You can’t resist them. They’re so cute, those little puffballs of yellow and brown and black that scratch and strut and peep as you walk by the display. Admit it – you sometimes go into the Cheshire Horse or Agway just to look at them and dream. Have you been thinking about seeing them pecking in your backyard?
Chickens are a great item to add to a small farm or home garden area, and fit right in with the idea of living more simply. They don’t need a ton of room, are relatively easy to take care of, and provide you with both food and entertainment. This is the right time of year to get baby chicks, too, and the Cheshire Horse now has them available in the store (they got their first batch in on March 24, and more are due any day).
There are a few things you should have before you bring home your babies. Baby chicks need a brooder, a small waterer and feeder, and heat lamps to keep them warm (see the slideshow for examples). They need litter, which will need to be cleaned each day to keep them warm, dry, and free of disease. They also require food, which comes in different varieties.
There are many ways to make a chicken brooder, but the easiest is to simply put the babies into a large cardboard box with a bed of wood shavings as litter. You can also use shredded newsprint or straw, but the wood shavings provide insulation against the cold as well as being simple to clean up. For the first month or so of life, baby chicks need to have an enclosed, warm space to live in where they can all congregate together when they’re cold, yet large enough to let them spread out when they’re warm. A cardboard box provides all this, as long as you keep ahead of the litter mess. If it gets saturated with waste, the box can start to disintegrate, but if you are diligent about cleaning daily, this should not be a problem.
When you get the babies home, the first thing they will need is water. Stores and hatcheries will try to sell you special gels and powders to put into the water, but they really aren’t necessary so long as there is constant access to fresh, clean water. The best baby waterers are about a pint in size, have a red base and a screw-on opaque white top. These waterers need to be small at first because the babies can (and will) drown if a full size waterer is put into their home. Depending on the number of chicks, you may want to have two waterers available for them to drink from. As you take them from the store box and put them in their new home, dip the beak of each peep into the waterer. This lets them know right away that water is available, and where it is.
Food can be purchased at Agway or Cheshire Horse, and you will have a choice of medicated or unmedicated feed. Always purchase unmedicated feed. As you care for your feathery peeps, you will see there is no reason to feed them antibiotics as a steady part of their diet. The knowledgeable staff at the feed stores will tell you what the appropriate food is for the age of your chicks. Feeders can be made at home, but for wee chicks the best thing is to pick up a chick feeder, which looks like an egg carton with holes in it. They pop their heads into the holes to get at the food, and this (somewhat) protects the food from being pooped upon.
A heat lamp is very important in your brooder, and even in your coop later. At first, the heater lamp should be kept on all the time, to provide a warm spot in the brooder for the chicks to congregate. If they are too cold, you will find them all huddled in a big pile under the light (be sure to always put your heat lamp in the center of the box, because if it is in a corner you will find that they stand on one another and some get crushed and die). If they are too warm, they’ll scatter to the far sides of the box. You can move the lamp up and down until you find the right spot for your chicks. As they grow, you’ll move it up higher until they no longer need it except on the coldest of nights.
If you spend time each day with your chicks, handling them gently and getting them accustomed to your voice and your face, you will be well rewarded with friendly, eager chickens as they mature. Make the same sounds when you bring their food, and they will come to associate that sound with food and will come running, happy to see you. Go light on the treats until your chicks mature (and even after they grow, don’t give them processed foods). A tiny bit of stale bread or greens will be fine once they are a couple of weeks old. As they mature, add in greens such as lettuce, spinach, cabbage, and arugula. They will eat the stems and ends happily!
There are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to day-old chicks. First, like all babies they are poop machines. Unlike babies, their poop contains a lot of amonia, which is heavier than air, and which will suffocate them after a while. Keep their brooder clean to avoid this problem, and make sure it is well ventilated as well. Chicks come in batches, and most stores won’t sell you any less than four at a time. They are social creatures, and a single chick is not likely to survive, whereas a group will thrive. The drawback to this is that chicks are panicky, and when they encounter their first thunderstorm or firecracker display, they can stampeed. If there are too many chicks in a small space, they can trample one another to death. Be prepared for a chick or two to die, especially if you decide to mail order them instead of getting them at a local store or farm. It might be amonia poisoning, or trampling, or sometimes baby chicks just don’t make it. It’s not unusual, and not something to panic over if you’re prepared.
It will take your peeps a few months to become adult hens, at which point they’ll begin to lay delicious and nutritious eggs for you to eat. Until then, pet them and love them, play with them and let them make you laugh with their tumbling and scooting. They’re much better than television, after all.
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