(This article is an excerpt from our e-book, From Egg to Eggs)
You’ve done the research, and selected the perfect breeds for your new flock. You’ve eagerly placed your order with the hatchery. Now, you’re sitting (not so) patiently awaiting their arrival. Hatching season is rapidly approaching, and if this is your first time, there’s a good chance you’re worrying that something could be missed. But, not to worry, in this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know to stay on track.
Before They Arrive
As the day of delivery approaches, you’ll want to set up the space that will house your tiny new flock members. It’s best to have everything prepped and ready about 48 hours before their expected arrival date. Among other things, this will allow time for fresh bedding to dry and the temperature to set.
Prepare a First Aid Kit
Whether this is your first flock or your fifth, you should always be prepared for the unexpected. Put together your very own chicken first aid kit and keep it close at hand at all times. You’ll likely add to it as your babies grow, but this will get you started. Your first aid kit should include:
Q-tips Can be used for cleaning muck off your chicks or applying ointments or salves
Disposable Gloves You should never handle sick or injured chickens without protecting yourself
Strong Clippers A good pair of clippers is essential for clipping wings and toenails
Small Pair of Scissors For very carefully snipping badly matted fluff
Electrolyte Solution Use for sick or weak chicks, as well as adult chickens who need a boost, during or following an illness.
Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) The unfiltered variety with the “mother” in it has many health and preventative benefits for your chicks. The dosage is usually between 1 and 3 tablespoons per gallon of water.
Vitamin E with Selenium A powerful antioxidant used to treat chicks who have “wry neck”
Droppers To help chicks who can’t or won’t drink, as well as to help administer liquid medications if needed.
Vetrap A self-adhesive bandage, essential for treating chicks with “spraddle leg” or “splay leg”.
Styptic Powder or Cornstarch Can be used to stop bleeding from cuts scratches and other minor injuries.
Small Piece of Cardboard These can be used as splints for chicks who present with “curled toes”.
Drinking straws, cut into small pieces This is another essential for treating chicks with “spraddle leg” or “splay leg”.
Set Up The Brooder Box
The brooder box is the first home your new chicks will have. It should be a deep-walled container that is large for your chicks to move freely but not large enough for them to get lost in. You will need to gradually increase in size to allow at least 1 square foot of space per chick by the time they reach 6 weeks. It should be comfortable, warm, and placed in an area that is free of drafts.
What is a Brooder Box?
Very simply, a brooder box is a contained area that provides a warm and safe
environment for raising baby chicks. A brooder box is essential for healthy chicks
to flourish because as we mentioned, chicks will need to be kept warm until they
are fully feathered, which typically occurs around 6 weeks of age.
How do You Set Up a Brooder Box?
Setting up a brooder box is a simple task, you will need a container large enough to hold a heat plate or heat lamp, food and water dishes, and give your babies a little room to move. A good rule of thumb is 6-8 inches of space per chick. If you are using a small container like a plastic tub, or cardboard box, keep in mind that you will need to upsize to a larger box as your chicks grow. Pullets will need 1 sq foot of space each. So when they reach 4-6 weeks of age you will need a considerable-sized box to hold even the smallest of flocks.
The important part of the setup is to ensure that the water is not directly under the heat lamp, as this can lead to added bacteria build-up in the water supply. Other than that, the only thing to make sure of is that if you are using a heat lamp, the heat source is close enough to the chicks to provide adequate warmth but far enough away to not present a fire hazard.
Generally speaking, pine shavings are the best bedding for baby chicks. But, you can also use chopped straw, paper towel layers, burlap liners, or even non-slip plastic. The bedding should be 1” to 2” deep. The important thing is that the surface should be non-slip, and you should never use treated or aromatic woods such as cedar. Also, note that you will need to replace the litter a minimum of once a week.
Bringing Babies Home
Whether you’ve ordered your chicks from a reputable online hatchery, purchased them from a local feed store, or hatched a set of your very own, you will need to get them to their new home.
Hatchery birds will arrive by USPS just like they have since 1918. A good practice is to call your local post office and put in a special request that you be contacted as soon as they arrive. Otherwise, your babies may sit in the box for longer than necessary.
