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Home » How to Care for Baby Chicks – A step-by-step guide to raising baby chicks for complete beginners

How to Care for Baby Chicks – A step-by-step guide to raising baby chicks for complete beginners

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a beginner's guide to raising baby chicks - a boy in a green plaid shirt holding a baby leghorn chick

Raising baby chicks at home is a wonderful and adorable way to get started keeping chickens. 

Learning how to raise baby chicks isn’t hard and with just a little help, even your kids could take the lead caring for your new fluffy baby chicks.

Keeping chickens can be a very rewarding experience as chickens are funny as well as useful for eggs or meat (or both!). 

If you want to keep your own chicken flock, this practical advice on raising baby chicks will get you off to the right start!

Where to get baby chicks

Baby chickens are called chicks. You can get chicks from a few different places.

You can buy them at farm supply stores. You can order them directly through hatcheries and get them in the mail. 

Sometimes you can get find them from local farmers or even on Craigslist (Facebook Marketplace does not allow buying or selling or animals so finding chickens there is not impossible but trickier!).

Each source for baby chicks comes with it its own positives and negatives, but my preferred method so far has been to get them at my local farm supply store or from other local chicken keepers.

Doing that allows me to get the breeds I want and the store handles the critical timing of pick up and making sure the chicks get their first electrolytes.

I’ve also ordered chicks and received them via US Mail and it was a lot of fun to pick up a cheeping box at the post office too.

If you do this, it is absolutely critical that you will be home to collect your chicks first thing in the morning so you can get them out of the box and into the brooder right away. If you can’t make that scheduling commitment, a farm store or local breeder might be a better choice.

Raising baby chicks in a brooder

What Are the Stages Baby Chicks Go Through?

Baby chicks sure grow fast! Watch for these fun changes as your baby chicks grow!

Weeks 1-4: Baby Chicks

During the first four weeks, baby chicks will start to grow from tiny balls of fluff to large balls of fluff.

Weeks 5-12: Awkward Teen Phase

Your chicks will start to grow feathers, usually in awkward patches. As they get used to maneuvering in their growing bodies and practicing chicken skills like pecking and dust bathing they will start to resemble small versions of adult chickens.

Weeks 13-30: Egg-citement

Once your pullets have all their feathers and have started living outside, it’s easy to start asking yourself “where are my eggs?! Signs your chickens are getting ready to start laying include:

  • Their comb and wattles turning a darker shade of red
  • Squatting when you coming near them
  • Hiding in the nesting boxes or dark corners of the coop

What is a Brooder for?

You will be raising your baby chicks in a brooder for their first few weeks of life.

A brooder is a box or bin where the chicks will be safe and warm. They need a lot of heat until either the weather is hot, or they’ve lost their chick down and grown their feathers (usually around 6 weeks of age).

They will also need free access to food and water

You’ll need the supplies listed below to set up a safe brooder:

Supplies Needed for a Baby Chick Brooder

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  • Baby chicks
  • Some sort of box or bin: wooden or even a plastic tote can work. Cardboard is NOT a good choice as it will absorb all the moisture and fall apart and stink.
  • Bedding, pine shavings or compressed sawdust pellets work best but shredded paper is also an option.
  • Thermometer (this is the one Carissa uses)
  • Waterer (and water)
  • Feeder (and chick starter feed)
  • Small dish to hold chick grit
  • Chick grit
  • Heat Plate (while a Heat Lamp + Infrared Bulb was the standard for a long time, heat plates have replaced them as a much safer option. Thousands of homes catch fire every year due to heat lamps! Be safe! Use a heat plate)
  • Wire lid (optional but will come in handy if you don’t want your chicks flying the coop, so to speak)
  • If you order your chicks through the mail, you will also need electrolytes to help them survive shock. If you pick them up from a store or farmer, you might not need them, though electrolytes are good to have on hand.

How to Set up a Brooder for Baby Chicks

Make sure your brooder box is big enough for the number of chicks you ordered, plus your supplies. 

Your chicks don’t want to be cramped! They need room to move around in. 

Sadly, chicks can be trampled by each other if they’re over-crowded. Plus your chicks will only get bigger as their grow – a bigger brooder is always better!

I also recommend that you keep the brooder box in your house or garage in the beginning so you can keep a better eye on them.

Lay a nice cozy layer of pine shavings or bedding on the floor of the brooder. You should plan to clean out your brooder bedding twice a week (or as needed) to keep the brooder box smelling fresh and prevent illness in your baby chicks.

