Care of Baby Chicks

Care of Baby Chicks


People with backyard chicken coops purchase their chicks from hatcheries to be raised mainly as pets and egg layers. Some are raised for eating too. Irrespective of their adult purpose special care must be given to young chicks in order for them to survive and grow into healthy adults. Their greatest danger of infant mortality is within the first seven to ten days.

Prepare Their Environment Before The Chicks Arrive

Think about the needs of the chicks before they arrive and prepare their environment. These are the main requirements:

  • A clean environment
  • Protection from drafts
  • Controlled temperature of 35oC (95oF) by means of heating lamps
  • Constant access to chick starter food and clean water
  • Proper flooring
  • Safety from predators

A brooder is usually used to provide all of these necessities for the chick, especially in late winter and early spring when most people obtain chicks and temperatures are still cool.

Brooder Requirements

A large cardboard box makes a good brooder if a commercial one made of wire is not available. Be careful not to expose young chicks to drafts. The advantage of the cardboard box style of brooder is that they are well insulated and have protective sides. If a wire brooder is used, protect the sides with cardboard panels 300mm to 450mm high (12″ to 18″) if the brooder is placed in a room where there are drafts.


chicken brooder made out of two cardboard boxes

Figure 1 Chicken brooder made of cardboard boxes.

Brooders should keep chicks at the proper temperature. Newly hatched chicks need to be maintained at 35 degrees C (95 degrees Fahrenheit) until day seven after which the ambient temperature can be progressively reduced by 3 degree C (5 degrees F)  each week until they are five weeks old. Use this table to determine the minimum brooder temperature for the chicks week by week:

table denoting temperature and versus day number and lamp positions to achieve that temperature with 250W lamp

The easiest way to heat a homemade brooder is with a light bulb or heat lamp (see figure 2). A 250W lamp suspended about 45cm (18 inches} above the chicks will result in an air temperature of about 35 oC (95 oF). .Raising the heat source to 60cm (24 inches) will reduce the air temperature to about 29 oC (85 oF)

 Suspend the heat source over the middle of the brooder. Observe the chicks’ behavior to get the brooder temperature right: they will huddle up in the middle directly under the heat source if the brooder is too cold and move to the edge of the brooder away from the heat source if it is too hot. When the brooder is at a comfortable temperature, the chicks will move about freely throughout the available space.


250W heat lamp used for keeping chicks at optimal temperature

Figure 2 Heat lamp

Whether it is a cardboard box with a light or heat lamp or a commercially purchased model, a brooder has to be able to keep chicks at the proper temperature. Pay careful attention if you are using a cardboard box and heat source to make sure the bulb is at a safe distance from the box so as not to start a fire.

Flooring is important in a brooder to keep the chicks’ feet and legs healthy. Wire floors are good because they allow waste to drop through. Rice or oat hulls, finely ground corn cob, or wood chips other than cedar make good bedding material. Any shavings need to be at least one to two inches thick. You can start chicks on newspaper for the first day or two and spread their feed on the paper to teach them how to eat. After that, dispose of the newspaper and use some other flooring, as the flat newspaper on a hard surface can cause feet and leg problems later on. Also, newspaper holds moisture and if not removed will cause problems with odors and bacterial growth.

Space Requirements Inside the Brooder

Chicks should be able to move about comfortably and have access to feed and water at all times.

As they grow, the space needed per chick changes: Make sure the brooder is big enough to house the chicks for the first four to six weeks of their lives depending upon the weather. Here are the methods for calculating if the brooder is big enough using both metric and imperial measurements based upon the chicks needing to be in the brooder’s protected environment for 6 weeks.

Metric Measurements Method

  1. Measure the internal dimensions of the brooder in cm.
  2. Multiply the length by the width. This is the area in square cm (cm2)
  3. Take that area and divide it by the number of chicks. This gives you the area available per chick.
  4. The answer should be a number greater than 1000 cm2 per chick to ensure the chicks have enough space Example: The brooder is a cardboard box 100cm x 70cm and you have 6 chicks. (100 x 70)/6 = 1167 cm2 per chick so the box size is ok.

