Chick Care: Raising Baby Chickens The Right Way

The most thorough and complete guide on raising baby chicks right from the start into happy, healthy, resilient adults.

Avoid the pitfalls, mistakes, myths, and disasters other chicken owners have already faced by doing everything right from the start. Baby chickens require special care — this thorough guide tells you everything you need to know, so bookmark it now for reference whenever you feel stuck or have questions.

Related Article: How To Incubate & Hatch Chicken Eggs

Beware of Hatchery Chicks

This will likely be a controversial opinion. But I don’t care. And I’m not talking about every place that calls itself a hatchery either because there are plenty of good, reputable ones.

But this is where research comes in.

Baby chicks from many of the large commercial hatcheries are frequently of inferior breeding and health. More experienced chicken owners have almost grown accustomed to some of their birds being sick, weak, diseased baby chicks that fail to thrive.

They buy more than they expect to raise to adulthood as they know quite a few won’t make it out of the brooder and into the coop.

Those chicks are also rarely exemplary standards of the breed either and tend to be quite poor in appearance on top of health.

(Orpingtons are a perfect example of this. Hatchery Orpingtons look nothing like the breed standard describes the Orpington Chicken.)

If you have been raising hatchery chicks without problems, that is fine, but it is not what I see and hear from countless people.

This year we are taking a chance on Azure Blues for eggs (blue eggs!) and Red Rangers for meat too.

We shall see how it goes.

So, Where To Get Baby Chicks Instead?

I recommend you source high-quality chicks (or hatching eggs) from reputable breeders and hatcheries that are passionate about their chickens and their breed of choice. Ask your local online chicken groups for breeder recommendations.

And although I know it is tempting to pick up day-old chicks from the store when you pop in for feed, do not blame yourself if they end up failing to thrive. This is sadly a common occurrence.

4 fluffy baby chicks

Baby Chicks: The First 24 Hours

Your chicks have hatched and dried to a fluffy cuteness in your incubator. Or you’ve picked up a box of adorable day-olds. So now what?

Here are the basics. Read on after this short reference list for a more in-depth explanation.

  • For the first 24 hours line your chick brooder with a layer of paper towel. It can be easily composted afterwards. Do not use newspaper as the babyies can slip and fall, slipping a tendon as the paper gets slick with their waste.
  • Place the chicks inside their brooder one by one, dipping their beaks in their water source so that they know where to find it.
  • Place the chicks close to their heat source, but preferably not directly underneath it.
  • Once the chicks are all inside, sprinkle some feed directly on the paper towel so that they learn to identify it.
  • Using paper towel at first prevents your baby chicks from trying to eat the straw/shavings as they figure out what/where food is.
  • Make sure fresh water and chick feed is always available.
  • Monitor their behaviour to see if the brooder is too hot or too cold.
  • After 24 hours I like to add the bedding I will be using permanantly for them.
  • Newly hatched chicks need ambient temperatures of 95º Fahrenheit (35º Celcius); each week after, reduce that by five degrees. 

Baby Chicks Need 4 Basic Things To Thrive

Raising chicks is actually not complicated and it does not need to be expensive. Dare I say, it’s rather easy? They need a brooder box with water, food, heat, & shelter with the appropriate bedding/litter.

1. Food

Baby chickens need a higher protein feed than their adult counterparts.

You can certainly make your own feed from various recipes online.

Or you can simply buy Chick Starter Feed like the high-quality brand pictured below which is organic, unmedicated, GMO-Free and both corn-free and soy-free.

Chicks need a simple shallow dish that is easily accessible. You do not have to buy anything, a simple dinner plate )or frisbee!) works fine. They need constant access to feed and they will eat as they need, you should not be regulating the amount.

If you are going to be away all day or many hours, consider buying a container that stores a quantity of food that is continuously dispensed as the hungry baby chicks eat.

A simple metal base that a mason jar attaches to is popular. So are basic plastic feeders.

I would not overthink this or spend too much (or any) money here as they will outgrow whatever you use soon enough.

My Recommendations:

Medicated or Unmedicated Chick Starter?

It is up to you and you shouldn’t be afraid of the term “medicated” here either as it is not antibiotics in the feed. Medicated chick feed’s primary purpose is to protect against coccidiosis, which can affect chicks who ingest soil or the droppings of other chickens and wild birds.

We do not feed medicated chick feed starter and prefer using the Deep Litter System (My In-Depth How-To Article) as a way to build up natural immunity against coccidiosis.

2. Water

Fresh water must always be provided and accessible.

Do not use a water container that is too deep as they can drown in it. If using such a container, place pebbles at the bottom to raise the height.

