You’ve decided that you are ready for chickens….what next?
There are several things you’ll want to do before you actually buy any chickens. I know, I know….you want them now! Although they are very easy, you will still want to be prepared so you can begin immediately posting your chicken pictures all over Instagram.
Below are 9 important decisions to make before you get chickens.
Chicks or Chickens: Which Should You Choose?
Which came first? The chicken or the egg? No, I’m not trying to get into an evolutionary debate, I’m asking which will come first for you. The first decision you’ll need to make for your chicken adventures will be to start with chicks (the egg) or teen/grown chickens (the chicken).
Chicks, of course! Just kidding. Chicks are so adorable, though aren’t they? I love them! Their baby chirps, their little beaks, their cute fluffiness, their little legs, even their little chick poops. Yes, I even love their little baby chick poops but I’m a little on the crazy side so…
However, chicks are like babies…no you don’t have to nurse them. That would be weird. Stop being weird. They just require more care than an older chicken. Makes sense. Just like a newborn takes a lot of attention and care so do chicks. Whereas when they become teenagers, you embarrass them with your mere presence just like human teenagers.
Ok so maybe they aren’t embarrassed by your presence so much as deathly afraid even though you’ve been caring for them their whole lives!
Never before have you harmed them but this one time you just may try to kill them, so they run away screaming in panic.
Actually a lot of that fear depends on how much you handled them as chicks and also what breed they are. Some breeds are more skittish while others can be very friendly and let you hold them. Those get more treats from mama! I reward their sweet behavior. Either that or I’m bribing them to come near me more often. Tomato, tomahto!
So, what exactly do you need to get started with chicks?
#2 Chick Brooder
First, you will need an enclosure aka brooder, something that has a lid preferably for when they start to get a bit flighty and try to “fly the coop”, get it? I just love puns.
When we get chicks, we keep ours inside so we can regulate their temperature better. If you live in a colder environment this will be important.
You don’t necessarily have to keep them inside because it can get a bit smelly, but if they’re going to be outside, make sure you can keep the temperature inside their enclosure warm enough and in a place not exposed to any kind of draft.
A garage or barn (again with no draft) are also great options for avoiding the smell inside your home.
Once the decision is made of where they’ll live for the next several weeks, you’ll next need to figure out which brooder you plan to get. You can buy any variety of brooders online or at your local feed store, build one yourself, or DIY one – which is what I’ve done.
At our feed store they put the baby chicks and ducks into a large horse trough. Getting something like that makes sense if you plan to have a lot of chicks (which I always think is awesome – the more the merrier, right?). You’ll need to make sure you get one big enough for the amount of chicks you plan to get because they grow very fast.
In fact, they will typically double their weight four to five times in the first six weeks.
Keep that in mind when selecting the size. While they may have plenty of room as week-old chicks, that won’t be case in a month and having to buy another brooder is an unnecessary expense. So, start with the right size from the start.
If you are a decent carpenter, you can always build one. I met a family that had built their own that looked similar to rabbit hutches. They had a lid that lifted up and metal screen on the top and all sides. Very efficient.
I’m just not great at building things so I chose to DIY one out of a large storage tote. I bought a tote from Walmart with a lid. I cut a large opening into the lid and used nuts and bolts to connect metal screen to the lid. Super easy and affordable. You want to put metal screen because if you choose to use a heat lamp it will be resting on this screen and anything besides the metal will melt.
#3 Chick Temperature
In order for your chicks to grow properly you will want to make sure that their temperature is kept warm enough according to their age. The chart below will help to show how warm to keep their brooder at each advancing week. Newborn chicks will need the temperature to be approximately 95 degrees and it gradually declines until they turn about 6 weeks old.
The bulbs that I have seen recommended are typically 250 watt bulbs. In my experience these are too hot. We actually get reptile heat lamps that are 75-100 watt on a variable switch so we can turn down the heat as they start to grow. Works like a charm!
