As the cooler weather approaches us here in Arizona, you may be thinking about adding chickens to your yard. Backyard chickens have become increasingly popular over the last few years and have many benefits including daily fresh eggs, insect and pest control, and hours of entertainment. Many current and future chicken owners may like the idea of raising their flock from chicks, but raising newly hatched chicks may seem overwhelming at first. Here are some tips for success with raising baby chicks to be happy, healthy chickens.
One of the first steps in raising baby chicks is choosing a breed. Future owners should keep in mind the intended purpose for their flock (i.e. eggs, pets, show, meat) and research appropriate breeds. Some breeds make better egg layers and others are known to be calmer which make them easier to handle. Other breeds offer unusual qualities like silkies and naked necks that can add variety to a flock.
Once you have chosen a breed, the next step is deciding where to purchase them. It is important to keep in mind the future purpose of the chickens. Chick hatcheries offer a nice option for those that are looking for pets and egg layers. Hatcheries generally have a large variety of breeds and allow owners to purchase sexed chicks. Sexing chicks at a young age requires very specific skills, but allows for a lower chance of receiving extra roosters. Breeders also offer a nice option for those that may be planning to breed or show their birds. When choosing a source of chicks, you want to purchase from clean, reputable sources. This will reduce the risk of spreading disease, especially in existing flocks.
Many seasoned poultry owners will often joke and say that having chickens is a lot like eating potato chips – you can’t have just one! Deciding on a flock size can be difficult task, but a good starting number is three to six birds. When planning to build a coop, it is always a good idea to build it larger than expected. That way adding new birds in the future will be possible without adding to the coop size. Many owners also enjoy the sounds of a rooster in the morning and may want to hatch their own eggs in the future. If so, one rooster for every 12 hens is a recommended ratio.
Some hatcheries and breeders may offer a variety of different vaccinations for their chicks before sending them off with their new owner. One of the most important vaccines for chicks is for Marek’s disease. This is a disease that is found in many flocks, spread through feather dander, and can cause devastating paralysis in growing birds. The disease is less likely to affect older birds but can be spread to younger birds from an existing flock. When combined with good hygiene, this vaccine can help protect young birds from Marek’s.
Nutrition plays a very important role in growing animals. Luckily, commercially available chicken feed takes the worry away from owners and provides birds with very balanced nutrition. Chick feed is usually available as a crumble and the small size makes it easy for young birds to swallow and digest. Some owners may wonder about the importance of medicated vs. non-medicated chick feed. Medicated feed contains amprolium which helps prevent disease caused by a commonly found organism called coccidia. This parasite can cause bloody diarrhea and GI disease. Coccidiosis can also lead to secondary bacterial infections and high mortality in flocks where the disease is uncontrolled.
Sufficient heat is important for young chicks as they are unable to regulate their own temperatures well on their own. When raised by a hen, chicks will often be found snuggled beneath the hen’s wings to keep warm. In a brooder situation, chicks need an environment kept at roughly 95-100ºF for the first two weeks. After that, the temperature should be dropped approximately five degrees until close to room temperature. It is recommended to provide both warm and cool areas in the brooder so that chicks can have options of different temperatures. This means the brooder should be large enough to give chicks enough room as they grow and should have some sort of covering to prevent chicks from flying out of the brooder and into a heat lamp. It is important to pay attention to how chicks distribute themselves in a brooder. If huddled together under the heat lamp, the brooder is likely too cold. If positioned away from the heat lamp, they are likely too hot. The source of heat should be adjusted as needed.
Feeders and waterers are an important aspect of raising chicks. Waterers should be raised enough the chicks can reach the water but are unable to walk through it. Placing the waterer on a flat rock or piece of wood often works well. Chicks should not be able to sleep or roost on their feeders to prevent contamination of fecal material. Changing water and feed often is important to prevent disease and to ensure chicks are receiving proper nutrition.
Providing a strong start for your baby chicks will help maintain your flock health, enhance productivity, and increase the time you are able to enjoy your birds. The veterinarians at Animal Health Services are more than happy to assist you with individual bird and flock health including parasite testing, disease management, and poultry emergen