Before you pick up your new feathered friends, take a minute to ensure that everything is ready for their arrival. Check the temperature and adjust it if necessary before you leave. When you arrive at the post office you should give your birds a quick inspection with the postmaster present so that if there are any issues you will have a witness. Then, bring those babies home, and don’t plan on scheduling any stops along the way. You are now in possession of a very delicate commodity that needs to be transferred to a heat source aka brooder box ASAP.
Once You Arrive Home
You should have given your chicks a once-over in the post office, but now it is time for a thorough inspection. Remove your babies from their box one at a time. Inspect the legs, feet, wings, and beaks for any obvious issues, and check the bird's backside. It is not uncommon for chicks who have been through the stress of shipping to have a condition known as “pasty butt.” (We’ll cover this fully in the next chapter)
Once you are done with your inspection gently dip the bird's beak into the water dish and repeat until they begin to drink on its own. You must do this with each bird. After everyone is settled in repeat the actions with the food dish to show everyone where the food is, and then, as much as you want to play with them, leave them to rest and acclimate to their new home for a bit.
Your baby chicks will need to be kept at a comfy and consistent temperature so you will need a heat lamp or heating plate. Heat lamps tend to be popular from a price standpoint since they can be purchased for just a few dollars. However, from a safety standpoint, they are not ideal. If they tip or fall it can take less than 2 minutes for a fire to start resulting in the loss of not only babies but possibly your home, barn, or whatever structure your chicks are housed in.
If ordering chicks for mail delivery, Cackle Hatchery states that mail-order poultry require much more heat initially. They recommend that baby chicks be heated upon arrival as quickly as possible to 104 degrees (which is a mother hen’s temperature).
After your baby birds go through their first week at a high temperature slowly lower the heat, at about 5-degree intervals each week. If using a brooder plate, this can be done by simply raising the plate to the next level on its stand. You’ll want to gradually reduce the temperature until they are fully feathered and comfortable at 55 degrees before you can move them to an outside or coop location.
Monitor your chicks for comfort levels regularly. If you find that they are all huddled under the heat source this can indicate that they are too cold. If you find they are as far away from the heat as possible, they are too warm. Your birds should spend their time spread evenly and comfortably through the brooder box.
Water is the essence of life and your baby chicks will need plenty of it. Place water in the brooder box at least 24 hours before your birds arrive so that it can come up to the temperature of the brooder environment. If your chicks have arrived in the mail, it’s a good idea to add some electrolyte solution to the first round of watering to help them recover from their journey. Be sure to keep water dishes shallow, otherwise, clumsy chicks could fall in and drown. You’ll need to watch the water carefully and change it out regularly. These cute little balls of fluff don’t care where they poop and you don’t want them drinking that. Additionally, the brooder box is warm, and warm equals a bacteria breeding ground. Keep it fresh kids.
Feeders are available specially sized for chicks, but a shallow trough, dish, lid, or even empty paper egg cartons can be used. Your newest flock members will need specially formulated “starter feed” that is available medicated or unmedicated and is specially formulated to give your chicks the best start in life. You will feed your birds this high-protein formula until they reach six weeks of age. Remember that no matter what kind of feeder you use there will always be at least one wise guy that poops in the feeder so you’ll need to clean it out regularly. For the first week of your chick's life, you should give them feed only, don’t introduce treats until food habits are well established.
Let There be Light
Your babies will need 24/7 lighting for the first week. Too much light can stress your baby birds past the first week, so gradually reduce the lighting until they receive around 16 hours of light per day. Or to the amount of light they will receive naturally when they are 20 weeks of age.
The Dark Side of the Egg
The sad reality is that no matter how good your care is, or how reputable your hatchery was it’s always possible that you may experience a loss. This is the dark side of chicken keeping, but don’t let it scare you away from the joys of raising a flock of your own.
Hopefully, now you feel confident and ready to welcome our new flock home. If you would like more information on raising backyard chickens, check out our Chicken Keeping 101 section or purchase our e-book, From Egg to Eggs, for a complete guide that includes logs and checklists! And, until next time,