(Gloria, a light brahma chick)
Chicks - the irresistible cute part of chicken raising! Chicks hatch out of fertilized eggs. Your hen will lay eggs, but they will not be fertile without a rooster. Hens are usually fertile for about 2 weeks after a rooster mates with them. A hen can sit on unfertile eggs, but they will never develop or hatch.
You can get chicks several ways:
1. You can buy baby chicks
2. You can hatch eggs in an incubator
3. You can let a broody hen hatch chicks.
First let's talk about eggs! Eggs should be incubated within a week of laying, with 1-3 days after laying being the best. Store fertile eggs with the pointed side down so the air sac remains on the top. To hatch, you can use an incubator or a fertile hen. Be careful to wash your hands when handling eggs - the oils on your hand can disturb the protective layer - the bloom - and allow bacteria to enter the egg, lowering your hatch rate.
If you are going with an incubator, follow the incubator directions. We have two Hovabator Genesis, two Brinsea minis, and a GQF 1502 cabinet incubator. An egg turner is a wonderful investment - otherwise you will need to hand turn eggs 4-6 times a day. And first things first, make sure your incubator is CLEAN. I thoroughly clean incubators after a hatch. Tiny bits of fluff, eggshell, and goop get everywhere. And I clean them again if it's been a while since I used the incubator.
Who knew you needed a screwdriver to clean?
Paintbrushes come in handy for cleaning also!
Some people "dry hatch" if it's humid enough, some don't. We try to keep our eggs at 45-55% humidity while incubating. At day 18, eggs go into lockdown. This means you remove the turner, raise the humidity (we go up to about 65%), and shut the incubator. Then you leave it alone until everyone is hatched! Expect new chicks to fall about, sleep on their backs, and generally appear to be having seizures and convulsions as they learn to meander about with the eggs. They are fine in the incubator for a day or two - they can live off the yolk which is absorbed right before hatch. I take mine out after everyone is hatched and walking around. If everyone has hatched, I may take out some of the early hatchers and leave some late hatchers in a bit longer. But if at all possible, do NOT open the incubator during hatch - the inner membrane can dry out and "shrink wrap" the baby.
Not too steady on those feet yet!
All tuckered out
Do not open!
Keep it closed!!
All eggs are hatched! NOW you can open the incubator!
Time to clean the incubator again!
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 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 after the first day or two when they are walking around well, 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, or make one. We use large rubbermaid containers or wooden boxes 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. 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. (I added links 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 every other day for two weeks, then once a week for life. (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 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. 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.
Our homemade heat shelf is a heating pad and wire shelf. We made sure the heating pad hangs down 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.
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.
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.
At about a week, I start putting chicks under a UVB bulb. It does NOT produce heat. They still have their heat shelf. This simply gives them a wider spectrum of light, which is healthier for growing babies.
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 little example 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 hens 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.
If you have a broody hen, you can put eggs under her and she will hatch and care for the chicks. Occasionally one will not be a great mom, so make sure you have brooder supplies available just in case. Often a broody hen will be willing to adopt day old chicks - make sure the hen has been broody for at least two weeks if possible, and only introduce the chicks in the evening after the sun goes down. She will get familiar with their noises overnight, which will help introductions to go more smoothly in the morning.
Some people leave broody hens in the nest boxes or coops. We choose to move broody hens at night into separate broody cages, built into our coop. This prevents other hens from pushing them off their nests, breaking eggs, or laying eggs in the nest. The broody cages also allow the hen privacy as she bonds with her chicks during the first week after hatching. Our babies usually come out with mama after about 8-10 days. Hens usually wean babies in between 4-10 weeks. Most of ours wean at 4-5 weeks, but some keep their babies for 2-4 months. Keep in mind - hen raised babies will NOT be as friendly as hand raised babies - but they are a lot less work since mama takes care of them!
Enjoy some of our favorite photos of the cuties!