

We also found a correlation between color, and survivability. The harder to breed colors within a breed die of nutritional deficiency more than the older more stable colors. I think they just lost some hardiness in breeding for a complicated to maintain color.

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