Spring is in the air! At least that is what we say in Wisconsin when the temperature gets above 30 degrees for the first time in four months, but we’re a little crazy. We’ve been known to open our windows for fresh spring air at 45 degrees!
Whether the weather reflects it or not, spring really isn’t far away. Here in the northern Midwest, it’s time to think about raising chicks. Particularly for those who want egg laying chickens, the sooner chicks can reach your home the better, as most chickens take at minimum 18 weeks to reach maturity. (Make sure you take your situation into consideration, though, and don’t end up with chicks living in your basement for eight weeks because you ordered them too early…not that we would know from experience.)
If you are a first time chicken owner, or even if you have raised chickens before but never started from chicks, the list of supplies needed can seem overwhelming. If you purchased everything that hatcheries and farm supply stores tried to sell you, you could easily spend a few hundred dollars to start your chicks. I don’t know about you, but I don’t enjoy spending a lot of money on things that will only be used for a few weeks. Around here we are resourcefulness devotees, both by necessity and by choice, and we have found ways to brood around 25 chicks for under $100 (including the price of the chicks).
It is important to have all of your brooding supplies on hand before purchasing your chicks because the chicks are generally only one day (mail order) to a few days (local farm or store) old and need food, water, and a warm and safe place immediately. This is our list of necessary supplies and how to get them on the cheap.
10 Necessary Supplies for Starting Chicks
- A container- This one might seem kind of obvious, but you need a place to keep the chicks contained. It can be fancy or simple. Look for things you have around your house- an unused plastic tote, a clean cardboard box, a steel container of some kind. Last year we started our chicks in a turtle-shaped plastic sandbox with cardboard taped around the edges to make them taller. When the chicks outgrew that, my husband constructed a series of interlocking cardboard boxes (a chicken condo of sorts), which we used until the weather was warm enough and the chicks large enough to move outside. When looking for a container, a general guideline to keep in mind is that one square foot per chick will keep them happy until they move to their permanent home. Our cost: free
- Bedding- You will want to use something for bedding that is easy to change in order to keep the brooding area clean and comfortable for the chicks. Sawdust or pine shavings are ideal. Sawdust is easy to get from anyone who has a workshop and is usually free (although you might have to do the sweeping). We use sawdust from our shop and the neighbor’s. Dried leaves or grass clippings work well, too, although if you live in a northern climate you probably don’t have many of those available this time of year. Some people use newspaper shreds, but be aware that there is potential for the chicks to get ink poisoning or to develop weak legs from trying to walk on slippery paper. Use what you have available, trying to err on the side of smaller and finer pieces, as larger wood chips and hay/straw may be too difficult for very young chicks to traverse well. Our cost: free
- Chick feeder- This may be one of the items you will want to invest in, but a decent chick feeder should only cost around $5. It would probably be possible to just use a low-edged bowl you have at home for feed, but it will only be a couple of weeks before your chicks are strong and rambunctious enough to tip over a regular bowl, and that means wasted feed. If there are other people who raise chickens in your area, you could check Craigslist or even look on eBay for a used chick feeder. It is worth mentioning that you need one in conversation with locals, as well. One of our neighbors gave us a chick feeder he wasn’t using when he heard that we were getting chicks. Our cost: free
- Chick waterer- A waterer is another item that you may consider investing in. At just slightly more cost than a chick feeder, a waterer designed specifically for chicks is invaluable. Using bowls of water isn’t an option with baby chicks because they can and will drown themselves, even if the water is very shallow. No one ever said chickens have big brains! Again, ask around and search for a used waterer if you don’t want to purchase new. You never know where you might find one. We got ours from our mechanic! Our cost: free
- Heat lamp- A heat lamp will be necessary for at least the first week of your chicks’ lives and maybe several more, depending on your climate. In Wisconsin last year we had to use one for about a month before it was warm enough and the chicks were big enough to do without, although at the end of that month we were only using it at night. We got lucky and found a heat lamp in my father-in-law’s shed, so we only had to purchase a new bulb. If you plan to raise a lot of chicks either at once or over the years, you can go the brooder route, but they are much more expensive than heat lamps. If you have a limited budget or are only raising chicks for your own purposes, a simple heat lamp will suit you well. Heat lamps are usually pretty easy to find on eBay and Craigslist, so check there first! Our cost: free
- Red heat bulb- Chickens aren’t necessarily kind, and once you have them you will understand where the term “pecking order” comes from. Having a red bulb, some say, helps make any blood that a vulnerable chick might have on herself less visible, therefore helping to protect them from more pecking and cannibalism. There is no difference in price between white and red bulbs, so I would say to go with the red bulb just to be safe. Our cost: $4
- Thermometer- A thermometer is not absolutely necessary (I probably wouldn’t buy one), but if you happen to have one at home it is helpful to know how warm the area is that the chicks are in and to help you gradually lower the temperature in their container (by moving the heat lamp up) to get them used to the outside air and its fluctuations. If you don’t have a thermometer handy, don’t fret. The chicks will let you know if they are hot or cold based on where they spend their time in their box. Everyone crowded under the lamp means they are cold. Everyone spread out around the perimeter means they are hot. Movement around the entire enclosure means you have the temperature just right. Our cost: free
- Chick starter feed- We free range our chickens: they walk about the five acres we live on freely all summer. Baby chicks don’t know how to do that right away, though, and even if they did, they would likely get eaten by some larger predator in the process. Instead, you want to start your chicks with a high quality starter feed- organic, soy free, and unmedicated are our personal preferences. You can make your own feed or mash if you wish, but if you are just getting started or have no desire to do so, there are several decent options on the market. We were able to have a local organic feed mill mix up soy free, unmedicated feed for us last year. If you can’t find a local source, try this feed. Our cost: $35 for 50 lbs.
- Chick grit- All chickens need grit in order to help them digest their food because they don’t have any teeth to grind it up! You can buy grit specifically meant for chicks (It is a smaller version of adult grit.) or you can find your own, most likely in your yard. Course sand and small pebbles are all that is needed for grit. It should be easy and free to provide free choice to chicks from day one. Our cost- free
- Diatomaceous earth- This naturally occurring substance can be mixed with chick feed or given free choice. You will always want to make sure you use food grade DE, but it isn’t necessary to purchase a ton of it- a little goes a long way. If you find that it is cheaper to buy in bulk, though, go ahead, as you will continue to use it throughout the life of your chickens. The DE helps keep parasites away from your chicks and can improve overall health and eventual egg production. It can also can be used externally for mites (Be sure to wear a mask if spreading it externally. The dust can harm your lungs and eyes.). Our cost: $16 for 10 lbs.
Total cost for chick starter supplies: $55
Obviously not everyone will be able to find all of the items that we did for free, but if you do your homework and a little searching, you can still get them for much cheaper than store price.
Once you have all of your supplies in order, you are ready for the exciting (and totally adorable) part: the chicks! This may look like a long list of things that you need to successfully start chicks, but the majority of the items can be made or found for free or cheap. With some forethought and a little legwork, you will have everything you need, and if you’re especially resourceful, the most expensive thing you purchase will be your chicks!
Would you add anything to this list? Do you have any tips for cutting costs without sacrificing your chickens’ health and comfort? Please share!