Brooding Chicks: Two Options
Whether you want to start a new flock of chickens, or need replacement stock, you won’t always have the opportunity to bring in adult birds. Most “flocksters” at some point need to raise chicks from scratch. How do we go about that?
This page is currently the only one on the site describing use of an artificial brooder to start purchased day-old chicks. It also contains a description of brooding chicks using mother hens, though a more detailed treatment of that topic is on the site.
The following is the original version of an article published under the title “Anyone Can Raise Chickens” in the Dec 08/Jan 09 issue of Mother Earth News.
This page was added to the site February 28, 2009. ~Harvey
Table of Contents for This Page
It surprises many would-be keepers of poultry that just-hatched chicks can be sent through the mail. But an interesting fact of chick embryology is that, just before a hatching chick breaks out of its shell, it absorbs and stores the last of the yolk. It now has water and food reserves that support it while it waits—for two or even three days if necessary—for its slower siblings to hatch. This provision by nature to sustain the new hatchling while waiting for its first drink or first meal is the key to shipping day-old chicks from a hatchery far away to your front door.
There are many hatcheries to order from, from massive operations like Murray McMurray; to small regional, family-owned hatcheries; to individual breeders you can get in touch with by joining preservation organizations like Society for the Preservation of Poultry Antiquities and American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. (See insert, “Help Finding Best Breeds,” at the bottom of this page.) Success with purchased chicks is relatively easy, so long as you remember that they rely on you to fulfill their every need. Don’t forget for a minute: You are Mama!
Be sure to have your brooder set up and ready before the chicks arrive. You can of course buy a commercial brooder, complete with heat lamps, feeder trays, and waterers. It is cheap and easy, however, to assemble the brooder using whatever materials are at hand. For a small group of chicks, you might even use a large cardboard box, maybe the carton an appliance was shipped in. I make an ersatz brooder with four large pieces of scrap plywood, assembled in a box shape with four screws when needed, and hung flat on a wall when not.
Some folks prefer a brooder without corners (where chicks might in some conditions “pile up” and suffocate). In lieu of a cardboard box, they cut a long strip of cardboard maybe two feet wide, and set it in place as a circular enclosure. Another option is a “hover”: A box-like structure of metal or plywood, containing the heat lamps or other heat source, is suspended a few inches over the brooder floor, allowing the chicks to retreat under the hover to warm up, or to range in the cooler areas outside the hover. If the feed and water are placed outside the perimeter, such an arrangement speeds feathering and “hardening off” of the young birds.
Conditions in the brooder can be judged by the Goldilocks principle: They should be “just right,” avoiding the extremes of too cold or too warm, too drafty or too stuffy.
The bottom of the brooder should be covered with a loose, absorbent material such as straw, wood shavings (kiln-dried, not “green”), or shredded cardboard or paper. Do not use a slick surface such as newspaper or sheets of cardboard, which can cause leg development problems, especially in waterfowl hatchlings (ducklings and goslings).
Do not use open waterers in the brooder. Even if the chicks do not drown in them (a distinct possibility if deep enough), they can splash in them, become soaked, then chill and die. Use a waterer with a restricted “lip” the chicks can drink from, but cannot wade in.
Ducklings and goslings are exuberantly messy with their water, splashing it over the litter until it is soaked. When I have young waterfowl in the brooder, I set the waterer on a wire frame over a catch basin. Wet litter encourages growth of anaerobic bacteria, some of which are pathogenic, so it should be replaced, or scattered in a thin layer over the rest of the litter to dry.
The brooder must be furnished with a heat source. For the small homestead brooder, heat lamps (150 or 250 watt) or small electric heating elements are probably best. (For temperature control, lamps can be raised or lowered. The electric heaters usually have an adjustable thermostat.) Be sure to secure the lamp or heater the recommended distance from combustible surfaces (litter, cardboard or plywood sides, etc.)—usually 18 inches or so, as recommended by the manufacturer.
Be sure the area in which you set up the brooder—basement, garage, barn or other outbuilding—is secure against pets, other livestock, rodents, snakes, and wild predators, any of which could devastate your helpless brood.
