Are you getting ready to own your very first flock? Congrats! I know exactly how excited and nervous you feel imagining those fluffy little chicks living under your roof. As someone who did her fair share of chick rearing research prior my first six chicks, there are seven very important things I wish I had known. This post is here to bring light to some very important factors I think a lot of bloggers miss out on when they write about the first few weeks of chick rearing. Read on to prepare yourself and your home!
1. They poop, a lot.
I was not prepared for the amount of chick poop these little nuggets churn out. Don't get me wrong, chicken poop is great, especially for composting and throwing in your garden. All that extra nitrogen is garden gold for your growing veggies, just be sure to use compostable litter for the chicks. My first year, I used Seventh Generation UnBleached Paper Towels through the entire brooder process. Unbleached is important if you plan on throwing it into your compost, which you absolutely should! People pay big bucks for chicken poop fertilizer. You can find the Seventh Generation brand at Target I know for sure. Ballpark, I went through 24 - 30 rolls of paper towels over the course of five weeks. That's a lot of poop.
My second year, I used wood shavings and built myself larger brooder box. I went through 3 large bags of wood shavings that I bought from my local feed store. I laid a tarp down first to make clean up extra easy once the chickens were done in the brooder, then poured the shavings on top. Using the deep litter method my second year was a lot less labor intensive and has proven to be beneficial for the chicks' immune systems. Simply put, once things got a little stinky, I would sprinkle another inch of wood shavings over their droppings and let the chicks go on their way. The only downside to this system was that there was a thick layer of dust over everything in this room. So when the next batch of chicks came, I moved this brooder out into the garage. It's difficult to balance raising healthy chicks outdoors in early spring here in Wisconsin with acceptable temperatures. From here on out I hope to breed my own chicks with broody hens and let them do all the work!!
They will poop everywhere too. In their water, in their food, in your hair just before you have to run out the door for a job interview (all of these things have happened to me). Their poop was the driving force for me to check on them every hour for the first couple weeks. You don't want poop sitting in their drinking water - I mean, would you? Get ready to change out their drinking water, scrub the dish and mason jar, and fill it with clean water only to have them all take a major dump in it two seconds later. I would change out their paper towels three times a day - breakfast, lunch, and dinner time. When they got to be a bit bigger in their fourth week I changed it a fourth time before I went to bed.
Honestly, they were far too cute these first couple weeks for it to make me too upset, but get ready for chick poop to be at the forefront of your mind for a good month.
2. Order to have your chicks arrive later in the spring.
Looking back now on the chick-rearing process I wish I had waited to do it until mid-May. That way it would have been much warmer outside and I could have introduced them to the great outdoors at a much younger age. It was also a bit cold in the room I had them in since it had two exterior walls and not the best windows. Of course I had the heat lamp on them, but I still worried about their comfort at night when the house got cold.
This also brings up the fact that rearing chicks inside can be so messy. I can't tell you how many times I had to frantically get the simple green out and scrub the carpet so the chick poop wouldn't leave a stain. Around week four they were jumping up to perch on the edges of their box and pooping off the side (we're back to the poop again). I am all for them exercising their right to perch, but had I been able to keep them in the garage or even in the coop throughout their chickhood it would have been much easier to keep things organized and clean. It was too cold at this point in April to move them outside, so instead, I had to get a pet-friendly screen at Menards to lay over the top of the box to keep them inside. The chicks also slowly lose their cute fuzzy down over the first six weeks. By the time it was warm enough to move them outside there was a thin layer of chick fuzz all over the room.
So if you can find a hatchery that will send you chicks in May, go for it. It will be so much easier on you, your home, and the chicks.
3. You may have to face end-of-life decisions much sooner than you think.
If you read my previous posts, you may have learned about Helen, our blind chick. I can't tell you how heart-wrenching it is as an animal person to have to make a decision to end an animal's life. If you are reading this post, you probably already know.
