Welcoming New Chicks

New chicks exploring their new digs.

Purchasing new chicks is such an exciting adventure. Even for us, while we purchase hundreds and hundreds of chicks each year (for both meat and new egg layers), every new batch is still exciting to me even after 10
+ years!). Chicks do require some care that you should know about before embarking in this adventure. In this post, I will share with you how we welcome new chicks to our homestead.

Chicks usually come in one of two ways; either by mail or by purchase at a local farm store or local hatchery.

If you purchased chicks from a far away hatchery and chicks have been mailed to you, they were shipped at a day old (usually) and will arrive to you having never been introduced to food or water. How do these chicks survive without food or water during transit? They are not fed while traveling. They are still digesting the yolk sac from the egg! For these chicks especially, it’s important to introduce them to food and water immediately upon arrival to your home. Dip their beaks gently in each. Generally just the first few may need to be introduced, the rest will come over to investigate. If they don’t, introduce all of them so they can begin eating and drinking, which will help them begin to recover from the stress of traveling.

When your chicks arrive at your local post office, you may receive a phone call to pick them up, or they may deliver them to your home if you are there. If you have the chance to specify one or the other, the less stressful option is to have you pick them up from the post office vs. having the chicks travel the days route until they get to your home. Either way, plan to be home to accept your chicks when they arrive.

I set a baby gate across the top, which allows me easy access to chicks, but keeps pets and children out.

What do you need to raise chicks? Raising chicks is much different than caring for mature chickens. They require some different equipment and care. For starters, they need a starter home that is well protected against weather, predators, things that go boo in the night, drafts, and moisture. This is known as a brooder. It can be as simple as a large cardboard box if it is kept in a protected area such as your barn or garage (depending on time of year). They’ll also need a feeder (like this or this), waterer (like this), heat lamp (like this) with bulb (like this), bedding (I use shavings). Chicks initially cannot regulate their body temperature so the use of a heat lamp does that for them. Once they grow up a bit, they can go out in their permanent home – the outdoor chicken coop – and that generally takes 6-8 weeks which is also weather dependent.

When my chicks arrive, I like to put apple cider vinegar in warm water the first day or two, generally 1 tablespoon per gallon. It isn’t essential, so if you don’t have any, don’t panic. I like to think it gives them a boost and is a positive for them as they recover from traveling. Warm water is not as shocking as cold water to their stressed systems. After the first day or two, I use cold water. I keep food available at all times for the first two weeks – after about two weeks I find that I need to separate my egg layers from my meat birds, because my meat birds need to begin a gentle rationing of feed and my layers are a little more, well, sophisticated and lady-like and don’t pig down all the food that is set in front of them.

No matter how your chicks arrive, traveling is stressful and the smoothest transition will benefit them as they begin to recover – too much stress can lead to death. Here are some tips to welcome them home:

  • Have the brooder all set up and waiting for them. Make sure it is breathable, but not drafty, a lid is handy (make sure it won’t trap heat – a lid made from chicken wire is ideal vs. a solid lid), and have bedding on the floor such as pine shavings.
  • Introduce them to food and water. If you purchase your chicks from a local farm store or hatchery, they have already been introduced to food and water. As the chicks get bigger and messier, you may find that hanging the food and water breast-high to be helpful in keeping the food and water cleaner.
  • Make sure their brooder is in a quiet place, free of drafts, with a heat lamp set at the proper height to ensure they can stay warm, but still have a perimeter they can walk to if it gets too warm under the light.
  • Prevent handling much as they settle in. We have a rule that chicks are hands-off the first few days after their arrival.
  • Watch chicks after refilling water containers – even if the water containers just had water in them, chicks will often come flocking over to the new water, drenching themselves. Be sure they don’t catch a chill. Meat birds especially are prone to ‘piling up’ to warm up, which can suffocate the birds on the bottom layer.
  • Keep the area under the heat lamp, around the feeder, and especially around the water clean and dry.
  • Wash the waterer regularly.
  • Remember, chicks can’t fly!! Watch chicks carefully with children to ensure their safety. Use both hands to gently cup the chick close to your body as you are holding it, as chicks are quite delicate. Set the down carefully, don’t drop them. Dropping can cause injury!

How do you know if the chicks are warm enough or cold? Chicks that are too hot or too cold for too long will die, so keeping the temperature comfortable is crucial. Chicks prefer surprisingly warm temperatures in their early days, but gradually are able to handle colder temperatures. The ideal setting for the first week is 95 degrees (F) under the heat lamp, with the heat radius large enough to accomodate all of your chicks. If you have a lot of chicks, you may need several heat lamps. But it is also very important that your brooder is large enough to have an area outside of the heat lamps reach that chicks can go to when the temperature gets too warm under the lamp. Healthy chicks will be moving all over with happy, occasional chirping. They will also take short, frequent naps. If your chicks are huddled together and chirping frequently, loudly, they are cold. If they are panting with their wings held out to their side, they are too hot and have not been able to find an area to cool off in.

After the first week, you can reduce the temperature in the brooder by 5 degrees (F) each week, but this is where observation of your chicks is really key. You can purchase a brooder thermometer to keep at ground level so you can monitor the temperature in the brooder, or you can just watch your chicks. The very first time I raised chicks, I used a thermometer and I think it created a lot more stress trying to nail the perfect temperature all the time. Chicks will find heat when they need it, if it’s available. They will walk out from under the heat lamp if space allows, if they are too hot. If you watch the signs I talked about in the above paragraph, you don’t need to pay any attention to the actual temperature in the brooder. If the chicks can’t seem to get warm, lower the heat lamp (but no lower than about 18 inches from the floor), or add another heat lamp (be sure there is an area they can go if they get too hot). As the chicks get older and become feathered, you can raise the heat lamp (which will reduce how hot it gets), or turn it off during the day and put it back on at night. A lot of this depends on the temperature in the room they are in, also.

Watch for pasty butt. Pasty butt is a fairly common condition that new chicks can experience (as a result of stress) when their soft manure sticks to their feathers, creating a blockage. It generally does not come off on its own and can kill your chick quickly, so watch for it and remove the poo with a warm, moist wash cloth or q-tip. Be very careful as you remove it though, as chicks are very delicate. Keep watch for it, as it may happen again. It will generally clear up after a few days.

A word about heat lamps. Heat lamps will start fires if the bulb explodes or the lamp falls on bedding. I always suggest having the light secured by both the clamp and the cord, so that if the clamp fails (and sometimes they do, or whatever you have it clamped on fails), you still have a chance at preventing fire by having the cord secure. I have had several friends experience fires because of heat lamps. It is recommended that these not be used in your home, wherever they are secured make sure that there are no animals that may bump into them by jumping or flying near them, and have a plan in place. In our case, we have a fire extinguisher right at the door to the chick nursery, and have a fire ball installed above the brooder so that if the worst was to happen and a fire started, within 2-3 seconds the ball will explode and extinguish the fire.

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