Plan ahead for the delivery of your chicks. Make sure you will be at home on the expected arrival date (usually one or two days after they ship from the hatchery). Advise your postmaster or letter carrier you are expecting a shipment of live chicks. You may even prefer that they call you so you can pick the chicks up rather than waiting for delivery. Open the box in the presence of the postal clerk or carrier to check on the condition of the chicks, and note whether any have died or become ill en route. Shipments from any reputable hatchery are insured, and the hatchery will likely replace losses if there is a large number of fatalities. That sounds scary, but I’ve rarely had serious problems in dozens of shipments over the years. It is not unusual, however, to have a couple of losses, either in transit or within the first day or two, of weaker chicks that just didn’t make a good start.
Remember that, even in the best of circumstances, transit through the postal system is stressful for the day-old chicks. Turn on the heat source in the brooder a few hours before their anticipated arrival, so you can provide them with warmth, water, and feed immediately.
It is often recommended to give an electrolyte solution (available from many hatcheries and poultry supply houses) to help invigorate the chicks after the rigors of their trip. My “country boy” version: several tablespoons of honey in a gallon of warm water, a couple tablespoons of unpasteurized apple cider vinegar, and a large clove or two of raw garlic, squeezed through a garlic press. I keep this solution in the waterer for the first day, then switch to plain water.
Remember, you’re Mama: The first thing to teach your babies is how to drink. As you take each chick out of the box, dip its beak into the water for a few seconds, until it is swallowing vigorously. Then release it onto the floor of the brooder.
I prefer kiln-dried pine shavings as floor litter for the brooder. It is usually recommended to cover the shavings the first couple of days, since—without a mother hen to teach them—the chicks haven’t learned to discriminate about what to eat, and might eat the shavings. Since as said I want to avoid a slick surface like newspaper or cardboard, I get empty burlap coffee bean sacks from a coffee roaster/distributor near me, and lay them down as a floor cover the first couple of days. (After taking them out, I use them for mulching.) By that time the babies have learned what’s good to eat, and do not eat the litter.
Use a special chick feeder designed to minimize spillage of feed. Again, the chicks may need some help figuring out what is food. Since their way of exploring their new world is to peck at everything, it can help to simply scatter some feed over the litter cover. Once they’ve learned to peck up the feed they find there, you can start offering feed in the feeder only. Note that a hanging feeder can be used after the chicks have learned to eat—it can be raised to keep the feeding level at about shoulder height of the rapidly growing chicks.
In addition to feed, you must offer your brood free-choice “grit,” small bits of rock they ingest to grind their feed in their gizzards (in lieu of chewing their food like us humans). You can buy commercial granite grit (which comes in sizes appropriate to different ages and species of fowl), or you may find a source of clean, chick size grit (say, the size of radish seeds) on your place.
It is worth remembering that modern “superhybrids”—meat hybrids ready to slaughter at seven or eight weeks, or layers who begin laying at 16 or 17 weeks—have higher protein requirements than the more traditional farm breeds. (More on feeds below.)
You will often see a standard list of “Thou shalt’s” and “Thou shalt not’s” regarding brooder management. The key to success is not rigid adherence to a checklist, however, but frequent monitoring of the brooder. And common sense. Be especially wary of advice based on the implicit assumption that your flock is an analog in miniature of giant industrial flocks. Strive to make it anything but.
Remember that the greatest obstacle to success is stress on the chicks, and avoid sources of stress such as overcrowding, temperature extremes, or running out of feed or water.
Keep your nose tuned for the slightest hint of ammonia coming out of the litter (as it starts to decompose in the presence of the droppings), and add fresh litter material as needed.
The usual recommendation is that brooder temperature be maintained at 95° Fahrenheit for the first week, and reduced by 5° each week. My advice? Don’t waste your money on a thermometer. Just observe the behavior of the chicks. If they huddle up under the lamp or heating element, the brooder is too chilly. If they retreat to the perimeters of the brooder, the heat source is too intense. If they are scooting about the brooder like little water bugs, the temperature is “just right.” (Of course, like all babies, they need to sleep a lot, so do not be perturbed when you see individuals immobile on the litter.)
