The first four weeks of a chicken’s life are when they are the most vulnerable. Much care must be given to ensure that they are not only healthy, but merely survive. Many things must be regulated and monitored to keep them clean and disease free. This includes monitoring their temperature, ensuring that they are eating and drinking and also making sure that they can go number 2. Yes, this last part is actually quite important, so we will circle back to “pasty butt” (yep, technical name) near the end of this post.
Before we dive in…let me calm your fears. If you are an anxious person and you were not sure if you wanted to get chicks in the first place and after reading my first paragraph you have decided chickens are DEFINITELY off the table, let me reassure you that even though chickens need attention in their first month of life they are still by far the easiest animals I have ever raised and I consider them extremely low maintenance. Having said that, you may be in a place where you would rather start with pullets or even layers. That is fine too! Make sure you consider all of your options carefully (blog post here), but whatever you do, I would encourage you to join the backyard chicken wagon. It’s just a lot of fun.
The first thing you will need to consider and decide is where you will keep your baby chicks during the first month. They cannot be outside until their feathers develop and this does not happen until week 4 or 5, so picking somewhere inside that is safe and warm is optimal. We opted for our basement as this was out of our way but I was still abel to check on them multiple times a day. During the first week I was checking in on them at least 5 or 6 times a day. …ok probably more because they were so cute and I am a slightly obsessive chicken mama…
Our set up was very simple, but you could make it even more simple if you have less chicks then we did. Since we had over 40 baby chicks, we actually had two galvanized water troughs with twenty chicks in each trough.
In the bottom we placed cardboard for the first week and then after their legs were stronger we switched to pine shavings. It is important to start with something similar to cardboard (like paper towels, or some people even use newspaper) which will help them to not slip but is easier for them to walk on then pine shavings until they are at least 1 full week old. You will find that you need to switch out this bedding quite often to keep it clean, but don’t worry, this is only for about a week and once you get the pine shavings in you can actually keep that same bedding in the rest of the time the chicks are in your brooder! Here is a picture of what the cardboard looks like as bedding. It’s obviously not as pretty as the pine shavings and it get’s dirty rather quickly (as you can clearly see..) but it does the job!
In the first week of life, baby chickens need a living environment of around 95 degrees. If you do not live in the Bahamas, don’t worry, you can easily accomplish a toasty 95 degrees by adding a heat lamp to your brooder set-up. I would highly recommend purchasing a heat lamp that comes with a clamp as this makes it extremely easy to move it around and adjust the height. I would also encourage you to purchase a red heat lamp as this seems to be less irritating to the chicks (who wants a bright light pointed at them 24 hours a day?) and keeps them just as warm. We actually had a red lamp in one brooder and a white lamp in the other and the red lamp brooder chicks were always more calm and less disturbed when I came to clean out their food and water. I actually do think it makes a difference.
When clamping the heat lamp to (or hanging it above) your brooder, I would recommend attaching it onto one side so that the chicks are able to move closer or further away depending on their temperature needs. Best practice would be to use a thermometer to monitor the heat within the brooder. I can’t say that I have every done this, but, it would be best practice!
Each week the temperature in the brooder needs to drop by 5 degrees, meaning by week 5 they will be fully feathered and able to handle 75 degree weather and regulate their own body temperature. Unless you are raising your chicks in the winter, by week 5 the heat lamp is no longer needed.
Food & Water
You will be surprised at how much your little chicks will need to eat and drink. You will also be surprised at how quickly they can get their food and water dirty, so it is important to check their supply multiply times a day (Five times a day would be ideal). You want to start with a small container for their food that they can easily access but also helps prevent them from walking in it (and pooping in it) and spilling it everywhere. There are many different options, but something similar to this would work best:
The same concept goes for the water container. You will see some fancy (and creative) water drinking systems for chickens on Pinterest and while I think these are FAB for older chickens, stick to the basics with your babies. They are going to need to be able to figure out where to find food and water easily and have constant access to it. Baby chicks are also prone to being clumsy and could potentially fall into the water container and drown. It’s important to use a shallow water reservoir or something similar to this for all of these reasons:
As far as what type of food you should put in your container, again, their are many choices. You have organic options as well as medicated options. We actually opted for a little of both. I mixed in a little medicated feed with an organic starter. Whatever you decided to do, make sure that you purchase “starter” feed and not a feed meant for older chickens. The feed mix is formulated differently for different ages of chickens. As the chickens grow and become pullets their needs will change and especially once they start laying eggs their nutritional needs will change once again. For this reason make sure you start them on a food that is clearly for baby chicks. Just think of it like baby food for chickens.
