Yes, we all know how cute chickens and ducklings are, especially when I see those bougie Instagram accounts with their chicks sitting in little tea cups or wearing cupcake wrappers as skirts...it just makes me want to go out and buy 1,000 of them, right?!?!
No. The answer is NO.
Do not do this, you will instantly regret it. I raise chicks because it's more economical for me to do so, but I also have a very defined process I run for brooding chicks as well as the appropriate facilities to do so.
I don't want to deter you from getting chicks, but I also feel there is a common misconception that chicks just suddenly grow up in a week's time and start laying eggs - this is not the case, unfortunately. a chicken will not start laying until between 4-6 months of age, so if you want spring chicks and eggs all summer...well that's not going to happen. You may get a few eggs in the fall before they molt and stop laying again, ha! But seriously, if you want eggs right away, please get pullets.
Okay, now that my rant is over, let's assume you have chicken experience and are now ready to take on raising chicks/ducklings.
First, I use the term "brood", "broody", "brooder", or "brooding" a lot. All of these in summary mean to rear chicks. A chick is raised in a brood or brooder. A broody hen is one that makes a nest and sits on eggs to hatch chicks. Brooding is the process of raising chicks in their brooder.
Assuming you have read Part II of this series, you have already picked out which breeds you are wanting to order. BEFORE YOU ORDER - READ THIS! Try to find the hatchery that is most local to you. Chicks are sent via USPS - they are NOT sent through UPS, but USPS. USPS has contracts with all major hatcheries in the USA. What does this mean? It means that transit time for these birds is crucial for their survival. Do not order chicks from a hatchery in California if you live in New York - I guarantee all of your chicks or ducklings will be dead on arrival. If this happens, it may completely turn you off from the entire brooding process. Trust me, I learned this the hard way and it was a hard pill to swallow. Local is better in this case, and if you are able to pick up the birds from the hatchery direct - even better! When you order the chicks, sign up for tracking texts so you know where the birds are at all times, and make sure you're home when they are set to deliver - if they get left on the porch during a heat wave or during the frigid cold, you will lose chicks. I either pick my chicks up from local hatcheries, or I order out of Iowa, which is usually a 2 day transit. I also made friends with the local post office workers so the minute the chicks arrive I get a call (usually around 5am), and they open up the back door for me to come through and grab the birds first thing in the morning so they do not have to sit on a mail truck all day! The hatcheries pack a food gel pack into the boxes when they ship the chicks but the food is only good for about 2, 3 days max. The less time the chicks spend in transit, the better off both you and the chicks will be. Keep in mind, chicks ship from the hatchery when they are 1 day old so anything you can do to reduce their stress is important.
Before the chicks arrival, you will want to make sure you have properly prepared the correct brooder setup for the chicks.
[Below is a picture of my brooder setups - I will go into each aspect of the brooders in the paragraphs below.]
Brooder: There are many things you can use as a brooder. When I first started raising chicks, I made wooden boxes I kept them in. What I found was after several uses, they get nasty as they are hard to clean and bacteria gets into the wood - wood boxes are not a good brooder option unless you use a liner inside the box. I also have raised smaller batches of chicks inside a plastic storage tote (without the lid) inside the bathtub in my mud room. This option works pretty well, but I would recommend leaving the bathroom door shut with the fan on most of the time to allow ventilation, otherwise the smell will radiate through the house.
What I currently do is a much better option that has worked very well for us. We bought stock tanks dedicated as brooders, meaning we will NOT use them for their intended purposes as water tanks - that would be completely disgusting and unsanitary. I have 3 brooders/stock tanks. the two smaller brooders can hold 20-30 chicks, and the big brooder can hold around 50-60 chicks. I decided to use brooders like this after spending time at the local tractor supply and studying their brooders - it clicked one day and I wondered why I wasn't modeling this same system! Thankfully, I am able to set these brooders up in my garage, so they are free of any predators, my garage is also heat controlled, and they are not stinking up the house.
Bedding: I have seen people use a variety of materials for bedding: newspaper (both laying flat and shredded), straw, towels (yuck), leaves, puppy pads, pine shavings, etc... The list is honestly endless of things you can use. What works best for us is pine shavings. Because I use deep brooders, I am able to layer a fresh layer of pine shavings each day into the brooders instead of having to create stress on the chicks by removing them each day to clean their brooders. I essentially use a lasagna method of layering fresh bedding. There is hardly any smell, the chicks have fresh bedding under them each day, and the old poo and bedding in the under layers start to breakdown, which is great to add to my compost pile! The most important thing to remember is to never leave a brooder wet. Do not let the chicks stew in their own feces - that will cause sickness.