Mixing ages and species
Most sources advise not to mix hatchlings of different species, nor of different ages. In a small brooding project with a keeper who is monitoring frequently, however, this is a rule that is easily bent. The last brood I did, for example, featured 100 individuals in two batches, one week apart in age, each batch consisting of chicks, ducklings, and goslings. Apart from a bit of “bossiness” from the goslings toward the end of the brooder period, there were no problems whatever.
Cleanliness, or sterility?
Good sanitation in the brooder is essential to prevent disease and distress. But it is a mistake to assume that absolute sterility is either possible or desirable. Like any living thing, the chick’s immune response needs to be triggered by some challenges from the environment, while not being overwhelmed as it grows into its task. In practice, this means that you should prevent the “caking” of manure in the brooder, caused by overcrowding or inappropriate litter materials (any materials that are not absorbent and do not fluff up easily).
If you are doing successive batches of chicks in the brooder, I favor topping off the old litter with fresh material between broods (in lieu of removing it entirely and sterilizing the brooder, as usually recommended). There is evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that the litter becomes biologically active as the high-carbon litter and the droppings decompose (as in a working compost heap), yielding micbrobial metabolites that actually strengthen the immune systems of the growing chicks.
It is possible that chicks in the brooder start pecking at each other’s feathers and toes. Once raw wounds develop, everybody starts zeroing in on them—things get really ugly, fast. It is often recommended to use an infrared lamp to prevent the resulting “cannibalism.” The most extreme prevention is debeaking, which means exactly what the name implies: chopping off half of the upper beak of the just-hatched chicks. Debeaking is standard practice in massive industrial brooder operations, where the chicks are under such enormous stress it is not surprising they exhibit behavior which is biologically insane. Most hatcheries offer debeaking as an option, but in your home flock the procedure is completely unnecessary, especially for birds who will be pastured and will need that beautiful curved beak to effectively forage grasses and other natural foods. Recognize debeaking for what it is—mutilation—and register an emphatic “No” to the option.
Assuming that the chicks’ basic needs are met—proper temperature and ventilation, easy access to the waterers and feeders, and sufficient protein in their feed—the only inducement to cannibalism would be overcrowding or boredom. Give them plenty of room to run around in, and a litter that they can scratch and have fun in, and you are unlikely ever to have a problem with cannibalism.
“Pasting up” or “pasty butt”
Chicks’ droppings sometimes get sticky, and cling to the feathers around the vent. As they dry, they can even occlude the opening of the vent. In extreme cases the chick can die, simply because it cannot poop. Monitor your chicks for such pasting up, especially in the first couple of weeks. To treat, hold the chick in one hand and gently pull off the caked feces. It will probably be necessary to pull out some of the down along with them, in order to clear the vent. Feeding a little fine oatmeal or cornmeal can help clear up the condition.
Being chronically too chilled can bring on pasty butt, so make sure the brooder is warm enough. But I believe the condition is most often related to the mediocre quality of many commercial poultry feeds. If purchased feeds are your only option, introduce small quantities of natural feeds from day one: fresh grass clippings, fresh lettuce from the garden, etc. (Remove any that are not eaten within a few hours, so they do not mold.)
Vaccination and “medications”
Chicks raised under industrial conditions would not survive without intervention with vaccinations, antibiotics, coccidiostats, etc. Though many sources will advise you to choose vaccination for your chicks as well (frequently offered by hatcheries), or to use “medicated” feeds during the critical early weeks, in several decades of experience I have strictly avoided both, and have not had a single case of Merck’s disease, losses to coccidiosis, etc.
Be aware that commercial chicken feeds are usually sold in three formulations: a high-protein, “medicated” chick starter; a medium protein “grower ration” or “pullet developer;” and a lower protein, higher mineral layer mash. I am strongly opposed to the routine feeding of any medications, antibiotics, growth stimulants, or hormones to any sort of livestock. In a well managed home flock such additions to the diet are completely superfluous; and I believe may leave residues from these additives in the eventual eggs and dressed poultry, despite standard assurances to the contrary. So, even before I started making my own feeds, I never fed medicated chick starter, and recommend that you avoid it as well. I started the chicks on the level two feed—the “grower ration” or equivalent—and boosted the protein with fish meal, hardboiled eggs, farm milk, raw beef liver, earthworms, Japanese beetles, etc. (Note that you must never feed commercial layer mash to growing chicks—the extra mineral content can hinder proper development of the reproductive systems.)