 Imperial Measurement Method

  1. Measure the internal dimensions of the brooder in inches.
  2. Multiply the length by the width. This is the area in square inches.
  3. Take the area and divide it by the number of chicks. This gives you the area available per chick.
  4. The answer should be a number greater than 155 square inches per chick to ensure the chicks have enough space. Example: The brooder is a cardboard box 40 inches x 30 inches and you have 7 chicks. (40 x 30)/7 = 171 square inches per chick so the box size is ok.

Space Requirements from Six Weeks to Maturity.

Of course you need to ensure that you have the coop prepared before the chicks reach 6 weeks of age. You can find plans for these coops that make them easy to build even for the amateur with no real carpentry experience. (see for more details)

A wide range of plans are available for purchase on our website. Rather than looking around for free plans, it is strongly recommended that you use our tried and tested plans which come with a money back guarantee if you are not totally satisfied. Rest assured the small amount you will spend on the plans will be money you will consider well spent. Here are a few good reasons for purchasing these plans:

  • Our plans will save you hundreds of dollars in the long run
  • You will be sure that the plans are guaranteed to produce a good result if you follow them.
  • They are designed to and you will end up with a hen house that you will be proud of
  • Your hens will be healthy and happy in their coop.
  • Your chickens will be safe from predators.

When Chicks Arrive

Chicks can survive up to two or three days without eating or drinking right after hatching because they are able to utilize the nutrients remaining in their retained yolk sac during this time. This is how hatcheries can ship chicks all over the country with little or no mortality. When chicks arrive, they will be thirsty. It is extremely important to make sure each chick gets a good drink of water upon arrival. Water should be available to chicks at all times. It is optional to add ¼ to ½ cup of sugar to four litres of water (one US gallon of water is about 3.5 litres and one imperial gallon is approx 4.5 litres) to boost the chicks energy level if they appear lethargic. Also one teaspoon of antibiotic powder specially labeled for chicks and available at most feed stores can be added to water if the chicks appear unthrifty upon arrival. As chicks are removed from the shipping box, dip their beaks in the water to encourage them to drink (see figure 3).

simple and inexpensive waterer

Figure 3 Chick waterer

After each chick has taken a drink, introduce feed. One method is to scatter chick starter on newspaper to encourage chicks to peck at it. In addition fine grit can be added to the feed in a 1:10 ratio.

Watch the chicks carefully for about an hour to be sure they are finding water and beginning to eat. Notice how the chicks are reacting to the heat source. Adjust the light or heat source accordingly. To prevent chicks from pecking each other some people use a red light bulb, available at most feed stores.

Feeding Chicks

The easiest way to feed chicks is to provide them with a pre-mixed commercial chick-starter, available at any feed store, which should be about 20% crude protein. These feeds are usually medicated. Do not feed three-grain scratch or ground corn. Chicks need more protein, vitamins, and minerals than these feeds can provide. Feed a good commercial chick starter for the first 6-8 weeks. Then switch to a chicken grower feed from 9-20 weeks. At 20 weeks of age switch chickens to a laying feed, such as laying crumbles or mash. Separate roosters and hens at this time if the goal is a home laying flock.

As previously noted, one can start the first meal on newspaper, and once chicks learn to eat, introduce a feeder (see figure 4). Make sure the feeder is large enough that each chick has a place in the “pecking order”. Chicks should always have a constant supply of feed and water available to them.

3kg feeder with lid

Figure 4 Chick feeder

Keeping Chicks Healthy

Providing the correct temperature, draft protection, a complete well-balanced feed and clean water will go a long way to keeping chicks healthy. Brooders should be cleaned daily and also kept as dry as possible. Chicks need draft protection, but proper ventilation during the brooding period is very important.

Raising chickens can be an enjoyable way to enjoy ones property, as well as a way to provide eggs and meat for the table. A healthy flock of chickens begins with healthy chicks.

About the Author

In 1985 Ian founded Mann Industries Pty Ltd which over the next 19 years grew to be one of the leading designers and manufacturers of Industrial Instrumentation in the Asia Pacific Region. Ian sold that company in 2004 and then co-founded Data Acquisition Networks Pty Ltd (DAN) with his former Mann partners. DAN provides web based data logging solutions in a wide range of industries and has become the leading player in this emerging technology. See

.Ian developed an interest in raising chickens through his involvement in poultry farm monitoring, where DAN provides cost effective solutions. Ian has developed a new website to promote the home construction of hen houses for the hobbyist or amateur farmer

Ian lives in Sydney Australia

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