To clean your brooder box, simply move all the chicks to a different box (maybe the box they came in) scoop out the wood shavings, and add in fresh.

Add your heat plate or other heat source. As mentioned above, heat plates are the safest option for both you and your chicks. 
Heat lamps are an outdated method of warming chicks in brooders. Unfortunately, heat lamps are responsible for many house and barn fires every year. These are no longer a recommended method of keeping chicks warm – be safe and use a heating plate!

Set your water dispenser on the opposite side of the brooder from the heat source. To keep shavings out of it, I like to elevate it on a brick or an upside down short plastic tub from the recycling bin.

Finally add your feeder. Your feeder should be filled with chick food.

How Long Do Baby Chicks Need a Heat Lamp or Other Heat Source?

Baby chicks will need supplemental heat for about six weeks after hatching. If you live in a very warm climate, you may be able to stop using supplemental heat sooner. 

Follow the guide below regarding how warm to keep your chicks:

How Warm Do Baby Chicks Need to Be?

The brooder needs to stay very warm while the chicks are growing their feathers.

In the first week, the temperature needs to be between 90-95 degrees.

Starting in Week 2, reduce the heat by 5 degrees each week. 

  • Week 1 – 90-95 degrees
  • Week 2 – 85-90 degrees
  • Week 3 – 80-85 degrees
  • Week 4 – 75-80 degrees
  • Week 5 – 70-75 degrees
  • Week 6 – They shouldn’t need any additional heat beyond 70 degrees, but if your chicks look cold reduce the heat to 65 degrees in Week 6.
Don’t get anxious over these temperatures.

While you definitely want to make sure your babies are warm enough the first week, they’ll let you know if they are too hot or too cold by their actions.

If they’re huddled together and chirping a lot, they’re too cold. 

If they’re spread out and avoiding the heat source, they might be too hot.

When they spend most of their time away from the heat source, it might be time to raise it up or even take it away altogether.

A good way to set up your brooder is the put the heat plate on one side of the brooder (instead of in the middle) and your food and water on the other side.

That way the chicks can be as close or far from the heat as needed and they can regulate their own temperatures!

Heat Plates vs Heat Lamps for Raising Baby Chicks

The safest way to keep your baby chicks warm is a heat plate.

Heat plates are the agricultural industry’s answer to the very real dangers that heat lamps have posed to both humans and chickens the entirety of their use.

Every year, thousands of homes and sheds burn to the ground in fires started by heat lamps. 

BECAUSE the brooder needs to be so warm, the heat lamp bulbs are very hot. 

If a very hot bulb gets knocked into the pine shavings or paper shreds it can and will catch fire.

Heat lamps were the standard way to raise chicks for many decades simply because there weren’t other options! As technology has evolved, heat plates are now the simplest and safest way to keep your new babies warm.

What Age Do Chicks Go Outside?

While chicks can go outside on short, supervised field trips on sunny days, you should plan on them living in the brooder for a minimum of six weeks.

Depending on how predator proof your coop is and how warm the outside temperatures are in your area, you may need to plan to keep them in the brooder (at least overnight) until up to 12 weeks old.

When Can Baby Chicks Stay Outside at Night?

Generally, baby chicks need to have all or most of their feathers before they are ready to spend the night outside. Young chicks should not begin sleeping outside in the winter when it is very cold.

They should be given a draft free coop with plenty of roosting bar space that allows them to huddle together for warmth if needed.

Food & Water Requirements for Baby Chicks

As a new chick mama or papa, it’s your job to make sure your baby chicks have access to food and water at all times.

You’ll want to feed them an organic chick starter feed for the first eight weeks. 

You can get it from farm supply stores or local feed stores and you can even buy it with free delivery via Amazon Prime! (Click here to Try Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial)

In addition to food, chickens of all sizes need grit, or tiny rock chips they use to help them digest their food.

Chickens don’t have teeth so they use tiny rocks pieces (AKA grit) to help them grind up their food.

Once they move outside, they can often dig their own rocks out of your yard but in the brooder you will need to provide them with chick grit.

Place chick grit in a small container separate from their food. 

They are likely to kick this dish over and that’s ok. Just keep adding more to the dish as needed.

Chicks also need constant access to water.

A chick waterer like this attached to a mason jar is really easy to clean.

