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Feeding and care of your new baby chicks!

You are getting new chicks! Now what? First, don't panic. The little creatures do require some care but it is not as difficult as it first appears. There have been volumes written about all the steps in raising chicks, some of which is very daunting. Once you see a mother hen raise her chicks you will understand that much of what is published is overly complicated. The following advice is recommended for all chicks except meat breeds such as Cornish-X and similar birds bred for meat production. These birds are much more fragile and require some very special handling to prevent heavy losses.

Chicks require only a safe place from predators, access to adequate warmth, proper feed, and clean water. I will address each of these but first, PLEASE DO NOT USE HEAT LAMPS TO KEEP YOUR CHICKS WARM UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES! Chicks require supplemental warmth when they are very young if the weather is cold but it is not worth the risk to your family and home to use heat lamps to give them that warmth. There are safe ways to keep your chicks warm such as the Brinsea EcoGlow Brooders which are our personal favorites. These brooders simulate the natural way that chicks stay warm with a mother hen without the fire danger of traditional heat lamps. Every year families lose their homes and/or their lives using heat lamps to keep chicks warm. PLEASE DO NOT TAKE THIS RISK!!!

Prior to the arrival of your chicks prepare a secure but ventilated container for them to be placed in. A cardboard box can serve adequately at first or there are a million other options that you can discover with a quick Google search of the topic. Place some absorbent material, we use wood shavings, in the container along with a container of chick starter and fresh clean water. We use nipple waterers but if you choose to use a water font, placing some clean pebbles in the tray can prevent the chicks from getting wet and possibly drowning. The often repeated “rule” is to start the chicks off with 95 degrees and reduce the temperature by 5 degrees each week until they are fully feathered. Our experience after 55 years of doing this is that it does not need to be that precise or normally that warm. Drafts must be avoided but precise temperature regulation is largely unnecessary. With a brooder like the Brinsea EcoGlow you don’t need to concern yourself at all unless you are placing your chicks in a below zero environment which most of us would never do. If you are using other heat systems simply watch your chicks and see if they are piling under the heat source or moving as far away from it as they can get. This will let you know if they are cold or hot.

Feed a high quality chick starter and supplement it with some “chick” grit. Chick grit is tiny pieces of granite that the chicks need to process their food. This need for grit stays with them for their entire life but the grit size increases as they grow. This also greatly helps prevent pasty butt which can make your chicks sick or even kill them. University tests also show that chicks fed chick grit from day one also grow faster and are more healthy so we always mix a bit in with their daily rations.

At about six weeks of age you can migrate your babies over to a quality grower ration. We recommend a pelleted feed as it reduces waste and contains everything they need except grit. They will stay on grower until they begin to lay at which time you will migrate them onto a quality layer feed (we again recommend a pelleted feed). Do not feed layer feed to birds that have not started laying as the excess calcium and other minerals can cause organ failure in some birds.

Other than these care suggestions you simply need to enjoy and hopefully interact with your new flock members as they grow. You will amazed how fast they go from tiny balls of fluff and turn into full fledged chickens.

Raising Meat or Broiler Birds

Many new chicken fanciers want to try their hand at raising meat birds. This can be very rewarding and provide a wonderful product that far surpasses anything you can purchase commercially. There are, however, some important differences in raising these type birds. If you choose to you can simplify the process by simply choosing to raise a “dual purpose” breed bird such as one of the many varieties of “Rock”, Orpington, or any of a large number of other breeds that produce a nice large carcass but will take a few weeks longer than the specialized meat breeds will take without the attendant hazards that these specialized breeds present.

Many of the meat breeds have been so specifically bred for fast growth, such as any of the Cornish-x variations, that great care must be given to keep them healthy. Specialized steps such as restricting light, withholding feed for 12 hours each day, or taking them off of chick starter (or game bird feed) at 2-4 weeks of age are critical to prevent losses due to “flip over” (aka acute death syndrome or sudden death syndrome). These birds die suddenly with a short, terminal, wing-beating convulsion. It is believed to be a metabolic disease related to carbohydrate metabolism, lactic acidosis, loss of cell membrane integrity, and intracellular electrolyte imbalance. Other research show that the cause is cardiac arrhythmias or entrotoxemia but there is not a solid consensus. In any case you will find birds suddenly dying or dead. Flip over disease usually affects the larger and fastest growing birds that are between 2 and 12 weeks of age. Most deaths occur when the birds are between 3 and 5 weeks of age. Although the percentage of birds affected is usually low, in some instances it may be as high as 5 percent and we know growers who have lost even higher percentages.

So, with all that said, if you still want to try your hand at raising these challenging birds, here are some highly recommended suggestions. Flip over can be minimized by slowing the growth rate of susceptible birds, especially during the first three weeks of life. Growth rate can be slowed by controlling nutrient intake. Suggestions range from reducing the number of hours of light per day, reducing the energy and protein level in the diet, or limiting the amount of feed provided. We can advise you further if you let us know that you are feeding meat birds when you purchase our feed. We will provide you with specific recommendations from our miller in the use of their very high quality non-gmo feeds.

Flock Bio-Security

Disease management is critical for your birds. There are a number of fairly simple steps you can use to ensure that your birds live long healthy lives free of disease. Poultry are generally quite healthy but can be exposed to health issues from multiple sources, including their owners. Here are the recommendations we suggest you consider. Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure. You will never achieve 100% bio-security, but any reduction in exposure is worth the effort.

1. Restrict access to your flock from anyone, including yourself, who has been exposed to other birds. You can easily carry disease organisms and/or parasites on your clothing or shoes. Change clothes before entering your flock facilities if you have been around other poultry. Clean and disinfect your shoes or maintain separate footwear that you wear only into your own facility. You can use a disinfectant spray on your shoes to help reduce the risk.

2. Restrict, as much as possible, access to your birds and their equipment by wild birds. This can be daunting or even impossible, however, wild birds do carry many diseases and parasites that can be directly or indirectly transferred to your birds. Reduce feed and water availability to wild birds by feeding pelleted feeds and using nipple waterers. Also, regularly remove wild bird droppings from your facilities and equipment.

3. Regular treatment of both your birds, and their housing, for lice/mite infestations is critical. These ectoparasites cause much of the disease and losses you will experience. They can also weaken your birds and make them susceptible to other disease. Inspect your birds regularly and treat with appropriate materials. You will want to treat twice to get the adult phase parasites and the ones that will hatch from eggs that are always present. There are many photos of these online, but often new poultry owners do not realize how small some of them are. One of the most pervasive pests, the Northern Fowl Mite, is nearly invisible and does not stay on the bird full time. It feeds on the bird's blood, then moves into cracks and crevices of their coop and/or into their bedding or nesting materials. Please do not fall victim to the overwhelming amount of Internet misinformation regarding what will kill these pests. There are only a few truly effective/safe treatments. You can waste a lot of time and potentially kill your birds by using the wrong products. Please feel free to ask for our current recommendations.

4. Quarantine all new birds for at least 30 days prior to introducing them into your flock. This will provide you with an opportunity to observe subtle health issues as well as affording an opportunity to delouse them twice before taking the risk of them bringing disease/parasites into your flock.