Leaving the brooder
As the chicks grow, they may become too crowded. Plan ahead, and increase brooder space as the chicks become not only larger but more active.
How long to keep the chicks in the brooder depends on many factors, but most importantly the point in the season. In early spring, when nights are still cold, keep the chicks longer in the cozy warmth of the brooder. If you can give the additional management time, on balmy days you can put the chicks out in a little enclosure on the pasture, returning them to the brooder at night. You will learn by working with successive broods when the chicks are ready to be outside the brooder full time. Certainly they must be completely past the “down stage”—that is, fully feathered. Three or four weeks is typical for the brooder phase.
My practice is to move the chicks directly to pasture from the brooder, usually with the main flock. The adults will boss them a bit to “put them in their place” in the flock hierarchy, but vicious harassment is rare. The chicks will tend to hang together as a subflock, and will certainly bed down together in a corner at night, to share warmth and camaraderie.
Be especially careful that the growing chicks do not go running around in the dew-wet grass early in the morning. Until their body mass is greater and their feathers denser, they are subject to lethal chilling if they get wet.
Aside from the above considerations for chicks without a mother, manage the young ones as for “The new family” (below).
There is a lot of good advice above about starting your new flock from day-old chicks in a brooder. But now I’m going to give you the best advice of all: Forget all that! Be smart: Let a good mother hen do the job for you.
It seems strange in the extreme that we consider the ideal hen one who has forgotten how to reproduce her own kind, but indeed, the “broody” instinct—the inclination and skills to assemble and hatch a clutch of eggs, and to nurture and protect chicks—has been almost universally bred out of modern breeds. Among such breeds, the occasional hen will “go broody,” but most will not. And, if a hen has “forgotten” the mothering rituals, there is no way you can nudge her into these behaviors. Some traditional dual-purpose farm breeds, such as Cochins, Buff Orpingtons, and Wyandottes, are known for broody tendencies, though you cannot be sure any given group will produce hens inclined to be mothers. If you want to work with natural mothers, therefore, you need to get a few hens of the historic breeds (Old English Games are excellent—also other “gamey” breeds like Kraienkoppes, Malays, Shamos, Asils, Madagascar Games—as well as Silkies and some strains of Dorking), among whom the broody instinct is the norm, not the exception. Another interesting possibility is to get some hens who are crosses between distinct breeds. (Charles Darwin noted experiments in which the hybrid daughter offspring of non-broody breeds expressed broody behavior.) Bantam hens generally are known to make good mothers, though many contemporary breeders seem determined to exterminate the broody trait in bantam breeds as well.
“Broodiness” in a hen is hard to describe, but easy to spot if you pay close attention to your hens’ normal behaviors, especially where nesting is concerned. Typically, the hen will decide she wants to brood in the same nest box she has been using to lay her eggs. She will look deeply settled, somewhat flattened-out in the nest, with a characteristic Zen-like intensity. If you reach in a hand, she will put up her hackle feathers with a fierce glare and an indignant “Sqwarrrk!” (to drive the predator away from the nest—that’s you). Most importantly, she will remain on the nest at night, when her sisters have gone to the roosts. Such a hen should be isolated.
Re-read that last sentence. Don’t even think about letting the hen incubate in the egg nest. She may leave the nest to feed or relieve herself, then return to a different nest box to (in her mind) resume incubation of her eggs. Or the other hens will come and go, eventually breaking an egg and coating the clutch with suffocating goo. Trust me on this one: I’ve been there. It doesn’t work. Don’t do it.
Move the broody hen at night only, when she’s in the trance-like state that is chicken sleep, to a corner where she will have quiet and privacy, with some sort of physical barrier excluding the other hens. Keep feed and water available to her in this space, and make sure it is large enough for her to leave the nest to stretch and relieve herself. (A good broody has the instinct not to poop the nest if she has sufficient space elsewhere.)
If you work with more than one or two broodies a season, consider installing permanent “broody boxes” to isolate your mamas. Make them at least 24 by 30 inches, and 16 inches high, and mount them on a wall of the coop, so you don’t lose any floor space for the other hens. A wire floor in the box (say half-inch hardware cloth) is far preferable to a solid one—not only does it provide better ventilation, but is much easier to clean. (Just scrap droppings through the wire.)