No one blogs frequently about the ugly side of raising baby chicks, at least from the vast amount of research I did when preparing for my first flock. The truth is there might be a chance that you get sent a listless chick, a chick that won't eat, or a chick that is blind. You will try your hardest to feed it, make it drink, give it love, and keep it alive. Ultimately, you will have to make a decision on how to end that chick's life in the most humane way.
Culling is hard, but it is a harsh reality that beginner backyard chicken owners often forget. Our little blind chick Helen was eating like a champ for two days, but on day three she just gave up. She wasn't growing as fast as the others, they were picking on her, and she grew listless. By day four I knew I had to end her life. I reached out to a few fellow flock owners, and the consensus was it had to be quick. Some say drowning, some say an axe, some say the freezer. No matter what you decide, it will be awful and painful and something no one can prepare you for. Helen is the first buried in our pet cemetery and she won't be the last. These are the decisions you have to be ready to face as someone looking to raise animals.
4. Have your coop ready to go, BEFORE you order your chicks.
Man, I wish I knew this one before I picked up those chicks back in March. We were halfway through renovating our first coop when our chicks arrived (learn all about that process here). We had the walls, windows, and flooring done. At that point, I needed to attach the roosting poles, the nesting boxes, and get sand for the floor.
Between keeping two businesses running, raising the chicks, and all the other things life throws at you, that coop was NOT ready when it needed to be. I would have loved to move the chicks outside to the coop by week four, but we still needed straw and the roosting bars.
The following year we made the same mistake with our mobile chicken tractors (pictured above!). At week four the chicks would have happily bounced around in an outdoor mobile chicken coop, but alas we were still in the building phase!
Do yourself and your chicks a favor and get that coop ready to go before you hit the "order" button on your new flock.
5. They love to be outside.
When I first brought my chicks outside around week three, it was like the whole world opened up. They started scratching and pecking, making cheeps and chirps I hadn't heard before - they were in total chick heaven. This hearkens back to point #2, ordering your chicks later in the year so it's warm enough to get them outside earlier. Honestly, you could bring your chicks outside by week two if you wanted. They just need a proper chick playground. We constructed ours with some 1/4" chicken fencing that was about 4' tall. Inside the playground we put their water, food, a few logs to jump up on, and a cardboard box for them to take cover.
I kept careful watch of them while they explored, but if you want to leave them to their own devices be sure to clip a screen to the top of the playground so overhead predators can't snatch them away for a snack.
Speaking of outdoor snacks, go digging for some earthworms for them and prepare yourself for a chick feeding frenzy.
6. Have two brooders ready for the chicks regardless if you have three chicks or 50 chicks.
I wish I had two brooders ready to go from the onset, especially with all the issues we faced with raising our blind chick. Think of one brooder as "home" and the other as the "Chick ICU." If you ever run into an issue with an injured chick or a sick chick, you don't have to scramble to throw together a make-shift brooder at the last second when it's most imperative to separate her from her sisters. Have two heat lamps, two waterers, and two feeders ready to go from the beginning.
Two brooders also comes in handy when you need to clean one (back to poop again!). Simply put the chicks in brooder #2 temporarily while you clean brooder #1.
7. They are endless entertainment.
The last thing that no one can prepare you for is how hilarious and adorable chicks are. Their narcoleptic sleeping fits where they pass out face down. They way the freak out over an earthworm (seriously, try it). The way they coo at you when you pick them up. The way they snuggle up to each other when they are falling asleep at night.
No one can prepare you for the joy of chick rearing, especially if you've been dreaming of having your own flock for years. It's magic!
So get out there and get your coop done, get your two brooders ready, and order those fluffy little nuggets.
Have anything you'd like to add to my list? Leave a comment below and fill us in!
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Thanks for stopping by Green Willow Homestead! From chicken rearing to composting, we've got our hands full and we love sharing what we've learned along the way. Follow along as we strive to live sustainably and turn these five acres from just property to a fully functioning regenerative farm.
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