What’s involved in brooding baby chicks or ducklings? A little heat, some water and some feed — right? That’s all there is to it — right? Not exactly.
Like many areas where we are mimicking nature, there is a lot more to it. Baby chicks need the right heat, the right water, the right feed and a secret ingredient that is often overlooked.
The time to get ready is when you order your baby birds. The same day order or get out of storage your feeders, waterers and brooding shelter materials.
Clean the waterers and feeders with soap and water and allow them to dry in the sun. If you are using a box for a brooder, clean it out — and let the sun disinfect the inside.
Baby chicks need to drink water and not play in it. You can use waterers with large drinking areas, but they must be filled with clean rocks or marbles to prevent the chicks from playing in the water. If they play in the water they will get cold — and cold is the mortal enemy of a baby chick.
We use drinkers designed for baby quail — they have a very small amount of water exposed and so the baby chick can drink without getting wet. After 7-10 days you can switch to a larger waterer. The advantage of the smaller waterer is being about to restock the waterer with warm water — particularly during the first 48 hours.
When you order baby chicks is also a good time to purchase your feed and grit — more on feed later.
If your baby chicks are arriving from the Post Office, they will be cold, thirsty and hungry.
The first thing they will need is the water — that’s right — hot water to drink. We use hot tap water. Our tap water is from our rain water collection system so it is naturally chlorine free. Chlorine is bad for most living animals, chicks and ducklings included.
Why use hot water? The chicks, as small as they are, won’t have to expend extra lots of extra energy to warm the water that they drink up to body temperature. When they become older, room temperature water will be fine.
We mix a little electrolyte and sugar in the hot water — very little electrolyte: less that 1 teaspoon per gallon.
This is definitely one place where more is not better. Most electrolytes have salt and too much will quickly incapacitate your chicks. Follow the directions on the electrolyte package, and when in doubt, use less rather than more.
We use about 1/2 cup of sugar per gallon of water. The sugar gives them a quick energy boost — energy they need to get warm and to eat.
We mix the hot water, electrolytes and sugar in a 2 gallon insulated container. This keeps the water hot while we process the chicks.
As we start each batch of 50 chicks, we fill a waterer from the container. We dip each chick’s beak into the water — long enough for them to get the idea but not long enough to drown them. They will soon get the idea and be drinking on their own.
Water before food. Give them a drink before they get food. If they have been in transit for a couple of days, they are starting to get dehydrated, and so they need to hydrate before they start eating.
If they start eating right away, the dry food will require water from their body for digestion — water that they are low on. So make sure they get a good drink before they start eating.
We give them warm water for the first 24 hours. After that we switch to regular temperature water.
Most commercial chick starter is too large and too ‘hot’ – that is too high in protein for baby chicks.
A baby chicks mouth is small, and the food they eat must be sized accordingly. This is particularly important the first 48 hours as they are overcoming the shipping stress.
During this crucial period we want to minimize the amount of energy they expend and maximize the amount of energy they uptake. If the feed is too large, they will waste energy picking through the feed looking for the smaller pieces. We run our feed through a mill to reduce it’s size. If you see the chicks eating the feed then it is the proper size. If they are picking through it then the feed is too large.
Some commercial chick starter is 20% protein, which in our experience is too high in protein for baby chicks. I prefer an 18% protein feed. 20% protein can cause loose stools which can lead to pasting up. The same for supplemental alfalfa pellets. It is too high in protein to be feed early on. Ground alfalfa pellets can be used later, in weeks 3 and on as a green supplement.
Getting the temperature right is critical. We like to shoot for 98-100 degrees for the first 24 hours.
During this time, they are recovering from their trip. On day 2 we reduce the temperature to 95 degrees for the next 5 days. On day 7 we drop the temperature 1 degree, and again a 1 degree drop on day 8.
We drop the temperature again on day 14 one degree and another degree on day 15. The same pattern repeats, every 7th and 8th day we reduce the temperature a degree.
By the 4th week they are able to handle lower temperatures, but we still keep heat available to them.
You may have heard that you can tell if the temperature is too cold or hot by watching the chicks. This is true as far as it goes. Too cold and the chicks will huddle together – neither eating or drinking. Too hot and they will try to move away from the heat source. Just right and they are eating and drinking without a concern for the temperature.
The problem with this method is that it is reactionary. The chicks are already cold when you notice them huddling together, and they are already hot when you see them as far from the heat as possible. They will do better in a thermostatically heat-controlled environment.
The Heat Lamp Fire
Years ago we were visiting a friend. We had been raising meat birds together, and he had received a new batch and was brooding them in his shed.
I asked how the chicks were doing and his face fell. “Let me show you,” he said. We went in to the shed.
Where the young vigorous chicks had been was a black burned out hole. Slowly shaking his head, he said, “Not one made it.”
The heat lamp had fallen into the bedding causing it first to smolder, then to catch fire. The initial smoke killed the chicks. In one two week period in December, fire-fighters in Colorado responded to 3 backyard coop fires that resulted in nearly $60,000 in property damage. If you are using heat lamps, please be careful.
After your chicks are several weeks old, short periods without heat — initially 15-30 minutes twice a day will help them feather out. At 3 weeks, a little pressure from the cooler air seems to help them feather out.
As important as water, feed and heat is — air quality. This is often the overlooked aspect of brooding.
It is particularly problematic in floor brooding where we set up draft guards to contain the heat and the chicks. While the guard is keeping in the heat and the chicks, it is also keeping in the stale air.
When ammonia is exposed to moisture it can form vapors that are heavier than air and so settle against the floor – right where the chicks are. So we need a way to get fresh air to the chicks, with out cooling them off.
A small fan can help move the air around. The fan needs to be placed where chicks and small fingers can not get into the fan.
The Secret Ingredient?
This secret ingredient beyond the right heat, the right water and the right feed? Care.