In this article we'll cover everything you need to know, from what they should eat immediately after hatching, to exactly what kind of food is best for them, to when they can have treats - and what kind of treats will help their development.
Technically, baby chicks don't need anything to eat or drink for about 48 hours after they've hatched. That's because they are sustained by the yolk of the egg, which they absorb into their body just before they break through the shell.
That's why chicks can be sent by post from hatcheries with nothing to eat or drink in their container.
So don't worry that your chick's still in the incubator without food or drink while she dries out and fluffs up. She'll be fine for now.
I generally leave my chicks to dry out in the incubator for between 12 and 24 hours after they've hatched. Once they're dry and fluffed up, and they're reasonably active, into the brooder they go.
It's at that point you'll need to introduce food and drink. For more about drink, see this link.
Chicks grow at an amazing rate in the first few weeks of life, and it's critical for their healthy development that they're fed a properly balanced chick food, known as "starter feed" or "chick crumb".
It's very important that you buy the right kind of feed for baby chicks. Don't try to give them the same food as your adult flock: it's too high in calcium which can cause irreversible kidney damage, and too low in protein which chicks, growing at an explosive rate, need.
Commercially produced starter feed is balanced to contain exactly what a chick needs. Look for a good brand, preferably organic and non-GMO, which contains between 15% and 20% protein.
The best and least expensive place to buy it is your local feed store, but if you can't get there for any reason, you can buy online.
The brand I recommend if you're in the US is this one, which is both organic and guaranteed GMO free, and has exactly the right amount of protein.
Some people do. I don't recommend it for the reason I've stated above: it's really very important for the chick's development that she has a properly balanced feed with exactly the required amount of protein and very low calcium.
To try to provide that yourself is a big ask. In my view, it's better to pay for a high quality feed that you and your chicks can rely on.
I've never fed my chicks a medicated feed, and if you keep your hatchlings in a clean brooder, make sure you regularly clear away their droppings, and if they have sufficient space, there is really no need.
If you've bought chicks from a hatchery you need to check whether they have been given a vaccination against coccidiosis. If they have, you should definitely not offer any form of medicated feed. It won't necessarily harm them, but it will nullify the cocci vaccine.
Chicks who are hatched and raised in very cramped conditions, as often happens in commercial farms, are generally given medicated feed to prevent the spread of disease.
If you're hatching more than 50 chicks at a time, you may need to consider a medicated food.
But backyard flocks really should not need it - and don't be tempted to give your chicks medications "just in case".
Instead, make sure you practice good husbandry. Your flock will be healthy and happy without having chemicals in their system.
As soon as you introduce your chicks to the brooder you should introduce them to water.
Food isn't so critical. They're not going to starve to death if you allow them to settle into their new surroundings before offering grain and, in any event, chicks need to spend a good part of the couple of days after hatch sleeping.
Chicks are naturally very inquisitive, and the way they explore the world is with their beak. So a good way to introduce food to them is by using kitchen roll on the brooder floor (on top of a non-slip cover) and sprinkling a few grains of starter feed on it.
The noise of the feed dropping will attract their attention, and they will automatically investigate. In doing so, they learn what food looks, smells and tastes like.
I generally sprinkle some feed into the brooder at the end of day 1 or early in day 2. I've never yet had a chick who didn't want to know what it was!
Once you're sure your chicks know what their feed looks and tastes like, it's time to put it in a container.
Here's what you'll learn very quickly: chicks are great at kicking their bedding into any food container, and also great at kicking their feed into bedding!
There are a number of different feed container designs on the market, and I'm pretty sure I've tried them all.
If you have more than four or five chicks, these long containers are good. Chicks can't easily climb inside them (which they will if they can).
Red's a great colour, too - chicks are attracted by it and will gravitate towards it from the start.
As the chicks begin to grow, you'll find they need a larger feeder to allow access for everyone.
My chosen feeder then is this long metal one. Its openings are larger than for the first stage, which gives everyone a turn but unfortunately does allow for a lot of bedding to be kicked in.
The chicks in the pic below were two weeks old when I introduced them to my metal feeder. It took them about ten seconds to get used to it and start eating!
I bought this one at my local feed store, and I wouldn't be without it.
Feeders like the round one below, which are a base into which you can put an upturned mason jar as a silo for the grain, are very popular. I find that the holes are often quite large, which gives chicks the perfect opportunity to kick grain out and bedding in.
And it's definitely better to use them with a mason jar in that large centre hole - otherwise this is what happens...
But they're sturdy, and will last longer than the smaller feeders - your chicks will still be able to use them when they're all grown up.
I go for the long feeders - the one in this Amazon link can clip together with another if you have a lot of chicks. The mason jar combi is also a good option - my second favourite for when chicks are very small.
But after the first week, when they're used to their feeder and are much more active, my personal choice would be - anything that hangs!
The hanging harness below isn't available in Europe. If I lived in the States, that's without doubt the one I'd go for, combined with the small plastic feeder and waterer.
This is probably the question I'm asked most often about chicks!
The answer is that baby chicks raised by a mother hen have "treats" from day 1. They're not inside, they're out there in the yard with her, eating everything she tells them is good to eat!
In our brooder, we have to be the mother hen.
But unlike a mother hen, we can't be there all the time to make sure our chicks eat what they're supposed to eat first and, like children, if chicks have the choice between a yummy treat and proper food, it'll be treats every time!
But the chick starter feed is their main diet and it's important they have balance in those first few days after hatch. So don't give chicks treats for several days, until they are very familiar with what their grain looks, smells and tastes like.
I normally start to give my chicks some treats in week 2, or at the earilest at the end of week 1 in the brooder.
And even then, feed sparingly. Think of treats as a yummy dessert!
The chick's digestive system is still very undeveloped, so be careful what you feed. It's all too easy to upset their digestion and cause problems.
I generally start with some hard boiled egg, chopped into small pieces, or some sweetcorn, again chopped small. At first they look on it as a killer monster, but once they get the taste you'll find they devour it in seconds.
And no, it doesn't turn them into egg-eaters later! Think about it: a hard boiled egg looks, smells and tastes nothing like fresh, uncooked egg.
The other treat I give chicks, as a boredom-buster as well as a treat, is a lettuce which I hang from the sides of the brooder. Hours of endless fun pecking at it!
As soon as your chicks begin eating anything but starter feed, they must be given grit.
Chicks with their mother hen will pick up grit naturally from the yard, but again, we need to play mother hen with chicks in the brooder.
If you're not sure why chicks needs grit at such a young age, this article will explain all.
Chick grit is made of smaller particles than adult chicken grit. Ask at your local feed store, or buy online here.
Leave it in a dish, separate to their food. Chicks know instinctively when to take it.
Bear in mind we are talking about grit only here - never feed your young chicks oyster shell. The calcium will damage their kidneys. Oyster shell is only for adult laying hens.
If you have a chick who's struggling, feed some chopped up hard boiled egg. It's full of protein and helps nourish those who can't eat properly yet.
Offer it on a small saucer and encourage the chick, if it's able, to peck at it. If not, try smudging some on the end of your finger.
Keep struggling chicks hydrated, too - water is much more important than food for a baby chick. An electrolyte drink is always a good stand-by, fed from a spoon or by dropper.
Keep your chicks on a starter feed until around 8 weeks, at which point they need to have a "grower" feed which keeps pace with the change in their development.
If you have starter feed left over, mix it - 50% starter, 50% grower - for a couple of weeks. The chicks will be fine and it gets them used to a slightly new taste gradually.
Don't be temped to keep your starter feed for next time you have baby chicks. It tends to go mouldy and the bacteria it produces would be a killer for any new chicks.
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