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So you’ve decided to take the plunge and raise chicks for a backyard laying flock. Perhaps you have visions of happy hens pecking away in your yard while you whip up a golden yellow breakfast of oeufs en cocotte (okay, that’s French for baked eggs). Or maybe your children have been begging for a pet, and chicks seem like the most practical choice: cute, fluffy and productive (eventually).

Whatever the reason, you are about to embark on an adventure that may surprise you with its simplicity and rewards. Not only are chickens one of the easiest farm animals to raise, they are extremely satisfying providing you enter into their rearing with your eyes open (and you don’t happen to be a vegan, in which case, I’ll take your eggs).

Here are some things to know as you raise your backyard laying flock.

Before Your Chicks Arrive

When it comes to raising chickens, preparation is key: while they may seem small and helpless when they arrive, it won’t be long before they are catapulting themselves out of whatever container seemed impossibly too big for them a few weeks ago. Before ordering your brood, ensure you have the setting and supplies on hand to help your rearing operation run smoothly. The following guidelines summarize what you should consider when preparing for your chickens’ arrival.

Setting Up Your Brooding Area
One of the most important things your chicks will need when they arrive (besides food and water—see below) is a warm, dry place to live. Without their mother’s feathery body to keep them warm, chicks need an artificial source of heat known as a brooder. The type of brooder depends on the number of chicks you’ll be brooding and where you’ll be brooding them, but the most common is an infrared heat lamp suspended over the brooding area. Radiant heat brooders are also becoming more widely available, and although more expensive, are making quick converts of backyard chicken lovers for their ease of set-up and operation.

Several days before your chicks arrive, set up your brooder so that it provides a steady temperature of between 95 (35 Celsius) and 100 (38 C) degrees in the brooding area. (Later you will adjust the brooder so the temperature drops as the chicks grow.) Ensure there are no drafts, and that the area is well ventilated. Placing a brooding thermometer in the brooding area approximately 2” above the litter helps keep track of the changing temperature and ensures the area is neither too cold nor too hot.

Depending on the shape and size of your brooding area—which can be as simple as a plastic tote box or as conventional as a portion of your chicken coop—you may also want to purchase or create a chick guard. A chick guard is usually made from cardboard and is basically a circle that encloses a 3’ area around the brooder. It should be about 15”- 18” tall. Since chicks often huddle or pile up beneath the brooder, a chick guard prevents them from getting stuck in a corner and suffocating.

Making It Comfortable—Chicken Litter
While you are setting up the brooding area, add 4” – 6” (10 to 15 cm) of litter (in depth) to the floor to ensure the area is warm and dry for the chick’s arrival. Litter must not be so small that chicks can eat it (this means no sawdust) and must be dry so mold spores can’t proliferate and threaten chicks during their first few days of life. A common choice for chick litter is coarse wood savings such as planer shavings or the bedding used for horses.

Food and Water
Like all living things, chicks need nutrients to grow and thrive. A well-balanced feed from a reputable supplier will include adequate ratios of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals for your developing chicks. This ratio should change as your chicks mature, so it’s important to understand the feeding requirements for chicks at different stages of growth.

From birth to 4-6 weeks, use a starting ration meant for chicks that contains 20% protein. Protein is especially needed by young chicks for their developing muscles, bones, and feathers. Common sources of feed protein include legume hays, plant or fish meal, barley, wheat bran, or linseed. In most cases, suppliers will blend these into the starting rations along with other required nutrients so you don’t have to do the mixing.

Before your chicks arrive, place the starting ration in flat trays (on paper plates, lids, or egg trays) to make it accessible. You can switch to a chick-sized feeder in a few days, once your chicks learn to feed. Chick-sized watering trays are a nice addition because they are safe and difficult to soil. If you opt for a homemade watering tray, ensure its depth is shallow enough to prevent drowning (young chicks often fall asleep spontaneously—even in the middle of eating and drinking).

Birth to Six Weeks

During this blissful period your chicks will arrive, plump and adorably fluffy. They will go from sleeping like newborns to sprouting feathers and frolicking in food dishes. Their needs will change rapidly and careful husbandry will make the difference between lifelong health and rapid expiration.

Feeding and Watering
When your chicks arrive, ensure that each one has access to clean water and food. Many farmers recommend dipping the chicks’ beaks into the water so they know where to find it. If you’re chicks are coming from a distance via transport, it’s crucial they get fed within 36 hours of hatching.

As noted above, feeding only starting rations for the first 4-6 weeks will ensure your chicks get adequate nutrition. For this reason, it’s wise to stay away from supplementing with greens, grain, or kitchen scraps until the chicks are off to a good start. One thing you can add is insoluble chick-sized grit. (Do not give young chicks oyster shells or limestone.) This isn’t usually necessary, however, if the chicks are receiving commercially prepared feed.

