The time to prepare for chicks is before they arrive


Cute, fluffy and peeping up a storm, it’s never too early to prepare for chicks arriving in the spring.

Janice Bouchard gently “stirs” some of the 1,200 baby chicks at her Bouchard Country Store in Maine to make sure they don’t press too closely together under the heat lamp. | Photo by Julia Bayly

You’ve agonized over poultry varieties, debated the merits of roosters vs an all-hen populated coop and finally placed your order with the local farm supply store. Now all there is to do is sit back and wait for the chicks’ arrival, right?

Not so fast.

When your chicks arrive you are going to want to be ready for them and not left scrambling to set up their accommodations. Commercially sold chicks usually hatch in in April or May and are shipped within a day of hatching for meat birds and egg laying hens.

Your new chicks are going to need a brooder in which they will spend the first weeks of their life, a source of heat, food, water all in a space safe from predation from wild and domestic animals.

What you need for the brooder

A brooder is basically a heated space for your baby chicks. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but it does need to be warm.

Over the years I have had great success using large produce boxes — like the kinds used to hold and display watermelons at the grocery store. These have sturdy sides tall enough to prevent the chicks from hopping out, are large enough to accommodate up to 25 chicks and are often free if you ask your local produce manager for one.

I set my brooder up in my garage. First I put down several inches of wood shavings on the bottom and then lay a small, thin, flat board at one end. This board provides a level surface for water and food containers.

Next, I install the heat lamp. I use something called the Prima Heat Lamp. But any poultry heat lamp that is sturdy and has a protective plastic grate over the bulb to prevent direct contact between bedding and the bulb in the unlikely event the lamp falls to the ground, will work fine.

With a 250-watt red bulb, the lamp can keep the chicks at the needed 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit for their first two weeks.

To install the lamp, I lay two-by-four board over the box at one end and secure the lamp to that so the heat source is about a foot above the bedding. By doing this, the chicks have the option of gathering directly under the heat source or moving to a cooler spot.

After two weeks the chicks can survive at temperatures of 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit and you can lower the heat by raising the lamp so it is suspended higher over the chickens. This also prevents them from bumping their heads on it as they get taller.

After about a month you can remove the heat source, assuming the ambient air temperature has warmed up. Most years once the daytime temperatures get into the 70s, I’ll turn the lamp off during the day, but then back on for the cooler nights.

I also cover the brooder box with a large screen to prevent predation or escape.

How should I feed and water the chicks?

Your chicks will be eating solid food the minute you get them. So make sure to have a good supply of commercial chick-starter food on hand. This is available from any farm supply store.

Feed them the starter food for about 10 weeks and then switch them over to chick grower feed for the next four months as they start to gain weight and size.

Like all babies and toddlers, growing chicks love treats. Fresh cut grass clippings, shredded apples or small bits of torn lettuce are all good options.

As for water, they need clean drinking water at all times. Sometimes a new chick will not want to drink, so keep an eye them and if you see one or more not drinking, gently grab them around their bodies and carefully dip their beaks into the water. After a moment, they will catch on that having a drink is a pretty good idea.

You can use plates, bowls or saucers for feed and water, but I recommend investing in chick feeders and waterers from the farm supply store. They are designed with special covers of their contents that allow access to food and water, but prevent the chicks from splashing or spreading food all over and making a mess.

When should they move into the coop?

Baby chicks grow really fast. I typically move mine into the “big girls’ coop” when they are around three months old, or have outgrown the brooder, whichever comes first.

However, if there are adult hens already living in the coop, a slow introduction is in order as the adults could peck at or even kill the newcomers.

I have found the best strategy is to temporarily divide my coop into two “rooms” using a large piece of wood as the dividing wall.

One one side are the adults, on the other are the chicks. This way, they can all get to know each other and get accustomed to each other without having an opportunity to peck or fight.

After more than a decade using this method, I can happily report that when I remove the wall after a month or so, there have never been any issues with the flock members all getting along with each other.

I can also report that, using the above methods and after raising close to 100 chicks from baby to egg laying or meat producing bird, there has been zero mortality.

Should I interact with the chicks?

It is almost impossible to not pick up and cuddle a baby chick. Doing so on a regular basis really helps imprint the birds to you. That can come in handy if you ever need to capture one for medical reasons, or simply cuddle with a chicken.

Always treat them gently and speak to them in low, soothing tones. And always wash your hands immediately after handling a chick.

Then, just sit back and wait for the eggs, which should start making their appearance in early fall, or when the chickens are around 6-months old.

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