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Raising chicks from day #1.

It's been decades since I brought home my first box of chicks from the farm store, but I still feel the same thrill each spring when I put the season's first chicks into the brooder. Watching those adorable fluff balls rapidly feather into miniature chickens, and then grow into full-size roosters and laying hens, never ceases to fascinate.

Choosing a breed

People keep chickens for many reasons: for eggs, for meat, for show, or just for fun. All hens, unless they are old or ill, lay eggs. But some breeds lay more eggs on less feed than others, making them more economical as layers. Among the most popular layers are Leghorns, which lay white-shell eggs, Rhode Island Reds, which lay brown-shell eggs, and Araucana with their blue-shell eggs. The shell color makes no difference in taste or nutritional value; feel free to mix and match.

Any chicken may be raised for meat, but for rapid growth and heavy muscling a hybrid broiler is the most economical choice. White broilers are a cross between white Cornish and white Plymouth Rock. Colored broilers are Cornish crossed with a non-white breed. The most common color is red, but they come in just about any color except white. Colored broilers are popular for free ranging. They grow more slowly than white Cornish, but are more active foragers, and their non-white plumage makes them less attractive to predators.

Dual-purpose breeds are the old-time farmstead chickens. They are raised for both eggs and meat, although they don't lay as well as laying breeds or grow as fast as broiler crosses. Popular options include Marans, Orpington, Plymouth Rock, and Wyandotte. Most of the heritage breeds are dual-purpose.

Ornamental breeds are prized for their interesting appearance, including such unusual features as curly or fur-like feathers, top-knots, and feathers down their feet and legs. Popular ornamental breeds include ball-shaped Cochins, top-knotted Polish, and bearded Faverolles.

Most breeds come in a smaller bantam version, although some bantam breeds have no larger counterpart. Bantams tend to be easier to handle than larger breeds and are popular with kids and with folks who enjoy competing at poultry shows. By far the most popular bantam breed is the Silkie, with its fur-like feathers, top-knot, feathered legs, and winsome personality.

Once you decide which breed you want, it's time to find a source for chicks. Some breeds are available in spring at the local farm store, but many breeds may be obtained only from a mail-order hatchery or a private breeder. The worst place to buy chicks is from a livestock auction or swap meet. You might not be correctly told what breed they are, but worse--chickens (and their diseases) from multiple sources have been commingled. As a result, your new chicks may look perfectly healthy on site, but by the time you get them home they may not do too well.

Setting up your brooder

Before your chicks arrive, get your brooder ready. A brooder is simply a small enclosure where chicks are kept warm and safe. It may be as simple as a sturdy cardboard box, which has the advantage of being disposable. A good brooder has the following features:

* Adequate space for the number of chicks.

* Escape-proof.

* Protection from children, pets, and predators.

* Freedom from drafts.

* Good ventilation.

* Protection from moisture.

An extra-large plastic storage tote, in the 100-gallon range, makes an easy-to-clean brooder, and the snap-on lid secures it from predators. A plastic tote can easily get too hot, though, so keep a close eye on the chicks' comfort level. For fresh air, and to prevent overheating, cut a ventilation hole into the lid and secure it with hardware cloth to keep out cats and other predators.

A livestock watering tank is a good option for more chicks than will fit in a tote. A piece of hardware cloth or chicken wire secured on top provides ventilation, keeps out cats and other chick eaters, and prevents growing chicks from flying out.

As chicks grow they need increasingly more space. The minimum space to begin with is about six square inches per chick. Bantams and light breeds can get by with as little as four, while broilers and the really big breeds need more like eight. Naturally, if you start with the minimum brooder size, you'll have to increase the brooding area sooner than if you use a larger brooder to begin with. You can tell your chicks are overdue for expanded living quarters if:

* They have little room to move and exercise or to spread out for sleep

* They dirty the floor faster than you can keep it reasonably clean--droppings pack on the floor, manure balls stick to feet, or you can smell ammonia

* They run out of feed or water early, indicating the need for more space to accommodate more or larger feeders and drinkers

Floor and bedding options

Some brooders have a solid floor; others have a floor made of hardware cloth. Small-mesh hardware cloth is easier to clean, since droppings and other debris fall through the mesh to be collected on a tray or a layer of newspaper below for easy disposal. But hardware cloth is hard on a baby bird's feet, does not give chicks an opportunity to develop immunities, and increases the risk of cannibalism (bored chicks will pick at each other to the point of drawing blood).

A solid floor gives chicks an opportunity to develop natural immunities through gradual exposure to common microbes in their environment. It also provides a surface to hold a layer of bedding, which helps keep chicks dry and improves warmth. Chicks accumulate a lot of poop. The more they grow, the more they poop. While bedding makes clean-up more manageable, options that are suitable for growing birds are not the best for baby chicks.