Keep it elevated about their bedding on a brick or short food container from your recycling bin to reduce how many shavings get kicked into it. Just make sure the chicks can reach it.
Teach your chicks where their water is by dipping each chick’s beak in the water as you place them in the brooder.

You might have to fill their water dish several times a day as they get bigger (despite the brick, they are likely to still kick bedding into it while scratching around in the brooder).

It’s also important to use a waterer specifically for chicks as they can drown if their water is too deep or in an inappropriate container.

What Do You Feed Baby Chicks?

After eight-ish weeks (or once you finish the bag after the eight week mark), change to grower feed. Feed grower feed until they are about 20 weeks old (or until you finish the bag) and then change to layer feed.

Some brands offer “starter/grower”. If you are using a brand that offers starter/grower, feed the starter/grower until they are about 20 weeks old. If you are raising laying hens, switch to a layer feed.

Do I Need Medicated Food for My Chicks?

Medicated chick starter contains medication designed to reduce the risk of contracting coccidiosis (sometimes called cocci), an infection deadly to chickens caused by the coccidia protozoa. 

Chickens are most at risk for coccidiosis when:

  • They are kept in crowded or unclean conditions as it is spread by droppings
  • Your flock has had coccidiosis in the past as the coccidia parasite can continue living in the soil of your run or pen

It is fairly common for hatchery chicks to be vaccinated against coccidia. If they have been, you do NOT need medicated feed. In fact, the medicated feed could cancel out the effectiveness of the vaccine. So don’t try to double up on protective measures!

If you have a history of coccidiosis in your flock, your chicks should either be vaccinated against coccidia or fed a medicated feed for the first 8 weeks of life (pick one! Not both!).

It’s important to note that medicated feed is preventative only and is NOT a treatment for coccidiosis. If your chicks develop coccidiosis, it is important to treat them immediately with Corrid or follow the advice of your veterinarian.

Medicated chick feed is not organic. So if you are committed to raising organic poultry, skip the medicated feed and stick to an organic chick starter feed instead.

If you don’t care about organic, you don’t have a history of coccidiosis, your chicks are unvaccinated for coccidia, and you’re raising a small batch (50 or fewer) chicks you could go either way.

Here are some things to keep in mind based on what you choose:

If you choose medicated feed:

  • Feed your chicks medicated feed for 6-8 weeks (if you go a little longer while they finish the bag of feed, that’s fine)
  • After 6-8 weeks switch to an unmedicated chick starter feed or a starter/grower feed.
  • If you are raising laying hens, around 20ish weeks, switch to a “layena” or layer feed

If you choose organic or unmedicated chick starter feed

  • Be especially diligent about brooder cleanliness: don’t allow dropping to pile up, clean out the bedding once or twice a week, clean any droppings or bedding out of their feeder and waterer as needed throughout the day.
  • Between 8-12 weeks of age (this is an appropriate age – it’s ok to round up or down based on when they finish the bag of starter), if their feed is not a “starter/grower” switch them to either an unmedicated starter/grower or a grower feed
  • If you are raising laying hens, around 20ish weeks, switch to a “layena” or layer feed

That’s it! Enjoy your chicks!

Need to integrate new babies into an existing flock?

Order Carissa’s book about chickens!

Carissa’s book: Proven Techniques for Keeping Healthy Chickens is now available! 

Buy it online from Amazon or get a signed copy here.

You can also find it in most Tractor Supply stores nationwide.

UPDATE: Interested in meat birds? 

Michelle has written a companion guide to Carissa’s book about egg layers, specifically for those interested in raising meat birds!

Buy it online from Amazon.

You can also find it in most Tractor Supply stores nationwide.

About the Authors:

Carissa Burk (formerly known as Carissa Bonham)

Carissa lives in the Pacific Northwest with a house full of boys and a yard full of chickens. Her projects have been featured in magazines like Capper’s Farmer, Reader’s Digest and Urban Farm Magazine.

Michelle Marine from Simplify Live LoveMichelle is a busy work-at-home mom of four unruly farm kids. She lives on 5 acres in rural Eastern Iowa with her family and menagerie of animals: more chickens than she can count, 2 Great Pyrenees, cats, rabbits, and more. 
Michelle runs the lifestyle blog Simplify, Live, Love where she encourages people to embrace simple and green living and enjoy their kids. She shares farm-to-table recipes and gardening tips, but also loves traveling outside Iowa. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram.