6 Things To Watch For During Chick Days

Chick Days bring joy to the local farm-supply store, but inexperienced staff members can make mistakes dangerous to chick health. Here's are six worrying signs to look for.

by Ana Hotaling
PHOTO: John/Adobe Stock

Chick Days once again returns and, for a handful of weeks, farm-supply stores and feed shops across the country will resonate with the sounds of baby poultry peeping from stock tanks and storage bins. While it’s always tempting—and occasionally downright dangerous for those of us with chicken-math issues—to take a peek at the peepers, in some cases it can be life-threatening if you don’t.

Not for you … unless you go home with two dozen baby chicks when you were only supposed to buy safflower seeds. No, in this instance the life you may be saving is that of a chick… or, as may well be, chicks.

Oftentimes, mega farm stores hire applicants with no experience with poultry. They may have a background in horses or sheep or swine—or no livestock background at all. It may also well be that the same holds true for store management. Come Chick Days, staff may know enough to open up the cartons of chicks,  put in a feeder and waterer, and put them on display … and that’s it. Chick loss is just an expected percentage, just a small dip in the store’s profits.  

But every baby chick deserves a chance to be adopted and live a full life in a backyard or small-farm flock. Your intervention at stores where negligence and ignorance adversely affect chicks can not only save dozens of lives but may also better train store employees so that they are better equipped to deal with Chick Days in the weeks and years to come.

Here are six things to watch for.  

1. Improper Heating 

Newly hatched chicks require a constant temperature of 95 degrees F for the first week of their lives, then five degrees less each subsequent week until room temperature is reached. Hatcheries ship baby chicks out immediately after hatching, so that 95 degrees is absolutely necessary, especially for chicks stressed from shipping.

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Additionally, baby chicks are unable to regulate their body temperature. They rely on their mother hen, their owner or store employees to maintain their body temperature for them. Store employees may not realize this. They may only know that each tank needs a heater, with no details about how high above the tank or over what section of the tank the heat lamp should go.

Keep an eye out for tanks with:  

  • No heat lamp or heat source at all (chicks will be clustered together for warmth; the chicks on the outskirts may be sluggish, unconscious, or dead from hypothermia) 
  • Heat lamp hung too high (chicks will be clustered together for heat; chicks on the outskirts may be sluggish from hypothermia) 
  • Heat lamp hung too low (chicks will be scattered to the far sides of the tank and possibly panting) 
  • Heat lamp hung over waterer (chicks will be positioned far from their water source and possibly panting; a possible ozone-like smell may be present from the heated plastic or metal waterer) 
  • No thermometer in the chick tank (staffers will have no way of determining the temperature within the chick tank) 

2. Improper Bedding 

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen chick tanks with either no bedding at all—the chicks were on bare metal—or with newspaper as bedding. It is crucial for baby poultry to have at least 1 inch of fresh, clean bedding in their holding pens. Not only will the bedding be the chicks’ sleeping surface for the immediate future, but it also helps absorb and safely distribute the heat from the brooder lamps as well as absorb any waterer splashes and runny baby-chick poo.

Bedding also provides developing chick leg muscles a suitable, nonslip surface. Newspaper, which is slick, should never be used in chick brooders as it can lead to the development of spraddle leg. A slippery metal tank floor can also cause leg-development issues.

What to look for: 

  • Tanks with bare floors (chicks reluctant to move about) 
  • Tanks lined with newspaper (chicks reluctant to move about; possibility of “split-leg” chicks) 
  • Tanks with minimal bedding (litter is matted and soiled; possibility of chicks with pasty butt)  
  • Tanks with improper bedding (bedding is pellets, shredded paper, straw) 

Read more: Let’s dig in to the great chicken bedding debate.

3. Feed Issues 

While it is hoped that store employees would at least be instructed to fill baby chicks’ feeders with chick grower, during Chick Days it is quite possible they received no instruction at all and that any sack of feed was grabbed off the shelf to give to the chicks.

Commercial feed is scientifically formulated for each stage of a bird’s growth, however. Feed formulated for adult layers can permanently damage infant poultry kidneys and more.

Furthermore, the starter feed given to baby chicks destined for a backyard coop is not the same type of feed given to baby meat chicks destined for the freezer in a few months. Beyond the type of food offered to baby chicks, it’s important to observe that the feeders contain food at all … and that chicks have not soiled the food with their droppings. Also important: Feed sacks being used to nourish the chicks need to be properly closed to avoid contamination by dampness, insects, rodents or even humans.