Newly hatched chicks need a surface that's rough enough to prevent their little legs from slipping out from under them. Newspaper or other smooth paper is therefore unsuitable. My choice is plain white paper toweling, unrolled in strips and overlapped to line the floor. As the paper toweling becomes soiled, I add another layer on top.

Chicken keepers who prefer to spend money on soap and hot water instead of paper towels use old cloth towels or baby diapers. When a fresh towel is needed, the soiled one is shaken out and laundered like a baby's diaper.

Another option is puppy pee pads (also called puppy training pads) or human incontinence pads (also called bed underpads) to soak up moisture and odor. These pads are either washable and reusable or single use and disposable.

Non-adhesive, nonslip shelf liner is another option that's washable and therefore reusable. It is durable, yet soft and cushiony for chicks to rest and walk on. The rubbery nonslip surface is especially beneficial for chicks that have trouble with slipping.

Once the birds start growing, loose bedding will absorb their droppings to help keep them clean and dry, as well as insulate the brooder floor to retain warmth. Loose bedding also allows baby poultry to engage in natural activities such as dust bathing and scratching and pecking the ground. A typical brooder bedding depth is one to two inches.

Ideal bedding is loose and fluffy but not dusty, absorbs moisture and droppings, has no objectionable odor, doesn't cake or mat, is nontoxic, and is easy for growing birds to walk on. Unfortunately, no one type of bedding is 100 percent perfect.

Shredded newspaper makes good bedding, but must be freshened fairly often. Chicks are less likely to get tangled in the smaller bits shredded by a crosscut or micro cut paper shredder compared to longer strip-cut paper.

Well-dried grass clippings, from a lawn that hasn't been sprayed, make good bedding for chicks that don't have feathered feet. Grass tends to mat, and sticks to the feet of feather-footed breeds.

Dry leaves, run over several times with a lawnmower to chop them up, make acceptable brooder bedding, provided they are fully dry and not the least bit moldy. Like dried grass, dried leaves tend to mat and must be refreshed often.

Dust-free aspen, poplar, and other hardwood shavings make good bedding. Avoid pine with a strong pine odor, indicating the presence of hazardous phenols and other volatile compounds. Cedar shavings contain even more phenols than pine, so should never be used.

Clean construction grade sand, or washed river sand, makes excellent bedding. Sandbox sand is another option, but avoid brands made from crushed quartz, which contains crystalline silica dust that is hazardous to a chick's respiratory system. Although not as absorbent as other bedding, sand retains heat more readily and evaporates moisture more rapidly, and therefore stays drier.

Heating the brooder

Your brooder must have a reliable and adjustable heat source. A common source for small batches of chicks is an incandescent or halogen light bulb in a fixture with a reflector. Brooding fixtures are available from farm stores and pet supply outlets. The same sources offer infrared heat lamps, sometimes called brooding lamps, which are basically incandescent light bulbs that emit less light and more heat than a standard incandescent bulb. Warning: Do not use Teflon/PTFE-coated shatter-proof "Rough Service" bulbs; they emit toxic fumes that will kill your chicks!

How much heat chicks need, and for how long, depends on many variables: the breed, their numbers, their rate of growth, the size of the brooder, the room temperature in which the brooder is located, and the method of providing heat. In warm weather they may need heat for three weeks or less. In cold weather they may need to be heated for as long as six weeks, until they grow enough feathers to keep themselves fully warm.

As a rule of thumb, start the brooding temperature at 90 to 95[degrees]F (as measured by a thermometer two inches above the brooder floor) and reduce it approximately 5[degrees]F each week until the brooder temperature is the same as the ambient temperature, or about 70[degrees]F, whichever comes first.

In real life, during hot weather or in a well-heated room, a brooder may require little or no additional heat. Watch your chicks' body language and adjust the heat as needed by raising or lowering the light fixture; by increasing or decreasing the bulb wattage; or by increasing the amount of available living space so the chicks can move farther from the heat source. Look for these clues:

* Chicks crowded close to the heater are not warm enough.

* Chicks crowded away from the heater are too hot.

* Chicks crowded to one side, all facing the same direction, are feeling a draft.

* Sleeping chicks that are evenly distributed under the heater are warm and cozy.

* Active chicks that are evenly distributed throughout brooder are perfectly comfortable.

Watch the water

Chicks can go without water for their first 48 hours of life, but the sooner they drink, the better they will grow. A chick's first drink should be at brooder temperature. Prior to the arrival of your chicks, place the drinker in the brooder at the same time you turn on the heat. If you forget to fill the drinker before the chicks arrive, use warm (not hot) water from the tap.

Mail-order chicks may arrive dehydrated and disoriented. Dipping their beaks into warm water ensures timely rehydration. After their beaks have been dipped, some of the birds may start drinking right away, others may not. That's okay. As long as one chick drinks, the others soon follow the leader.

A one-pint drinker furnishes enough water for about a dozen chicks. Within a short time, they will outgrow their first drinker and need a larger one. Drinkers of all sizes and styles are available from most feed stores and poultry-supply catalogs.

