Chicks around the feeder.
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How to Raise Baby Chicks

This is the year for the chickens. Seriously, with the prices rising on a dozen eggs, it’s no wonder that many people are looking to either start their flock of backyard hens or add to their existing flock. This may be just what you are doing!

Let’s get started and take a look at the basics of raising chicks.

Chicks around the feeder.
Chicks around the feeder

What kind of chickens do you want?

Generally speaking, folks get chickens for a variety of reasons.  However, in the case of egg layers, you’ll want to know when to be able to expect eggs from your hens.  Not all breeds begin laying at the same time.  Even within the same breed, some chickens can be a few weeks ahead or behind their “peers”.  And there are other things to consider as well.

How Long Until Laying?

For most breeds, egg laying doesn’t happen until sometime between 20 and 24 weeks of age (5 – 6 months old).  There are breeds that lay at a younger age.  These breeds begin laying at 16 to 18 weeks of age (4 – 4-½ months old). Australorps, leghorns, golden comets, and sex links belong in this category. 

How Many Eggs?

Another thing you should consider is how much they lay.  Some breeds lay approximately 250 to 300 eggs per year. Chickens of the same size are going to eat the same amount. Therefore, why not get the most “bang for your cluck”, so to speak.  The more popular breeds in this category include the Rhode Island red, white leghorn, golden comet, and australorp. 

Some of the produce of our farm.  Yummy eggs and green beans.
Chickens and a small garden are definitely a good start to a homestead.

How Many Hens?

The amount a breed lays will also determine how many hens you want.  If a hen only lays three or four eggs a week compared to a hen that lays 5 or 6 eggs a week, then you will need more hens to get the desired amount of eggs.

Can They Do Well Where We Live?

Lastly, when considering a breed, consider your climate.  Theoretically, some chickens do better in the cold than others.  It is reported that chickens with bigger combs and wattles will do better in warmer weather because their wattles and combs will help to keep them cool. During the below freezing temperatures, however, they can get frostbite. Chickens with smaller combs will do better with the colder temperatures as they don’t have that same exposure that the big-combed chickens have.  

Over the last 8 years of raising chickens, we have had both kinds of breeds. We have lived for a few years now in Tennessee and are able to keep all breeds successfully through the winter and the summer.  This also included the “arctic blast” of 2022.  (Our buff orpington rooster was hit with minor frostbite). So although there are some breeds that may do better in certain types of weather, it’s completely possible to keep all types if you create the right environments for them.

A rooster in the snow.
Our rooster in the snow

Get the Chicks!

Now that you know what breed and how many chickens you want, it’s time to get them!   

You have three options: 

Option 1 – Order from a Hatchery

These are two that we have ordered from in the past with great success.

https://www.cacklehatchery.com

https://www.hoovershatchery.com

This option is more expensive than the other two options because shipping is involved.  Yes, they can mail you baby chicks.  I know it seems crazy.  However, the reason for this is that when the chicks hatch, they actually still have some of the yolk left inside them and that can keep them alive for a day or two before they need food or drink.  

The hatcheries use this to their advantage and mail them to you.  So, your chicks will only be a maximum of two days old when they get to you. 

Additionally, hatcheries may give you an extra chick or two in your order.  The expectation is that sometimes there will be a little one that just wasn’t strong enough to make it.  

We have at times, however, had our extra chicks live and therefore had bonus birds. 

Lastly, hatcheries usually give you the option to have vaccinated or unvaccinated chicks. There are a list of diseases that your chickens can be exposed to if they are unvaccinated.  However, as with any vaccine, do more research before you decide if this is something you want to do.

The only down side to this is that when you order, it’s scheduled usually months ahead of time, so you want to plan accordingly. 

Baby chicks received in the mail from the hatchery.
Baby chicks received in the mail from the hatchery.

Option 2 – Buy Them From a Box Store

In our area, Rural King and Tractor Supply are the big box stores that carry chicks.  They usually get their chicks from the same hatcheries that are mentioned above (this may be different in your area). 

This means they will already be vaccinated as the stores aren’t going to take any chances.  

This also means you get to hand-select the birds you want.  This is great if you know what you are looking for.  

When choosing a baby chick, take a few minutes and observe.  Look for the following in the chick: 

  • Active
  • Curious
  • Sleepy is ok, but not if the ones around them are running around.  Try putting your hand next to it.  If it still lays unresponsive, look for another chick. 
  • Not picked on by the other chicks
  • It doesn’t have “pasty butt” (i.e. poop stuck to its little fluffy butt)

If the chick matches all these criteria, you more than likely have a healthy chick.

The downside of getting them at a box store is that you are limited in your selection.  Usually, the stores are ordering what is in the most demand.  However, this could give you an indicator of what breeds do well in your area. 

If you get your baby chick home and it passes away within the first 24 hours, the box stores will usually exchange the dead one for a live one.  

