How To Care For Chicks For The First Six Weeks
Raising your flock of hens from day old chicks is rewarding, easy, and inexpensive. A chicken is most vulnerable for the first six weeks of its life which is the general length of time it takes for a chicken to develop their first feathers. Before they feather out they cannot regulate their own body temperature and are sensitive to both the cold and to overheating. The most difficult part of raising chicks is managing the temperature in their pen.
To raise chicks you will need:
Housing: Big aluminum tubs are great for raising chicks in but you can also use a large cardboard box, a wire brooder, or a bunny hutch. If you use a wire cage of any sort you need to make sure the gaps between wires aren’t so large that your chick’s feet can fall through them and get stuck. I’ve used a large cardboard box (which had to be replaced a couple of times since chicks spill their water frequently) and I’ve used a tin wash tub. The wash tub was the best.
Heat Lamp: you can get these hat the hardware or feed store for pretty cheap. You need a lamp that can clamp (or hang) above the chicks’ living space. The red bulbs that the feed store sell are best but we’ve done fine using regular 100 watt bulbs.
Feeder: I definitely recommend that you buy one of the aluminum feeders that are made for chicks. It keeps their feed cleaner and makes it harder for the chicks to knock it over. It’s is a small round (or sometimes long triangular) dish with a top on it with circles cut out so the chicks can get to the feed. All feed stores carry them and they aren’t expensive.
Waterer: Again, I recommend you get one of the small plastic waterers that are sold in the feed stores. You don’t want to put a bowl of water in with your chicks for two reasons, the first of which is that they will spill larger quantities of water all at once requiring more frequent litter changes, and the second is that you don’t want to provide water in which the chicks could drown.
Litter: Use only pine shavings. Cedar is unhealthy for them.
Feed: Buy chick feed from your farm store that is formulated especially for them.
Thermometer: You can get a thermometer at most dollar stores or supermarkets. You want an outdoor type of thermometer (not a cooking thermometer). This is the easiest and surest way to manage the temperature in your chicks’ environment.
To set up your chick’s environment you need to clamp the heat lamp to one side of the box, wash tub, or cage in which your chicks will live. If you’re using a box or a wash tub you need to cover the floor with about an inch of pine shavings. This will help absorb their droppings and the water they will inevitably spill. Place their feeder and waterer on the opposite side of the space from the lamp. If their water gets too warm they won’t drink it. Chickens are very thirsty creatures and need constant access to fresh cool water. Place the thermometer somewhere between the side with the lamp and the side with the food. Now you are ready to add your chicks!
Temperature: Chicks need access to heat. For the first week or so of their life they need the temperature to be between 90 and 100 degrees. After that you should lower the temperature by 5 degrees each week. You can do this by raising the heat lamp higher each week (you may need to clamp it to something other than the edge of the cage/tub/box in order to lessen the heat enough as they get larger). You can tell if they are too hot because they will huddle together in the farthest spot away from the heat source. Likewise, if they are too cold they will all huddle tightly together directly under the lamp. Ideally you should see your chicks spread out in their pen, some in the warmer spots and some in the cooler moving freely all over their space.
Food and water: It is important to check their water a couple of times a day. Chicks are messy babies and tend to stand in their water, spill it into their chips, and drink it too. The water will get dirty frequently so you must keep your eye on it to prevent them from drinking water with their feces in it. It is sometimes helpful to put their water and food on a brick in their pen to help keep it cleaner by raising it up.
Changing the litter: You should change the litter every other day. I have always had very messy chicks who spill a lot of their water so if you notice the pine shavings are getting wet near the water you need to remove the wet shavings and add some more dry. This means I was removing some shavings every day but I only did a full clean out every other day.
Handling Them: Handle your chicks as often as possible. You can try to train them to perch on your finger (set them on your finger over and over again and eventually as they get used to it they may comfortably stay put). Small children should be supervised while handling them because they don’t always understand how fragile the chicks are but encourage them to hold the chicks while you are there with them. Always wash your hands after handling them. Chicks are birds and everyone likes to eat birds so they will try to get away from you, it’s their instinct. What you want is for them to eventually feel comfortable enough that when they are full grown it will not be difficult to catch and hold them. Remember that some chickens are always going to be shy and some will become very curious and friendly.
One of the biggest common dangers that can occur in chicks is “pasting up”. Pasting up is when a chicks feces sticks to their vent and dries there preventing them from eliminating which, if not caught, will kill them. So every day you need to check their bottoms for pasting up. If you see that one of them has poop stuck to their vent gently wash it off using a warm damp washcloth. It may take some time to clean it up and the chick will not enjoy the activity- but it’s important to take care of it as soon as you see it.
It’s good to remember that sometimes chicks die. Not because you did something wrong but because they were too weak, or the travel from the hatchery made them sick. Most vets won’t treat chickens but if you see that any of your chicks aren’t thriving, call the feed store where you got them and ask for the person who is in charge of the chickens. I have always found those people to be very helpful in determining what’s going on with a chicken’s health.
When your chicks begin to develop their feathers you can let them play a little bit outside on really warm days. If you do this, be sure that you can pen an area off for them so they are easy to catch and bring inside when it’s time. Be very careful of predators like your cats and dogs who would love to catch themselves a little chick-snack. Chicken hawks aren’t uncommon either so don’t leave your chicks unattended!
Chicks are funny to watch. I never cease to enjoy seeing them fall instantly to sleep no matter what they’re doing or where they are. They’ll be walking around and suddenly their head will drop to the side and their eyes will close. The first time I saw my chicks do this I though they were dying or dead! Spend time with them and enjoy their funny antics. If you have any questions you can feel free to ask me any time or don’t hesitate to call your feed store.
More information on raising chickens: