From Chicks to Laying Hens–A Step by Step Guide

chickfeetKeeping chickens is easy–and I highly recommend it!  To give easy a reference point, having done both I’d say chickens is way less work than a dog, but more than a cat.  You only need to consider a few factors to successfully raise hens from chicks, which I recommend over purchasing full grown hens because chicks, while they are actually a fair bit of work (think puppy) are cute and fun to watch grow up. Besides, they grow up Very Fast.  Like in 3 months.  And if you buy full-grown hens or pullets (adolescent female chickens) off Craigslist, you never know what you are actually getting.  We have been majorly underwhelmed.  We ended up with 6 cockerels (young roosters) and 2 hens from one purchase of supposedly pullets-only, and 2 very stressed and sick pullets from another transaction, and birds a fair bit older than advertised in a third.

Sometimes I am a slow learner.  If you want to buy pullets or hens, do so from someone you know.

All chicks need is feed, water, a warm place to live and cleanliness. But before you bring any of these cute fluff balls home (and have I mentioned stinky?) read through this step-by-step guide and be prepared for them.

I’ll assume before you head to your Wilco store–or equivalent, you will know where your chickens will be housed once they outgrow the brooder box.  If not FIGURE THIS OUT FIRST!  It is very tempting to bring home chicks once you go look at them.  Especially if you take your children with you–which I recommend.  While you don’t have to have your coop built/bought/assembled, coop time will come upon you quicker than you’d imagine. If you are building or assembling a coop, give yourself twice as much time as you think you’ll need.

In another post I’ve talked about breed selection, which you should consider, too, although you might find yourself purchasing whatever is available–and that’s okay, too.  They all scratch in the dirt, cluck, roost, dust bath, vie for a position in the pecking order, and lay eggs!

So let’s assume you’ve made the leap–that is, decided your breeds, figured out their final home and the little birds are either in transit via the post office (only likely if you are getting 25 or more), or chirping and cheeping away at your local farm and feed store, hoping for adoption.

Remember: care of chicks is not difficult even if I spend more than a few words talking about each requirement.

STEP ONE: Things To Gather BEFORE your chicks arrive.  Yes.  BEFORE.

1) A brooding box/pen/cage.  We start with a big plastic tub for 25 chicks, which they’ll outgrow in a week.  We’ll use it to hold 40-50 pound bags of feed later.  If you have 3-6 you can keep them here for a 2-3 weeks. A cage for mice or birds or maybe rabbits can work well, too, and will give your chicks more to look at then plastic walls.  Since ours are only here a week or two, a tub works for us.

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2) Chick feed.  It is important to feed your chicks food intended for chicks and not adult birds.  We get ours from Buchanans Feed Store in McMinnville, though Wilco or any place that sells chicks will also sell feed and all these other supplies. I imagine pet stores will be getting into this market if they haven’t yet.

3) Chick grit.  Chickens typically consume dirt and pebbles as they eat, and these are necessary to help break down their food.  Since chicks are not outside for the first 5 weeks (in our case more like 6-8 since we get them in December) they need grit as a supplement added to their food.  Adult birds that are not raised outside will continue to need a grit supplement.

4) Pine shavings or equivalent. Avoid hardwood shavings like oak, as they can be toxic to chicks.  I’d avoid shredded newspaper, too, though some people use it.  The ink will dirty your chicks, and it seems an unsatisfying bedding choice for new chicks.

5) Paper towels (non-bleached, plain) for the first 2 days.  If you use newspaper be sure to shred it or chicks will slip on the surface.  Slipping is problematic for proper foot development, so go with paper towels.

6) Water and food dispensers.  Those pictured are specifically for chicks.  They will need something bigger in about 5 weeks.  Though again, if you only have three or four birds, the watering can pictured could work if you swap out a quart jar, but even with a quart jar you’ll have to fill it frequently.

7) Light with a 100 watt bulb if chicks will start in your home somewhere (a laundry room works well), or some heated area.  Otherwise, get a heat lamp as well as a white light.  If you plan to put them in your garage in early spring, you will still want a heat lamp.

8) Thermometer (not essential, but handy).

 

STEP TWO: Set up before the chicks arrive

1) Place about 1/2 inch of shavings in the bottom of your brood space and cover with one layer of paper towels. If you have a cage, lay a plastic bag or old shower curtain down to protect the floor.  With our tub we put an old towel down.  Partly it marks off chick space from other space.  Consider “chick space” dirty. That is, hands should be washed well after entering “chick space”….

2) Put the filled feeder and water directly on the bottom of your brood area for a day.  Once the chicks are actively eating and drinking, put a block of wood under the feed and water to raise them a bit.  This will keep them cleaner. Separating the water and feed will also help keep both cleaner.

3) If chicks are brand new–that is, they have not had anything to eat or drink yet (most likely if they have been mailed to you), then mix 1/4 c. sugar with a 1 quart of warm water to dissolve.  Use this water the first couple of days.  The sugar will give the hungry and thirsty chicks an energy boost, and they’ll be inclined to drink because–well, sugar water is just SO tasty!  After the second day use tap water.  If chicks come from a farm and feed type store and are at least a few days old you can omit the sugar water.

 

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STEP THREE: When Chicks Come Home

1) If the chicks have come in the mail they will be stressed, thirsty, and cold.  So take them out of the box one at a time, dip their beak in your sugar water and set them down by the water.  I keep the feed next to the water the first couple of days to be sure they find them both.  You may need to dunk their beaks in the food too, if they aren’t finding it.  Check them periodically to be sure they are eating and drinking.  Occasionally you’ll need to double dip (I think of this as a baptizing of sorts–calling these chicks to life…) a chick who only wants to sleep.  BUT sleeping is what they will do a lot the first couple of days.

If the chicks are coming from Wilco (or equivalent), they will be excited to explore their new area, and all you need to do is show them the water and feed.  They will likely find them on their own, but set them down in front of it regardless, especially if your feeder looks different from the one in the store.

2) Hang your white light over the brood box. We put a screen on top of our tub and set the light on the screen–you can figure out another system, but you will want to cover the brood box by week 3.  Follow these guidelines for temperature:
The first week keep the area beneath the light between 90-95.  Every week decrease that 5 degrees by raising the light about 3 inches.  By week five you’ll be at about 75 degrees, and depending on time of year, may not need a light anymore.  If it is winter, keep their space above 60 at night for another few weeks until their chick fluff is fully replaced by feathers.

Chicks will communicate whether they are too hot or too cold by how they cluster.  They will be inclined to collapse into a pile to sleep, but if they spend nearly all the time heaped up under the light they are too cold. If they are spread out away from the light they are too hot.  If they are panting, they are too hot. In those cases, raise the light, or if you are using a heat lamp, switch to a 100 watt white bulb. This is why a thermometer is optional.  Chicks communicate very well.  Especially at this stage.

STEP FOUR: Things to Check in the First Week:

1) Observe to see that they are all drinking and eating. Feel free to hold them, but not overly much the first week.  But handle them after that if you want hens that will tolerate petting!  Certain breeds are also more amenable to petting than others.

2) When you pick them up, check their vent to be sure it is not plugged with poop.  (Anatomy lesson: the vent is used for everything: pee-poop–urine and feces are mixed for chickens, and egg.  Maybe disgusting, but true.)  We only had this happen with one shipment–which arrived in bad shape.  We lost five of the chicks in the first 24 hours, and about 5 of them had plugged vents over the first week.  To clear, soak their bum in a small bowl/container of warm (not hot) water.  Try not to get any more of the chick wet than is necessary.  The poop plug will soften so that you can scrap it away gently.  Dry chick and immediately put back in warm brood box.  I used a yogurt container which I then recycled.  THIS BEARS REPEATING: ALWAYS WASH YOUR HANDS AFTER HANDLING YOUR CHICKS. Not only when you’ve been cleaning pasty butts!

3) Turn off the white light every day 2-4 times for about 20 minutes at a time so they are not constantly under white lights.  Imagine if you had to live and sleep under a bright white light 24/7…!

4) Add chick grit to the feed after the first few days. Mix your feed and grit together at this point.  The ratio of feed to grit is 20:1.  So 20 pounds of feed mixed with 1 pound of grit will keep you from having to make the calculation every time you feed them.

5) You’ll change the paper towels a couple of times a day the first day or two on account of the poop.  Once you stop using paper towels, add new shavings on top of the old ones every few days as needed. If you are using a heat lamp you’ll notice the lamp dries the poop and reduces the smell.  If you are using a white lamp, you will likely want to replace the shavings every few days.  When the smell is strong–it’s time to replace them.  For your sake, but also for the chick’s health.

STEP FIVE: Things to Do in Week Two or Three:

IMG_5422Mostly Continue what you’ve been doing, but you will notice they will muck up their water (so change it frequently–and depending on how many chicks you have, you might want to graduate to a quart jar for water), and you’ll be surprised how quickly they will go through feed.

Clean their water jar at least once a week with a vinegar/water solution.  You’ll notice it gets to feeling slimy, and vinegar will keep it clean.

By the end of week two we move our birds to a bigger space–but that means moving them to the cold garage since we get our birds in December.  So we add a heat lamp at that point, and leave both a heat lamp and a white light on during the day, and then turn off the white light at night. If you just have 3-4 chicks you’ll likely be able to keep them in your original space for the full 5-6 weeks unless the smell drives them or you out of the house!  Better them than you!  Since it takes five to six weeks for them to get their warmer set of feathers, heat continues to be an issue even after they appear  to be awkward gawky teenagers.

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Here’s our 2nd space–which fits 25 chicks well.  We keep it well insulated.  Foam pads fit in the sides and I use our backpacking pads and a few towels besides as insulation on the top and front.

Add clean shavings every few days on top of the old ones. I lift the top and take the opportunity to hold them when I add shavings.  Mostly they spend week three well insulated like the photo to the left shows.  As they get older (and more feathered) I open up a space for them to see into the garage, and eventually open the front up most of the way during the days before we move them from here to the hen house.

More to be added as this set of chicks continue their journey from toddlerhood (where they are now) through adolescence, to adulthood.  I’ll use a separate posting for future steps.  Good luck!

 

 

26 Comments

  • What would you consider as a beginner breed of chicken? I would like to get some chickens and was wondering what kind of breed would be good?

    • This is a great question, Heather, and I’ll cover it more fully in a few weeks when people are starting to think about chicks more in earnest. The answer to your question is that it depends. Why do you want chickens? Do you want hens primarily for their eggs? Chickens primarily for their meat? A dual purpose bird that’s pretty good both as a layer and for eating? Are you looking for a pet–or at least chickens that will tolerate petting? (Some breeds are skittish, others more friendly.) The issues get more complicated than that, too. But those are the basic ones. If you want a bird that is fairly friendly and a great egg layer, than I recommend Black Sex Link and the Gold Sex Link chickens. Which aren’t even a straight breed, but a wonderful bird. And attractive, too.

      • I would wrather get fresh eggs from the hen than go to the store and buy them. I would want the hens for their eggs. I also would want ones that tolerate petting since my 5 year old would want to pet them and it would also get her something to look foward to besides school.

        • You can check out my response to Grace below, and I agree with Lo for the most part–although different breeds do have different characteristics! The biggest factor in making hens “petable” is handling them some when they are young (but after the first week) so they become accustomed to being handled. Birds are naturally (and wisely) nervous around potential predators–and people fall into that category for them. In addition to the birds I mention below, Leghorns, Black Star, Red Star and Plymouth Rock are all good layers.
          Good luck!

    • There isn’t a beginner breed of chicken. We raise pullets for people and have raised or had over 40 breeds.. they are all wonderful. Like I tell others who ask me what is “best”.. you know.. they all eat, poo, lay eggs and act like chickens.. so many factors come into play.. just pick out ones you like and enjoy the experience.

  • Thanks for sharing ! I’m thinking of adding chicks or rabbits to my suburban northwest Ohio backyard garden, and I’m more familiar with poultry, so that is where I was leaning to start! I am thrilled to find your blog and share your journey and hope to bring my husband and 3-year old into the idea and plan!

