Last week, we started a flock of Buff Brahma and Black Langshan chicks: 6 girls + 1 rooster to look out for the ladies. He’s on the left, marked with green. I think he’s technically a “cockerel” until he’s older.
These chicks came “sexed” so we could choose pullets (baby hens) vs. cockerels. You can also buy chicks “straight run,” which is a grab bag of pullets and cockerels.
Since we’re new to this and having more than 1 rooster can stress a flock, we went with “sexed” chicks for better odds. The hatchery that supplies the farmers co-op promises about 90% accuracy. Read more about our chick choices in this post.
The chick with the green mark definitely stands out. He’s the first to try new things, eats the most, has shorter wings, and is a different color than the other 3 Brahmas. Evidently Buff Brahmas are an auto-sexing breed, which means the boys look different than the girls, so we’re fairly confident he’s the only boy Brahma in the mix.
The Black Langshans are a different story. They look different than the Brahmas, and they all look a little different than each other.
We may not be able to confirm there aren’t other roosters until they reach laying age in autumn. For now, we’re focused on raising chicks. ADORABLE baby chicken birds.
Look at this down. It’s hard to believe these puffballs grow into strapping, feathered, clucking mini dinosaurs 100 x their current body weight.
For us, raising chicks means a baker’s 1/2 dozen of peeping co-workers in my study for at least the next month. It’s the only room in barnbungalow with enough space that can be shut off from the dogs. The dogs are disinterested, but there’s no need to set them up for failure.
The chicks aren’t running free, of course. They’re in a brooder.
A brooder is a box with a heat source where chicks basically stay until they have feathers. Depending on who you talk to, chicks stay in a brooder 2-8 weeks.
People make brooders out of wood, cardboard, feed troughs, etc. We outfitted the biggest storage bin we could find at Walmart with a feeder and waterer. For the first day, we lined it with dollar-store pee pads and paper towels. They say to do this until chicks reliably find the food and water. Afterwards, it’s pine chips (not cedar; cedar makes them sick). Food-wise, we’re using co-op brand chick starter, won as a doorprize at the co-op’s chicken seminar a few weeks ago. It’s 19% protein and nothing special, but it’s formulated specifically for chicks. When it runs out, we might transition to a food with less fillers = less poop.
The red thing on the left is their heat source. Heat is a life-or-death necessity for chicks.
If you’ve ever seen chicks at the store, you know the standard way to provide warmth is to MacGyver a heat lamp over the brooder box. It’s risky, though. A knocked over lamp can start a fire. Bulbs occasionally explode. Horror stories are so common that I spent a night of insomnia researching alternatives and stumbled onto heating plates.
Brooder heating plates are radiant panel heaters on adjustable legs, so they can grow as the chicks grow. Chicks duck under them to warm up, like they would with a hen.
If that’s not cute enough – and exploding fire bulbs aren’t scary enough – there’s research about the problems heat lamps can cause, from aggression to delayed feathering.
I was skeptical at first. People swear by heat lamps. They’ve worked for, what, trillions of chicks? I’m no expert but have been cornering poultry owners and inviting myself to see neighbors’ coops for months. Nobody’s talking about heating plates around here. However, people online are raving about them. They say they make chicks calmer and feather faster so they can leave the brooder sooner.
Heating plates are more expensive up front, but take a closer look: lamp costs add up. They require replacement bulbs and run 200+ more watts than plates.
For the 1st round of chicks, it’s only $13.50 more for the safer, kinder heating plate. If we brood a 2nd round of chicks with the same heater, we’ll save $23.
Heating plates won’t work for high numbers of chicks or for brooders in drafty or cold places, like barns or garages under 50°F. Too many chicks crowding into a small area can trample each other. But if you’re like us, brooding 7 chicks in a 70° home, a heating plate is awesome.
We could’ve saved $10 by foregoing the protective cover, which I splurged on for the promise of not having to continually clean poop off the top of the heater. It works great, but we only used it the first week because the heater takes up valuable real estate. At a week old, when they appeared big enough to hop safely off the heater, I swapped the cover for a disposable cardboard template. Now they play up there.
Yep, that’s the rooster holding court. He was the first to hop up there, and it’s slightly warm on top, so he naps up there sometimes when the other chicks are under the heater.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here is a daily journal of chicks, week 1.
At 7:45 a.m., Millie, the chicken lady at the farmers co-op, called to say she had the chicks from the Post Office. She receives day-old chicks, ducklings, and goslings once a week from January to June. The deliveries are like clockwork, so she’d told us when to expect her call. I’d been eyeing the phone for an hour in case she called early.
We were already warming up the car. We didn’t have to get there so early. Millie had plenty of chicks. We just wanted to get started. Plus, Chris had to leave for a work trip, and this way he could get on the road but still help choose chicks. This stuff is always better as a team.