My Recommendations:

3. Heat

Newly hatched chicks need ambient temperatures of 95º Fahrenheit (35º Celcius); each week after, reduce that by five degrees. 

The first thing you should know is that those cheap red light heat lamp bulbs people hang above their brooders are potentially dangerous and pose a fire risk. I would never use one and accidents happen all the time.

As the heating element must be turned on 24/7 for your baby chickens, including when you’re asleep and when you’re away from your home, I personally am not willing to risk that.

Add pets into the mix, or wild animals if your chick brooders are outside in a shed that could knock the bulb down and I really don’t want to think about how bad it could get.

A much safer alternative and a product I use and recommend highly is the Titan Heat Plate. Yes, they are more expensive, but they also use less energy and most importantly — they are safe and do not pose a fire risk.

The other product is a similar one from Brinsea and it is also highly recommended although I have not used it.

I use two Titan Plates to account for a brooder with 25 growing chicks. The plates will last you for many brooder-fulls of baby chickens. As the chicks grow, the plates are easily raised up. The babies will huddle underneath for warmth and to sleep and run underneath whenever scared.

My Recommendations:

The most important thing to remember about the heat in the brooder as it concerns your chicks — it is just as detrimental if they get too hot as it is if they get too cold.

How will you know? Some people use a thermometer and get very specific.

I prefer less complicated, simple visual cues.

Are your chicks huddled underneath the heat source and not active, even for food and water? They are too cold. Lower the heat plates, add more heat or insulation, and check for drafts in the brooder.

Are your chicks lethargic and lazy and staying far away from the heat source? Then they are too hot. Raise the heat plates.

An ideal brooder has a heat source in one corner that the chicks can access. They will sleep and spend time together underneath it in an adorable pile but they will remain active and venture out in search of food, water, and general exploration of their home.

Remember that a drafty coop can kill your delicate baby chickens. There should be no drafts at the floor level but the brooder must be ventilated up high, above from where they sleep and live.

a fluffy yellow baby chick inside a brooder

4. Shelter (The Brooder)

The type of chick brooder you use or build will vary greatly depending on your needs. If you typically brood 25 or so chicks, your requirements will be much less specific than if you are brooding 100+ chicks at a time.

The most important aspect of the brooder is that it be draft-free but ventilated.

Since brooders are typically boxes, the ventilation comes from the top.

Here are some simple cheap or free brooder box ideas:

  • An old playpen
  • A plastic storage bin
  • A cardboard box
  • A recycling bin
  • An old wooden crate

A brooder setup does not have to be large but it is important to ensure that overcrowding does not take place. I find the size of a playpen to be more than big enough for 25ish or so chicks as they grow.

Brooder Bedding/Litter Options:

  • Pine Shavings
  • Chopped Straw
  • Puppy Pee Pads
  • Newpaper
  • Paper Towel

So what should you use and what should you NOT use?

For the first 24 hours, I use a thick layer of paper towel for bedding before composting it and replacing with Straw Boss brand dust-extracted chopped straw. This is the same bedding I use in the coop and how I build my virtually maintenance-free Deep Litter System.

You may be tempted to line the brooder with newspaper — don’t. The paper will get slick with their waste causing some of the chicks to slip, fall, and potentially injure themselves by slipping a tendon. This is very hard and cumbersome to treat and often results in the animal being put down.

Some people use puppy pee pads. I also don’t recommend this as those pads are treated with chemicals we cannot be sure are safe for the chicks to live on for weeks at a time. They also cannot be composted or recycled and are very expensive.

The most popular and cheapest material is pine shavings. However, I am leery of pine shavings and am not personally convinced they are actually safe for baby chicks or adult chickens either. This article convinced me.

Quote from the article:

Why are pine shavings unsafe for your chickens?  Pine bedding is unsafe for chickens due to the damaging effects of abietic acid on the respiratory system, the damaging effects of terpene hydrocarbons and aromatic compounds on liver function, and the carcinogenic nature of pine dust. 

Pine Shavings in the Coop: The Secret Chicken Killer? The Featherbrain.

In my coop, I do add a bit of pine shavings at the beginning of building a new Deep Litter System — but only a bit. The rest is the chopped straw and other organic material.

Clean out the brooder every few days. Use common sense as to when it needs to refreshed, and it certainly should not be less than weekly depending on how many baby chicks you’re brooding.

baby chicks hatched at home in an incubator

When Can My Chicks Go Outside?

I have a more in-depth article on this topic (When Can My Baby Chicks Finally Go Outside?) if you’re interested.