A couple of caveats about moving a broody hen: Chicken broodies usually tolerate a move that is done with care, as described above. If a hen refuses to settle in her broody box (more typical with a first-timer who hasn’t yet gotten the knack), you might return her to the main flock and try her again the next time she goes broody. Since I have a lot of broodies in my working mother sub-flock, and since a broody hen ceases laying eggs, I usually cull an uncooperative broody to the stewpot.
Be aware, though, that females of other domestic fowl—ducks, geese, guineas, turkeys—cannot be disturbed after onset of broodiness without “breaking them up,” that is, disrupting the broody mindset. Plan ahead for such hatches, and let the broody female continue with her work where she has chosen to “set,” simply adding some sort of partition to ensure she is not disturbed by her sisters.
It is better initially to set the hen on plastic or wooden eggs—folks have even used golf balls or smooth stones, anything suggestive of eggs. A good broody will typically settle immediately on the fake eggs. Sometimes, however, a hen will resist being moved from the nest she’s settled on as the perfect place to brood a clutch of chicks, and will be restless and agitated the first day. Give her time to “get over it” and settle on the fake eggs, usually by the end of the first day. Then (again working only at night), remove the fake eggs and substitute the fresh, high quality, fertile eggs you have collected from your breeders, or purchased from a breeder with superior stock, etc.
How many eggs should you set? That most depends, obviously, on the size of the hen: 9 or 10 for a petite Old English Game, up to 15 for a matronly Wyandotte. The hen should completely cover the clutch, since it is her body warmth that enables incubation of the developing embryos. The number of eggs to set is also dependent on the point in the season—that is, on the average ambient temperature: The hen’s body can keep more eggs at incubation temperature as the warmer weeks come on, as opposed to the deeper chill of the early spring nights.
There are some common misunderstandings about managing hatching eggs: The eggs you are going to set do not have to be collected all on the same day. You can include in one clutch eggs gathered over many days (up to a limit of about 10 days or so), since the fertilized germ cells remain dormant until the eggs are warmed to a constant incubation temperature by the setting hen, when all the embryos start to grow—and hatch out—on the same schedule. By the same token, however, you must not make additions to the clutch (or allow other hens to do so) after embryo development has begun, since the eggs would then not be on the same schedule for hatch. Finally, do not give in to the temptation to add more eggs to the clutch than is appropriate for the hen’s size, thinking that it’s okay to lose any excess ones if you can thus maximize the number who do hatch out. The hen moves the eggs about in the nest each day, ensuring even incubation. Eggs on the perimeter not adequately covered by the hen can chill, killing the embryos. When the hen moves those eggs into the center of the nest, other developing eggs can be exposed on the perimeter and lose their embryos. As in other endeavors, getting greedy can bring its own punishment.
As for feed, it’s probably best to use a “leaner” feed like a scratch-grain mix, in lieu of the regular layer mash. Do not be concerned if a hen eats virtually nothing while incubating: Some hens fast almost completely during this period, while some are little piggies at the feed bowl. (In any case, it is not unusual for the hen to lose up to one third of her body weight during the ascetic rigors of incubation.)
Daily management of the setting hen consists of unobtrusive monitoring only, making sure she has feed and water. Some hens like to leave the nest for a brief outing, others will not do so even if given the opportunity. If you do permit a “broody break,” be sure to do so only when you are in the area, and ensure that the hen gets back to nest duty (with assistance from you if necessary) before you leave.
It is a good idea to “candle” the eggs at about day ten. Work at night, in full darkness, beside the broody’s nest. Remove the eggs from the nest, and, working quickly, shine a strong light through the egg. (You can buy candling lights, though I just use a strong flashlight.) A growing embryo will show as a small pulsing mass at the center of a spider-web of red supply veins. Keep examining eggs until you are sure you recognize a living embryo with its support system. Then it will be obvious when you find a non-living egg—one with only a yolk showing, or a dark mass. Such eggs should be discarded immediately. A non-viable egg is a rotten egg; and the putrefaction in that egg generates gases which can sometimes cause it to explode. Not only is the resultant smell not to be believed, the remaining eggs get covered with a thick coating of goo. Egg shells actually permit essential gas exchange, and the coating in effect smothers the embryo by blocking oxygen from entering. Also, the exploded contents of the bad egg carry a heavy load of nasty bacteria which can penetrate the pores of the shells. You should candle instead.
