Getting chicks is a super exciting time in anyone's homestead career. It's usually the first animal you get, and it can easily lead to many more; they don't call it the gateway farm animal for no reason. When we first got chicks, we became full-time farmers. So I'm going to run through everything you need to know about raising chicks from day 0 to day 14.
This is the stage that comes before actually bringing the chicks home. It's the research and preparation stage, and it's very important. You need to think about things like breed, quantity, where to buy them, and housing.
First, you will need to decide whether you are getting laying hens, meat birds, or a dual-purpose bird. This will help narrow down a breed.
Different breeds of layers will lay different quantities of eggs per year. If you eat eggs every day, then a breed such as Red Sex Link will give you 250 to 300 eggs per year, whereas a heritage egg-laying breed such as Rhode Island Red will give you about 260 eggs per year.
Meat birds such as White Rocks will be ready to harvest in 8 to 10 weeks, whereas dual-purpose meat birds such as Orpingtons take about 16 to 20 weeks to reach harvest weight.
Dual-purpose breeds are a great option. You can grow them out as layers and then harvest them for meat a year or two later if you want. Or harvest half for meat and keep half as layers.
If you’re getting chicks so they can give you eggs, then depending on the size of your family, each person will probably want two birds. A bird lays one egg per day. However, in the winter they might not lay at all due to the reduced sunlight. So keep this in mind when deciding the number of birds you’ll purchase.
As for meat birds, there are 52 weeks in the year, so a simple calculation of how much chicken you eat in a week can tell you how many meat birds to purchase.
Much like everything else these days, you can order chicks online and have them shipped to the post office. You can order them directly from a hatchery, or you can order them from your local TSC or hardware store.
You can also look online on Kijiji or Craig's List for local people selling chicks that they might have hatched themselves.
A base price for a chick starts at $1.50 but can rise to over $10. The price depends on the breed and quantity. Another thing you might see online when you're ordering chicks is the option for pullets, cockerels, or unsexed. If you know you want layers, get pullets, if you are raising them for meat, cockerels or unsexed is fine.
Housing for baby chicks is called a brooder. A brooder is essentially a small space with a lid (so they don't fly away) and a heat lamp. The chicks stay in the brooder for two weeks until they’re ready to go outside.
The heat lamp mimics the heat of a mother hen and is crucial to the success and survival of your chicks. If you are looking to build a brooder, click here for my super easy tutorial (it even comes with a checklist of everything you need to get).
But as far as the basics go, you can get super creative when building a brooder. I like using larger Rubbermaid bins because they are sturdy and easy to clean out.
A brooder must have a pine shaving bottom (don't use cedar shavings as it’s toxic to chicks), a feeder, a waterer, a heat source (I like heat lamps because they are easy to set up and inexpensive), and grit (small rocks to help them digest their food).
I like to have it all ready and set up so I can just pop the chicks in when I bring them home. You can even turn on the heat lamp in advance to get it pre-warmed for the chicks.
Make sure you have at least ½- to 1-square-foot per bird. It may seem like a lot of space now, but they grow fast and like to flap around!
As for the location of the brooder, the closer to your house, the better. If you’re just getting five to ten chicks, putting them in your mudroom or bathroom would be beneficial. They would be in a climate-controlled area and close to you to monitor. Just keep in mind that their chips can be loud.
If that doesn't work for you, the garage or barn should do just as well, as you’ll probably be raising chicks when it's warmer out. Just be sure that the brooder is secure and predators can't get it.
As soon as you get the call that your chicks have arrived, you have less than 24 hours to collect them and bring them home to get them feed and water. After chicks are born, they can survive 24 hours without feed and water.
As soon as they are home, put them in the brooder immediately. As you are putting them in one by one, dip each beak in the water and food to make sure they know where it's at, and so they don't eat the pine shavings.
Watching your chicks' behavior will determine if your heap lamp is correctly situated. It should have a guard on it and should be about 5 to 8 inches from the base of the pine shavings. Don't skip on the heat lamp; the chicks will die without it.
By now, your chicks should be settling in nicely. Re-fill the water and food as needed.
You will be able to tell if your chicks are cold if they are overcrowding and huddling under the heat lamp, and you’ll be able to tell if they’re too hot when they start to spread out in a circle around the heat lamp or towards the edge of the brooder. Monitor their behavior and adjust the heat lamp height according.
Once the bedding gets soiled, you can simply add a fresh layer of pine shavings to refresh it. Take out all your feeders and waterers as you don't want to get shavings in them, and adjust your heat lamp to the correct height again.
You should aim to change the pine shavings at least four to six times during the first two weeks. You should also have a plan for their permanent home outside, whether it's a chicken tractor and netting or a chicken coop and run. Keep this in mind because two weeks go by quickly.
This is the day you can bring your chicks outside! You should now have their permanent house complete and ready for them to move it. If you're a little over 14 days, don't stress!
Two weeks in the brooder is average and is a good rule of thumb if it's warm enough outside. If you feel it's too cold, keep them in for another week.
Once they are outside, make sure they are completely predator-proof as they have no defense at this age. You can put a guardian goose or dog with them to help with this.
Keep monitoring water, feed, bedding, and health. Chicks won't start laying eggs for about six months, so be patient and enjoy your new farm animal.
Good luck with your chicks!