By 8 a.m., Millie was scooping 3 each Buff Brahma and Black Langshan pullets into a box with air holes. We made sure their beaks and legs looked healthy as Millie dug 2 Buff Brahma cockerels out of another brooder for us to choose from. She put the one we liked in the box – we can’t say why we liked him, but he looked like our guy – and $26 later, we were driving home with 7 cheeping chicks. It was below freezing, but inside the car we were sweating with the heat on high. Chicks need warmth.
At home, the heating plate was hot and the water at room temperature, with electrolytes added to help them recover from shipping stress. One at a time, we took them from the box and dipped their beaks in the water bowl. Each went to the heating plate immediately.
Unsure if I had guessed the right heater height, I read the instructions aloud as all 7 chicks ran under it: “Correct height: Chicks lay down underneath the heating plate and a few are standing. They give a satisfied impression and don’t peep. Sometimes they leave from under the heating plate.” By the time I finished, they were almost completely quiet, occasionally running out for water. The rooster even weeble-wobbled over to try the food. He’s always first!
Having only seen chicks in brooder bins at feed stores, I didn’t know they were ever quiet. Under the heater, where it’s dark and warm like a hen, they purr and peep softly or make no sound at all.
Interesting fact: loud cheeping isn’t the norm for chicks. It means they’re upset. A lot of people tell first-timers, “The chicks will tell you if they need something.” If they’re loud, we check on them.
I tried to leave them alone to get used to their surroundings – and to acclimate to life in general, since they were literally born yesterday. Unsuccessful. I found myself perched next to the bin on Clover’s therapeutic peanut ball throughout the day. When I put my hand in for them to check out, the Brahmas would run up to look. The Langshans were more reserved.
I put pebbles in the water that first day because some chicks apparently stumble in and chill or drown. Our chicks are large breed and surprisingly smart. They’d’ve been fine with no pebbles.
Two Langshans had kind of pasty butts, so we wiped chick butts with paper towels. That’s a thing. They weren’t as pasty as you see at the store, but we weren’t risking any deaths by constipation.
The chicks’ favorite part of the day was afternoon sun. I slid the bin to the sunbeam, where they congregated to nap and try preening. Their balance wasn’t great. Sometimes they’d start to preen, then fall over and fall asleep. Cute.
At sunset, when they were silent under the heater, I pulled the door and went to the den. Usually I work at night in the study with the light and TV on, but letting them rest in the dark and quiet felt like the right thing to do. Maybe it’ll teach the rooster to respect dark vs. light in the future…probably not. But I’ll give them the room evenings this month so they can sleep well.
Shortly before sunrise, they woke up and went straight to the food and water. Later in the morning, I transferred them to a cardboard box and changed the flooring from paper towels to pine chips.
They say to switch from paper to chips when the chicks clearly know how to find food and water. These chicks were big enough they would’ve been fine with chips from the start, but it was fun to watch their reaction when they saw chips for the first time. They started figuring out how to scratch. Chips flew everywhere. Not sure how cute that’ll be when they’re bigger.
They were eating a lot of pine chips, so I gave them a jar lid of chick-sized grit. Grit is what it sounds like: a gravel-type substance. For chicks, it’s ground to the size of large grains of sand.
Grit is essential to chicken digestion. You don’t need it with most chick-starter feed, but if they eat anything else, it’s important they have grit. The guidance on when to give grit varies greatly. The chick-grit bag said 2 weeks, but old-timers say to do it right away, which felt right. Following other old-timer/Almanac-type advice, I put in another jar lid of fresh, chopped clover and oregano. They weren’t too interested, which is fine. They’re supposed to focus on their feed anyway.
Held them more. A couple started to be very tame, no running away. No pasty butts.
Their pattern is definitely to wake up when light comes in the window and eat and drink for 1-2 hours. They tweet loudly for us if we’re not already hanging out with them. After they run around, poop a bunch, and visit with us, they disappear under the heater to nap.
It’s the opposite in the evening: wake up from their afternoon nap, eat and poop for a few hours, and go to bed at dark. They’re more rowdy in the afternoon, like worn out toddlers.
Already raised the heating plate up a notch. They suddenly have wing feathers and are super into preening and stretching them.
They’ll step into my hand and stay as long as I let them. Chris has done some extra bonding with the rooster, who’s quickly becoming the tamest.
They’re almost done with their 1st quart jar of starter feed. I went to the store to shop for better food to blend into the co-op feed but decided it’s overkill. Neither the co-op nor Tractor Supply have much feed variety. The other question was whether to give medicated feed as a preventative for the deadly coccidiosis, a major risk for chicks. Nobody has a definitive answer on whether medicated feed is effective. Some recommend it while others swear by offering oregano and clumps of dirt in their first 2 weeks of life so they can build immunity.
After much thought, I decided that instead of medicated feed, I’ll buy a bottle of medicine called Corid to have on hand if they show symptoms. It would be wise to do this even if we were using medicated feed. The feed is a preventative, not a treatment, and it’s not guaranteed to work. A bout of coccidiosis can wipe out a flock of chicks. You want to start treatment right away, not wait until the feed store opens back up on Monday.
