Nothing says springtime like baby chicks! If you have decided that the time is right to add chickens to your life, this Chick Check List is for you. There is no doubt that a new batch of chicks ordered from your favourite feed store, through the post, or a local heritage breeder is adorable and entertaining. Amidst the fun, however, these fluffy littles do require some basic knowledge and proper equipment to grow into healthy adults. Let’s get started on the right foot!
A chick brooder is any structure that you use to contain your chicks, from basic to extra fancy, depending on your creativity, budget, number of chicks, and the overall space you are using to house them. We have researched and tested a number of different brooder set-ups. Some examples of containment units include:
Whatever your set-up, we suggest aiming for something that is:
1) Easy to clean : Baby chicks are messy and you will want to contain their bedding, dust, and waste, with a surface that you can wipe down. The least expensive option of a cardboard box provided above is the most troublesome in this regard. You might be surprised at how much dust and waste can be produced by a small number of chicks. You should be prepared to deal with mess, not only inside the brooder, but within whatever room you use to keep your unit. Having chicks inside your home is great from an accessibility and heat perspective, but it is, no doubt, a dirty job to keep the space clean.
2) Size appropriate : Chicks grow quickly! You will need to decide whether to start with a brooder that will accommodate your chicks as they grow or plan ahead to move your chicks once they outgrow their temporary home. Chicks should have room to roam for their physical development and overall health. Overcrowding can lead to unhappy chicks and disease. We will talk more about transitioning your chicks from a brooder to their permanent coop home in a later segment, but for the purposes of setting up your brooder, you should plan to house your chicks for up to twelve weeks, and perhaps longer, depending upon the type of coop you will transitioning to and whether you will be integrating with older birds.
3) Heatable : Heating your brooder appropriately can be both challenging and controversial. Baby chicks require a warm space to live and grow until they are fully feathered. The general rule of thumb is to maintain an appropriately sized place to congregate inside your brooder that is between 95-100 degrees for the first two weeks, and then reduced by five degrees each week thereafter. Traditional heat lamps remain a common method of providing warmth in the brooder. Heat lamps are sold at feed stores and clipped onto the side of the brooder to warm a section of the brooder to the appropriate degree. The use of heat lamps is, however, highly controversial in the hobby farming community because of both safety and health concerns. We will leave it to you to explore the research and commentary on the use of traditional heat lamps.
If you decide that a heat lamp is not for you, another option is an overhead heat plate, kept at a height that allows your chicks to crawl underneath and lean in. These types of heaters provide your chicks with radiant heat that is NOT hot to the touch. This style mimics the warmth that a chick would receive from its momma while underneath or pressed up again her. These products come in different sizes depending upon the number of chicks you are brooding, and can be raised up as your chicks grow. They are safe, low wattage, and chicks love them. We have had very good luck with this style of heater (the EcoGlow) by Brinsea. It is important to note that this type of heater is only effective when the ambient temperature of the room your chicks are in is 58 degrees or warmer. These heaters will not serve your chicks in the dead of winter, if they are otherwise in an unheated space.
4) Beddable : Your chicks will need bedding and there is a lot of choice. Many people like to use paper towel in their brooder for the first few days to be able to better keep an eye on the chicks’ stool. It is also easy to clean, as it can simply be discarded, with new towels provided as needed. After a few days, you will want to switch up your bedding to something more permanent. Cleaned and chopped straw and wood shavings also make excellent bedding, which is scoopable and easily replaceable, in particular if you line the bottom or your brooder with a tarp or other material that can be removed all at once, with the bedding discarded. Many discourage the use of cedar shavings because of the strong smell, which can be disruptive to chicks. Recycled paper or newsprint can also be problematic if the ink used is otherwise toxic for developing animals. Washed construction sand (not beach or playground sand, which is too fine) is an additional option (which we use in our big kid coop), as it dries quickly and is easily cleared of waste with a litter scoop.
Whatever you use, you will want to keep an eye on your bedding to ensure it is clean and dry. Wet bedding is to avoided, as it allows bacteria and fungus to multiply and impact your chicks’ gut and overall immune system. There is no such thing as litter that is too clean, so keep scooping and replacing! Daily observation of your chicks' behaviour and droppings is vital to maintaining health in the brooder. The time it takes to clean your chicks’ bedding is a great opportunity to check on the overall health of your babies. Loose stool is not something you want to see in the brooder (but, it happens!) and should prompt you to take further appropriate action.
5) Ventable : Your brooder should have good ventilation, both for ease of respiration and to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. As your chicks grow, and perhaps begin to roost, you will need to limit the risk of your chicks jumping or flying out of the brooder. Whatever method you use to contain your chicks (either by building up the height of your brooder or adding a ceiling), it is important to ensure that air continues to flow nicely through your set-up.
