Raising young chicks

Securing good quality chickens in the Cape Town area seems to be an eternal problem.  I get so many calls from people seeking laying hens.  There is one local supplier of quality laying hens but they only sell batches of 200!  But a solution is available - a local pet shop in Somerset West (Birds Haven in Main Road tel: 021 851 1279) places orders from time to time; give them a call and place an order.  These are good quality vaccinated and not de-beaked young hens.

Raising a chick from day-old to point of lay (about 21 weeks) is not that difficult, you must ensure the following things are taken care of in the first 3 or 4 weeks:

  • A source of heat;
  • Keep them dry and away from drafts;
  • Provide some bedding to absorb any poo;
  • Water; and
  • Feed.

The best way to deal with the first two items is simply to place an old fashioned tungsten filament globe (about 40 or 60 watts) above the chicks, this will provide sufficient warmth.  To adjust the amount of heat simply alter the height of the light.  Watch the chicks behaviour, if they are huddling together under it, it may be too high, if they are keeping away from it, it may be too low (make sure there is sufficient space for them to move away from the light in the event it is too hot) - 50 to 60 cm is about the right height.  If you can get a red light rather than a white light all the better but it is not essential.  Shining it through the top of a box with a slot at the bottom is cheap way to reduce drafts and keep them cozy; see pic below.  The new compact fluorescent and LED lights obviously do not work, they do not provide enough heat.

A simple box with a light to keep the chicks warm

Provide sufficient bedding to absorb any poo.  Ideally wood shavings from untreated wood is best but straw and shredded paper also work fine.  Sawdust and any fine material should be avoided as it tends to irritate their lungs.

Within about 4 weeks they will be fully feathered and the light can be removed, however do this when warmer weather is forecast; not just as a cold snap arrives!  You can also increase the height of the light, this will provide less warmth as you harden them off to no heat at all.  This allows them to acclimatise and adapt to living outdoors.  It will also be a good idea to provide a perch (at least 50 cm off the ground) as they can now fly; they prefer to sleep off the ground at night if possible.

The feed at this age must be a pullet growing mash.  This may be more difficult to find so get a good supply from your pet shop when you find some.  It is about 14% to 16% protein.  Do not feed them laying mash till they are about 18 weeks old or have commenced with laying, it has too much calcium and is not good for their kidneys.  Also do not feed them a ‘grower mash’, which is often found in some shops.  This is for broilers (meat chickens), it has too much protein but usually also contains an antibiotic - this is not what you want your hens should be eating.  This antibiotic is routinely added to commercial feeds as the birds are raised in crowed conditions and the stress can cause disease outbreaks - not the situation with your pampered hens.  Do not raise them exclusively on ground maize and other mixed seeds; there is insufficient protein and nutrients in these feeds to ensure rapid growth.  Kitchen scraps and any juicy bugs or worms are certainly on the menu; this would form the bulk of their diet in the wild.  They are often not very adventurous in their feeding tastes when less than 4 weeks but thereafter if different food is provided they will eventually get a taste for it; so a little persistence initially may be required.  Some fresh grass cuttings are often a good idea from about 4 weeks of age to introduce them to greenery, which is critical for a good diet full of minerals and important vitamins.  Throw a small handful in every day till they start eating it.

Be careful if allowing them to free range unprotected when they are small (<3 to 4 months), crows and other aerial predators will pick them off, as will the neighbours cat!

They must always have access to feed and water.  For the first few weeks you can simply place the feed in a shallow dish, like the plastic container used under a pot plant.  But once they grow they will start scratching and mess the feed, it should then be placed in a container that prevents this.  Clean water must always be available and ensure they cannot knock it over.  The water should also be raised off the ground to prevent wood chips, wasted feed and the like from being scratched into it and they often regurgitate feed into the water if it is at ground level. Ideally raise the water drinking level to about half their standing height.  If you have a drinking nipple place this so the bird stretches to reach it when the neck is slightly extended; raise it as they grow.  They learn to drink from a nipple very quickly as they naturally peck everything!  Drinking nipples are preffered as they prevent fouling of the water and the water being knocked over.  The nipples last forever and can simply be screwed or glued (with a heat glue gun) into a hole in a 2 lit drinks bottle or similar container.