How long does incubation take? The literature will tell you 21 days for chicken eggs (longer, up to 36 days, for other domestic avian species). But mark on your calendar a “be ready” date of 20 days out: I have found that, under natural mothers, eggs are as likely to hatch in 20 days as in 21.
Hatch day is especially exciting if you have children with whom you can share the miracle of new life. Again, unobtrusive monitoring is the key. Most chicken hens will permit a gentle exploration of the eggs under them, perhaps with a token peck at your hand. If a hen is upset by the attempt, or makes a particularly sharp-beaked defense, simply back off and await events. (Hens of other fowl species are more likely to be badly disturbed by such examinations. Leave them in peace—more than likely, the new mother knows just what is needed.)
Hatch begins with “pipping,” the initial cracking of the shell by the determined chick inside. (Even before that first crack, you may hear the chick peeping if you hold the egg up to an ear. Kids love this!) Breaking out of the shell is a heroic effort, and the wet, bedraggled, just-hatched chick will lie exhausted for awhile, recovering its strength. Soon, however, it is dry and fluffy, and surprisingly active. If the nest has sides that would prevent the chick from climbing back in should it fall out, be sure to add some straw or other material to make a “ramp” of sorts back into the nest. If unable to climb back in with mama, the chick could quickly chill and die.
Inevitably, you will have a chick that is weak, and unable to break out of the shell on its own. Many sources will tell you how to gently remove bits of shell to assist the struggling chick; but I consider such apparent kindness ill advised. The difficult task of breaking free of the shell is nature’s first challenge for the new life, and it should pass that test or fail, on its own. If too weak to manage on its own, your assistance may help it start a compromised life, in which it continues to struggle to catch up, then succumbs to the first major stress that comes along. Certainly you would not want to pass on its genes to future members of the flock. Like a mother hen, who will leave a too-weak chick behind, you should concentrate your efforts on the strong, vigorous members of the clutch.
In my experience, hatch-out of the entire clutch takes place over the course of a day—say, maybe sixteen hours (though I once had a clutch of ducklings that took a full two days). In practice this usually means that you can leave unhatched eggs under the hen overnight for a final chance to hatch. Beyond that point, it is unlikely they will do so. I usually do a quick postmortem on such eggs to try and figure out what went wrong, then turn my attention to the new family.
The specifics of your own management situation will dictate what you do with the new family. Whatever you do, this is the point at which you realize what a smart move you’ve made, giving over the task of starting new chicks to the real expert, a mama chicken. My preference is simply to move the hen with her clutch directly to the pasture. (You do pasture your flock, I hope?) The earliest I ever did so was the last week of March (Zone 6b), when water froze in the waterers overnight, daytime temperatures were 40-45°, and winds were 20-25 miles an hour. (“95° the first week”? “No drafts”?) The chicks were happily foraging from day one, with mama providing a cuddling session to warm everybody up when needed. She didn’t lose a one.
The hard-working hen finds the best possible natural foods for her babies—weed seeds, green forage, live animal foods like worms, slugs, and insects—ensuring vigor and health, and saving you feed dollars. And do note: I have never once had a case of “pasting up” in a chick on pasture with a mother hen.
I am often asked whether it is okay to return the mother hen and her brood to the main flock. A precaution: As noted above, growing chicks should never eat commercial layer mash. If you do have the chicks feeding in the same area as the adult layers, feed a compromise feed that everybody can safely eat. (You can supplement the hens’ extra mineral needs with crushed oyster shell, which the little ones will ignore for now.) A tip: To provide for the higher protein needs of the chicks, feed protein-dense feeds inside a small “creep feeder” shelter—that is, one set up to allow entrance of the growing chicks, while excluding the larger adults. An assurance: You don’t need to worry about the safety of the vulnerable chicks with the older, sometimes contentious adult members of the flock—they all know that mama will properly kick butt for anyone foolish enough to mess with her babies.