Beyond this issue, I’ve been trying to limit overthinking. We’re really enjoying the chicks.
Raised the heater even more. The chicks were more tame today and have more feathers on their wings.
Switched the water from electrolytes to a couple teaspoons of apple cider vinegar per quart to continue to help them build immunity.
At 4 a.m., I woke up to loud peeping from the study. One of the Langshan chicks was on the other side of the brooder from the heater. Without turning on the light, I scooped the chick up and set it next to the brooder. It scampered underneath and was quiet.
Realized the chick who was loud last night had pasty butt and was probably uncomfortable. Clipped the offending poop with scissors, and the chick was elated. It pooped twice, ran in a happy circle, and came back to my hand to be picked up again.
That was the worst pasty butt any of them had but was also thankfully the last of it for the week. It can be an issue for the first 2 weeks, so we’ll stay vigilant.
Tied a sprig of oregano to one of the heater posts so they could peck at it, which they liked. The rooster of course tried it first.
That’s him checking out the camera.
I gave them a stick from outside along with chopped grass with a little bit of dirt to start building immunity against coccidiosis. We stopped at the co-op for the bottle of Corid, as planned, in case the “building immunity” plan backfires.
The Brahma hens have sprouted tailfeathers, and all the chicks have cute habits. Like when air bubbles go “bloop” in the water jar, they gather around it in awe.
The smallest hen scratches at your hand like a tiny tapdance. It’s her thing.
The rooster has started to act like he’s taking dust baths in the sunbeam. They LOVE the sun. They fall over themselves to hog the first big beam that comes in around lunchtime.
They’re going through 1 quart jar of food a day and are noticeably bigger. After their morning shenanigans (eat, drink, poop, eat, drink, poop), I transferred them and the heating plate to a cardboard box and cleaned out the brooder completely. I’ve been layering new chips in each day, but it seemed like a good time for a full refresh. It doesn’t stink yet, but it doesn’t need it to start.
The biggest excitement of the day was mid-afternoon when the power went out. Power outages can be dangerous for chicks, especially in their first week when they need the most heat. But in the brooder, the chicks seemed completely unperturbed. None of them were even under the heater. They were busy starting their afternoon food binge to prepare for bed.
The utilities hotline said the power would be out for a couple more hours (we later learned a tree took out power to 1/2 the county). They frequently under-promise and over-deliver on service recovery, but I called Chris on the road for his thoughts. He said to go ahead and start the generator so the heating plate would be warm if they needed it. Not 60 seconds after firing up the generator and plugging the heater in, the power came back.
I can’t help but think if the chicks were relying on a bulb for heat and it suddenly went out, they’d chill quickly. This outage lasted 45 minutes, and they didn’t even start to huddle. Score another for the heating plate.
This was a confidence-boosting drill. The heating plate is making the chicks hardy enough to not worry about shorter power outages, but the generator is here for backup.
In other news, they had a jar lid of chickweed and grass clippings with more dirt. Mostly they grab sprigs and run around with them, cheeping at the top of their lungs so other chicks will chase them. Then they drop the sprigs and forget about them.
The Langshans scratch at the chips all the time. The breed is supposed to be good at foraging, so maybe this is the start of that behavior. They’re bigger than all the Brahmas except the rooster.
As much as the Langshans scratch, the Brahmas peck, especially at tiny droplets of water that splash on the side of the bin by the waterer. It’s endless entertainment for them and sounds like somebody knocking on the door all day.
I took the cover off the heater so they can use the top for exercise. The rooster tried it first. His thing these days is to step into your hand, lay down, and take a nap until your arm falls asleep.
They’re starting to be flappy and hoppy. We’ll have to cover the bin with wire in another week, maybe sooner, so they don’t get out.
Added a long stick as a perch. The Langshans are more graceful with it. The Brahmas mostly fall off.
They had more clover, chickweed, grass, and dirt today. Still going through a quart jar of feed a day.
Week 1 Summary
The first week has flown by (bird pun). The chicks grew long wing feathers and tiny tail feathers, except for the known rooster. He’s the biggest chick, but his wings are staying short. That’s cool: cockerels often grow wing feathers later.
They were tame within 2 days, and they’re frustrated when we don’t spend enough time with them, which you know because they cheep more loudly. It’s amazing, and eye-opening, that these 1.5 oz creatures recognize us and have distinct habits and personalities.
So far the Langshans are having more trouble with pasty butt. They appear as happy as the Brahmas, but pasty butt indicates stress. It’s possible they’re simply a more wild breed that would prefer to be brooded outside, by a hen. Or they’re stressed by the energy of the extra social Brahma babies. Or they have different nutritional needs than we understand…or something else. Time may tell or it may not, but hopefully they’ll continue past the pasty stage soon.
Besides starter feed (up to a quart jar a day), this week they’ve had oregano, grass, clover, chickweed, and a tiny bit of soil, and they were exposed to pieces of stick from outside.
Raised the heater about 3 notches overall, but they do like it lower than you’d think, especially at night.
On to week 2!