A guide to rearing chicks

Rearing a few chicks can be a great way for children to learn about the responsibilities and joys of animal care- and chicks sure beat a goldfish! Rearing chicks is also an economical way to create or build-up the numbers in your layer flock rather than buying in birds at point of lay.

Sourcing your chicks

  • Always buy chicks from a reputable source such as a commercial hatchery or recognised breeder. Sometimes schools will organise sourcing chicks for you. Most people get chicks at 1-2 days old although some people like to hatch the eggs themselves using an incubator or under a broody hen which is an experience in itself and a must do for all lifestyle farmers at least once.
  • Always buy at least 2 chicks. They are social animals and do not like being alone.
  • If you get the chance to pick out the chicks you purchase, pick out the chicks that look healthy, alert and energetic.

Preparing an enclosure for your chicks and keeping them in a suitable environment

  • Before your chicks arrive make sure you have a suitable enclosure for them. It can be as simple as a cardboard box or plastic container. It must be big enough for the number of chicks you are getting and that also deep enough that chicks cannot jump out. It is also important that it is a dry and draught free environment. It’s a good idea to use an enclosure that is easy to clean out as hygiene is very important when rearing chicks.
  • Clean out the enclosure thoroughly before the chick arrive with a detergent and spray with a sanitiser approved for use with poultry (e.g. Virkon S). This will help to minimise the presence of viruses, bacteria and other parasites in the environment. You will need to clean out the chick’s enclosure regularly once they arrive as well.
  • Provide litter on the floor for the chick’s e.g. untreated wood shavings or shredded newspaper. Once the chicks arrive the litter will need to be changed regularly to ensure it doesn’t get damp (chicks can catch a chill if the litter is damp).
  • Make sure the enclosure is lighted well so that chicks will be able to find food and water easily.
  • Provide a heat lamp suspended over the enclosure. Between day 1-3 keep chicks at around 35-36°C and gradually decrease down to 32°C by 1 week of age. At 3 weeks of age the temperature should be around 28°C. By 5 weeks of age chicks will be fully feathered and will be able to handle lower temperatures around 21°C. It’s worth getting a thermometer.
  • Always provide enough room so chicks can move further away or close to the heat source as needed. This will allow them to regulate their body temperature. Panting and drowsiness indicates overeating while huddling and loud chirping indicates chilling.

Nutrition for your chicks

  • Chicks will need to be offered a feed as soon as they arrive and they should always have access to as much feed as they would like all the time (we call this ‘adlib’). Provide a good quality chick starter feed with high levels of energy and about 19-20% protein. This is really important for good growth and bone and feather development in your chicks. It’s best to go for a crumble for easy intake. The feed should be offered in small amounts which are replaced regularly to maintain freshness. It’s best to use a shallow bowl or a chick feeder. Chicks are messy eaters so you will need to clean away feed daily that has been pooed on or contaminated.
  • It’s a good idea to go for a chick starter crumble that contains a coccidiostat (an additive that helps to prevent coccidiosis, a common parasitic issue seen in young chicks). While great for chicks, a coccidostat should however not be fed to ducklings so keep this in mind.
  • Don’t feed your chicks anything else other than the chick starter feed and water just yet. At a young age other feed can cause digestive upset.
  • Provide an unlimited source of fresh clean and cool water. This should be at the correct height for chicks to access the water and not in a bowl that’s big enough for them to get into for a swim! - (you need to keep your chicks as dry as possible). Watch out for water spills as the litter should never be damp.
  • It’s a good idea to weigh your chicks regularly and compare their weights to target weights from their breed in order to make sure they are growing sufficiently. 

Keeping an eye on the health of your chicks

  • Young chicks are vulnerable babies and need to be cared for in a suitable manner in order to optimise health and growth rates.
  • It’s important that every day you check your chicks to make sure they are looking healthy and energetic. If you notice any behavioural changes in your chicks or you notice any chicks that are looking sick, not eating or lethargic, contact your vet as soon as possible. Getting on top of health issues quickly is the key to minimising mortality and/or disease spread.
  • Check the chick’s bottoms daily to ensure they are not getting any build-up of poo. If they are gently wipe their behind with a wet and warm paper towel.

When is my chick not a chick anymore?

  • A chick technically become a ‘pullet’ at 6-8 weeks of age. At this age they can begin to venture outside (provided the weather is nice and warm). Ensure when they are outside they are in a warm and secure coop.
  • It is best to switch pullets over from a chick starter crumble to a pullet grower feed at 6-8 weeks of age to ensure they continue frame development. Pullets should never be fed a feed designed for a laying bird, however feeding pullets a chick starter crumble is fine, although a pullet grower feed is better.
  • At 18-20 weeks your pullets will commence lay (this does depend on breed and commercial breed will get to point of lay earlier than commercial breeds).  When your bird does start to lay, transfer them over to a feed designed for laying birds. Laying birds have different requirement compared to non-laying animals for example it takes a lot of calcium to produce an egg as the eggshell is made of calcium carbonate so you must offer your chickens an appropriate feed.