How to Raise Day-old Chicks in
Your Back Yard
HOW TO RAISE DAY OLD CHICKS IN YOUR BACK YARD
HOW TO CARE FOR YOUR DAY-OLD CHICKS
Before the chicks arrive and
their First Day
- Make an area (See Space Needs) for the chicks with cardboard walls 2 feet high and round corners, if they are in a large chicken house or barn. If they get frightened, they will try and huddle in the corners and some often get smothered. If there are no true corners, it is harder for them to do this. For a small number of chicks a cardboard box with high sides will work.
- You will need some litter for the floor. Wood shavings, chopped straw, or chopped corn husks will work. If you do not chop up the straw, they may find it hard to walk on. Don't use anything slippery. They are not strong enough while they are small to keep their legs from slipping in opposite directions, and they get straddle legs. Their legs go sideways and there is no cure. They can no longer walk.
- A few days before the chicks are due to arrive, clean and disinfect the area where the chicks are going to reside, if it is not a new cardboard box. Lysol is good, bleach makes terrible fumes. I used a plant mister to get a fine mist into all the cracks and crannies. Give the disinfectant time to work and dry. One time I did not disinfect after the old chicks, which had had coccidiosis as babies, left. The coccidiosis stayed in the brooder room and the new batch of chicks started dying.
- Once the disinfectant has had time to kill any bugs, spread new bedding on the floor and cover it with a clean old sheet (thrift stores are a good source of cheap sheets), which will eventually be burned, or otherwise disposed of.
- Turn on the heat lamps at least a day or more before your chicks arrive, so that the walls, floor, bedding and air all have a chance to warm up, and the disinfectant has time to dry. It will also give you time to get the ambient air temperature correct. See Heat and Ventilation Needs.
- Make sure there are no drafts.
- Just before the chicks arrive, fill the waterers with warm water. Add 1 tablespoon of molasses to a bit of boiling water to dissolve it, and then add more water to make it up to 1 gallon (4 litres) of luke-warm water. Give this to the chicks for the first day or so in their waterers. It will help them to recover from the journey. They are able to survive for 3 days on the yoke sack which they draw into their bodies just before they hatch, but they need water on their arrival. I tried to dip every chick's beak into the water as I placed it in the brooder area, to let them learn faster where the water was. Be aware, they are very, very agile, even as day-olds. Since each of my shipping boxes held 100 chicks, I used to have 100 chicks jumping in and out of the shipping boxes and running all over the place, as I was trying to figure out which ones had had water and which had not!
- Use crumbles (crumbs of feed) to begin with. The commercially-made pellets are too large for the chicks. To begin with, the chicks will peck at whatever is under their feet; this is why you should have already covered up the bedding with an old sheet. They will get an impacted crop if they eat the litter, and can die.
- Set out whatever you are going to use for feed. I used the lids of the shipping boxes for the first few days until they learned what was feed and what was not, but a cardboard box cut down to have sides 1 inch or 1.5 inches high will do nicely. I stood the chicks right on top of the feed after I had given them their first drink of water. Proper shipping boxes have a non-slip liner, and you can burn them after a few days, because they will get covered in poop quite quickly (Yuk!). If you are using ordinary cardboard boxes, check now and again to make sure that they have not pooped so much on the cardboard that it becomes slippery. The poop usually dries quite fast while they are in the brooder because of the heat, and slipperiness should not be a problem. For just a few chicks you can use a feeder like the one below.
- Do not let them stand on anything at all which is slippery, or there is a real danger that they will get straddle legs. Put a few inches of litter on the floor, covered with an old sheet. You can get these at a thrift store for a couple of dollars. The chicks peck at whatever is at their feet, so if you don't cover the litter they will eat it and die. After about 3 days they will have learned what is feed and what is not, and you can take the sheet away, leaving the clean litter underneath. As the litter gets dirty, you can add more on top, or if you start with about a foot deep, it can be stirred very slowly each day with a rake to keep the dry litter on top. Be very slow about your movements, especially with the meat birds. They frighten very easily and are prone to heart attacks. If you want to remove the litter and replace it while the chicks are still beside you, again, be very, very slow about your movements.
