Raising Chickens

Raising chickens can be fun and challenging

Table of Contents

How do you keep and raise chickens?

There’s a lot to like about raising chickens in your own backyard. The eggs are a real gem, tastier and fresher than any store eggs. Nothing good comes easy though and it will take some planning and work to achieve.

First, you’ll need a chicken coop. It has to hold a feeder and water containers and a nest box for every three hens. It should be large enough that you can stand in it to gather eggs and clean it out.  

The full how to of raising chickens

Setting up the brooder.

You will need a few things for your brooder that would otherwise be supplied by mother hen.

  1. A container.
  2. Heat.
  3. Bedding.
  4. Water
  5. Feed
  6. Security
  7. Love and attention

People use all sorts of items from cardboard boxes to plastic totes and even an old bathtub for raising baby chickens. It needs to be 18 to 36 inches tall , sturdy and easy to clean.

Below: Chicks are fun and cute but take some looking after to keep happy.

I use a large plastic box , 36 inches long x 24 inches deep for the first two to three weeks depending on the type of poultry I am raising. After that I transfer them to an outbuilding and use a cardboard ring to contain the birds.

One reliable or two sources of heat such as light bulbs to provide a temperature gradient in the brooder. An electric hen or brooder heater is a large height adjustable pad that the chicks snuggle under for warmth.

I have used most types of brooding technology over the years and always return to using two 40 or 60 Watt light bulbs depending on how many chicks I am caring for. It is cheap, simple and easy to use.

If hot bulbs in proximity to a cardboard box filled with wood shavings and chicks makes you nervous, and it definitely qualifies as a fire hazard, consider an brooder heater or special ceramic heat lamp.

For a few years I used wood shavings, covered of course for the first few days to stop them eating what they should not. I now use builders sand, bought at my local merchants as ungraded sharp sand. I like it as it holds the warmth well and they learn to scratch through it. Sand is also not a fire risk.

The essential oils in some shavings like cedar are not good for chicks and I have found newspaper or paper shredding’s get dirty and sticky. The short answer here is do what you are happy with.

Raise water vessels a little to keep it above the bedding. I use a flat piece of 1 inch timber to stop the bedding getting in the feeders and drinkers. Shallow is better or use marbles to stop chicks drowning when young.

Feed trays should be large , flat and open for the first three days or so until the youngsters learn to feed. you can sprinkle the food from your fingers to emulate a mother hen. the food dropping in the tray stimulates the chicks to feed.

You need to keep the brooder away from any predators. Keep your pet dogs and cats separate, as well as vermin. Rats will eat quite old chicks and the results are nor pleasant to deal with. Keep it in a protected area like a spare room, basement or garage. Chicks can be messy, smelly and dusty so do not put them in a nice area of your home or anywhere that will upset a spouse or partner.

Handle your chicks on a regular basis and look them over. Keep an eye on them and love on them! The more you hold and interact with them now, the more they’ll be tame around you later. Chances are your chicks will be happy and healthy.

Brooder temperature.

I am giving this it’s own section as it is one of the more misunderstood parts of poultry raising. The vast majority of advice on the net is quite wrong. You should not be aiming for a blanket temperature of 95F for the first 7 days .

Make sure the brooder is set up and working and to temperature before you add the baby chicks, a cold one will upset them at best and may shock them if it takes it’s time to come to temp.

Above: Brooders should have a Goldilocks zone for chicks with some areas warmer and some cooler.

Purchased brooders often try to keep an average temperature and it will do you no favours.  Baby chickens as well as other types of poultry need to move backwards and forwards across a range of temperatures to find their own homeostatic balance.

If you watch a mother hen brood her chicks, she spends around ten to fifteen minutes with them all tucked in her feathers and under her wings drawing on her body heat. She then shuffles them all out to feed, water and root about in the vicinity all the while giving lessons as they cool down. When they start to bleat from cold she shuffles all back underneath her to warm up again. They spend longer and longer away from her until they can manage on their own.

In reality you should have an area of your brooder which is warmer at about 101°F or 38°C to and then a temperature gradient away from the heat source. The chicks will find their balance and need to get away from the heat source sometimes. If there is not a warmer area and a chick gets wet it may get a chill before it dries off and warms back up.

Too warm an environment will cause panting, bleating and excessive water consumption leading to wet bedding and loss of water soluble minerals and salts from the body. It may also effect the feather growth rate, chicks kept warm will be slow to feather up.

What you will find is the chicks settle to sleep in a ring around the heat source and move away from it over time and then you can begin to raise the heat source upwards a little at a time which will lower the temperature a little at a time.

I dispense with a heat source from 4 to 5 weeks depending on how the birds are doing and use a mop head hung into the brood area for them to snuggle under, sleep is important and can be difficult under lights. Use your noggin and leave the heat a week or so longer if it is cold or the days are short.

You need to be careful raising chickens !

Fire risks – Hot surfaces and combustible materials can cause fires. Use sturdy brooders and secure heat sources.

Electrocution – you or the chicks. electricity does not mix with water either so be careful. Purchased brooders are sometimes made of metal which is conductive.