Our local box store will order from the hatchery for you, but they have a “minimum order”.  

Three-day-old chicks in a laundry basket brooder.
Three-day-old chicks in a laundry basket brooder.

Option 3 – Get Them from a Local Farm

Most small local farms aren’t going to vaccinate.  These farms tend to be “old-fashioned” and just either let their hens hatch out a clutch or throw some eggs into the incubator. 
Chances are they aren’t going to cost as much as a box store or hatchery. The bonus is that you are supporting a local business and source.  These may be pure-bred or “barnyard mixes” (more than one breed mixed).  

Before You Bring Them Home

Here’s the list of what you will need before they reach your home:

What to Do

The size of the brooder needed will depend on how many chicks you want to bring home. In your brooder, each chick will need about a 1/4 s.f. per chick for the first 4 to 7 weeks. After that, they will need 1/2 sf per chick.

We have used a laundry basket when we had only six or eight chicks.  However, we have also used a small room in our barn as our brooder when we had 15 or 20 chicks. You can be creative. Ultimately, they need a draft-free area where they will be safe and dry.

Laundry basket brooder with young chicks.
Laundry basket brooder with young chicks.
Small room used as a brooder.
Small room used as a brooder.

No matter how small or large your brooder area, cover the bottom with at least an inch of pine shavings.  You must put down something for their little feet to get traction on.  If not, they can develop problems with their feet and leg development. 

Do not use cedar wood chips as it could irritate their sensitive respiratory symptoms.

Put out their waterer and feeders. We recommend putting the feeder and waterer (if necessary) on a brick so the pine shavings won’t be kicked into it.  

Hang the heat lamp about 18” above the wood chips.  Make sure that if your brooder is small, you have the heat lamp at one end of the brooder so that the chicks have a way of regulating what they need.  Put the thermometer within the range of the heat lamp. You can move this closer to the floor of the brooder after you assess the following:

How Hot to Keep the Brooder?

Typically, guidance is to start the birds at 95 to 100 degrees and lower it 5 degrees every week until they are 8 weeks old.  We did do this the first couple of times of raising chicks, but here is what we learned.  The chicks will tell you! 

As with all livestock on the homestead, watch your animals.  They will respond to what you have set up.  If they are always far away from the heat lamp’s reach, it’s too hot.  If they are too cold, they huddle up under the heat lamp. You can raise and lower your lamp and see how they respond. We no longer use the thermometer and instead let the chicks be our guide.

In the first 8 weeks, make sure they always have feed and water at all times.  They are growing so much right now.  

When Do You Move Them Out of the Brooder? 

Rule of thumb is don’t move the chicks out of the brooder until they feather out fully.  Between weeks five and six, you will see they have grown in most of their feathers.  They will still have their fluff on their head, but their body will have more and more feathers.

Between weeks 7 and 15 (depending on the breed), you may be able to tell the difference between a young hen (pullet) and a young rooster (cockerel) based on their body structure, behavior, and comb development (on certain breeds). [Yes, even though you may have thought ou bought all females, sometimes mistakes happen.] Within this time frame, you can remove the heat lamp.

By week 10 to 12, you can expect to put them outside into their coop.  At this age, their feathers form and they are able to retain their own body heat. You may even be able to do it sooner depending on what the temperatures are like where you live.

How to Move Them Into Their Coop (and Run)

As you would expect, putting them outside is quite an adjustment. The way you handle it is slightly different depending on whether you are putting them in a yard with a coop only or you are putting them in a coop with a run attached.

If you are putting them in a coop with a run, you can just place them in the coop when it’s dark.  Keep the coop closed for the night.  They will explore outside the next day when you let them out. 

You probably have read to keep them locked in there for 24 hours. However, if the temperatures aren’t going to allow for that, you can let them out in the morning. When evening comes again, you’ll have to manually put them all back into the coop.  

You may have to do this for quite a few days. No worries though. Once you have this flock trained, whenever you bring new birds into your flock, they will do what the others are doing.  So, think of this as your “initial investment”.

If you have birds that will be free-ranging or in a bigger area, we recommend making a temporary run of sorts by limiting their movement with a smaller fenced area around the coop.  

Again, you will have to round them up and put them in the coop manually at night.  By the end of a week (or maybe 10 days), they will have learned to go in all by themselves. 

If you’d like to see a step-by-step tutorial on how we built the larger coop, you can find it here.

Our first coop was mostly made from broken down pallets.
Our first coop was mostly made from broken down pallets. In city limits in New Mexico.
Our coop in 2023.
The coop as it looks today. On our little farm in Tennessee.
Chickens sitting on a roost.
Chickens on the roost for the night.

Pat yourself on the back. You have officially raised baby chicks! Now all you have to do is wait for your girls to lay their first eggs. That’s an exciting time!

If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment and we’d love to help you!

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