Be very careful with heat lamps as they can be dangerous and could cause a fire. I’d strongly suggest an alternative especially since you are a newbie. Heat plates are awesome and don’t pose the same risk as a heat lamp does. You are also able to raise the plate higher (they are on pegs) as they get older to reduce the temperature.
Chickens are very smart and it’s no different when they’re babies. Chicks will tell you if you’re screwing things up for them. They’re mouthy little things.
Your babies will give you signs if something is wrong with their home.
If they’re spread out around the edge of their enclosure the temperature is most likely too hot for them. Easy fix. Just lower the temperature by either buying a lower wattage lamp or turning the heat down on the variable switch. If you’re using a heat plate, it’s time to raise it up.
If they’re all huddled together under the heat lamp it’s probably not warm enough and you’ll want to lower your heat plate or turn up the heat. They’ll chirp noisily too if they’re cold. This is them looking for their warm mommy to huddle under.
Smart little boogers, aren’t they?
The chicks can begin going outside during the day to become acclimated at about 6 weeks as long as the weather is warm and the temperature is above 55 degrees.
Oh, they’re so adorable when they first get outside too. They’re so curious and they start scratching around looking for bugs and other goodies. So precious! If the weather is warm enough, I let ours out for about 15-20 min at about 3 weeks old or so. Not long enough for them to get cold but enough for them to feel a sense of freedom.
We live in Texas so “warm enough” isn’t really a concern for us. It feels like we live under a constant heat lamp. Ha!
#4 Chick Feed
There are a few other elements you’ll need inside the brooder: food, water and bedding. There are a few options for feed. Personally, we choose to use a medicated chick starter feed. Medicated feed helps chicks to combat coccidiosis which is a disease that is very common and found in almost every environment.
Most of the medicated feeds contain amprollium which, although it doesn’t treat coccidiosis, helps the chicks to fight off coccidial oocysts while their immunity is built up. Though that is something we personally feed, you can always feed non-medicated feed.
I strongly encourage everyone to do their own research and make the right decisions for your own flock.
Whichever feed you choose, chicks should continue to eat starter chick feed and be transitioned to layer formula once they reach about 18 weeks old.
#5 Chick Water
Now that you’ve made your decisions on feed the next thing to think about is water.
Water is completely optional.
Kidding! Your chicks will need access to plenty of water. Waterers are very affordable, especially the small plastic ones, but I will warn you that anything on the floor of the brooder will end up constantly dirty!
I like to elevate ours a little because while the chicks scratch around they toss bedding and end up filling their waterer causing it to clog up. Cue noisy chirps again! I’ll usually put a little wooden block down to elevate it just a bit. As they get bigger, I typically raise it again because their scratching gets more aggressive.
#6 Chick Bedding
For bedding you can use a variety of things, but we’ve always used pine shavings. Tractor Supply carries a big bale of it for less than $10, which will last you a while. You’ll want to avoid cedar shavings since the oil is harmful to chickens to all ages. In the future I may try hemp bedding which is all the rage right now. I’ve got to find out what all the fuss is about.
Chicks poop a lot. Yes, I’m sure that’s common sense but I thought I’d reiterate that fact. Because of this you’ll want to change out the shavings regularly. We usually change them once or twice a week especially because the smell can get…well…smelly.
But oh, how adorable they are! I love the chick phase. I love the sounds they make and how their chicken instincts are so strong even at such a young age.
That being said…
Chicks are a lot of work! I know it more than most. At one time I had about 55 chicks in my house. No, I didn’t accidentally hit the number 5 twice…I actually had 55 chicks inside my house. It was heaven….and hell.
I don’t plan to repeat the process any time soon. Well at least not until Chick Days comes around again at the feed stores. What can I say? I have no will power.
If you’ve decided to skip over the chick phase I don’t blame you a bit. There’s about five months (if not more) of feeding, watering and cleaning before you get a return on your investment….i.e. eggs. Depending on the feed and bedding you buy that can be hundreds of dollars. I saw a post recently on a chicken group where someone held their first chicken egg and said “This egg cost me $5,000”
I admit that made me laugh quite a bit because I could totally relate! It’s truly a labor of love raising chicks.