    • I’m glad you found me, Caryn–welcome to the journey! Chickens are great–we’ve loved having them as part of our farm life, and the children in our CSA so enjoy feeding them scratch and checking the hen house for eggs. A 3-year-old is a great age for chickens! Remind your husband they are less work than a dog… 🙂 In a few weeks I’ll add a post about choosing breeds and considerations for coops.

  • I loved reading this! I found out that our town has no ordnance against having farm animals in town. YEAH! I received a letter stating I can have chickens in town as long as they are kept clean and don’t make so much noise that the neighbors complain. 🙂 I have 5 children and I want them to experience chickens for eating as well as laying. What would be the best chicken to get for both as well as one that likes or at least tolerates petting/holding? Thank you so much for taking the time to write this and I can’t wait to read more!

    • Black and gold sex links are a good dual purpose bird, and tolerate petting. Australorps, Barred Rock, Americaunas, are also attractive looking and good as a dual purpose bird. Our Rhode Island Reds have been the most aggressive, and the Marans the most skittish, but they have other factors that make up it… Some breeds are more broody than others–meaning they like the idea of hatching out eggs, even unfertilized ones… but more on all this in a latter post.

  • Thanks for the information…

  • Is it possible for layer hens to stay up to ten months and not produce eggs? If yes, what would be the cause?

    • My guess is that they are not getting enough supplementary feed. Chickens started laying more eggs once we started paying attention to what we fed them. If they are only foraging, and if the forage is less than abundant, that might be a cause.

  • hi, really enjoyed reading this.
    Ive contemplated getting a few chickens here in Ireland. Mostly for eggs as my girlfriend doesnt want me to kill them.
    Ive also thought about ducks.
    Can you give any advice on which to go for or do you only know about chickens ?
    Im easy with which to choose. Im after the eggs and love both chicken and duck eggs.
    Thanks in advance, john

    • Hi John,
      I wish I knew more about ducks. People out here keep both–and simultaneously, though I don’t know what that means in terms of feed, housing or nesting differences. I imagine much of their care is similar. I also don’t know if ducks lay as regularly as hens–which would be a good question to take into consideration if you want birds primarily for their eggs. Hens are great layers–especially if you get a breed known primarily for laying. Good luck deciding!

  • thanks a million, not going to be looking for too many eggs everyday as its just the two of us, although im sure other family members would be delighted for some free eggs haha,,,so maybe ducks are the way to go,,,era ill figure something out im sure,,thanks for the advice

  • You are most welcome! Thanks for checking in!

  • My chicks are four wees old now. When do I move the outside to the coop?

    • If they have access inside the coop whenever they want it and protection from cold winds and rain, you could move them out now. If you live somewhere that’s still cold be sure they have a warm spot (70-75 degrees) where they can go huddle together if they get cold, especially at night. You could likely accomplish this with a light bulb strung up in their coop. By week 6 in May throughout most of the US they should be fine. Thanks for asking!

  • Hey im thinking about raising chickens for prepping and SHTF im not sure what breed is best, I want chickens that are great for meat and eggs, which breed would you recommend?

    • Hi Alex,
      A lot of breeds have been labeled “dual purpose” because they provide backyard chicken keepers and small farmers with both eggs and meat. It’s a great direction to go, even if a bit of a compromise in that these chickens don’t put on weight as fast as what the industry calls “broilers” (birds breed to gain lots of weight fast), nor are the hens as good of egg producers as those used in the egg industry. But dual purpose include our heirloom breeds, and bring color, variety and beauty to your flock. Rhode Island Reds, New Hampshire Reds, Ameraucana, Buff Orpington, Plymouth Rock, Barred Rock and Sliver Laced Wyandotte are all great choices. See this post for a more thorough discussion of breed selection.

  • Thanks for this post. I’m thinking of raising chicken for both eggs & meat as a small scale farmer. Your writeup has been helpful

    • I’m glad you found it helpful–and good luck! Chickens are really manageable–and rather fun to observe. We just released our lower flock into the lower garden now that we’ve harvested the last of the beans. The upper hens still have to wait another month until we finish harvesting broccoli and greens.

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