Typically speaking, your baby chicks are ready to go outside once they are fully feathered — around 6 weeks of age. By then they are still small but quite a bit bigger than the day-olds you started with.

You can move them out permanently earlier — even right into their coop — if it has electricity where you can plugin their heat plates until they are old enough to go without.

Conventional wisdom tells us that fully feathered chicks can endure outdoor temperatures of 30º Fahrenheit or (-1º Celcius) but before they are feathered it is best to keep them around 95º Fahrenheit (35º Celcius).

Your chicks should be acclimatized to the outdoors and that can be done gradually from the coop or by taking them out of the brooder and leaving them outside in a secured “playpen.”

In the summer months, I take my brooder chicks outside as early as one week old. If you want to do the same, read on to see how I do it.

Short Day Trips Outside The Brooder

This is a covered outdoor exercise pen typically used for dogs or cats but is also perfect for your baby chicks. It is solid metal construction that can be easily moved. The cover provides shade but more importantly — it protects from aerial predators.

The only issue with the exercise pens is that because they are not technically designed for chicks, your babies can easily slip out between the bars. An easy solution is to just wrap the outside in plain chicken wire or hardware cloth (for maximum security). It takes seconds. The wire can be removed and reattached or you can easily zip-tie it on and keep it that way.

Because this pen is for daytime hours only, ground predators are typically not a concern which is why the chicken wire is safe to use. Aerial predators however are definitely out on the hunt and the cover keeps them ignorant of the tasty baby chicks underneath.

Take your chicks out of the brooder into a separate box or plastic bin lined with straw, outside tip the box into the pen very slowly and gently, and then leave the box tipped over onto one side.

At first, the chicks will huddle inside the box, unsure of what new environment they have been placed into. But before you know it they will be running around and scratching through the grass looking for plants and bugs to eat.

It is amazing watching their instincts take over as they just know that ants and worms are tasty food for them.

Keep their water and chick starter inside the pen for them to access at all times, and put them back inside their brooder before dusk.

Leave the box with straw on its side inside the pen as well as it will provide a windbreak for the chicks and shelter for when they want it.

Bring them inside if the weather starts to act up or if you find that they are huddled together and have stopped exploring (but are not just taking a nap break).

This is the best way I have found to acclimatize baby chicks to the outdoors and to get them supplementing their feed with natural plants and bugs. They will learn to forage and fertilize your lawn at the same time too ‚ it is best to move the pen daily to keep the grass from getting destroyed. It can be easily picked up and placed elsewhere.

Grey baby chick roosting on a branch outdoors
Practicing her roosting abilities.

When It’s Time To Move Out Into The Coop

Your baby chicks are not babies anymore.

6 weeks have passed (or sooner if the outdoor temperatures are good enough) and it is time for them to move permanently into their new coop. You will likely be relieved at this point as the chicks are now much bigger, much larger, and cleaning out the brooder is way more of a chore than it was in the beginning when they were teeny little guys.

Make sure your coop is properly protected from predators, draft-free, properly ventilated (at the top above the roosts), and has roosting bars. But don’t add nesting boxes yet until just before they are due to start laying, the timing of which varies by breed.

Coop design and construction is an entirely different topic beyond the scope of this article.

Ours is a large wooden shed that is not designed for chickens but is completely secure and draft-free. It has windows which allow light in and open up to allow air during the summer months. It is is also wired for electricity which allows me to brood chicks inside in the summer weather.

We never eave water or food inside the coop as they attract predators. In the winter months, water will cause the humidity inside the coop to rise as well and that can be dangerous and cause frostbite.

Introducing Chicks To Chickens?

What if your coop already has chickens — much bigger than the newly feathered still-babies — living in it?

You can use your outdoor exercise pen or a large dog cage as a sort of internal brooder. The baby chicks and adult chickens will get used to each other this way until they are not bothered or surprised by each other.

Or you can sneak the new chicks in at night when everyone is sleeping. Upon waking, they are more likely to accept the interlopers and their scent as they will be used to it. I’ve done this with great success.

A coop with plenty of space for everyone is generally enough to prevent fighting and bullying. Not always mind you, but it is a good start.

If your birds are free-ranged (mine are) even better as they will not be in each other’s way. Make sure there is enough space at the feeders and waterers outdoors to prevent fighting for a spot. Having more than one of each definitely helps.

If your chickens are enclosed in a run instead, make sure it is large enough and there are places for bullied and smaller birds to run and hide.

And that is all there really is to it. Raising baby chicks is a lot of fun and it is quite easy‚ much easier than some other pets or livestock. They need a few basic things and it does not need to be an expensive or complicated venture.

a flock of chickens on green pasture.

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