Chicks can either be hatched from eggs in an incubator or under a broody hen or purchased as day olds from a breeder. Day old chicks (if not raised under a mother hen) should be kept in a heated brooder until they have their feathers, about 4-6 weeks depending on the time of year.
The chicks first home is called a brooder. The size of the brooder depends on the number of chicks. There should be a warm end to the brooder where the chicks can rest and sleep and a cool end where they can eat, drink and play.
We recommend a small animal cage (1m or 1.2m long x app. 50cm wide x 45cm high) or large cardboard box (app. 70cm x 60cm x 40cm high) Bigger is better! Two boxes can be taped together to make one large one. The beauty about using cardboard is that it is cheap, hygienic and can be easily disposed of when the chicks move on to the outside coop (compost it or burn it). Plastic animal cages are what we use as they do not get soggy, leak out th ebottom and are very easy to clean. The wire cage top works well to ventilate the brooder and offers the chicks a secure place to be safe from prying pet cats and other predatory animals (pet pukekos!)
Chicks need a warm end where the heat source is positioned and a cool end where they can feed and drink. For the first 5 days or so we use chick mat on the base of the brooder box and sprinkle the chick starter crumble directly onto this mat so the chicks learn to peck at the crumbles and are not confused by the shavings. After a couple of days once the chicks are more alert and aware start to place crumble in the chick feeder and place feeder directly on the chick mat. We recommend removing the chick mat (getting grubby!) and replacing with wood shavings on day 5 or 6. The bottom of the brooder should have a layer of clean, dry litter: untreated wood shavings. We don’t recommend newspaper as the printing ink can get the chicks dirty, it is slippery and gets messy and gets smelly very quickly. The litter should be changed regularly depending on number of chicks, and never allowed to get or remain damp - cleanliness is key.
We have a well put together Appletons Starter Brooder Pack should you wish to have a good start in raising chicks. With this starter pack you can choose either the radient heat or contact heat option.
The best heat source for the chicks is a heat emitting bulb with reflector to bounce the heat down. This type of heat source offers the chicks radiant heat. This is the best set up you can provide your newly hatched chicks/pheasants/ducklings. The quality ceramic heat emitter emits only heat no light so you chicks will have the warmth they need without light 24/7. This is a more natural way to raise chicks as the chicks will get a good night's sleep and a rested gut rather than feeding and being active 24/7. We have used heat emitters and refectors to raise our broods of chicks over the years and found it to be very successful. A thermometer in the brooder can be helpful, but you can tell if the temperature is right by how the chicks behave.
If they are panting or scattered farthest from the heat source then they are too hot. If they huddle together in a ball under the heat source, then they are too cold. Adjustments can be made to the distance of the emitter (or change the wattage) until its right.
The brooder can also be heated by using an ordinary light bulb. A 60W or 75W bulb will do the job for a few chicks but remember chicks will be exposed to light 24/7 and it is not economical as most of the power used is wasted as light. Please remember the risks involved in using a normal bulb in a plastic fitting that is left on 24/7 - it is a major fire hazard.
The latest technology in brooding is the use of heat plates. This is safer option esspecially if you are raising chicks with young children around as their is no exposed heat element. The heat is more a contact heat. Chicks will need to brush up against th eplate to feel the warmth. The added bonus of most heat plates is that run on very few watts so very energy efficient. Comfort heat plates come in a range of sizes so work out the best size to suit the number of chicks you will be raising and the brooder size you have available. If using a heat pad/plate plug it in a couple of hours before adding your chicks so it can warm up - some heat pads take a while to get up to optimum output.
Please remember when placing day olds in the brooder box show them where the heat source is and check on them regularly so they know and learn to go under it to keep warm. It might take a day for them to get the hang of it!
Clean, fresh water must always be available to your chicks. It is well worth investing in a chick drinker - chicks drink a lot of water. We like the plastic kind, it's easy to clean, inexpensive, lightweight and they can't tip it over. They also poop everywhere including right into their water; clean the waterer at least once a day. A proper chick drinker, if used correctly, helps keeps the shavings and box from getting damp and wet which means less time spent on cleaning and less shavings used and is all round more hygienic! If you are using a heat plate then the nipple chick drinkers can work well as these can sit on top of your heat plate.
