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Apr 8, 2021
Caring for Your Backyard Flock For The First 18 Months
Newly hatched chicks are very tiny. They are delicate and fuzzy – and so cute! Unfortunately, they are also extremely vulnerable to the harsh world around them. The chick needs all the advantages it can get. Once you have made the commitment to step in as mother hen, the care is in your hands.
You have (hopefully) previously thought ahead and set up a good coop that will be a good home for the baby, and of course its mates. Chicks are social animals that need companionship, which is why they thrive in a flock.
You will also need the brooder to be large enough for the number of chicks you plan to raise and make sure it’s equipped with a feeder and waterer. Make sure it has an inch of wood shavings for bedding and a heat lamp or electric chick warmer. Make sure the heat lamp has a RED bulb, and it can be raised and lowered to regulate heat on the birds. Once you have these basics in place, you are ready to welcome home your new chicks!
We recommend using these six chicken growth milestones as a roadmap to creating a complete feeding program.
1. Weeks 1-4: Baby chicks
Bedding: That inch of wood flake shavings you laid down, will provide the chicks the dry, warm environment they need. Be aware that shredded paper has micro filaments that can cause respiratory problems in the birds, so using the larger wood shavings is a good choice. Raising chicks on newspaper, plastic or an otherwise slick surface may cause their legs to splay, making walking difficult or impossible. Spraddle leg can be a permanent condition if left uncorrected, resulting in distress in the chick that can lead to death. Make sure you clean the bedding every day and change it fully every 2-3 days.
Heat: Without a mother hen to keep the chicks warm, the next best substitute is a warming pad or heat lamp. The most common option is a heat lamp. A radiant heat lamp will heat the chicks’ bodies and provide them the comfort to shelter and sleep. Make sure that your heat lamp is secured, and the height is adjustable. To adjust the heat from a heat lamp, hang it starting at 18” to 24” from the chicks. The proper temperature for the chicks should range between 85- and 90-degrees Fahrenheit. Use an outdoor thermometer designed to measure air temperature to ensure a suitable climate for the chicks.
The best way to monitor the heat is to pay attention to your baby chicks! They will tell you if the temperature is comfortable. If the chicks tend to huddle under the light, peeping loudly, it is too cold. If they are always to the edge or away from the heat, it is too hot. If they are spaced out, pecking around, going about their business in a way that that looks casual, they’re comfortable. The Red Bulbs you chose for the heat lamp is a good choice. It does not resemble daylight, like a white bulb, and helps chicks sleep at night. Also, the red light is not harmful to the chicks’ eyes and tends to keep chicks from pecking at one another.
Water, then Food: Once you introduce baby chicks to a brooder, provide them with fresh room temperature water, for the first couple of hours. This gives the chicks the opportunity to rehydrate before they feed. If the chicks seem unsure around water, feel free to dip their beaks into the water. They will catch on and take it from there. Electrolytes and probiotics can also be provided to your chicks through the water. These come in bulk packaging or in pre-measured quantities that can be diluted with water. The electrolytes provide energy and help to keep your wee ones hydrated while the probiotics help aid in digestive health. The two can be used alone or combined for ultimate health. (Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions and recommendations.)
Food: Start your chicks strong by giving a complete starter-grower feed with at least 18 percent protein to support growth. Look for feed that includes amino acids are important for chick development, prebiotics and probiotics vital for immune health, as well as vitamins and minerals to support bone health. Also, when you purchase your chicks at Shipton’s Big R, they will be unvaccinated. For non-vaccinated chicks, we recommend the medicated feed mentioned, to prevent coccidiosis, a parasitic disease of the intestinal tract. Chicks are vulnerable to illness and a medicated chick starter feed will provide the extra boost they need.
2. Weeks 5-15: The teenage chicken stage
During weeks 5 and 6, chicks will go through visible growth changes; new primary feathers will come in and a pecking order will begin developing. Growing birds are now referred to differently. Pullet is the term for a teenage female, while a young male is called a cockerel. Between weeks 7 and 15, the physical differences between genders will become even more obvious.
Continue to feed a complete starter-grower feed during the teenage stage. In addition to 18 percent protein, be sure the feed contains no more than 1.25 percent calcium. An excess of calcium can have a detrimental effect on growth, but a complete starter feed has just the right balance.
3. Weeks 16-17: When to switch from chick starter to layer feed
Around this point in the growth people begin to check their nesting boxes for the coveted first egg. It is time to consider layer feed options so you can make a smooth transition. As compared to starter-grower, a layer chicken feed has less protein and more calcium. This added calcium is important for egg production.
Look for a chicken layer feed that matches your flock’s goals. Be sure the layer feed is made with simple, wholesome ingredients and includes 16 percent protein, at least 3.25 percent calcium as well as key vitamins and minerals.
4. Week 18: At what age do chickens start laying eggs?
When birds reach 18 weeks old or when the first egg arrives, slowly transition to a layer feed. It is best to transition over time rather than all at once to prevent digestive upset. Mix the starter feed with the layer feed evenly for four or five days. If birds are used to crumbles, start with a crumble layer feed. The same goes with pellets. The more similar the two feeds are, the smoother the transition will go.
5. Month 18: Molting chickens
During about 18 months feathers will likely begin to cover the coop floor. Welcome to the season of molting chickens! The first molt usually occurs in the fall as days become shorter. Your flock will take a break from egg laying and shed feathers for a few weeks. Molting is completely natural and will happen every year.
It is important to keep your flock strong during molting. Protein is the key nutrient in a flock’s diet because feathers are made of 80-85 percent protein, whereas eggshells are primarily calcium. When molt begins, switch to a complete feed with 20 percent protein. A high-protein complete feed is important for feather regrowth. Once birds begin producing eggs again, switch back to a layer feed.
6. 5+ Years: Laying hen retirement
One day, the time may come for the veterans of a flock to take a vacation and retire from egg-laying. At this point transition retiring hens to a higher-protein feed. Although a laying hen will stop laying as she ages, she still has an important place in the flock as a steady companion who brings joy to the entire family.
One Final Thought:
We all love to spoil our chickens with treats every now and then. Giving treats to your chickens helps to give their diet some variation. It also helps to keep them happy and laying eggs. Also check out our Chick Days Page for more information on how Shipton's Big R can help you raise your flock.