Acquiring Baby Chicks
As we described in the previous article, How to Order and Choose Chicken Breeds, you can order chicks online through a hatchery, and they will send them through the US Postal Service. Most hatcheries will send you chicks for $2-$3 each, but they require that you order at least 15. This allows the chicks to huddle up with each other to keep warm enough to survive the trip. If you want less than 15 chicks, as many people do, one company, MyPetChicken.com, will send small amounts of baby chicks. They provide a temporary heater with the chicks to keep the heat up during the trip to make up for the low numbers. They do charge a bit more though, but it is still inexpensive.
I received my chickens this way. In one instance, the postman just dropped them off at my door. I had an idea that they would be coming around the day they arrived, but I did not know the exact date and time. The postman didn’t even knock on the door. I happened to look out the front door, and the box was there. Thankfully, I was home. I had my brooder already setup for the chicks in anticipation of them. I could hear the box peeping. I opened the box and placed the chicks in the brooder. One of the chicks was looking pretty listless, and sad. I used a little red tag to get their attention and direct them to the water. It is important that they drink right away.
My neighbor ordered (4) chickens from MyPetChicken.com, but one was dead when they arrived, and the other three were on the verge of death. Two of the final three ended up dying, and one survived. I think it was probably too hot for them. We were in the midst of one of the hottest summers on record. I wonder if the heating element coupled with the extreme heat cooked the chicks. Ordering by mail is tricky, because the poor chicks go through hell without food or water to get to you. One good thing about ordering online is that you usually have a pretty good selection of different breeds. Also, if you want to make sure you only get hens, you can order a sex-linked breed such as a red star or black star. With these breeds, you are guaranteed all hens. If you go with other breeds, at best you get 90% hens. Beware of ordering a “straight run”. This is cheaper, but no effort is made to have only hens, so you will end up with a mixture of hens and roosters. Multiple roosters can lead to lots of fighting, damaged hens, and you have to deal with the aggressive roosters as you tend the chickens.
Buff Orpington Chick
You can also go down to your local farm store in the spring and generally find chicks for sale. Tractor Supply here in PA has chicks for a couple of dollars in the spring. They even have ducklings on occasion. It was really interesting to see the ducks, because they looked a lot like baby chicks, except for the big bill. Again as stated above, stay away from the straight run if you don’t want roosters, but if you want only hens, usually the best the farm stores can do is 90% hens.
Another option is to get chicks from a local farmer, or backyard chicken keeper. Many times you can get slightly older chickens in this scenario.
It is important that the chicks get water as soon as possible upon arrival. You also want to provide them constant access to good clean water. With day old chicks, many times you will need to put their beaks in the water to get them to drink. I used a red tag to get them to try to peck at it, and then they pecked the water and figured it out.
Feed is slightly less important than the water, but very important nonetheless. They should have constant access to clean feed. It is important that upon arrival they drink before they eat, because it can lead to pasting up otherwise. Most farm stores will sell a chick starter ration which is certainly adequate. This can be medicated for coccidiosis or not. Many permaculturalists will tell you to never use medicated feed. If you are going to be really good with the sanitation, and you are not overcrowding your chicks, then you will probably be OK, but if you are not, you may lose some chicks because of coccidiosis. I personally did not use medicated feed, and I was very careful to gradually introduce soil to the chicks, so they would not be overwhelmed by being exposed to the cocci in the soil all at once upon going out to their run. You also may want to mix a tiny bit of chick grit with their feed. The chicks will keep a bit of grit in their gizzard to help to break up their food.
Chicks Eating Feed
Chicks need a temperature of 95 degrees the first week of life. The second week, you should adjust their temperature to 90 degrees, and 85 the next week, until you get to the ambient temperature. At that point, they are ready to be outside.
Brooders and Features
I personally used a commercial brooder that has water and feed troughs that the chicks access out windows so they cannot foul their feed or water. The floor is wire with a tray that can be pulled out for easy cleaning. It has an electric heating element that can be adjusted by a dial, and a blue coated light bulb to make the chicks feel safe and stress free. A thermometer is placed inside through a hole so you can easily pull the thermometer out to check the temperature without having to open the brooder. In my opinion this is a very low maintenance option for brooding chicks, although it was fairly expensive, over $200. The only negative with this setup, besides the price is the wire floor. Chicks grown on wire tend to run into issues with pecking of each other and coccidiosis. They peck each other more out of boredom. They want to peck and scratch the ground, but they can’t do that on wire. Also, if they are not exposed to cocci in the soil until they are old enough to be put out, a lot of times being exposed all at once can lead to a pretty bad case of coccidiosis. I get around these issues with adding pine shavings and soil and weeds from their pasture as needed. This gives them something to play with gradually exposes them to the cocci in the soil. Most of their manure still makes it through the wire, although I do have to clean it up once a week or so.
Chicks in brooder
The above functions of the commercial brooder can certainly be met by a homemade brooder. Many people just take a container with wire over top to keep the chicks in, and attach a heat lamp that can be adjusted up and down to regulate the temperature as needed. They then add a waterer and feeder to the brooder. Pine shavings are usually put down as the covering of the floor.
I’ve already mentioned coccidiosis, but Marek’s disease which is a virus that can cause leg paralysis, droopy wings, and even death. Most hatcheries offer vaccination for Marek’s disease, which will prevent the paralysis. Be careful with vaccinations though, as some can counteract others. My last order of chicks, I did not vaccinate. One out of the 15 birds had Marek's disease. I had to put her down, for fear of infecting the rest of the flock.
Pasting or sticky bottoms can be a serious issue with chicks. This is usually an issue right away if it is going to be an issue. Pasting is when droppings stick to their bottom and harden sealing off their vent. This can actually cause death. It can be caused too much cold or heat, disease, lack of water, or feeding issues. The best way I have found to ensure that they don’t get sticky bottoms, is to make sure they drink plenty of water, and make sure when you first get them that they drink before they eat. If they do get a sticky bottom, take a warm wet paper towel and moisten the vent area and remove the manure. Then apply a little Vaseline to stop it from happening again.
~ Phil Williams
Phil Williams is a permaculture consultant and designer and creator of the website foodproduction101.com. His website provides useful, timely information for the experienced or beginning gardener, landscaper, or permaculturalist. Phil's personal goals are to build soil, restore and regenerate degraded landscapes, grow and raise an abundance of healthy food of great variety, design and install resilient permaculture gardens in the most efficient manner possible, and teach others along the way.