- Watch the chicks to see how they are reacting to the heat circle. If they huddle, lower the lamp a little to increase the temperature. If they spread out as far away from the heat as they can, raise it a little to lower the temperature.
- At the first sign of blood in the droppings, suspect coccidiosis and put vinegar in the water immediately. 1 tablespoon of white vinegar to 5 cups (40 fl oz) of water should work as a cure. A lady I knew put vinegar in the water from the first day, until the chicks had their proper feathers, preferring prevention rather than cure. The chicks will be dying rapidly, one after another, until the vinegar begins to work. 24 hours after you have got the vinegar into the water, there should be no more deaths. The parasite cannot survive in the acidic environment. If it does not show signs of improvement after 24 hours, get in touch with your local District Agriculturist in Canada, Extension Agent in the USA or similar person in other countries to get help. Do not let chicken diseases get out of hand - if it turns out to be something more serious, then all the chicken farms in the area could be affected.
- Check the chicks regularly. Make sure their vents do not get clogged up with pasted droppings and see that they are not too hot or too cold.
- After 3 days, remove the dirty sheet and shipping box lid and dispose of them. Put the feed into a hopper or bowl or something like that. The chicks should have learnt to recognise the feed by then, and should be fine, running around right on the litter.
- NEVER LET THE FEED GET WET AT ALL. Ergot fungus grows rapidly (overnight) on wet feed, and the chickens literally drop dead. If you clean up all the wet feed, and disinfect, they should stop dying within a day or so. Do not let them eat the disinfectant either.
Remember to make them round if you have more than 3 or 4 chicks, so that they cannot huddle together and smother each other.
When they arrive, give them luke warm water with molasses in it. Keep the water away from the feed to stop the feed from getting wet.
About heat lamps
I always used a minimum of 2 lamps in case one of them burned out. I bought a ceramic light socket with the heat resistant wires already attached. Make sure the socket is rated for the wattage of heat lamp you will be using. I used 250Watt, infra-red heat bulbs. I attached the heat resistant wires to a plug and plugged it into an extension cord. You can then hang the bulb from the ceiling at the appropriate height to get the right temperature. Don't put the feed or water directly underneath the heat lamps.
Use crumbles to begin with. The pellets are too large for the chicks. Stand the chicks right on the crumbles, with the crumbles in a flat cardboard lid, so that they can find the food.
Hens, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, need 2 square feet of floor space per fully-grown, mid-size laying hen. I, personally, find 3 square feet per bird is more comfortable.
Day old chicks
- 6 chicks can go in a cardboard box, about 16ins (40cms) wide by 32ins (80cms) long
- 50 chicks arrive in a box about 24 inches x 24 inches. I give them a space about 30 inches x 10 feet because of the way I set up the heat lamps, feed and water.
- New born to 1 month - 1/4 square foot per bird.
- 1 month to 2 months - 1/2 square foot per bird.
- 2 months to 3 months - 1 square foot per bird.
- 3 months to 4 months - 2 square feet per bird.
- 4 months to adult - 3 square feet per bird.
Heat and Ventilation needs
Measure the temperature at the edge of the heat circle created by the heat lamp, at the height of the backs of the chicks.
Ideally, the chicks should spread out around the edge of the heat circle. If they huddle under the lamps, they are too cold. If they go as far away as possible, they are too hot.
They must have ventilation without drafts to allow the escape of the moist air that they create. They also create a tremendous amount of very fine dust as they grow.
Start at 95°F for day old chicks. I found hanging a 250Watt infra-red heat lamp 18 inches above the bedding was about right.
Start at 85°F for day old chicks. I found hanging a 250Watt infra-red heat lamp heat lamp 24 inches above the bedding was about right.
Layer Chicks and Broiler Chicks
Reduce the heat by about 5° F per week (raising the lamps about 2 inches each week seems to acomplish this) until you get down to 70° F. After that, they should be fine on their own.
