My husband’s least favorite time of year is whenever Orscheln’s rolls out the “Chick Days” signs. My car can’t find their parking lot fast enough. Every year I’m enticed by those fluffy bodies, tiny beaks and shrill cheeps. We’ve been through our fair share of chickens. From an encounter with a raccoon, to a fox finding his dream dinner, there have been a few tragedies, for certain. From these situations; however, I have always come out a more knowledgeable chicken owner.
There’s an abundance of chick-rearing information available online, but quite a bit of it is tailored to more backyard-style chicken raising. The way I raise our chickens is tailored to farm living, where we usually have 20 or more chickens.
A good foundation for a healthy flock starts from the moment you select your chicks. I’ve ordered online plenty of times–from Murray McMurray and Cackle Hatchery. While it’s true the chicks that come to your local farm supply store are also shipped, I have consistently acquired more healthy fowl from Orschlen’s and Tractor Supply than any mail-order chick supplier. I am also incredibly selective when it comes to the chicks the store associates are pulling out of the cages. If a chick has a pasty butt or looks lethargic, it isn’t coming home with me.
When you bring your chicks home, having everything set up and ready to go really reduces the chaos. Depending on how many chicks I have, I start my chicks out in a wire dog kennel with cardboard around the bottom so they can’t sneak out. I layer newspaper or paper towels on the floor. I stay away from wood chips of any variety because the chicks tend to pick at them, and I find them incredibly hard to keep clean. I never add electrolytes to the water because I’ve found that the chicks can become dehydrated if they dislike the taste. I also always purchase medicated chick feed and feed it for at least two months.
The three biggest issues you’ll have with chicks are temperature, cleanliness and pasty butt.
I use a 200-watt heat lamp bulb and a heat lamp I purchased at Orscheln’s. If your chicks are cheeping loudly, they’re too cold, so either move the lamp closer or up your wattage. I made the mistake once of just using a 100-watt bulb and putting the light closer to the chicks, but it just wasn’t enough to keep them warm, and I ended up losing a few. You can indeed measure the temperature for your chicks, but they’re actually quite self-sufficient critters and will regulate their temperature by moving closer to or further away from the light. If you notice all the birds hovering together, they need to be warmer. If they’re away from the light and panting with their mouths open and wings out from their body, they’re too hot. Lighting and keeping your birds warm isn’t rocket science. Common sense goes a long way when rearing chicks!
Coccidiosis can be a devastating, hard-to-control sickness. If you notice loose, bloody stools in chicks that seem listless, you’re probably dealing with a bout of coccidiosis. Separation from the rest of the flock is a must. My favorite way to deal with coccidiosis is to avoid it in the first place. Keeping waterers clean, making sure food isn’t on the floor mixed in with the poop, and changing the bedding twice a day has proven successful for me. Once my chicks reach about 4 weeks old, I switch them to straw bedding in a larger pen which is easier to keep clean. Overcrowding makes keeping conditions clean significantly harder, so make sure your birds have enough space.
Pasty butts happen when droppings stick to the rear of a chick causing issues with pooping. Normally pasty butt is caused by being too hot, too cold, stress from shipping or something strange the chick ate (so basically, anything and everything…) If the droppings build up and aren’t cleared away, the chick will die. To clean the chick, just dip their tush in warm water (I always add a drop or so of Dawn dishwashing liquid) and gently pull the droppings off. It’s not pretty work, but it has to be done. Don’t try and pull the poop off without wetting it down; you might end up hurting the chick.
Raising chicks is one of my favorite parts of being a farm family. My children love the chicks, which, in turn, creates incredibly docile birds. Our chicks are always picked up and loved on. The first week of chick raising is always the most nerve-wracking: Are my chicks too cold? Are they moving enough? Is that one tired acting? Why did I buy this many?!
But with lots of attention and interaction, chicken raising can be an incredibly fun part of life on the farm.