Dust, dander and allergies – chicks are dusty and dirty and make a mess. this dust is not good for humans and other pets. If you are asthmatic take extra care. The feather dander can cause pigeon fanciers lung which is not a pleasant condition

Electric hens – I have had 2 of these over the years and have ended up disliking them. When the chicks get to about 10 days old the start getting on the top, covering it in poo and using it as a springboard for escape.

Diseases and conditions -  There are some conditions that can affect chicks and some of them can cause illness in humans as well. Be sensible and wash your hands. There is more about diseases further down the article.

Choose your feed wisely.

 What is medicated crumb and should I be using it or not? Chick feeds are formulated to be high in protein and medicated feed helps them combat coccidiosis, a disease that is found everywhere in the environment.

Below: chick crumb.

Coccidiosis is a parasitic disease of the intestinal tract of animals caused by coccidian protozoa. It spreads from one animal to another by contact with infected faeces or ingestion. Apart from lethargy and a hunched look the only other symptom is diarrhoea which can become bloody in severe cases. There is no cure for the condition and over time the birds immune system will keep the parasite in check.

Medicated feed  is a helping hand. Most medicated starter feeds contain Amprollium. It does not cure coccidiosis but it helps the babies fight off cocci oocysts while they develop their own immunity. It is a preventative.

It is not necessary to use medicated feed. Some people, including me, prefer to use it as an insurance policy. You can use regular un-medicated starter feed and chicks can live and grow without medication as they have done for tens of thousands of years before man domesticated them. If you choose this method then keep their enclosure clean and dry since coccidia oocysts proliferate in damp environments.

Whatever your choice you should plan on feeding a chicks crumb for 6 to 8 weeks and then switch in stages to a grower feed.

When is it safe to open the lid of the egg incubator to move the chicks?

If you are sure that no other eggs have pipped and the hatch is complete it is safe to open up. Opening the incubator with pipped unhatched eggs will cause humidity to drop immediately which can dry out the membrane of any chicks who have begun to pip and shrink wrap them inside the shell.

Below: All the chicks should be dry and fluffy when you open the lid.

A dried out membrane means the chick is unlikely to be able to hatch itself.  The membrane becomes leathery and hard rather than pliable and the chick won't be able to break through it.

At best this means you will have to assist it in hatching.  At worst it will mean that the chick will die in the egg.

So resist the temptation to open the incubator too soon as the chicks will be fine in there for seventy two hours if necessary.

From the incubator to the brooder, when should I move my baby chicks?

There must be a unobstructed through flow of fresh air in the incubator, the babies will need to breathe. Chicks come out of the egg wet and should not be moved from the warmth of the incubator until they fluff up.  Moving them before that can chill them, and chicks can die if they become chilled

So your chicks have hatched and are warm and dry in the incubator and now is the time to transfer them to the brooder. They should be coordinated and mobile otherwise leave them another few hours. The yolk will sustain them for as much as 72 hours.

You should open the vents after all the eggs have hatched to allow the chicks to dry. Damp chicks may suffer in a brooder and a common problem is closing the vents during lock-down to raise humidity.

Your broody should have been ready for at least 8 hours before you move them. This makes sure everything is working and the area is warm. I have left mine a full thirty six hours before and they have been fine.

Take care when lifting the lid for the first time. I have spent quite some time trying to catch a frightened chick from behind a kitchen appliance. They are agile, Guinea fowl keets in particular are speedy from day one.

Have a box on hand to pop them in for the journey and make the transfer as quick as you can without rushing.

There is no hard and fast rule about when to move the hatch-lings, they will progress at different speeds.  Some will fluff up within an hour, others will take longer. It depends how many chicks are hatching at the same time and some breeds and types differ.

Brooding Chicks 

So you have your brooder set up with bedding, feeder, waterer, and a heat lamp and covered the bottom with paper to stop them eating the shavings, how do you look after very young chicks?

If you are using light bulbs as a heat source make sure you have a sturdy support like a bamboo cane or broom handle and tie wrap the cables to keep the bulbs secure and away from any combustibles.

You will find they spend a lot of time sleeping in a heap in their Goldilocks zone.

Feed and water should be available from minute one in the brooder in shallow pots so they can not get deep into water or get wet and cold.

They will enjoy some cover to get underneath. I use a mop head hung into the brooder so as the chicks can snuggle under it

Aspergillosis is a fungus that loves the warmth of a brood area and thrives on damp conditions. It is preventable but difficult to cure, spreads easily and often results in high mortality.

If the weather is warm and sunny you can and should bring them outside and let them roam around and get a taste of the great outdoors for a little while. They need a secure playpen as they can be slippery little buggers and keep a close eye as they will get cold. I have had chicks out on my lawn as young as three days old before although at this stage they can not manage more than 15 or so minutes.

Caring for Chicks                          

The chicks can walk within a few hours of hatching and drying out and can 'fly' within three weeks although they are more like unguided missiles at this stage as they stretch their wings.

They will need to be brooded in a warm and draught free environment. If the chicks huddle together and bleat loudly they are cold, if they pant and press themselves into the corners of the brooder then they are to warm. They will peep to themselves incessantly but it is a comforting and reassuring noise.

Below:  I let my chicks outdoors if the weather is nice from about day 3.

The temp will need to be 95 F to start and be reduced by about 5F every week till the chicks are fully feathered at about 8 to 10 weeks of age. We have found a better way is to increase the size of the brooding area so the chicks can wander further with each passing week. This seems to mimic the way mother hens brood their young and allows the young birds to better control their own environment.