FEEDING YOUR CHICKENS
Grit and Oyster Shell
Chickens need grit to grind up food in their gizzards. Check whether or not the commercial feed you buy requires the hens to have extra grit. Too much grit will cause an impacted crop, so if you leave the hens to help themselves they should only take what they need. Laying hens also need ground oyster shell in a feeder for calcium for their egg shells.
NEVER LET THE FEED GET WET AT ALL
Ergot fungus grows rapidly (overnight) on wet feed, and the chickens literally drop dead. If you clean up all the wet feed, and disinfect, they should stop dying within a day or so. Do not let them eat the disinfectant either.
Use medicated or non-medicated starter feed as you choose, but if you decide to use non-medicated, coccidiosis is a real threat, although fairly easily dealt with.
The chicks drop like flies once coccidiosis gets into the chicken house. If you use non-medicated feed (and even if you do not), make sure that you thoroughly clean and disinfect the chicks' area with a disinfectant before the chicks arrive. Lysol is good, bleach makes terrible fumes. I used a plant mister to get a fine mist into all the cracks and crannies. One time I did not disinfect and the coccidiosis stayed in the room and the new batch of chicks started dying.
If you want more info on non-serious problems encountered in a backyard flock, my book How to Raise Day-old Chicks in your Back Yard has a section in it.
For more serious diseases, see your local extension agent of the Department of Agriculture in the USA or your district agriculturist in Canada
BROILER CHICKS ONLY
Start the chicks off on Broiler Starter Crumbles (23% protein). Again, use medicated or non-medicated as you choose.
At 5 weeks
Switch the chicks to Broiler Grower Crumbles.
At 6 weeks
I switched the chicks to Broiler Grower Pellets.
They should be big enough by now to be able to cope with the bigger chunks. Any time from now on they should be big enough to be put into the freezer. Make sure that they have not had the medicated feed for the required number of days, according to the package, before you slaughter the chickens.
If you get meat bird chicks, and feed them on meat bird grower feed with about 23% protein, they will grow to around 8 lbs in 8 weeks, at which time you slaughter them. They have been specially bred to grow fast and furiously. Unfortunately, there is a down-side to all this fast growth. Many of them will break their legs and have heart attacks before they are 8 weeks old, because their legs and hearts cannot keep up with the rapid weight gain. I lost 30% of the birds the first time I tried raising them. Most of my losses happened between 6 weeks old and 8 weeks old, so if you slaughter them before 6 weeks old, the losses are a lot less.
My second attempt was much more successful. I slowed down the growth by using layer grower feed, which is only 15% protein, and cut my losses to about 10%. This was still high when compared to the 3% mortality that I had with my layer chicks.
Lowering the percentage of protein in their feed will definitely slow down their growth.
LAYER CHICKS ONLY
On the first day
Start the chicks off on Layer Starter Crumbles (20% protein), either medicated or not. The pellets are too big at this stage.
At 7 weeks
Switch to Poultry Grower Crumbles (15% protein).
When they start to lay
Switch again to Layer Ration Pellets (16% protein). By this time they are able to handle the larger pellets. They also need crushed oyster shell in a separate feeder for the calcium to build their egg shells.
LAYING HENS ONLY
When I kept my birds inside all the time, 10 full grown layer hens ate 1 x 50lb (20kg) bag in 5 days. When I free-ranged them from 9am to 5pm, and still supplemented their feed with commercial pellets, they only went through 1 bag in 10 days.
CHOOSE YOUR CHICKEN BREED
Discussion of Breeds
What follows here is a general discussion on sizes and uses of breeds.
For information on individual breeds, check out
Oklahoma State University site > Department of Animal Science > Poultry Resources > Poultry Breeds
Chickens come in different colors and sizes. Backyard, free range chickens are probably safer if you choose ones that are not white, because they blend with the background better, and are not so easy for the predators to spot. Chickens that are crosses of two breeds are stronger than a pure breed.
These are the meat birds. They do not lay too many eggs, but grow to a large size with plenty of meat on them.
Cornish Giants and Jersey Black Giants are giant breed birds.
