Clean, safe environment
If you hatch your eggs in an incubator, or if you order chicks, you will need a brooder to house the little ones. We use big rubbermaid containers from Walmart. Cardboard works, but beware of fires when you add heat. They need sturdy footing, so we use pine shavings in our brooder. We tried sand (started smelling) and pressed pine (rolled around too much).
This is our set up.
We cut out the center of the lid and attach screening or hardware wire with zip ties.
This is our homemade heat shelf. Wire shelf (white), heating pad (blue), vinyl (purple), pine chips (yellow)
Secure your heat lamps if you use them. The clamp is not enough. Make sure to secure the cord away from the lamp also. ***MAKE SURE YOUR BROODER IS BIG ENOUGH THAT CHICKS CAN GET AWAY FROM THE HEAT LAMP IF YOU USE ONE. THEY CAN OVERHEAT IF THEY CAN'T GET TO COOLER AREAS.
When we use a lamp, we put a metal grate below it as extra protection so that the lamp cannot fall.
Heat: We use a homemade heat shelf from day one, after making sure everyone is walking around in the incubator. Some people use a heat lamp on day one to maintain a temperature around 95 degrees as the chicks dry out. This is also helpful for the first day or so with shipped chicks so that you can quickly spot any problems. (*** for shipped chicks - give them immediate access to water with chick electrolytes or nutradrench - this will help them recover much more quickly). Show each chick the water by dipping their beak or tapping their beak against the water nipple as you put them into the brooder if they were shipped. If you hatched them, just put the water in and they will discover it. Marbles in the waterer can help keep young chicks from drowning if you don't use a nipple waterer.
Heat lamps must be used CAREFULLY as they can start fires. You can buy a brooder shelf instead, or make one. We use large rubbermaid containers with hardware wire lids and make our brooder shelves out of wire computer shelves, heating pads (make sure they do not have an automatic off), and vinyl tablecloths. If you make one, it needs to be secured so chicks do not get wedged behind the shelf. I push pine shavings down between the wall and the back of the heating pad so chicks cannot go around and get stuck.We keep our heating pad on high for the first 7-10 days, then down to medium for a week or two, then low until they are ready to come off the heat. Lower down you will see more info about positioning the heating pad. (I added links above so you can see what shelves and heating pads we use. We don't get any payment if you click on them - just wanted you to be able to find them!)
On the first couple of days, we keep food and water close to the heat shelf so the babies don't have to go far to find them. We use vitamins in the water once a week. (the kind we use is very concentrated - 1/2tsp per 3 gallons. The babies just get a pinch). We prefer chick nipple waterers over the traditional chick watering systems - much easier to keep clean. I also love these yellow feeders - top loading feeders make it so easy to add more food. More details on the set up of the heat shelf are below.
We also grind up non-medicated chick crumble in a food processor for the first week or two - we raise bantams, and the crumble is often too large for them. Large fowl chicks do not need this extra step. I often add a bit of dried kelp to the food for extra minerals. We use non-medicated food, Kalmbach non-medicated chick starter. Medicated feed contains amprolium, which blocks the absorption of thiamine, a necessary B vitamin. Bantams are particularly susceptible to thiamine deficiency, so we never use medicated feed. Instead, at about 2 weeks of age, we start adding a tsp of dirt from their future home, sprinkling it across their bedding. Do not use wet dirt - only dry, since cocci thrive in wet dirt. You are trying to build up their immunity slowly. Most people do use medicated food, and it should work fine for your chicks!
Our homemade heat shelf is a heating pad and wire shelf. We made sure the heating pad hangs down in back so the chicks can snuggle into it. We tuck it down into the bedding so chicks don't get stuck behind it. It only goes halfway across the top of the shelf, which is fine - the chicks all snuggle into it at the back. I put a piece of vinyl tablecloth across the top to complete cover the wire - keeps feet from getting caught when they get old enough to jump on top, and provides easier cleaning.
Here you can see proper height for newly hatched chicks. They scoot around underneath. When first hatched, I carefully place them at the back against the heating pad. Build up the bedding so that they can get to the heat.
As the chicks grow, the water and food are placed further away from the heat shelf. Mostly just so we can see and enjoy them when they come out to eat! The vinyl tablecloth is for when they get bigger and start perching on the shelf - it gets rather yucky, and the vinyl is easy to clean and cheap enough to throw away. I just cut a new piece off if it gets too dirty.
Brooders are cleaned daily. I scoop out the top layer under the shelf to get out the poop. Ammonia from the poop can harm the lungs of the chicks. Then I pick up any poop I see in the brooder. About every 1-2 weeks, depending on the age and the number of chicks, I will completely clean out the brooder.
The chicks do NOT appreciate my cleaning efforts!
PLEASE NOTE If you use a wire shelf, when you tip up the shelf, the chicks can easily get their heads stuck in the slats. Be aware of that possibility and lift it up to shoo out any chicks before tipping it backwards.
Just a few examples from past years.
This age is when that piece of cheap vinyl becomes important!
Chicks should not be moved into a flock of large chickens until they are near the size of the older hens. Moving day will go much more smoothly if the chicks and adults can see each other through wire beforehand. The day will also go more smoothly if you change things up on moving day, using branches, stumps, cement block, etc. to provide new hiding places for the younger crew.
Provide lots of room and activities for chicks to keep them occupied - this will keep their stress levels down and keep them from pecking each other. We use clumps of grass and soil, dishes of dirt, and corners with a pile of food for digging.
Our chicks quickly outgrow their first brooders, so we move them into the garage with puppy pens. Again - secure heat lamps. They are a horrible fire hazard.