We have always used wood shavings for both the nesting boxes and for keeping the chicks on when they hatch and have yet to have any problems with legs. It is parasite free which hay often isn't and allows for clean eggs.

It is also good to scratch in and makes an excellent insulation material. The chicks will let you know when they are ready to roost and we have found a broom handle is excellent for this purpose. They seem to be able to fly best about 10 to 16 weeks of age and don't seem to bother flying when mature unless they have to.

The chicks need a crumb to eat which is best fed in small amounts and changed regularly. Because of the warm conditions water will need to available at all times and changed daily.

They begin to feather at day three but are very slow to mature fully. Barnevelder chicks do not fully feather until they are 10 weeks old and do not mature until they are 28/30 weeks old. I prefer to use hens to look after and brood chicks in a free range environment as they respond to the chicks needs and teach them all they need to know. It is also fun to watch mother hen and baby chickens.

The dust bath.

Chickens love to take a dust bath, it is one of the signs of a healthy bird and watching chickens dust bathing is quite amusing not to mention it's also very important for their health and well being.

Chickens (and turkeys) dust bathe regularly and will suffer if they don’t get the opportunity at least every 2-3 days. It will be less if it rains or is especially cold. During the winter when the temperature drops and it is wet and/or snowing It is often hard for them to find a place to dust as most of your birds will be hiding out in the coop.

Chickens dust bathe all year round and will be grateful if you provide one in a sheltered spot or in the coop when the weather is bad. It is even more important in the winter when they are spending more time inside and there is a lack of outdoor spots to use naturally, otherwise this is a perfect time for lice, mites and other parasites to take hold.

Also every time they take a bath, it fluffs and aerates their feathers and makes them preen which is good for the condition of their feathers and helps them to hold in more heat.

So here is how I set up my dust bathes. - For my mix I use:

3 parts dirt or sharp builders sand

2 parts wood ash ( don’t use ash from a coal fire)

1 part diatomaceous earth.

Mix it all together using a medium sized rubber bowl. I prefer the soil to be slightly damp, which cuts down on the dust. I sifted it through a piece of course hardware cloth first to get out the clumps.

Above is the some of my flock enjoying a communal dust bath and below is a young chick having a bath in the sun:

The finished dust bath is ready to go to the coop. It also works for my chicken tractors or breeding pens, which I can lift out every day when I move the coops. Since I have a lot of pens each one has it’s own bath as rotating the buckets might spread things between coops and pens. I give my chicks access to a small version from around day 3 when they're in the brooder.

Refill your bowl as needed, the birds they will scratch a lot of the dirt out or spread it especially when they shake. Stick to natural products like sand etc and do not add odours, smellies or bath salts or anything that can irritate skin.

Raising Chicks Artificially

This page deals with the little bundles of fluff that you take out of the incubator and raise artificially without the use of a mother hen.  If you are wanting strong, healthy, adult chickens you need to begin with healthy, well looked after chicks. Some people prefer to raise chicks artificially because they feel safer doing so.

I have no real preference for either method of raising chicks as both have their advantages but I will confess to having greater losses to outdoor raised chicks, mostly to predation and the rather unpredictable weather we seem to be having at the moment. While there is considerable variation in how chicks are raised there are correct methods and bad practices.

There are some pros for Raising Chicks Artificially:

  • Chicks are safer.
  • Chicks will be tamer.
  • Illnesses can be caught earlier and treated more easily.
  • Allows you to enjoy their sounds, personalities and growing changes.
  • Chicks are fun to raise

The cons for Raising Chicks Artificially:

  • Chicks won’t have the benefit of being raised by their own kind.
  • Chicks will take longer to develop instincts.
  • You will have to clean their brooder.
  • Chicks are can be loud, make a mess and smell.
  • Chicks require lots of attention and you will probably spend more time than is good for you watching them.

Let’s start by preparing the brooder to receive the chicks.

Brooder Requirements – pictures.

You can purchase complete brooding sets like this Brinsea product. They are expensive and you can have the same results with a cardboard ring and a few heat lamps or electric hen. I prefer to use disposable stuff but that is my personal preference.

Baby chicks need a place to live. The brooder, it can be many things from a cardboard box to a large and complex manufactured and ready to use item.  Whatever you use or decide to purchase there are a few basics you need to remember:

Adequate space, you need to start out with 4-6 square inches per bird depending on breed and how many chicks you are keeping and their size. ( picture of whole brooder)

Protection from drafts, moisture, predators and direct sunlight. Draughts can kill a chick but will always make them unhappy, moisture in the brooder breeds pneumonia and fungus and allows a breeding ground for pests.. Direct sunlight will kill in minutes if they can’t get away from it and cats can fish chicks out of the brooder with terrible consequences and even if your tame and soft golden retriever on picks them up in his mouth they are unlikely to survive the trip.

Reliable heat, like an electric hen or light bulbs. The electric hen generally has a better reliability but they are expensive to buy. Light bulbs come in red and white and should be used in pairs for reliability. I use 2 x 40 watt red bulbs to brood my chicks.

Food and water sources placed at the correct height. An adequate supply of food at the correct height so they ant spill and scratch it all over the place. Water should be in a suitable container that they cannot drown in or spill over the floor

Ventilation. Brooding is all about conducted heat, don’t put a lid on the brooder, this can cause hot spots and a build up of moisture.

Cabbage leaves, grass or sprouted wheat. I start greens very early, whilst watching mother hens they try to get the chicks to nip the fresh green sprouts of the ends of the grass

My personal preference is for disposable brooders as they can be composted along with the garden waste whereas shop bought brooders might have complex shapes that take time cleaning. Don’t use a cardboard box for an extended period of time, they will eventually peck a hole in the card and might escape and when they get bigger they will destroy card in no time at all.

Chicks need about 4-6 square inches per bird when they first arrive or hatch. They grow FAST so be ready to either add onto their brooder or transfer them to a new one. No matter what their age, always make sure they have the space to run, flap their wings, dust bathe, establish and deal with the pecking order, eat, drink,  and sleep comfortably.

Up to 2 weeks:  0.5 sq ft per chick

2-4 weeks: 1 sq ft per chick

4-8 weeks: 2.5 sq ft per chick

over 8 weeks: between 6 and 8 weeks is the time to move them to an outdoor shed. They will be happier.  4 sq ft per chick

Do not allow chicks to roost until at least 4 and preferably 6 weeks of age, early roosting is implicated in twisted and malformed breast bones and very young chicks cannot balance well enough to perch.

Don’t be in a hurry, they will begin to roost when they want to and don’t waste time trying to teach them to roost early, they will copy one another and as soon as one starts they will all begin to investigate perches.

When the chicks get to 4 weeks old you can add a perch that is around 4 inches high and is not to near the heat source. I use a chunk of tree branch as it will not move around or fall over.

Brooder bedding is also very important, I used to use wood shavings covered for a few days with tissue paper or kitchen towel, but in the last 12 months I have switched to using builders sand or sharp sand instead of sawdust or shavings.

During the chicks’ first week of life, you can just use paper towels or rubber shelf liner as their floor buy this seem like a chore trying to get them to stop eating the sawdust.

Do NOT use slippery substances such as newspaper or magazines. After this first week, chicks need actual bedding in which they can dig and bathe so make the sand deeper. You can use pine shavings, shredded paper and chopped straw or many other products like rapeseed straw .

Do NOT use cedar shavings, as this is toxic. The litter should be cleaned and changed out every two or four days depending on brooder size and number of chicks but sand lasts a lot longer . If the chicks spill their water, be sure to remove any wet bedding so that  fungus is less likely to form.

Chicks get bored very easily and once they develop the pecking order (around week 4) they will start acting aggressively to each other if they have nothing else to do. The best baby chick toys include , roosts ( from 4 weeks), hanging greens, small sturdy stumps or logs and a clean dry mop head hanging with about 3 inches for them to hide under and nothing that will fall over and injure the birds.

Chicks will greatly enjoy all of these. Chickens, no matter what the age, are curious by nature and will try to fly to the lip of the brooder if they can.

I will let mine outdoors in a pen for up to 15 minutes at a time or a little longer if there is plenty of warm sun. use an enclosed pen that is covered and keep a close eye so as you can move them straight back into the brooder if you need to.

Leave them out for longer periods but need to be supervised at all times when outside of the brooder because they will run everywhere, squeeze through small spaces, jump and break things and possibly hurt themselves.

However, this age is the best time to begin the taming process and offer them treats. They need to be allowed to experience cooler period as this will help them feather in the long run and begin getting them ready for their outdoor life..

Heat and Temperature Requirements:

Baby chicks can get chilled very easily and if they do, they risk the chance of survival. They need heat. Many people use heat lamps. Others use EcoGlows, which is basically a heater that doesn’t risk the chance of fires. 

I’ve always used heat lamps and never had a fire problem. So in this article, we will only be discussing heat lamps as the chicks’ source or warmth.

The use of electric hens.

When setting up your heat lamps remember to hang it by a chain and not the cord. You could kill chicks when unplugging it if the lamp falls on them. Many people say you should use red heat lamps as it is more relaxing to chicks and discourages bulling. Red is better .I’ve found that red and white heat lamps both work fine. If you are going to brood more than 15 chicks, though, I would advise you use red heat lamps. Be sure you put the heat lamp in one corner of the brooder so the chicks can get away if they get too hot.

There is advice ( you wont get it here though, I do things differently) that says the brooder  temperature is set at 95 degrees F. Lower it by 5 degrees each week until it reaches room temperature which should be around 4 weeks. You may be concerned if the temperature is set right in your brooder.  My advice is to set up the brooder with 2 heat sources and a hot spot at 1 end that is around 100F with a temp gradient. The chicks will find their spot and keep themselves happy. They need to have an area that is cooler and if the chicks are kept in too warm a brooder their feathering and moving outdoors may be delayed.

Don’t worry, your chicks will let you know! If they are spread out from each other and the heat with their beaks open, they are too hot. If they are huddled together under the heat and peeping loudly, they are too cold. If they are spread out, coming and going from place to place and peeping quietly, the temperature is perfect. Just like Goldie Locks, they need everything to be just right! A thermometer in the brooder is also very helpful.

Feed and Water Requirements:

Feeder and waterer at correct height and clean at least twice a day.

Like I said in the introduction, in order to obtain a healthy flock, you need to start with healthy chicks. Healthiness mostly comes from proper food and water intake. Chicks need a constant supply of warm water available to them always. It also needs to have either marbles or small rocks placed in the drinking part to prevent drowning. Cleanliness is very important in both the feeder and the waterer. Do not add anything to the water , just give them clean cool ( not cold or warm) water twice a day.

The best kinds of feeders and waterers are those with holes in them and less likelihood of tipping. As the chicks grow you will probably have to need to clean up spilled food more often and fill the feeder more often.

The best ration to feed chicks is a chick starter containing 18-20% protein. Chicks intended for eating need a high protein feed of 22-24% for their first 6 weeks. Chick feed comes in two types: medicated and non-medicated. What is the difference? Medicated chick rations contain very tiny amounts of the anti-coccidiosis drug known as “amprolium.” You would immediately think this is the best option to go with but just because it contains this drug doesn’t mean your chicks won’t get sick.

Plus, chicks who eat non-medicated feed and don’t get sick, have a higher chance of not getting coccidiosis once they are grown. Here are some links to check out concerning feeding your flock ( no evidence to suggest)

Many people ask how to teach chicks to eat and drink. The simplest way to do so is to dip their beaks in the water several times a day until they get it. Tap your finger in the food area and they will quickly learn that is where the food is located. Chicks are incredibly fast learners! I have never had to teach a chick to eat or drink beyond dipping a beak in water and dropping some food so it sprinkles.

Care as They Grow

Chicks grow up fast! They are only fluffy, helpless, for a few days,  peeping babies to independent, lively and feathered adolescents in just a couple months. The ugly stage lasts for about a month. After that, they start to look like their adult selves. Your chicks will need more and more exercise as they grow. Around week 2 they can start going outside on “field trips.”  Be sure they are either confined to a safe run or have you always watching them while they scamper about.

Once they are fully feathered, (around week 8-10) they can live outside permanently. So be sure you have the coop either built before you get them or build it while they are growing. And trust me, you will want them out of the house once they get to be too big for the brooder!

Pullets start laying anywhere from 4-8 months depending on breed and life style. Cockerels will begin crowing around that same time and are capable of mating with hens after they start crowing. How do you know if your chicks are pullets or cockerels?

There are several things to watch for. Males will develop a spunkier and more lively personality. Their combs and wattles will grow faster and larger than females. Also, once their feathers come in, males will grow pointy saddle, sickle and hackle feathers. Females will be more shy and timid than males. Their combs and wattles will be much smaller and paler as they grow. However once they get to the laying age, their combs will get huge and red. They feathers will be more rounded. Here are some links to check out concerning sexing chicks.

Raising chicks is a fun, hard and engaging experience. If not raised correctly, chicks will be sick and unproductive once grown. Be sure to care for them properly. All in all, chickens are a joy to raise!

Taming and training your chickens:

How to Tame Chickens from the Start - I get quite a few phone calls and emails from people who are quite happy with their hens but disappointed that the either don't come running to see them worse still are actually scared of them and move into cover when they are around.

Most chicken keeper’s today want to keep friendly tamed chickens that are calm relaxed and friendly and easy to interact with. It all depends on how the owner raises them, they aren't hatched friendly and need some time and training. The procedure is much the same if you have bought POL or full grown chickens. If you have bought point of lay hens or fully grown birds then skip through to week eight and beyond. Hungry chickens will be more brave and likely to come to you for food but do not let them starve.

So how do you get your flock to be friendly affectionate?

A little time, patience and a few treats is all you need to tame your chickens. Remember not to make any sudden movements and stay calm, the chickens can spot a bad mood or agitated person a mile away.

Choose the correct Breed: - First of all, before you start taming your birds, you have to pick the right breed. All chickens are different there are

specific breeds that are renowned for being more friendly than others. Orpington’s are naturally calm, docile and affectionate. Whereas game or hard feather fowl are to be avoided birds such as the Malay, Saipan and shame are bred to be aggressive, violent and generally mean looking birds.

If you are raising meat birds I would avoid getting too attached to them.

So, when choosing chicken breeds, do a little research and find out what breeds will best fit your needs? Start looking at Brahma's, Silkies and Wyandotte’s or Barnevelders and don't discount bantams, my little barny bantams are some of the friendliest birds I have ever had.

Begin by socialising with your Chicks

Week One and Two

You need to start interacting your chicks as soon as possible, preferably from the moment they are fluffy and ready to leave the incubator or the day they arrive or you collect them. Do bear in mind if they have travelled they may be hungry, thirsty and stressed so be careful. I begin by just putting my open hand in with the chicks with the fingers pointing down so the chicks can wander underneath the hand a feel the warmth. However, on the day they either arrive or you buy them, try not to touch and cuddle them much or try to push them too far, stop if they start piling in the corners or shouting/bleating loudly. They need this time to get acquainted with their new home and siblings and you don't want them to react to you by running away and piling in the corners.

The second or third day is when you should start touching, holding and talking to them, getting them used to the sound of your voice means they will come running to you when they hear you and associate you with food. Start to use one specific call or whistle whenever you see they and they will begin to associate you and that call with food and treats.