The meat birds that the commercial growers raise can grow to 8lbs - 10lbs in 6 to 8 weeks. They are often a Cornish Giant / Plymouth Rock cross. They are just called "meat birds" when you go to buy them.
Mid-size (heavy) Breeds
These are the dual purpose birds. They do not have as much meat as a meat bird, but you can still eat them. My Barred Rock roosters weighed around 3 to 4 lbs, dressed, at 16 weeks. They do not lay as many eggs as a small layer bird, but they still lay a respectable number. Most of these breeds will stop laying when the weather is cold and the days get short. They will start up again in the spring, or when you give them artificial extra hours of daylight with a light bulb. If it's very cold, you may also need a heat lamp to keep them laying. If you keep them laying through the winter, you run the risk of burn-out. Some of them will live 6 to 8 years if you don't burn them out. The number of eggs that they lay goes down as they get older, but the eggs get quite a bit bigger. I think they only have so much egg making material in them, so they either lay a lot of small eggs or fewer large ones. That's my own theory, anyway.
Among these breeds are the old fashioned ones. Barred Rocks, Red Rocks, Columbian Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Buff Orpingtons and Black Australorps. Most of the breeds have had the desire to go broody bred out of them. Broody means they sit on the nest for three or more weeks until some eggs hatch and will take in any other hens eggs and sit on those as well as their own. The Buff Orpingtons will still go broody, which is good if you want chicks, not so good if you are trying to get eggs for yourself all year round.
Small Layer Breeds.
These breeds are basically not much more than skin and bone, so unless you plan on soup you probably would not want to eat them. However, they are wonderful egg laying machines. Some of the small birds are a bit pecky, although they produce lots of eggs. I could not go near one batch I had while I was wearing shorts because they pecked my legs to bits. Among these breeds are the Leghorns, Araucanas and Anconas.
These are miniature hens. Some of them are very showy, with leg feathers and crests. They lay smaller eggs than you would find in the small egg boxes in the supermarket. They are very alert, very aware of predators, and do good service as bug eaters in the garden. Since they are so small, they do not do quite as much damage in the garden as the larger birds. Among the banties are the Cochins, Mille Fleurs, Brahmas, and Silkies.
I should probably put in a word here about the commercial crosses. The commercial layers are often a cross, or multiple crosses, between a Rhode Island Red and a Leghorn. They get the fantastic laying ability from the Leghorn, and the brown eggs and nicer temperament from the Rhode Island Red. The commercial hatcheries have spent years improving the blood-lines by careful selection. They are bred to start laying at 18 weeks old (an old breed will probably not lay till 6 months old). Once they start laying, they lay all through their first winter (when the old breeds stop laying because of the cold and dark), and don't stop until the following winter. They lay almost one egg a day for about eighteen months. By the second winter they are burnt out, and the commercial egg producers get rid of them and start again with a fresh batch. They actually don't necessarily die. I had a couple of Warren Sex Links for 4 years and they were still fine, and laying reasonably well for me, but not as well as a comercial producer would want. I was keeping them free range, and unfortunately they met an untimely death when the neighbour's rotweiler jumped the 4 foot fence and left a trail of dead birds down the driveway.
Another reason for wanting a cross is to get sex-linked chicks to save time and error when sexing the chicks at birth. You can tell the sex of a sex-linked chick by its color.
|NAME OF CROSS||FEMALE PARENT||MALE PARENT||FEMALE CHICK||MALE CHICK|
|Red Rock Cross
|Barred Rock||Rhode Island Red||Black feathers with red neck||Like a Barred Rock|
|Red Sussex Cross
|Columbia Rock||Rhode Island Red||Like a Rhode Island Red||Like a Columbia Rock with slight tinge of red in the feathers|
mid-size good egg layer
|Leghorn||Rhode Island Red||Reddish brown||White-ish or pale brown|
dual purpose bird
|Barred Rock||Barred Rock||Black and tend to have smaller white spot on top of her head and darker legs
Not 100% accurate
|Black and tend to have larger light colored spot on his head
Not 100% accurate