Raising chicks is the obvious way of keeping your flock constantly rejuvenated. Young chickens are pretty much self-sufficient after a few days, but you still need to give them the right environment to thrive in.
If you're allowing a mother hen to raise her own brood, you won't have to do much other than ensuring the young birds have plenty of chick feed (see below). If you're hatching eggs in a brooder, you'll have to play the part of mother hen yourself.
The first thing you need to sort out is your chicks' housing. You can buy "brooder" boxes to keep chicks in, or can improvise something yourself using a cardboard box or plastic bin with holes in the side. The important thing is to keep the birds warm and protect them from drafts, while ensuring good ventilation. You will need two square feet per chick, to ensure they have enough room when they get bigger – which they will do, very quickly.
Chicks need a lamp in their brooder to prevent them from becoming too cold
The chicks need to be kept in a temperature of 95F in their first week. The heat should be reduced by 5F each week until you’ve reached room temperature. A heater designed for coops and aviaries is the best buy. A red heat bulb is another option (not a white one – these produce glare that keeps chicks awake at night and tends to make them irritable and prone to pecking). Standard light bulbs will not do the job.
After installing your chicks, pay close attention to how they behave. If they're crowded together directly under or adjacent to the heat source, they're cold. Lower the heat source or add another. If, on the other hand, they shy away from it, they're too hot. In this case the heater or bulb will need to be moved further away.
Equipping a Brooder for Chicks
Use wood shavings or some other non-toxic, absorbent material. Avoid newspaper, and don’t use aromatic, oily woods such as cedar. A 1" layer of this bedding will be enough. If you omit the bedding, the chicks are in danger of slipping and sliding, which can result in a life-threatening condition called spayed leg. The high quantity of droppings also makes bedding essential. Bedding will need changing at least once a week.
The chicks will need food and water dispensers. Buy custom-made ones rather than improvising with dishes and trays: these inevitably end up fouled and/or spilled. Very young chicks will need to have their water changed at least twice a day, as they have the uncanny ability of turning all liquids to messy soups within a few hours!
Adult chickens need roosting poles for perching when they sleep. Chicks can do without, but as they get older they will appreciate the inclusion of poles in the brooder, so try to include some.
A chicken wire covering for the top of the brooder is advisable. Chicks can easily "fly the nest" if the sides of the brooder are less than 18” high.
This Araucana hen provides all the warmth and shelter her chicks need when they've finished foraging
Starter feed will form the basis of your chicks’ diet. There are many different brands available, and it’s best to source one that you have easy local access to – i.e. the one available in your local farm supplies or pet store. Some feeds are “crumbles”, others are “mash”. The latter is more finely ground than the former, but both are suitable for chicks.
Note: if your chicks have been vaccinated against Coccidiosis (see the Chicken Health section of this guide), you will need to buy an unmedicated feed.
A good starter feed will also be a “grower” feed, which you can feed your chicks for up to 16 weeks. Others are for the first four weeks only, after which you can switch to a “grower” crumble or mash.
You can also feed chicks a few supplementary vegetable and other human food scraps (see the Feeding section of this guide to make sure you don’t include any unsuitable items). Like adult chickens, they will also enjoy worms and other bugs from the garden. These should never replace the starter feed mix, however. Chicks will eat as much as they need, and there’s no danger of them over-eating. So all you have to do is make sure the feeders are topped up at all times.
Grit for Chicks
Like adult birds, chicks require grit to grind up their food. It needs to be sand grain-sized, rather than the small pebbles and shell fragments that grown birds require.
This is a problem frequently encountered in young chicks. Their droppings become encrusted on their vents, preventing them from pooing. Any affected bird can be relieved by wetting the pasted-up area with warm water and then wiping it free. You may occasionally have to use tweezers to remove a plug of poo from the vent. The chick will need holding securely during this rather delicate and undignified procedure. If left blocked, a pasted-up chick can easily die.
Note: if there is a thin dark strand hanging from a chick’s rear end, this is NOT pasting up. It’s the dried up umbilical cord that attached the bird to its yolk inside the egg. It will fall off in a few days.
When Can Chicks Live Outside?
Chicks can spend a little time outdoors when they’ve reached two weeks. A large wire cage or some other type of portable enclosure can be placed outside for a few hours a day – but only if it’s at least 65F and not too windy, and definitely not rainy! The birds will need food, water and shade, and shouldn’t be left alone for very long. Predators are everywhere when you’re a small chick!
Once they’ve reached four to five weeks, the chicks can be moved permanently into the outdoor chicken run.