Spring is chick time. So many people's thoughts move towards getting some baby chicks, with visions of future eggs and meat. As a result, I've been getting emails both asking for advice and relating various chick stories. Most of the stories are delightful, but a few talk of problems and tragedies. Out of these sad tales, I've grouped together some of the problems people have had and will relate how I've dealt with the very same issues. Most of the folks I've met have run up against similar situations.
1) Buying from unknown sources. Decades ago I lucked out buying my first batches of chicks from a reputable hatchery. I had great success. But after that local hatchery shutdown, I bought chicks from a variety of sources : local flea market, notice on a feed store bulletin board, ad in the newspaper. Problem after problem. Questionable breeds. Sick chicks. Nothing but roosters. I eventually wised up and started ordering from a reputable mail order hatchery. Success returned.
2) Buying the wrong breed. My first purchase was all rooster day-old chicks. Why? They were cheap. Only 10 cents each. Since I was intending to raise them for meat, I didn't see the sense of paying the high price for straight run or females. Where I went wrong is that I purchased all leghorns with a few other breeds mixed in that I didn't know, nor cared, what. What I didn't know, because I didn't do my homework, was that those chicks weren't meat chicks. It made a big, big difference. I ended up with skinny fryers instead of the plump roasters I envisioned. I invested the same amount of labor, equipment, and feed for skinny little fryers instead of plumper birds.
Decades later, I hadn't wised up much. Again, I failed doing my homework. I bought 200 straight run (mixed sexes just as they come right out of the incubators) chicks, intending on having egg layers. I figured I'd eat the roosters and sell the extras, so I purchased duel purpose breeds. I learned the hard way that duel purpose breeds don't excell in either, meat nor eggs. They're adequate, but don't give me the best bang for the buck. I would have been happier then if I had bought better egg laying breeds for the hens and better meat breeds for eating....not duel purpose types. Oh, duel purpose breeds have their place, but it depends just how much one has their heart set on meat or egg production. What is it you want in the end? I've had various duel purpose breeds, and actually still have some, so I'm not saying that they should be avoided. No. It's just that I need to consider my goals. Sometimes a high powered egg producer is the best answer. Sometimes it's that fast growing meaty breed. And of course, other situations do indeed call for a particular duel purpose breed....or even a less specialized heritage breed.
3) Ignoring the gender. I didn't make this mistake, but I've watch others do it. One neighbor brought home 6 straight run chicks, expecting to get 3 hens and 3 roosters. Mother Nature doesn't always adhere to the statistics with small numbers, thus my neighbor was upset when he ended up with 5 roosters and 1 hen. Yes, it happens. That 50-50 ratio is an average with a large number in the pool. All bets are off when the numbers are small. So if I were only going to buy a small number, and it wanted eggs, I'd buy just female chicks.
One other thing, my neighbor couldn't bring himself to kill those roosters. It's something to think about if only straight run chicks are ordered.....what to do with those roosters.
4) Not having having the chick pen set up before the chicks arrive. Big mistake. It could be a mad scramble to cobble together a pen. I person I know did actually get some chicks without a thing set up in advance. He ended up using boxes, towels, hot water bottles...and lost many of the chicks.
5) Not having educated oneself before the chicks arrive. Oh, this happens too often nowadays. Information is so readily available...."google it". Judging from the emails I get, people don't take the time to research and learn about chicks. They wait until they've failed. One of my rare times I'll give advice: learn about one's projects in advance. I learned the hard way that it's best to read, observe, learn before diving in. Not that I need to know everything before I start, but I try to be somewhat educated when I take my first steps.....especially when livestock is involved. No big deal if I kill a bunch of plants, but animals are a different story.
6) Making the brooder too small or too large. My first brooder pen was way too large. Chicks got lost, stuck in corners, got chilled. I thought I was thinking ahead by making the pen large enough to house all the chicks when they had grown to 8 weeks of age. But those little day old chicks couldn't handle it. The first day I was too dumb to see that. The second day I blocked off most of the pen, making it smaller.
Making the brooder too small can be just as bad. I've seen situations where the chicks had no space to get away from the heat. They ended up piling atop one another in the corners, suffocating the poor ones in the bottom of the pile.
7) Using a waterer that allows chicks to get wet. A serious problem. I brought a commercial waterer and didn't realize at first that there could be a problem. But after finding a few wet, chilled chicks huddled under the lamp plus two dead ones in the water trough, I saw the major error in the design. Day old chicks will jump right into the water if at all possible. So if I can't find a waterer that restricts the baby chick's access to the water, I make my own mesh guards to slide over the water trough.
8) Using poorly designed feeders. Feeders need to make feed access easy for the chicks but at the same time protect the feed so that the chicks don't foul it. If at all possible, chicks will poop all over their food. Once there's a layer of poop, they no longer can find their food underneath. Besides wasting feed, this results in starved chicks that can easily die because their bodies run out of "fuel".
