Raising Chicks 101

Spring is quickly approaching, which means it’s chicken season! Chickens make for great pets; they not only supply eggs, but also provide fresh compost and manage pest control in the garden. However, just like any new pet, they require commitment, patience, and attention. Chicks need safe housing, special food, and maintenance.

If you decide to raise chicks, don’t just wing it! Here’s our beginner’s guide to raising chicks:

Plucking Up the Right Breed

Like dogs and cats, chickens behave differently based on their breed. The American Poultry Association recognizes 65 breeds of chickens so there are a lot of different personalities to take into consideration. Take some time to research the various breeds so you can pick the breed that’s a good fit for you and your lifestyle. Some good questions to ask yourself are: “What kind of qualities do I want in my chicken?” or “Is the focus more a friendly pet or an egg-laying machine?” or “Am I looking for a full-time bug exterminator?” It’s also important to keep in mind that chickens are sociable animals so it’s good to plan for a few chickens.

Set Up Their Living Space

Before bringing chicks home, it’s best to set up a healthy and nurturing environment that they can thrive in. Baby chicks specifically need a space separated from the rest of the chickens. They need their own secure space because they will be picked on by other chickens, especially if they don’t have a Mother Hen to protect. That space is called a brooder.

The Brooder

The brooder is a mini-habitat for baby chicks. You can “build” a brooder out of various materials including a simple cardboard box. Make sure the space has at least 2 ½ square feet per chick so that chicks have enough room to spread their wings and grow. The brooder should have 12 to 24 inch walls to keep chicks from hopping out or you can outfit a lid for their space. If you decide on a lid, you’ll need to make sure it’s breathable so the chicks get fresh air.

Keep your chicks comfortable in their new home by spreading shavings on the floor. This will help them move around and prevent splayed legs. Chicks are very clumsy and have weak legs at first so shavings on the floor will help them until their muscles strengthen. Next, you’ll want to make sure there is a spot for them to get all their essentials – basic feeders and waterers are easy to come by. Smaller feeders or troughs specifically for chicks are great to make sure each chick gets the food they needs. Chicks need to stay warm to survive so be sure to have a heating lamp, heating pad or other heater option in their home. Keep the temperature around 90-95 degrees. But the best way to ensure their survival is to place the brooder is in a safe space out of the elements and away from potential predators.

As the chicks grow into hens, they’ll have to move into a coop.

Watching Chicks Around the Cluck

In addition to setting up the chick’s environment, you’ll need to set aside time to hunker down for the first four weeks because chicks are very vulnerable to diseases. The best way to prevent sick chicks is to keep the brooder clean. Change out the shavings every 3-4 days to get rid of lingering waste.

Chicks will poop anywhere – including where they drink and eat from. So, it’s very important to check on their waterers and feeders. If you’re using a standard watering dish or bowl, you’ll need to get rid of dirty, stagnant water. Be sure to wash and rinse the watering dish frequently as well. It’s a good idea to clean out their food trays every few days too. Chicks are unable to eat every bit and will leave stale pieces in the tray. Baby chicks need fresh food to survive.

In addition to cleaning out poop in their brooder, you may have to clean your chicks’ backsides when they’re very young. Use a warm wash cloth to clean their behinds every four hours or so. It’s important to prevent their stool from hardening to their backside. If this happens they may get a case of the patsy butt and won’t be able to poop, which will lead to death.

One of the best ways to prevent patsy butt is to keep the chicks at the right temperature. Chicks need to be at a constant, suitable temperature to grow and live. Check in on them and observe their behavior. If they are huddled on top of each other under the bulb, they are probably still cold and you’ll need to move the heating lamp closer. If they are on an opposite wall and staying away from the heat, then it’s probably too hot for them. If they are happily moving around their brooder, then the temperature is just right. As the chicks get bigger and gain more feathers, you’ll need to move the heating lamp further and further away to decrease the temperature.

If chicks sense injury or sickness in another chick they will often peck the prone chick to death. If there are any signs of blood or injury on a chick, remove that chick immediately. Blood on a chick will attract pecking from the other chicks. Keep a small first-aid kit for your chicks. You can supply it with Q-Tips for cleaning, electrolyte solution, band-aids to help with splayed leg and a small dropper for chicks that can’t eat or drink. Your first-aid kit will grow as your chicks do but this is a good place to start!

Planning for Chickens

As your chicks grow and become chickens, you’ll have to invest in a chicken coop! These forever homes keep your birds safe and provide a space for them to retreat after a long day. You’ll also need to upgrade your feeders and waterers to accommodate your bigger birds. Upgrade to an off-the-ground feeder that won’t tip over or a hanging feeder. You’ll also need to get a waterer that will hold much more water. Stay stocked up on poultry grit to help your chickens digest their food and keep growing. As your chickens grow, get to know your local chicken expert for insight and advice.

The most important part of raising chicks is spending time with them. Take pride in raising these chicks and eventually producing your own fresh eggs. By watching your chicks and caring for them like any other member of pet family, you’ll be set up for success. Stop by your local Big R store for chick season or to “peck” up any poultry supplies you might need.

About Big R

Bill and Pat Crabtree originated the Illinois Big R Stores in 1964. The first store opened in Watseka, Illinois. To date 18 stores have been opened in central Illinois and northern Indiana. We have 11 stores in Illinois including Watseka, Gibson City, Danville, Tilton, Pontiac, Morris, Washington, Rochelle, Pekin, Homer Glen and McHenry. Our 7 Indiana stores include Warsaw, Wabash, Crawfordsville, Michigan City, Elkhart, Marion and Rochester. We recently expanded to Northwest Ohio, adding stores in Lima and Findlay (Coming Soon). The offices and warehouses for Big R remain in Watseka, IL. Joining the company in 1973, Jerry Gibbs now provides family leadership for the company. New generations of the Crabtree family continue to participate in the business. Farm and Ranch store owners in the western states started the Big R brand name; they chose the name "Big R" to convey the "Ranch" identity. The Big R group is now comprised of 12 independent owners with a growing 75 + stores throughout the U.S. They all are members of Mid-States Distributing Company of St. Paul, MN. The Mid-States Coop has over 600 stores throughout the United States and Canada.