Getting started with chickens is cheap and easy. The needs of baby chicks are simple and they are not a big investment. If you have a limited budget, you can get creative to keep down the cost.
Shelter – The brooder can be a cardboard circle, a baby pool, a feeding trough, bathtub, etc. The only limit is your imagination. It should be round to keep the chicks from gathering in a corner and suffocating, especially if you have a lot of them. Layer the bottom with a pine shavings (about $6 for a large compacted bale wrapped in plastic from the feed store). Clean the poop out daily. Make sure the chicks can stand and walk without slipping, otherwise their legs will not develop properly. Put paper towels, newspaper or cardboard in the bottom if you need to help them stand securely.
Heat – buy a heat lamp with a guard on the front of it to keep the bulb from direct contact with the shavings if it falls and to keep yourself from bumping against the hot bulb by accident. Be sure to secure the lamp but be able to adjust it weekly. The chicks typically need 95 degrees for the first week and 5 degrees less for each week after that. Also, the lamp should be to one side of the shelter so the chicks can move into and away from the heat as needed. Buy a red lamp so the chicks are not in constant “daylight”. Preheat the shelter before adding the chicks.
Food – If buying chicks from a feed store, you may want to buy medicated chick starter. I used medicated for my first chicks but non-medicated for the chicks I hatch at home. Do not use layer feed! The high calcium layer feed is meant for laying hens and will kill your chicks. Keep the feeder full and clean it every day. I put ours on a brick to keep it out of the shavings although you will still need to clean it every day.
Water – Give the chicks fresh, clean water every day! Buy a waterer that is specifically for chicks so they won’t drown! (See link below). We also used a water bottle that was meant for rabbits (it hangs upside down and the chicks peck at it to drink). This worked okay but dripped into the shavings so we removed it.
So those are the basics for getting started. Our Buff Orpington chicks were a straight run (mix of hens and roosters) but all turned out to be hens. They cost us around $3 each and we had no casualties. This was very lucky for us but unusual.
Typically you can expect to have a mix of hens and roosters unless you buy sex links or have the chicks sexed for you. Even then, it is not 100% sure that you will have the number of hens you want. Also, day old chicks may not all live so buy extras. We bought our chicks at about a week old, which is probably why they all survived.
Here they are about 5 weeks later after we moved them into a larger 300 gallon Rubbermaid tub. The temperature is at about 73 degrees and you can see they have lots of feathers to keep them warm, a small roost and a hanging chick treat to peck.
We bought our chicks on March 18, had our first egg by July 6th and our first Buff Orpington chick hatched on the homestead by September. The hens are still laying steady 11 months later. Even through the winter we are getting about 5 eggs every day.