Along this same line, having not enough feeder space for all the chicks can result in some chicks not getting enough food. The weaker ones fade away and die simply because they don't have room to get to the feed often enough.
One more comment......running out of feed. Chicks are constant eating machines. I never let them run out. Whenever I've not topped off the feeders in the evening (assuring plenty of feed for an early breakfast) I've often seen problems with an unthrifty chick or two. Any marginal chicks can't seem to deal well with a delayed breakfast. So I'm careful to make sure feeders stay full when the chicks are under 4 weeks of age.
9) Wrong type of feed. In nature, chicks go after tiny sized food particles. Therefore I start chicks off with ground feed, be it commercial crumbles or homemade ground foods. I've been successful using crumbles in the commercial feeders then supplementing that with dishes of cooked brown rice with finely chopped assorted foods mixed in. Since I plan to feed them "mom's famous slop & glop" when they are adults, I train them to eat it as they grow up.
What sort of wrong feed have I seen being used? Whole grains. Bird seed. Dogfood. Coarse kitchen scraps. New chicks will eat this stuff, or try to, but they may not do well on it. Without well developed gizzards and grit, they will have difficulty digesting them. Other foods I've seen being offered are simply lacking in good nutrition -- white rice, bread, stale cake, table leftovers. These are fine additions but not meant for the basic feed. If the babies were out with their mothers in the wild, they'd be eating all sorts of high nutrition food bits -- bugs, worms, seeds, the tender tips of plants, plus soil and small stones.
10) Inappropriate bedding. When I used a brooder set up, I used clean sand as the bedding. Because my heat source was from below, the sand stayed dry. The chicks will consume the bedding, so sand was fine. But I've heard of cases where people used kitty litter, shredded paper, or sawdust and had chicks dying. I wonder if the bedding was part of the problem. Straw, hay, dry grass clippings all make acceptable bedding.
11) Failing to teach chicks to drink and eat. Yes, chicks can be that stupid! But just give it some thought.....chicks learn to eat and drink by being taught by their mothers. If you've ever watched a hen with chicks, she will make a special sound to call her chicks for food and drink. She will then demonstrate what is the food or water, then step back to allow them to give it a go. She will frequently step forward, peck some food or take a drink herself, then step back again. She is teaching them.
Newly arrived day old chicks need a little instruction. The first thing I do is take each chick one at a time and dip their beaks in the water (I add sugar to the water for the first day). I repeat until the chick gets it, drinking on their own. To encourage the slow learners, I will sprinkle a little sand in the water trough, just enough to make some specks that they will peck at. It helps. Once every chick has learned about the water, I then introduce them to the crumbles. I will use my finger or a chopstick/twig to peck at the feed. This causes some of the chicks to follow my lead. Once a few chicks are pecking, the rest will learn from them. I once had a batch of chicks that seemed incredibly stupid. I ended up using newspaper for the flooring and scattering crumbles around it. As the chicks pecked at the printed lettering, they eventually got the crumbles and learned to eat.
I always teach the chicks to drink water first. I do this as soon as they arrive and I get them home. The first day I use sugar water, but am careful to keep them out of the troughs. Otherwise they get real sticky and covered in the bedding. I once had "breaded chick nuggets" when they walked through their sugar water then kicked around in the crumbles. Obviously I had the wrong kind of waterers and feeders. It took me hours to hand wash and re-fluff those chicks! Lesson learned the hard way.
One thing I learned from observation....don't start the chicks out with cold water. Every time I used cold water, that batch of chicks had problems with pasty butt. Since pasty butt is associated with the chicks becoming chilled, I suppose their tanking up on cold water was enough to chill them. When I switched to using warmed water for their introduction to drinking, the chicks did better. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but I wasn't willing to risk the health and survival of my chicks by conducting controlled experiments using cold vs warm/air temperature drinking water.
12) Failing to predator proof the pen. I've been surprised and dismayed to see how clever predators are when it comes to getting to the chicks. I've had rats gnaw right through that lightweight, cheap chicken wire. I've had a mongoose reach through the wire and grab chicks going to the feeders. I've had dogs unhook latches and open doors. And finally, I've had little kids open any door without a lock on it. If a predator can at all get in, they will.
13) I shall end this on lucky 13.... Failing to train children (and adults) around chicks. I've heard of plenty of stories where a chick died while being held. People will tell me that it died of fright. "Really?", I reply. I'm totally skeptical and don't believe it for one second. I've handled tens of thousands of chicks and none have ever died in my hand. I've discussed this with folks who ran hatcheries and they say the same thing. Chicks don't die of fright because they are being held. They die from being held too tightly, from being squeezed, from being dropped. But they don't die of fright. Now I'll agree that a parakeet might die because a stranger grabs and holds it, but not a chick. Nope. Children.....and adults.....need to be instructed how to hold a chick gently and not impair it's breathing. If they can't be taught, then they shouldn't be handed a chick.