Baby chicks need a balanced ration to support and maintain their growth. When you first bring your chicks home, you will need what is commonly called a “Starter” ration. Much scientific research goes into the development of commercial rations and, if you take a moment to read the feed tags, you will see how the balancing of the components is different, depending upon the age of the chicks you are feeding. Starter rations, for example, contain more protein and less calcium than adult bird rations, on purpose, as they are designed to support rapid growth, while at the same time providing a suitable amount of mineral that their little organs can handle. Your chicks will stay on their starter ration for 6-8 weeks (you can check the recommendations of your feed supplier) and will then move to a “Grower” ration, which will get them through the adolescent period until they reach sexual maturity.
When choosing a starter and grower feed, look for a good quality, fresh supply (your local feed store can guide you). Store your feed in a cool, dry place, to keep it fresh and safe for your chicks.
Chicks eat all day long! When you add your feed into your brooder, try to choose a feeder that will stay clean. A feeder that can be tipped over or crawled inside of will contribute to waste and contamination, neither of which is good for your babies. Suspending your feeder at an appropriate height and allowing an opening that is only large enough for feeding, can be useful in keeping your chicks’ ration dry and poop free.
A note about mediated versus non-mediated feed : When you hear about starter rations that are “medicated”, it means that the feed contains something called Amprolium. Amprolium is not an antibiotic. It is a “coccidiostat”, which can help control the growth of a protozoa called coccidia that lives in the intestinal tract of many animals, including chickens. When there is too much of this protozoa in the gut, chickens, and in particular baby chicks, can become very ill, very quickly. One way to help avoid an overgrowth of this ever present parasite is with the limited use of a coccidiostat that helps to keep the numbers under control while your chicks develop. As with all aspects of chicken husbandry, there are varied opinions on the use of medicated feeds. We encourage you to do your own research here and make the decision that best suits your situation. Irrespective of your choice of feed, good hygiene practices are key to keeping all parasitic overgrowth and infection at bay. Changing your clothes and boots, washing your hands, and providing clean and dry bedding is crucial to good gut health for both you and your chicks. Later in this series, we will devote an entire section to our experience with coccidiosis, so please stayed tuned for that.
A word of caution on treats : Try to keep treats to a minimum with your babies. The more treats your chicks eat, the less they will eat of their balanced ration, which can impact their nutrition intake and overall development. We know that providing treats can be fun for us, but your chicks don’t need them. There are other ways to stimulate and bond with your chicks, without impacting their health.
Chicks need a constant supply of clean water. Again, we suggest being creative here with the goal being to keep your chicks hydrated while keeping them out of their own water dish (yes, they like to splash and make a mess). Water contaminated with poop is always bad and we can say from experience that it is difficult to avoid with most traditional waterers. Nipple waterers, by contrast, are excellent in this regard, as they allow chicks to get a drink without ever being able to access the water beyond tapping for a sip. Chicks are smart! Chicks as young as two days old can learn to drink from a nipple waterer. You can help them along by gently tapping their beak to the nipple. Once one chick realizes that fresh water comes from the nipple, others will join in, and they will all be drinking from a clean source in no time. One of our favourite waterers is by a company called Rent-A-Coop. It can be hung or mounted on the side of your brooder, and raised up as your chicks grow. It holds one litre of clean water and is very easy to use.
Chicks have a sleep cycle and it is important to their growth that you help them stick to it. Chicks should have proper lighting during daytime hours, and darkness at night (following the sun is a good benchmark here). Keeping a light on your chicks 24 hours a day can disrupt their sleep rhythm leading to problems with development. So, enjoy saying goodnight when it is time for lights out! Chances are, your chicks will already have put themselves to bed.
Chicks play and you should consider adding safe sources of entertainment to your brooder as your chicks grow. Roosts of varying heights (starting at ground level in the form of a simple clean branch) can be a great way to promote exercise and mental stimulation. Safe mirrors and other shiny objects can also go a long way in entertaining your chicks. Old shoe boxes can make great forts and tunnels for your chicks, provided you discard them when they get too dirty. Toys with moving parts, loose components, or any item that can be ingested by your chicks should be avoided.
A note about handling your chicks : There is much commentary on when you should or should not handle your chicks, and we encourage you to do your research here. In our experience, chicks are very social and, as long as contact with humans is not stressful for them (which you can observe in the form of mouth gaping, overly frantic movements or loud distressed sounds), and you are maintaining good hygiene both before and after handling, you can provide a positive experience for all in handling chicks from a young age. We like to start by allowing chicks to come to us. Chicks are naturally very curious and, before you know it, they might just be climbing all over you. Well socialized chicks can make for lovely adults, and will allow you to get enjoyment out of your flock while you put in the work to raise them up well!
We hope that you found our Chick Check List helpful. A quick internet search of brooder set-ups can help get ideas flowing if you are stuck on putting yours together. Once you have a plan, we encourage you to refer back to our list to see if your set-up captures each of the elements outlined here. We have changed our own set-up with each group of chicks and have learned from issues that come up. No two brooders are alike and no brooder is perfect, so please just have fun and learn as you go. Of course, we would love if you would share your brooder photos with us to promote our discussion and provide inspiration for others. We're ready for some shout-outs! In the meantime, congratulations and happy chickening, friends!