Rearing your own chicks is certainly not that difficult and certainly doesn’t require any expensive equipment. A cardboard box, heat lamp, wood shavings, chick crumbs and water are all that’s required.
You can hatch your own chicks in an incubator from fertile eggs, or you can buy day old chicks from a breeder and as long as you provide them with their basic needs, they should thrive.
This article covers everything you need to know in order to successfully rear chicks from day old to Point of Lay or POL as it is called which is generally around 16-20 weeks old when they are ready to be integrated with your flock.
Before your chicks hatch, you will need a clean, dry place to keep them once they are ready to be transferred to the brooding area. This must be ventilated and protected from extreme temperatures like direct sunlight in a window or cold outdoor temperatures. For a small number of chicks, many people use a spare room, a garden shed, garage or outbuilding but wherever you choose, it must be predator proof so that your chicks are safe.
If you are considering using a room in the house, it is worth mentioning that as chicks grow, they do produce a lot of dust from their feathers so it might be better to move anything that you don’t want covered in the first place.
You will need something to keep your chicks in. This is usually called a brooder or brooding area. A large sturdy cardboard box is great for this for only a few chicks as it usually doesn’t cost anything and can keep chicks contained and out of draughts.
Do ensure though that it is big enough for the heat lamp to be clear of touching the sides and gives sufficient area for chicks to move away from the heat to cool off, eat and drink.
Alternatives to cardboard boxes are limited only by your imagination. I use a wooden packing crate that has been cleaned out and painted (with an animal safe paint) but I have seen plastic underbed storage containers used as well as children’s plastic sand pits.
If you have a larger number of chicks to rear then plastic screens can be bought that are joined together and stood on the floor in a large circle.
Try not to create corners if you have large numbers of chicks because this can result in chicks getting squashed into a corner but the others, overheating and dying.
Anne Perdeaux wrote an excellent article on Setting Up A Brooder for us here that provides lots of interesting ideas for brooders.
Whatever you choose, the floor should be covered in wood shavings. Some people use newspaper but if this is used, you must make sure your chicks aren’t slipping on it as they could become deformed very quickly with spraddled legs if they can’t stand upright without their legs spreading. Chicks will eat wood shavings at first so it is best to put an old towel, newspaper or similar over the shavings until they are used to eating chick crumbs.
A heat lamp will be required that needs to hang over the top of their box. This should be secure so it doesn’t fall. They usually come with a chain so the height can be adjusted. The height should initially be around 18 inches or so which should provide 35ºC on the wood shavings.
Ensure there is room for them to get out of the direct glare of the lamp if they are too hot. I do this by mounting the lamp above one end of the box. If the lamp is too low, the chicks will spread out and be in the cooler part of the box, if it is too high, they will be huddled together directly under the lamp.
Once you have established the correct height, raise it by a couple of inches each week so the temperature on the wood shavings falls by 3ºC each week to ‘wean’ them off the heat as they start to feather up. Remember some flighty breeds will be able to fly out once they start to feather up. If a chick flies out of your box, it will soon get cold away from the heat lamp and other chicks. Cover the top of the brooding area with wire mesh to prevent this if it is necessary.
After 5 weeks, the temperature from the heat lamp on the wood shavings should be close to the room temperature (assuming this is an unheated garage, shed or outbuilding and not winter time). At this point, you can provide heat only at night-time if the temperature drops.
Once all of your chicks have feathered at around 5-8 weeks old (the time really depends on the breed amongst other things) you are ready to do two things: 1. Move them outside onto grass and 2. Stop calling them chicks and start calling them ‘growers’!
Moving your growers outside
I usually keep a small coop and covered run outside ready for my growers to go into once they are feathered at around 5 to 6 weeks. This is movable so they can have access to fresh grass.
As a precaution, I provide a 60 Watt ceramic heat bulb to keep them warm at night for the first week or two but this doesn’t usually need to be provided in warmer months, usually from June onwards here in the UK.
I put this heat lamp on a timer and slowly reduce the hours until they are off heat. It’s the night time temperatures and number of chicks you have (they will cuddle up together to keep warm) that is the key here.
Food and water
Food and water can be supplied in small hoppers to chicks and growers. These are very cheap. Chicks will need chick crumbs from day old to 5 weeks and then they should be gradually changed over to growers pellets after this to Point of Lay. Both food and water needs to be kept clean and you should ensure that droppings are removed from food and water is clean and replenished regularly.
There are various mineral and vitamin supplements available that can go into their water – this is especially beneficial during their first week and helps prevent growth problems. Proper growth is dependent on proper nutrition. A hard-boiled mashed egg can be fed as a boost to get chicks eating but don’t expect them to eat in the first 24 hours after hatching though as the last part of incubation is absorbing the yolk sack which can keep them going for the first day or two. This is how it is possible to ship day old chicks around commercially to farms.