When speaking, remember to talk softly, soothingly and quietly, do not shout or make quick movements. If you ever have heard how a mother hen talks to her chicks, she clucks softly and makes purring sounds a little like a rusty gate or slightly asthmatic whistling kettle.

Note that whenever you reach into the brooder, your chicks will more than likely scatter and freak out. This is normal behaviour. They assume your hand is a predator (like a swooping hawk) and have the immediate instinct to hide.

So try and reach in slowly while speaking calmly and try just offering a finger for them to peck at to arouse their natural curiosity and just leave your open hand in the brooder for them to shelter under.

Then slowly pick the chick you want. If your chicks still seem very frightened then put your hand in the brooder and just leave it there until they calm down. Talk to them but don't touch them. Soon they might even come and stand in or under your hand. You can also try putting feed in your hand so they soon will associate your voice and hand with food.

From day 7 get the chicks out of the brooder for a small field trip each day on the living room floor or if the weather is nice and sunny outside to the grass. Lay down an old sheet to catch all those accidents if you are indoors!

Be very careful when holding and moving chicks out of the brooder that they don't fall to the ground or you don't drop them. They are very fragile and can die from such a long fall or if something heavy falls on them. So go sit on the floor with them and let them out to run around.

Be patient they will likely run around but will soon start exploring. Be a place of safety and they will trust you.

From week two to four, if the weather warrants it, get them outside for up to an hour. Be with them and keep them in an enclosure so they don't disappear and to keep them safe from predators. All these activities create a nice bond with you and your chicks.

Week Three through to eight

This is that age that your chicks will start acting a bit loony they are hyperactive, curious and busy all day! So you need to take advantage as this is when most of the association happens.They probably will no longer be interested in you as much so now is the time to start using treats like sweetcorn and worms.

This is the time to train them to come to the sound of your voice by using a standard call which they get fed for and they will come when you call. Use a short, quick call which they will easily come to know.

They will be fun to watch. Turn a patch of earth in your garden for them to scratch through and find worms etc., they love a root through freshly turned earth.

Week Eight and Beyond

Continue the calling and treats. Cuddling. Start hand feeding them and your chickens will soon learn that only good things come from you.If you raise your chicks to be friendly from the start then you will have friendly chickens till the end.

Always remember the best way to a chicken’s heart is through its stomach.

So just how much room do chickens need?

There are no magic numbers for the space you need to give chickens but there is a legal minimum which in the US is 67 square inches and a little more here in Europe. Just because you can legally keep a chicken in that little space it does not mean you should. The tighter and more crowded you keep your chickens the  more behavioural and other problems you are likely to have, the less flexibility I have in dealing with problems, and the harder you will have to work.

We keep so many different types and sizes in different conditions and in different climates, with different flock make-ups and use so many different management techniques that there is no hard and fast rules but there are a few guidelines to follow. We all have different goals so no one rule will suffice for everyone. Summer in Miami or Madrid may be different from winter in Nova Scotia or Shetland, for instance.

I understand that people without experience need general guidelines to go by and mine are designed to help the novice small flock keeper. There are several rules of thumb to help people get started.  

A good first rule is 4 square feet per chicken in the coop along with 10 square feet per chicken in the run and my second rule would be to build or buy the next size coop up from what you are planning.  In my experience people who start keeping chickens generally either give up quite quickly or end up with a few more than they planned for originally. Bear in mind most chickens fly so get or build a coop with some height – chickens like to go upstairs to bed.

That might seem overkill for a lot of people as far as the bare absolute minimum they could get by with, but occasionally it proves to be a bit tight. Still it is a good starting point. If all you use your coop for is to provide a safe place for them to sleep and your birds free range during daylight hours you really don’t need much space in the coop itself.

Small spaces = poor ventilation and wet/condensation which equals damp litter and possible respiratory or fungal diseases.

The behavioural problems from overcrowding could be anywhere from them being loud, feather-picking, bullying, fighting, all the way to cannibalism. Flexibility is not just dealing with behavioural problems but maybe integration and broody hens, predator problems or many other things. The smaller space they are in the more you have to physically manage the poop.

What is important is how much space is available when they need it. Whether that space in in your coop, coop and run, or they sleep in trees and totally free range doesn’t matter. But the more you commit yourself to a specific way of managing them, the less flexibility you have. For instance, how hard will it be to find someone to take care of your chickens when you go on vacation if they have to be there at dawn as opposed to 9:00 a.m. being OK?

Some of the things that make up the space requirement are, in my opinion:

  1. Personal space for the birds. They have different personalities and different individual requirements. Some are very possessive of personal space and some can share. Each flock has its own dynamics. There are breed tendencies but individual birds of the same breed can have totally different personalities.
  2. Access to feeder and waterer. Some birds will bully other from food and water so you need two feeding and watering points.
  3. being able to put the feeder and waterer where they will not poop in it when they roost.
  4. Roost spacing. Despite the fact that most birds snuggle up quite close at night there is generally a lot of fluttering about as the birds settle for the night. They not only need to have enough room to sleep on the roost, they need to have enough room for them to spread their wings and fly to the roost and to sort out who gets to sleep next to whom and who gets the prime spots once they get on the roost. When they get on, they may jump from some midway support or fly directly to the roost, but either way, they like to spread their wings. They may also need a staging roost if the terminal roost is high in the eaves. And some chickens seem to enjoy blocking the entry points if there are limits. When they get off, mine tend to want to fly down, not jump to a halfway point. They need room to fly down without bumping into feeders, waterers, nesting boxes, or a wall.

