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Baby Chicks 201: They Grow Up So Fast!

Here's a primer on how to get those little fluff balls in peak health and ready for the world.

A row of four baby chicks sits on a perch

Photo: Thomas Vlerick (Flickr)

Feather growth signals it's time for big leap! Your chicks will soon be ready to venture out and try on coop life for size.

What happens with your baby chicks after the first week or two? This is where a lot of the literature falls off, so I’ve written a longer post than usual to give you an idea of what to expect in those weeks between the chicks’ hatching and coop time!

The Second Week And Beyond

Keeping chicks in a brooder is not that time intensive. It’s important to vigilantly monitor their nutritional and environmental needs as they grow larger. They are now starting to eat a lot and at all hours of the day and night.

After week one, you can lower the temperature in their brooder box about 5 degrees/week for the next six weeks. I house my chicks inside of a wire dog crate lined with a cardboard box and covered by a blanket on top. I gradually lower the crate’s temperature by inching the blanket back every week until insulation is no longer needed. You can also switch lightbulbs and go to a lower intensity as the chicks get older. Don’t sweat it too much — as long as they are happily milling around, eating, drinking and sleeping regularly.

There is no substitute for providing your birds with a spacious, clean and dry home. This is simply good management and should be a way of life for you and your chickens from here out.

But because the chicks are growing, they will increasingly need more space. Murray McMurray Hatchery recommends designating a half square foot of space per chick for the first four weeks, and increasing that to three-quarters square foot until you put them outside in their coop. I get a brooder with the maximum space needed, and then install dividers or other walls in the brooder to lock in heat during the first few weeks.

Change the water every day, even if the water bowl is not empty. The brooder’s heat and moisture create an environment ripe for bacterial growth, and you want to keep things as clean as possible.

You can start using newspaper covered with wood shavings to line the bottom of your brooder. The chicks can be messy with their water supply, so regularly change out damp shavings or newspaper for clean, dry bedding.

Big changes are on the rise! Because the chicks are growing faster now (and eating more), you’ll notice an increase in droppings. You’ll also see that their feathers are starting to come in faster, and you’ll possibly see some comb growth. Not all combs grow at the same rate on chicks, even within the same breed. But if a chick has a comb larger than all the others, there’s a good chance it is a male. But it will still be a few weeks to a month or more before you’ll know for sure.

Good Housekeeping

While making your daily rounds, check your chicks’ bottoms for build-up of dried poop. This condition is called pasty butt, and despite its seemingly benign name, it can cause fecal blockage that may result in sickness and death. Pick up each chick and inspect it carefully. If you see any dried poop, gently pinch it off. You may pull off a little chick fuzz in the process, but that is a small price to pay to keep your chicks healthy!

There are different recommendations about what to feed your growing chicks. Some experts feed the chick starter for the first eight weeks, and then switch to a lower-protein feed. That’s fine to do, but NEVER give the chicks a “layer” feed until they are at least 18-20 weeks old and ready to begin laying. Layer feed has extra calcium, which is suitable for egg-laying for birds that use up lots of calcium to make those nice, hard eggshells. But for younger birds, the calcium can be hard on their kidneys — and can even cause kidney damage.

It’s perfectly fine to skip the lower-protein feed, and simply give your birds the chick starter food until they are ready for layer feed. Most pullets will begin laying eggs between 20 and 24 weeks, at which time will need to switch to a calcium-enhanced feed.

To Medicate Or Not To Medicate… That Is The Question

When you buy your first bag of chick starter, you will find that some bags are labeled as medicated and others are not. There is a general consensus that extra medication is bad thing, and in most cases this is true.

But the medication in the chick starter bags is a low dose of a drug called a coccidostat. At low doses, this medicine is used to help prevent coccidiosis, a rapidly spreading disease that causes birds a lot of distress, blood in their droppings and often death. At higher doses, you’ll use it to treat the disease that has already developed.

Coccidiosis is caused from oocysts — cysts containing dangerous parasites — found in chicken droppings. If the chicks are crowded and their litter is not cleaned regularly, they will peck at the dirty ground and eat particles covered in lots of oocysts. Because oocysts thrive in hot, moist conditions, chicks are especially vulnerable to coccidiosis during warmer months.

chicks in a clean coop

Photo: B.J. Bumgarner (Flickr)

Healthy chicks need a spacious, clean and dry home.

Even if you have done everything correctly and kept your brooder perfectly clean, your chicks can still get this disease. In case this happens, it’s a good idea to keep medicine on hand: amprollium is a water-solvent powder available at most farm supply stores (Corid is the brand name version). At the first signs of your chicks huddling together, looking droopy and not eating, treat their water with the package’s recommended dosage — and do it quickly! The next symptom will be loose, bloody droppings, and by then it might be too late to save your birds. Death from coccidiosis can set in quickly.

I have only experienced this disease once, but I lost several very nice young birds in the span of a few days.

Be aware, however, that using the medicated chick feed will not prevent all coccidiosis. There is no substitute for providing your birds with a spacious, clean, and dry home. This is simply good management, and should be a way of life for you and your chickens from here out.

But if, in spite of all your best efforts, your birds do show signs of illness, begin treatment immediately.

Signs Of Maturity

You can start introducing your chicks to small perches to let them practice the behaviors they will develop as adults. A small perch not too far off the ground, or a small log will do. The chicks will enjoy jumping up and down and perching for sleep. After the chicks turn two weeks old, you can give them a bigger perch in the form of a brick or other solid shape.

Some store-bought varieties contain fat and various grains that the chicks can peck at. This can alleviate boredom and allow the chicks to express their natural tendency to peck at something — including other chicks if they are kept in overly crowded conditions. If you do offer the chicks these “cakes,” make sure they are not eating too much of it and ignoring their feed. You may want to put it in the brooder box for just a few hours at a time to ensure they are getting a balanced diet.

When your chicks are around six or eight weeks old, they will replace their fuzz with feathers. Feather growth signals it’s time for big leap! Assuming the outdoor temperatures have warmed up above freezing at night, your young birds are now ready to venture outside and move into their coop.

Congratulations! You’ve taken a major step toward being a successful chicken farmer!

Jana Wilson

Jana Wilson lives on 20 acres just outside of Bloomington, IN and writes her blog, The Armchair Homesteader. In addition to the chickens, she has ducks and a border collie named Winnie who helps her with her various efforts at becoming more self-sufficient.

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