What to look for: 

  • Sacks of feed improperly clipped closed or left wide open (moisture can enter the sack, encouraging the growth of mold or mildew; insects and rodents can enter the sacks, contaminating the feed) 
  • Sacks of feed specified for adult poultry or for other animals (improper balance of nutrients can cause improper development or damaged internal organs) 
  • Sacks of grower feed near tanks of meat chicks (improper percentage of protein can lead to improper and delayed development) 
  • Adult feeder used in the chick tank instead of feeder specified for baby chicks (adult feeders encourage chicks to clamber over, poop and sleep on the food, soiling it. Baby chick feeders have “portal covers” which prevent chicks from messing up their feed) 
  • Empty chick feeder (chicks peeping loudly and incessantly from hunger; possibility of chicks sluggish from hunger or chicks pecking each other out of hunger and boredom)

4. Waterer Issues 

As important as food is to baby chicks, water is far more crucial for them to have. Water not only will keep chicks hydrated in the high-temperature brooders but also helps prime their infant digestive systems, which have only experienced liquid nourishment inside the egg.

Chick water should be clear and clean, with no shavings or droppings in the saucer. Only chick waterers should be used with baby chicks, as the depth of the drinking saucer in adult waterers can cause chicks to drown.

Keep an eye out for: 

  • Adult waterers in the chick tanks (wet chicks; drowned chicks in the waterer saucer or lying dead/dying close by) 
  • Empty waterers (chicks peeping loudly and incessantly from thirst; some chicks may be sluggish from dehydration) 

Read more: Make sure your chickens always have water—no matter the weather.

5. Bullying  

Every year, we end up getting a call from our local farm-supply store, asking us to come pick up rescue chicks. These babies usually sport injuries caused by other chicks, most commonly feather picking and vent attacks.

The injured chicks thankfully have had their injuries Blu-Koted, but they are depressed little things that don’t always recover from vicious, early-life bullying. Chick bullying is not intentionally malicious. It is often spurred on by the environment in which the chicks are kept.

Watch for: 

  • A couple of unsold older chicks housed in the same tank as dozens of younger newcomers (the older chicks have always ended up being the beat-up, bullied birds)  
  • White brooder lights being used instead of red (white lights agitate baby chicks and tend to frenzy them so that they begin pecking and fighting; red is calmative and hides injury from view) 
  • Injured, bullied chicks housed in the same tank as uninjured chicks (bullied chicks attempting to hide or stay out of the reach of the other chicks, often perching on top of the waterer or feeder or the edge of the brooder itself) 

6. Overcrowding 

The majority of farm-supply stores receive their Chick Days shipments from hatcheries on a contracted schedule. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the stores will sell out of their supply of chicks before the next shipment arrives.

My local farm-supply store usually ends up with a half-dozen stock tanks set up in the employees-only area in order to have room for all the chicks. Other stores will just combine chick shipments in one tank, resulting in an unhealthy overcrowding situation.

Things to watch for: 

  • More than one type of chick in a brooder (indicative of merged shipments due to lack of brooders, lack of floor space or lack of motivation to set up new tanks) 
  • No visible floor space in a chick tank (chicks peeping loudly and incessantly because they cannot reach food or water; chicks may be sluggish due to hunger or dehydration) 
  • Trampled chicks (dead, dying or injured chicks anywhere in the tank, including under live chicks) 

When You Notice Something Wrong 

If you recognize any of these situations at your local store, first and foremost keep your cool. Nobody likes being told what they are doing is wrong or putting lives at risk.

Take note of exactly what is going wrong before approaching the staff. Unfortunately, if one issue is occurring, there are bound to be others, again due to staff inexperience.

Next, your best bet—and the chicks’ best bet—is to speak to a manager. Chances are that a sales associate will not want to risk getting in trouble or fired so will not take any action. Or they may just see you as an interfering busybody who isn’t even buying any chicks. A manager, however, will be more apt to safeguard store “merchandise” and keep positive communication going with a customer.

Ask if you can speak to the manager in private. Publicly pointing out chick issues will most likely result in their embarrassment and anger.

Offer to help them correct what’s wrong. A pair of willing and experienced hands is always appreciated, especially if the staff is busy helping customers. By offering your assistance—versus handing over a list of things to correct—you not only help your local store better understand what baby chicks require, you also ensure these and future Chick Days chicks have healthful brooder environments while they await buyers.

You also build valuable connections with store management. You never know … you may end up being their go-to chick expert come the next Chick Days. 

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