The more chickens you have the less roost space per chicken you actually need. They don’t take up a lot of room when they are roosting once access and manoeuvring room is provided. But I find that mine can be pretty vicious on the roosts as they are settling down, especially when I am integrating. I find it helps to have lots of roost space, not the bare minimum.

  1. The dung- The larger area they have the less often you have to actively manage the poo. They poo a lot while on the roost overnight  and each bird will end up with a little pile underneath them every night so you may have to give that area special consideration, but mucking out the entire coop can be backbreaking work plus you have to have some place to put all that bedding and poop. In my opinion, totally cleaning out the coop is something that needs to happen as seldom as possible. It disrupts the hens who all stand around making noises like a rusty gate or asthmatic whistling kettle trying to boil.

You can help manage poop load by using a droppings board but that commits you to regularly scraping the poop off and dealing with it.

  1. How often are they able to get out of the coop? How often they are allowed out of the coop may depend on a lot more than just weather.  Your work hours, or if you work odd hours or night shifts,  what time of day you open the pop door to let them out or lock them up at night, all this and more enters into the equation. The 4 square feet each inside recommendation assumes they will not be spending extended time in the coop and be able to get in the run during daylight hours. What that extended time can safely be depends on a lot of different factor so there is no one correct length of time for everyone.
  2. Do you feed and water in the coop or outside. The more they are outside, the less pressure on the size of the coop. Spilled water and feed can be more of a problem in the coop.
  3. The size of the chicken. Bantams require less room than full sized chickens. This has to be tempered by breed and the individual personalities. Some bantams can be more protective of personal space than others, but this is also true of full sized breeds. Young chicks need less space than mature adults but in a mixed age flock, extra room is important.
  4. The breed of the chicken. Some handle confinement better than others. Generally once birds have been allowed to range free it is more difficult to confine them.
  5. The number of chickens – the more birds you have, the more space you will need. and the more nesting boxes you will need.
  6. What is your flock make-up? A flock with more than one rooster may be more peaceful if they have more space whereas confined cockerels will probably try to kill each other
  7. What is the maximum number of chickens you will have. Consider hatching chicks or bringing in replacements. Look down the road a bit. Raising chicks inside the flock is a more peaceful way to bring in new birds
  8. Do you want a broody to raise chicks with the flock? A broody needs sufficient room to work with. Broody’s cause disruption in the flock and two broody hens may fight over the chicks with an undesirable outcome.
  9. The more space you have, the easier it is to integrate chickens. Chickens have developed a way to live together in a flock. It’s called the pecking order. But establishing that pecking order can sometimes be pretty violent. One method they use to take most of the danger out of establishing the pecking order is that the weaker runs away from the stronger when there is a confrontation or they just avoid the stronger to start with. They need room to run away and avoid.

In conclusion, it is best to give your birds as much room well ventilated but draught free space as you can afford and to move them around to fresh earth every now and again to allow any ground to recover.

When to let your growers out.

So how do you know when the youngsters are ready to be let out? For the most part they will let you know. Piling up against the exit looking forlornly through the grill like it's a jail.

Just like the light Sussex Growers you see in this picture clamouring to be out in the sunshine and on the grass, it is not always the best idea to let them out unsupervised. Smaller birds or young bantams may become prey to cats, birds of prey and even crows and rooks amongst others.

Young birds require considerable care as their feathers might not be well equipped to cope. If they have been raised exclusively indoors they will need time to acclimatise before they are left to roam permanently. Try to avoid letting them out in cold, windy or wet weather

Long cold nights will mean the growth rate of young fowl slows considerably and if you are far north like I am (North Yorkshire) where the nights are long the birds may not be able to eat enough to thrive or even survive so you may want to consider some added light in the morning. Always add supplemental light in the mornings to get them off their perch early rather than trying to keep them up late and risking leaving them on the floor in pitch dark.

Early in the year can be problematic as well, especially if the year has had weather like 2015, cold and wet. Try increasing the calorie count of the food you give them. Add a few sunflower seeds or a handful of suet pellets.

The chicken and winter:

“Will my chickens cope with the cold, ice and snow?” , It's a common question I hear from chicken keepers all over the world. Chickens are kept in almost every country in the World and can survive in some very cold environments with just a little care from us.

I have relatives that keep Chickens successfully in Canada at temperatures below -20 degrees with substantial amounts of snow and  that they can actually handle the cold weather very well, it is usually the heat that causes them problems. I keep my hens in the wilds of North Yorkshire and we have had temperatures down to -17 C for extended periods and they have come to no harm. It doesn’t mean however that a severe cold snap won’t weed out old or sickly birds from you flock.

Chickens, like wild birds, trap air in between their feathers which insulates them and keeps them warm during cold weather and they are very effective  Pullets and hens will tuck their head underneath their wing whilst sleeping which also helps them to retain heat that is lost through the comb. Chickens will usually huddle together on a perch to keep warm and settle down to cover their feet.

