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.
Immediately post hatch, feed nothing!
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.
It's how 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 6 and 12 hours after they've hatched. Once they're dry, fluffed up and 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.
And check whether it's bulked out with soy and corn. If you can, buy a feed that's unprocessed whole grains. It's more natural and healthier.
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, has exactly the right amount of protein and is soy and corn free.
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.
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 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, particularly if you're aiming to raise your flock naturally. Don't be tempted to give your chicks medication "just in case".
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. 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 paper 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 they're used to it, it's time to introduce a feeder. I have a detailed article about which type of chick feeder is best, here.
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 take the place of 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, they'll go for 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 earliest 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 box. 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. 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 if it's more convenient.
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 finely chopped 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 tempted 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.