For the first five days in the brooder box we use chick mat and not shavings. The chick mat works well as it helps the chicks get a good grip avoiding splays but more importantly we sprinkle the crumble on the mat for the first couple of days (no feeder). The chicks have a natural instinct to scratch and peck so learning that crumble is what they need to eat is best achieved this way. After a couple of days when they are more 'aware' we move over to shavings and place the feed in the correct feeder but still place the feeder on a bit of chick mat or cardboard. They need to learn to eat the feed not the shavings! Feeding out in saucers is wasteful and messy as the chicks just scatter the feed everywhere. We recommend in investing in a suspension chick feeder that keeps the feed clean and in one place. After about 10 days we suspend the feeder above the shavings in the box. Keep it filled up as they eat lots!!
Chicks start out with food called "crumble". It is specially formulated for their dietary needs; it comes both medicated or not. If you don't use medicated feed, you run the risk that *coccidiosis will infect and wipe out as much as 90% of your chicks. If you choose non-medicated feed, pay more attention to cleanliness. The feed is a complete food so no other food is necessary. However, feeding your chicks treats can be fun. After the first week or two, you can give them a worm or a bug or two from your garden to play with and eat. Greens are not recommended because they can cause diarrhea-like symptoms. When droppings are loose, a condition may develop called "pasting up", where droppings stick to the vent area and harden up, preventing the chick from eliminating. Check the chicks for pasting often - if you see this, clean off the vent area.
Chicks are insatiably curious. After a couple of weeks they can be put outside for short periods of time if the temperature is warm. They must be watched at this age, however. Chicks can move fast, squeeze into small spaces, and are helpless against a variety of predators, including the family dog or cat. If they have bonded to you (the first large thing a baby chicks sees is forever it's mother, this is called imprinting),so they will follow you around. Chickens become fond of their owners; some will come when you call them and some won't!
Once your chicks start to feather up and grow they will soon outgrow their brooder box and the heat source. This can take anything from 4 to 6 weeks depending on the time of year. At this stage we recommend moving them to an outside chicken coop with a fully enclosed chicken run. An Omlet Eglu Chicken Coop would be an ideal first home for your young pullets. Before you make the decision to move then you will need to harden them up to living without heat. Turn the heat source off in the brooder and give them a week without heat before moving them outside into a coop. This can be a very stressful time for chicks so best to keep the feeders and drinkers the same and move them on a warm, sunny morning into the house part of their new coop. It is at this stage coccidiosis can strike so keep a good eye on them.
Coccidiosis is an intestinal parasite that exists just about everywhere. It can take a heavy toll on chicks, starting from about three weeks of age. The parasite multiplies greatly in the gut of the chick, and vast numbers of "oocycsts" (think of them as eggs) come out in the manure. Chicks raised on litter floors scratch and peck at the litter, looking for food, and become infected. The explosive multiplication of the coccidia can lead to dead, stunted, and sick chicks. Chicks that are exposed to only low levels of coccidia become immune without becoming sick. Control is achieved by breaking the reproductive cycle. Chicks raised on wire floors don't get coccidiosis because they don't have enough contact with manure. Chicks raised on free range from a very early age tend not to get it because they also don't have enough exposure. Chicks raised on old litter (used for at least six months) tend not to get it because the litter eventually harbors miscroscopic creatures that eat coccidia. Medicated chick starter contains drugs that suppress coccidia directly. Wet litter, crowding, intermittent feeding, and any type of stress tend to increase coccidiosis. If the feeders are empty, the chicks will spend more time nosing around in the litter. If you have an outbreak of coccidiosis, - the first signs are usually visible as ‘bloody’ poos.
Anti-coccidial drugs are very effective. The danger zone is usually around 3 to 7 weeks. Keep chicks on a crumble that contains low levels of coccidiostat. With a serious outbreak, you need to put a coccidiostat in the water, since sick chicks that will not eat will still drink. There are 2 products on the market; baycox and coxiprol. We have coxiprol available in 250ml and 1L bottles. It is worth having an anti-coccidial drug on hand for those emergencies. If caught earlier enough and treated the chicks bounce back quickly.