Birds with large combs can suffer from frostbite to the Comb and this is particularly true or roosters with large exposed combs that often have points that will freeze easily in the cold, or breeds with large combs like the Redcap or mal-feathered birds like the frizzle. This only occurs under certain weather conditions though but if you keep a male bird who has a large comb, you may need to consider taking precautions with him during freezing weather.

How to protect chickens in cold weather.

The biggest priority is to ensure your chickens are not getting wet and are out of drafts whilst roosting in their house. A dry chicken in a well ventilated coop will survive almost any temperature as long as they are well fed and have liquid water. The warm moist air containing ammonia from droppings will rise from the floor and exit through the vent. A deep litter in the coop will generate heat and help keep the coop comfortable.

This picture shows the moisture laden air leaving the coop freezing on the inside of the roof.

If there is an opening on the side of your coop at the same height as perches, use a shutter or cover to control the amount of ventilation there is into the coop. If the wind is blowing in through this then close it up. I have some quite large ventilation openings built into my coops and I point these to the North so that most of the year they are open at night-time (our prevailing winds here in the UK are south-westerly) but I clip in boards to reduce the size of these openings if there is a North wind blowing which can sometimes happen and is always very cold as it is Arctic air and can bring snow as well.

Bear in mind that cold and frozen weather will bring hungry predators out of hiding and make them more brave than they may usually be. Foxes may snatch and run during daylight hours.

Chickens and freezing weather or snow.

Snow is a little more of a problem, my chickens don’t take well to changes and snow can cause them to become stressed. They seem to dislike walking on the unstable surface of snow. Imagine this from their point of view: as a chicken, you wake up one morning and step outside the coop to find the grass has gone and someone has changed the ground colour to white and you sink into this as you walk along with rather cold feet. As you can imagine, this must be pretty strange.

Chickens moulting late or early bad weather or snow will need a little extra care and shelter.

So what can you do to help the hens out?

Provide liquid water, birds can dehydrate in winter if the supply freezes. I keep a small water container hanging inside the hen-house when it’s cold so that it doesn’t freeze as quickly but I also keep my chicken’s normal water container close to the hen-house pop hole in the area I have cleared of snow so that they don’t have to walk through the snow to get to it.

Food grade Glycerin, also known as Glycerol or Glycerine (simply different names for the same thing) as found in the home baking section of your supermarket or on-line can be added to water to stop the water from freezing. Experiment with the quantity – A few drops usually protects a 6 litre container below freezing but if the temperature falls further, you may need to add an extra drop or two. I dislike additives and much prefer to provide clean fresh water and just tip the ice out and give them fresh.

If snow falls, you may find water containers get covered, even if the water isn’t frozen.

What about food

If there is snow fall, clear a small area from around the coop so your birds can stand out of the snow. Hens should be able to reach their food and water without having to walk through the snow. I find a wide plastic snow shovel allows you to clear the area of snow quickly.

Mixed corn or split maize should normally be fed to chickens sparingly , See feeding chickens, however during the cold, chickens require more energy from their feed to keep warm and mixed corn contains split maize which provides this. Feeding an extra handful of mixed corn to chickens during freezing weather provides them with some extra calories to burn to keep warm.

Suet pellets and sunflower seeds are very useful to add calories and I give mine whole wheat that has been boiled first thing in the morning to give them a warm breakfast and get them going in the early cold. They love hot food.

Should I insulate the chicken coop?

This is a very common question and the answer in a word is - ‘No’, unless you live where the temperature drops regularly to -10 degrees Celsius and lower for extended periods of time.

Chickens need good ventilation in the coop to remove the ammonia that builds up from droppings so there is very little point in insulating the sides of the coop. insulating the floor with a thick layer of wood shavings is about as far as I would go with ‘insulation’. During the summer months red mite can also be a real problem, so it is necessary to avoid providing places for red mite to hide.

If you live in an area that has heavy or extended snowfalls you made need to provide shelter. I use an old poly-tunnel as it is arid inside in winter so the birds can scratch and dust bath even when it's frozen solid outside.

Turning Broody Hens:

Broodiness in chickens is something most keepers will come across at some time. Most chickens will go broody at some time. It is most common when the weather warms in spring and when chickens are in their second season, but there are always exceptions to the rule.

Some breeds are more prone to broodiness than others with broodiness being an undesirable trait that has been bred out of commercial hybrids to a large extent and birds like the Silkie having a reputation for being a very reliable if small broody hen.

Turning broody hen away from their nesting instincts can be very difficult. some will leave the nest if the eggs are removed or if they are removed for 1 night and others take a full 3 days and 4 nights to break the habit.

It may be necessary to cover the entrance to the nest box for a few days to prevent her return. The most important thing to remember when discouraging a broody hen is not to leave her sit. The longer she is left on the nest, the longer it will take to stop her being broody. she may also be a bit bad tempered for a few days.

Ice cubes under a broody hen is cruel, it is cold and wet and helps lower their body temperature which can turn them of a nest very quickly. It is rarely successful  and creates a cold sticky mess.

A hen that has been broody will stop laying for anything up to 6 weeks although this is not necessarily a problem as they tend to lay a bit later in the season to compensate.

A coloured plastic leg ring is a good idea for identification at a glance