After your chicks have learned how to feed, you can switch from flat trays to chick feeders if desired. Raise your feeders as your chicks grow so the trough is at back height (your chicken’s back, that is).

Brooding Area
As your chicks continue to grow, the brooding area will get more crowded. If you are using a chick guard to confine the brooding area, be sure to widen it throughout the first week to increase the chicks’ roaming space. After the first week, you can usually remove it completely. If you are using a temporary brooding pen, you will have to relocate your chicks at some point during this growth period. Wherever your chicks are, adding small sticks to the brooding area will give your chicks a chance to practice their perching skills.

Adjustments to the brooder temperature are also important for healthy chick growth. As noted above, you started with a brooder temperature of between 95 – 100 degrees (35 and 38 degrees Celsius). Each week, adjust the brooder so the temperature drops two degrees until you reach 70 degrees (21 degrees Celsius). If the weather is warm enough when your brooder reaches 70 degrees, you can usually turn off the brooder all together.

If at any point during this brooding period you are unsure about temperature despite what your thermometer says, use your chicks’ behavior as your guide. If chicks huddle directly under the brooder in a tight group, the temperature is usually too cold. If chicks skirt around the edge of the brooding area but avoid entering it, the temperature is usually too hot.

Chick Health
Keeping your chicks’ food, water, and litter clean is one of the best ways to ensure a healthy flock. Add clean shavings as needed and observe the chicks carefully for signs of illness. Are their vents clean and free from pasted excrement? Healthy birds are generally lively (excepting very young chicks, who sleep a lot) and exhibit common chicken behaviors like scratching, pecking, etc.

It’s also wise to be on the lookout for cannibalism and toe or feather picking, which can start early. To prevent this, ensure your chicks are not overcrowded and that they are receiving a balanced food ration and adequate water. Overheating may be a factor in aggressive chick behavior, so keep a close eye on your chicks and your brooding thermometer. If a chick does get injured or pecked, remove the victim and cover the injured part—something with a bitter taste like pine tar will often deter future occurrences.

From 6 to 18 weeks

This is the period when your gorgeous chicks will morph into something decidedly more gangly–awkward teenagers in ill-fitted trousers come to mind. Partially mature, with more feathers than fluff, your chicks are entering the second phase of their growth and development. Here’s what to watch for.

After six weeks it’s time to switch your chicks from starting rations to something with less protein. Growing ration contains 16% (down from the 20% protein in the starting rations). Your chicks will continue on this feed until they are ready to lay eggs.

You can, however, begin to give your growing chicks occasional treats, such as greens or kitchen scraps. Everything in moderation, however, since treat-snacking usually means a less balanced diet. Chickens who receive treats also need a source of grit to help digest the fibers they contain. If your chickens aren’t ranging for at least part of the day yet, ensure they have access to an insoluble grit source such as sand or dirt.

During this period you can switch to full-size feeders and watering containers, observing the same guidelines for height as noted above. You will also be switching off your brooding light, though depending on nighttime temperatures, you may continue to use it after dark for some weeks until your chicks have their adult feathers.

After 18 Weeks

After 18 weeks your chickens will be looking less like gangly teenagers and more like full-grown adults. (Age of maturity depends on which breed you choose to raise.) Now is the time to switch to a laying ration high in calcium and vitamins to help support the demands of egg production. Adding crushed oyster shells or other sources of calcium to the feeding area is also a good idea, since different breeds of hen have different calcium needs during their laying years. Separating the calcium source from the food source means hens are free to take what they need, when they need it.

After 18 weeks your chickens are bona fide adults and are undoubtedly already scratching happily outside, bathing in dust, and chasing bugs. If you have carefully followed the guidelines for feeding, watering, housing, and health, you’ve given your chickens the best chance at long and happy lives. But the eggs? Well, those are for you. Oeuf en cocotte anyone?

Some Final Tips

  • When looking for starter chicks, begin by asking your local farm feed store. Farm feed stores often buy from local hatcheries and usually have a good understanding of what’s available in your area. They also make good allies when you have questions along the way.
  • Carefully research the different breeds available. Do you want strictly an egg-producing flock (which eats less than dual meat- and egg-producing breeds) or do you want the versatility of both? Dual purpose breeds will produce meat and eggs, but some egg producers will lay more in the long run.
  • Some chicken breeds can be sexed early and some can’t. If you purchase “straight run” birds, you may end up with more roosters than you intended. Purchasing sexed chickens, on the other hand, often limits the types of breeds available. Do your research and be prepared for the outcome.