When it comes to your chicks’ water needs, I would strongly encourage you to add electrolytes and potentially probiotics to the water. (Don’t you know I did both until they were 4 weeks old? But, again…I’m an obsessive chicken mama).
Room To Grow
Your chicks will grow rather dramatically in size over the next four weeks, and they may even start attempting to fly out of their brooder around week 3. For this reason it’s important to make sure that you allow for some room to grow. However, they also need to huddle for warmth and be able to find their food and water easily so you do not want them in a large area. Best practice would be 2 square feet per chick if they will remain in the brooder for four weeks. If you will be transferring them around week 3 (with heat lamps of course!) then a good rule of thumb is 1/2 square foot per chick. This will be sufficient until they are 3-4 weeks old and begin to fly and quadruple in size.
We found that week 3 was when our chickens needed to transfer to the coop. Luckily for us we have a well constructed coop with electricity so we were able to securely hang three heat lamps to ensure that the temperature stayed in the range needed while it was still quite chilly outside. If your coop is not constructed to be fully closed off from the outside elements and does not have the ability to use heat lamps, I would not move your chickens outside until they are fully feathered and able to regulate their temperature (at least 5 weeks old). Side note…when we lived in South Texas and the temperature rarely dropped below 60 degrees, I may have felt differently. Being in TN now, I feel the need to lay these heavy disclaimers. Remember that the temperature needs for the chicks drops 5 degrees each week. If you live somewhere and it is currently 100 degrees during the day and 90 degrees at night, obviously the use of a headlamp may not be necessary!
What is Pasty Butt? Pasty Butt is when a baby chick’s bottom gets clogged with poo (this is a very technical description as you can tell…) and thus preventing the chicken from further eliminating waste from their body. This can be deadly for a baby chick so it’s important to check their little bottoms and clean them if needed. You only need to do this the first couple of weeks. After week 3 they are much less likely to develop a pasty butt. Chicks delivered via mail or in close quarters are more likely to have pasty butt. The great thing about pasty butt is the cure is pretty easy, you just have to clean their bottoms. The not so great thing about pasty butt is…you have to clean their bottoms. I have to tell you though, it may sound gross to clean a chicken bottom but it’s really not that big of a deal. Besides, they are cute little fluffy chickens! In short – get over it and clean their little bottoms.
(Side note: As a photographer, I am not very proud of this above image, but it’s difficult to photograph something such as this as well as clean the pasty butt… and yes, I know I have poop on my finger. Again, in short, you need to get over it and clean their little bottoms then you can wash your hands! No. Big. Deal. People.)
Try as we might, the truth is some chicks may not make it despite our best efforts. When researching backyard chick raising, the mortally rate seems to be (on average) 85-90%. Chicks are quite susceptible to disease (most common is Coccidiosis), dehydration, Pasty Butt and even stress can harm or cause a baby chicken to die. However, if you follow the basic guidelines from above and provide them a clean, warm and dry home with plenty of food and water, the majority of your chicks should be just fine. Out of 43 baby chicks we had 41 survive. One of our chicks was blind and never learned to eat or drink despite my many efforts. We are not sure what happened with the other, but they were actually both the same breed of chicken which we found interested and they both died on the same day. I shed a few tears, but I also was expecting some loss. You should be prepared for this, however, it is never easy.
If you do your best to best to provide an optimal living environment your survival rate should be very high, and you should have many happy and healthy chicks that will soon become happy and healthy chickens! In conclusion…here is a quick cheat sheet for you!