Food: This is an area where one can get lost quickly - there are too many options. Do I want non-GMO, organic, conventional, medicated, soy-free, blah blah blah. I don't get into the weeds on deciding what to feed the birds. You can find any standard chick raiser or starter feed at your local feed mill or tractor supply store that will be mixed to the appropriate nutrient standards that are necessary for your chicks. Some people are anti-med feed, and usually I am too, but I like medicated chick feed that contains amprolium because it is an organic coccidiostat - meaning it helps prevent coccidiosis in chicks. I will discuss coccidiosis and how to treat it in part 5 of this series. I would highly recommend getting chick starter with amprolium because once your flock catches coccidiosis, you can count on multiple birds dying. Tip: place your feeder up on blocks to keep it off the floor of the brooder a little bit, this helps to prevent the feeder from getting clogged up with bedding material - in my case, pine shavings.
Water: Never leave chickens without water - they drink a lot of it, even as chicks. I use both plastic and metal water containers, but I prefer plastic - they are much easier to clean. A 1-gallon waterer will suffice for your brooder. I also add electrolytes to their water every other day to keep up their mineral intake. Most farm supply stores sell packs of electrolytes. Tip: place your waterer up on blocks to keep it off the brooder floor to prevent the waterer from getting clogged with bedding.
IMPORTANT TIP: If you take away anything from this post in the series, make sure this next tip is it. When you place new chicks into the brooder for the first time, make sure to tilt their heads and dip their beaks into the water - you only need to gently lower their beaks into the water for a second, enough to get their beak wet - and then set them next to the waterer inside the brooder. Chicks do not naturally know how to do this - most don't anyways. If you do not do this, you will lose chicks to dehydration.
Heat: Now, some websites/forums/blogs will tell you the exact temperature a brood needs to be to keep the chicks alive - this sounds like too much work if you ask me. Since people have seemed to lost all powers of observation, I will slowly try and bring them back :) Chicks will huddle up together when really cold, and will disperse and separate out when they are really hot - you want to find a middle ground. Observing your chicks is probably the best way to tell if they are comfortable. If they are just casually laying around, some will be huddled together, but for the most part, if they seem content - THEY ARE - use your intuition on this.
The brooder absolutely needs a heat lamp or additional heat source though. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of a heat lamp, they make infrared panels that have legs that can stand inside the brooders that the chicks can go under for warmth - this option is much safer. I do have both, but heat lamps allow me the most coverage inside the brooders with the number of chicks I raise at one time. If using heat lamps, I recommend using the red lamps as they emit more heat than the white bulbs. Also, adjusting proper heat lamp height is very important, but goes hand-in-hand with the observations you will be making above: if the chicks appear too hot, raise the heat lamp - if the chicks appear to cold, lower the heat lamp. Also, don't point the heat lamp directly on your waterer - nothing likes drinking hot water unless you're a person and it's tea.
[Below is a picture of chicks in a brood, with the heat lamp, that are very comfortable.]
This about covers the basics you will need in order to get ready to have your chicks arrive. I will cover basic veterinary care in part five of this series, so stayed tuned for that! My biggest piece of advice is to not overcomplicate things. Your powers of observation will be key in this brooding process - if something doesn't look right, it's probably not.
So let me leave you with a few other tips, so you don't make the same mistakes I have over the years:
DO NOT raise chicks and ducklings in the same brooder together - they need to be separate as babies. Why? Because ducks will have a continuously wet brooder because they are slobs with water, and the chicks cannot live in those conditions. Also, ducklings grow much faster than chicks and will literally stampede the chicks to death - yes I learned this the hard way and spent an afternoon crying about it - so don't do it.
You don't need to handle the chicks much. Yes, they are cute and you can hold them once in a while, but just watch and don't touch. Every time you pick them up and touch them, you are exposing them to bacteria on your hands which can get them sick, and you're also stressing them out. I had a chick die in my hands once because it was so stressed out - just leave them be until they get older.
Sit and spend 5 minutes each day watching their behavior. You can truly learn a lot from animals by watching them. Understanding their behaviors will help you to differentiate between what is normal behavior and what is not - this will come in handy if the chick gets sick and needs care.
Chicks sleep on their bellies/breast with their necks stretched out and their faces planted down into the ground - they are not dead! If you check them early in the morning or in the afternoon when they are napping, you might have a mini panic attack when you see them sleeping because you will think the are dead. Please don't panic and yell, you will scare them awake - I always approach the chicks while talking gently to them so they don't scare when they see me. If you see one in a sound sleep and seriously think it may be dead, just nudge it with your finger, and usually they spring right up and start running around.
Raising any animal comes with the risk of losing that animal - it's the circle life and unfortunately it happens. It's NEVER easy to lose an animal, but just prepare yourself for when this happens. Chicks are fragile animals and when you raise a lot of birds, you see a fair amount of death. Cornish cross meat chicks, for example, typically have about a 10% death loss - I usually lose about 2-3 birds per every 50 I raise. Once, I lost about 25% of my birds due to an illness that I will talk about in part five - that will be a very important post to read!