Clean and refill drinkers twice a day, morning and evening, to ensure the chicks have plenty of water and to remove any accumulated sludge caused by feed or bedding falling into the drinker.

Providing feed

Newly hatched chicks come equipped with yolk reserves that provide nutrients for many hours. It's nature's way of allowing early hatchers under a hen to remain safely in the nest until all the stragglers have hatched. These yolk reserves allow chicks to be shipped by mail, but they are pretty well depleted by the time the chicks arrive. Feed them within two to three hours after they have their first drink.

Baby chicks instinctively look for things to peck. Give them something suitable to peck by spreading chick starter on a shallow tray, such as a paper plate or shoebox lid. When they start scratching the feed all over the brooder floor, switch to a regular chick feeder, available from farm stores and poultry-supply catalogs.

As the chicks grow and eat more, they will need a larger feeder. Whenever you change to a different feeder, leave the old one in place for a few days until all the chicks are eating from the new one.

Fill the feeder in the morning with enough starter that the chicks will empty it just in time for the evening feeding. Leaving feeders empty for long invites picking (there's that nasty cannibalism again), but letting stale or dirty feed accumulate is unhealthful, so strike a happy balance. Clean and scrub feeders at least once a week.

The easiest way to ensure chicks get all the proper nutrients is to feed them a commercial starter ration, which contains a mixture of grains, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Chicken starter ration (aka chick starter) is higher in protein and lower in calories than rations designed for older poultry. Warning: Never feed layer ration to chicks; the higher calcium in layer ration can seriously damage young kidneys.

Some brands of chick starter are medicated with a coccidiostat to prevent coccidiosis. If you are raising your first-ever chicks, and they have not been vaccinated against coccidiosis, using medicated starter gives you one less thing to worry about while you work through your learning curve. Do not feed medicated starter to chicks that were vaccinated against coccidiosis.

If you run out of starter, or you forget to pick some up before your chicks arrive, you can make an emergency starter by running a little uncooked oatmeal through the blender and mixing it 50/50 with cornmeal. Grains are high in calories and low in the protein, vitamins, and minerals needed for good growth and health, so don't use this mixture any longer than a day or two.

If you have extra eggs on hand, mashed hard-boiled or scrambled eggs make an excellent starter. In the old days before commercial rations were available, many farmers started chicks on mashed boiled eggs.

Until they are big enough to forage outdoors, your chicks will enjoy bits of dark green lettuce, pieces of grape or apple, and bean sprouts or alfalfa sprouts, all chopped into tiny baby-bird-size pieces. Offer treats only in small amounts, no more than they will eat within about 15 minutes.

Growing up

As your little birds feather out, they will enjoy being outdoors during warm weather. Unless you are prepared to supervise them the entire time they are outside, they will need protection from passing dogs, cats, hawks, and other critters looking for a quick snack. For complete protection put them in a secure enclosure, such as a wire-bottom cage or a doghouse-like structure with an attached wire-enclosed run.

Provide water during their outing, and if they will be out most of the day, bring along their feeder. To protect them from the hot sun, provide some form of shade, which could be a towel draped along part of the cage or run. They will also need protection from breezes; on downright gusty days keep them indoors. If the birds huddle or act uncomfortable in any way--appearing to be too hot or too cold--bring them back to their brooder and try again another day.

When daytime temperatures remain above 65[degrees]F and nights are not chilly, growing chicks may be permanently moved to grown-up quarters when they are about six weeks old. At this age they are too small to be turned loose, by they will enjoy spending outdoor time in an enclosed run offering protection from sun, wind, rain, and predators.

For the first week or so, check on your chicks at night to make sure they are okay. If the nighttime temperatures turn chilly, or stormy weather approaches, gather them up and bring them back into protective custody. Once they are fully feathered, they can remain in unheated, outdoor housing. Pull up a deck chair and watch them grow.

Chick-buying options

Unsexed chicks--also called as-hatched or straight run--have not been sorted by gender and therefore are mixed exactly as they hatch. Theoretically, a hatch should be 50/50. Some hatches have more pullets (females) than cockerels (males), but more often the ratio is 60/40 or even 70/30 in favor of cockerels.

Sexed chicks have been sorted according to whether they are cockerels or pullets, with as much accuracy as current technology allows. You can get as many of each as you want.

Vaccinated--Some hatcheries offer vaccinations against Marek's disease and coccidiosis. Marek's is a common viral disease. The vaccine helps reduce losses but does not confer complete immunity. Coccidiosis is a common protozoal disease. Vaccination stimulates natural immunity resulting in lifetime protection. But you must never feed vaccinated chicks medicated starter, because it contains a drug that neutralizes the vaccine and inhibits the development of immunity.

Gail Damerow is the author of Hatching & Brooding Your Own Chicks, available from the Countryside Bookstore.
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Title Annotation:The henhouse
Author:Damerow, Gail
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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