You will want a secure place for your chicks to live. This is usually a brooder box. While there are many commercial varieties available, many people find success with a dog kennel or a plastic storage tub. Do not use containers with wire bottoms as this can injure the chicks feet. Do not use containers with slick surfaces as this can prevent proper leg development in the chicks. Make sure each chick has about 7 square inches to move around freely and prevent chicks piling up and injuring each other. You will want to make sure the sides of the container are tall enough to prevent chicks from escaping.
If you are keeping the brooder in a garage or barn, you will want to make sure that no predators (cats, dogs, rats, snakes) can get into the brooder. You will also want to be sure that there are no drafts which could chill the chicks. Ensure that your brooder has good ventilation. Your chicks will need lots of oxygen, so you don’t want to put a lid on them. Try cutting a piece of chicken wire or hardware mesh to fit the top of the box. Don’t use anything flammable. The most important thing in chick housing is that the environment is dry and clean so that you do not create an environment that breeds disease. When outside temperatures are above 70 degrees and you have a safe outside enclosure ready, you can move chicks that are 6-8 weeks outside to their homes.
You’ll likely want to have some sort of bedding available to make cleaning your brooder box much easier. Remember, chicks poop a lot and you want to keep their little feet clean and not have them pecking at their poop. We find that pine shavings work great in a thin 1″ layer. Don’t put them to thick for tiny chicks. Another approach for chicks that are just a few weeks old is to buy a cheap roll of papertowels and line the bottom of the box.
This bedding or lining can be changed quickly every day and it will help you keep an eye on their poop-a great indicator of chick health. We have also used sand, straw and rubber non-slip mats. You could use grass or some other soft material. The most important thing is that it is clean and soft and dry and free from insects or pathogens.
You can also add a little Diamotaceous Earth to you bedding to help with potential mites or worms. Food grade DE is very safe, as long as you– or the chicks don’t breathe the particles when adding it to the bedding.
The biggest threat to chicks beyond predators, is incorrect temperature. You want to keep them warm. Really warm. Most chicks don’t die from dehydration, or hunger or illness–they die from being the incorrect temperature.
For example, if you’re adopting chicks that are 4-5 weeks old, you would want to keep them somewhere where the temperature doesn’t fall below 70 F degrees. If you are adopting chicks that are 1 week old, you would need to make sure the temperature stays between 90-95 degrees.
Supplemental Heat Sources.
Please note, heat lamps are extreme fire hazards so safety first, and use good judgement. You don’t want to catch anything on fire, especially your chicks. They clamp on, but we suggest setting up a second way of mounting so if the clamp slips, there is something else holding it in place. We started using 250 watt ceramic heat lamps last year and we really love them. They are available in a variety of wattages and they don’t put out that creepy red light that will keep your chicks awake at night and disrupt their circadian rhythms.
We also have been using this heating pad made especially for chicks. It’s been durable and easy to clean.
I like using it in addition to the heat lamp for birds that want to be a little bit warmer than everyone else. It works through radiant heat so the chicks warm up when they are in physical contact with the pad.
There are other versions of this type of system available that we have not tried:
You need to get a simple thermometer to make sure that your chicks are the right temperature. I like one that registers all-time high and low temperatures so I know if the brood box is getting too hot or too cold with our fluctuating Florida temperatures. This is more important if your brood box is outside or in a drafty barn. Be sure the batteries in your digital thermometers are replaced frequently to ensure accurate readings.
If you go this route, we recommend buying several thermometers as they have varying calibrations. Again, keep those batteries fresh for most accurate readings.
We are also big fans of infrared thermometers like this one which provide very accurate and precise temperature measurements.
If everyone is huddled under the heat lamp, it could be too cold. If everyone is spread to the edges of the brood box, it could be too hot. Chicks that are too hot will also spread their wings and pant. By the time chicks show signs of overheating or being too cool, they have usually already suffered stress that can compromise their immune system. Trust your chicks over the thermometer. You can adjust the heat lamp temperature by raising and lowering the height of the lamp in relation to your brood box.
Food and Water
Now that your chicks are secure and warm, you’ll want to think about water and food.
There are a million ways to do this, but if you’re going with the storage-tub brooder, you will not have a lot of space.
Our youngest chicks use a small waterer with a screw on base. This works well for up to a dozen baby chicks but you’ll need to constantly monitor the water level because it can evaporate quickly under the heat lamp. Also if you’re using pine shaving as bedding, they can get into the water and leach it out quickly draining the water you just filled.
I recommend adding a little lime and little to your water. We ONLY use First Saturday Lime because it’s very safe. It can reduce bacterial loads and keep algae from growing in your water. For a screw on type waterer, a pinch or two should be plenty.
Next, you’ll need a way to give them food. You can put food in shallow dish, but we like to use the screw on base feeder as well.
Note that you can use large glass mason jars with either of these bases and it makes for much easier clean up.
I recommend sanitizing your food and water dishes as least once a week.
At this point, you’re almost ready for chicks.
You will need to purchase something for your chicks to eat. You can get chick starter at the local feedstore, Tractor Supply or Rural King. You can choose either medicated or unmedicated. I tend to choose medicated, because baby chicks can have very delicate immune systems. Medicated gives you a bit of insurance against inevitable issues with bacteria and parasites. If you are organic, you will want to choose the unmedicated feed.
I also like to add Diamotaceous Earth to the chickens food to help reduce the chance of parasites.
Another thing that is nice for your birds is to give them dried meal worms as an extra protein source.
It’s also a nice way to bond with them and promote hand feeding.