Over the past 6 years, I have kept just about every domestic poultry you can think of including: chickens (both production and heritage breeds), ducks, turkey, geese, and even guinea fowl. My methods of raising them have changed several times and will probably continue to evolve as I strive to figure out the best fit for my farm. That said, I am more than happy to share what I have learned, in the hopes it helps others get a leg up if they plan to start keeping poultry here in the Texas Panhandle.
I struggled for many years trying to find the best way to start my poultry and now feel I have finally found a reliable method. In my experience, most losses occur in the first 1-4 weeks. This does not include the production varieties of chickens I have tried however I will address this later.
A few years ago, I stumbled across a discussion on one of the chicken tending websites that described the method used by farmers to start poultry back in World War II, whenever both materials and electricity were in short supply. The #1 danger to baby chicks is not being able to keep warm enough until they start getting their real feathers at around 4-6 weeks (This does not include waterfowl). I struggled with many different designs, but always had a hard time because I never really had a good area with adequate insulation to maintain the climate that baby chicks need.
The method from World War II resolves this issue by keeping a small area at the proper temperature instead of the whole area. You basically construct a box out of 2 x 4’s and plywood then add in the light sockets you need for heat lamps, depending on the size of the box. You cut a small access door in one side and then it is ready to go. Normally the ratio of heat lamps to chicks is one per 15-25 chicks. This simple box allows me to easily keep 200 plus chicks happy with just one heat lamp. My boxes are 4ft x 4ft, however you could scale this up or down depending on how many chicks you want to star at a time. This allows the chicks to come and go as they get too hot or cold. Seems to me it also speeds up the time it takes to feather out, because the chicks get exposed to different temperatures then they would if they had a hen mothering them.
For someone who is only starting 25 chicks at a time, the amount of electricity needed is not a big deal but when you consider for 200 plus birds it would take between 6-8 lamps all running continuously, that adds up very quickly on your electric bill. This box method has been an absolute lifesaver and I would not be able to grow chicks without it.
Getting the correct food and water in the early weeks is also really important. For my chicks, I like the higher protein feeds for the first 4-6 weeks, at least a 20% feed, even better if it is 22-25%. Fresh water is obviously a necessity, but I learned a trick a few years back that has also helped to cut down my death loss back with the birds being shipped. I add apple cider vinegar to their water for the first week or so. When I first get the chicks in, I also dip each of their beaks in water which helps them get that first crucial drink and teaches them where the water is at.