Side note: If you choose to get broiler chicks then you’ll only have about 8 weeks of feeding, watering and cleaning before processing.
Many chicken breeders will sell 8 week old chicks that are “outside-ready”. This is a great option because you skip the high maintenance chick phase but still get them before they’re full grown. This also ensures you don’t miss any prime egg laying years.
If you end up getting full grown chickens that are already laying, it’s best to try to find out how old they are. Hopefully the current owner can give you a good idea. Although I’ve rescued plenty of chickens, which is always a great thing to do if you are able. I love the feeling of being able to give any animal a good home. One such chicken I rescued was posted on a local neighborhood group. She was a beautiful barred rock and when I picked her up, she was tied to a bar in their yard. No food or water within reach.
Poor girl. She was so happy to come to our 10 acre farm. We named her Pretty Girl and we gave her a wonderful free-range life.
She acclimated very easily as chickens do. Getting fully grown or near grown chickens is a great option for you especially if you don’t have a lot of free time (or just prefer a low maintenance chicken experience). Other than regular coop cleaning your chickens are pretty self-sufficient.
Chickens need the same things as chicks: food, water and bedding. The only real difference is you don’t have to worry about temperature except in extreme highs or lows.
#8 Chicken Food
Food: where to begin! This can be overwhelming. When it comes to chicks there are a few options but once they grow up? Goodness, it can get overwhelming.
Pellets, Crumble, Organic, Medicated, Non-GMO, Store bought, DIY and on and on and on.
We feed organic pellet feed mixed with seed and allow our flock to free range for at least 10 hours a day. This allows them to supplement the feed with bugs and whatever else they may find. However, soon I plan to research making my own because it would no doubt be more cost efficient for us since we have such a large flock. I’ll keep you posted on that!! Free ranging them does cut down on the feed they would otherwise consume if they were constantly penned up.
#9 Chicken Coop
Where will your chickens sleep?
We free range ours so our coop isn’t huge. If you decide to keep them enclosed during the day then you’ll want enough space for them to live humanely.
General rule of thumb for space is 2-3 square feet inside of the coop per chicken. For an outdoor run each chicken should have about 8-10 square feet of space.
Because we choose to free range we do run the risk of predators and unfortunately that is a very real risk – we’ve lost chickens to coyotes and hawks. That being said I feel that it is so beneficial to them to being able to free range and live naturally.
Many people don’t agree and don’t want to run the risk of losing chickens and believe me I know how upsetting it can be to lose your sweet feather babies, but to me they are so much happier to be out and about all day.
Chickens are natural foragers and they’re very smart at avoiding predators especially hawks – even more so for those flocks with roosters because of their amazing ability to warn of predators. Roosters are natural protectors and their instinct kicks in to protect their ladies.
Every morning we open the coop door to let the chickens out and at dusk we tuck them back in and read them a bedtime story. Their favorite story is Chicken Little. Kidding…they prefer romance novels.
If you worry about getting your chickens back in a coop at night don’t worry. Why? Because chickens like to go to bed at night. They know where their coop is and they automatically go in at night.
Yep, it’s true! Crazy, right? When I first got chickens, I was amazed to find that they went to bed on their own. Sometimes, though, I will say that there can be a bit of a learning curve for them in the beginning. We’ve found them outside the coop and had to put them back in. It usually only takes a few days for them to get the hang of things though.
It can actually be even easier than that because of advances in chicken keeping. They now have automatic chicken doors. They open in the morning and close up at night. Cool, right? We haven’t made the switch yet mainly because I prefer to check on my babies at night to make sure there are no predators that snuck in and everyone is doing ok.
I also like to check for any last-minute eggs that may have been laid since the last time we checked.
So, have you decided which is right for you? Chicks in all their cute and fluffy glory? Or hens that are older and more independent? There are pros and cons to both. Which have you decided?
Comment below and let me know!
Happy Homesteading and Stay Cuckoo!