Brooding Chicks the Right Way: A Complete Guide

How to Prepare the Brooding House

Getting the chicks off to a good start is very important. Probably no other part of the enterprise deserves more planning and advance preparation than does the starting of baby chicks. The modern brooder house should be clean and disinfected or fumigated at least two weeks before the chicks arrive. If this is not done, the chicks may be exposed to certain poultry diseases which can lead to mortality and poor results. First sweep or wash down cobwebs, dirt and dust, then use a good disinfectant. There are a number of good commercial preparations available. They should be used according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Some of them require that the house stand idle for a period of time and be thoroughly aired before the chicks arrive. Failure to observe these precautions may cause the chicks to have severely burned feet and eyes.

After the brooder house has been cleaned and disinfected, it should be allowed to dry thoroughly before putting in new litter. When the floor is dry, it should be covered with 2”-4” inches of litter material. The litter material serves to absorb moisture and to insulate the floor for comfort of the birds. Several different materials may be used for litter. Wood shavings are among the most commonly used, whenever available. Other materials include wood shavings, melon husks, rice hulls, sugar cane, peanut hulls and ground corn cobs.

When chicks are extremely hungry upon arrival they may try to eat the litter before learning to eat feed. If you have reason to believe that the chicks have been hatched for two or three days when they arrive, it may be a good idea to put paper over the litter for the first 3 or 4 days until they learn to eat. When chicks are received soon after hatching, it is not necessary to do this.

The brooders should be started a day or two before the chicks are due to arrive. This will assure that the equipment is operating properly and is adjusted to the correct temperature. A chick guard should be used to confine the chicks to the source of heat. It will also help to prevent drafts on the chicks under the brooder. A corrugated cardboard guard, approximately 12” high is good for this purpose during cool weather. For warm weather brooding the guard may be made of poultry netting. It should form a circle around, and about 3 feet from, the brooder. The guard is usually removed after 10 days or so, depending upon the weather and conditions within the house. The chick guard keeps the chicks confined to a given brooder and also prevents migration and overcrowding of some brooders if more than one brooder is used in the brooding facility.

Fill the feeders and waterers several hours before the chicks arrive. The water will be at room temperature when the chicks arrive, and encourage them to drink. The feed trays and water fountains should be spaced uniformly around the brooder and close to the hover. One method that is frequently used to get chicks to eat, when first put under the hover, is to place a small amount of feed on either newspapers or on inverted chick box lids. The type of lid that is used is the one without the slots or holes for ventilation. Chicks instinctively peck at anything at the same level as the surface upon which they are standing. Therefore, they will learn to eat more readily if feed is provided in this manner for a day or two. Chicks that are slow to catch on to the fact that feed is in front of them are attracted by the noise made by the others that have found the feed and are pecking on the cardboard. This gets the chicks off to a good start and eating well.

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Brooder Management

The brooding temperature is very important. The recommended temperature at the start is 90-95″ F. A rule of thumb to remember is: reduce the temperature by 5o each week until the chicks no longer need heat. It is often stated that the best thermometer, to gauge the most comfortable temperature, is to watch the chick itself. After the chick reaches 7 days of age this is probably true.

If the chicks huddle close to the heat source you can be reasonably sure that the operating temperature is too low. If, on the other hand, the birds are located in a circle, way outside the heat source, you should assume that the temperature is too high. During the day, the chicks should be evenly distributed around the entire brooding area, with some of the chicks underneath the heat source. Temperature readings should be taken at the outside edge of the brooder at the chick level.

One important factor for the successful brooding of chicks is the maintenance of good litter conditions. When litter conditions get out of hand and become too wet, disease problems can result. Wet, dirty litter can harbor many disease organisms which affect poultry. In the case of replacement pullets, it is desirable to have a certain amount of moisture in the litter (30-35%) to enable sporulation of oocysts and the subsequent development of immunity to coccidiosis during the growing period. However, an excessively wet litter, especially during warm periods, can bring about a clinical case of coccidiosis and result in what we term a coccidiosis outbreak, which requires treatment.

One of the common problems experienced with meat birds is breast blisters – swellings or external sores on the skin of the breast – which seriously detract from the dressed appearance of the carcass. These are quite common in flocks of capons and roasters. Excessively wet, caked or dirty litter is frequently blamed for breast blisters. Since perches are not used for broilers or meat birds, the birds must bed down in the litter. It is important that the litter depth be maintained and that it is kept dry and fluffy enough to cushion the body and avoid all contact with the floor.

Furthermore, it is essential that it be reasonably clean to avoid soilage of the breast feathers, skin irritations and breast blisters.

General Feeding Programs

The recommended modern feeding programs for meat birds (e.g. broilers) and for layers vary widely. Broilers must be fed a starter diet from day 1 to day 28 (3 weeks) and finisher diet from day 29 until the time they would be slaughtered (usually at week 8 or 9). Both the starter and finisher diets have high energy. Sometimes, giving of grower diet for 1- 2 weeks is practiced by some broiler farmers.

For laying birds, they must be fed with diet or ration that contains medium-to-high-energy for the first 6 to 8 weeks. This is usually called chick starter mash and the diet is changed to a grower diet to accommodate the baby chicks changing dietary needs.

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Vaccination Program

Several vaccines are available to prevent outbreaks of some of the troublesome poultry diseases. Some of the common ones available for immunizing birds are for infectious bronchitis, Newcastle disease, laryngotracheitis, fowl pox and cholera. In some areas, all of these diseases are a problem. Newcastle disease and bronchitis can be problems anywhere, and fowl pox is prevalent in many areas.

Vaccination programs should be established on the basis of those diseases which are prevalent in the particular area. Commercial producers routinely vaccinate for Newcastle, bronchitis, fowl pox and cholera on a routine basis. Vaccination recommendations in various areas, therefore, will differ, and the individual program should be developed to handle the disease situation in the particular area.

Some of these vaccinations come early in the chick’s life, the Marek’s vaccination, for example, administered at one day of age, usually at the hatchery. Incidentally, it is advisable to purchase chicks that have been vaccinated for Marek’s disease. Marek’s disease did, for many years, take a tremendous toll on growing birds. With the advent of the Marek’s vaccine, mortality has been cut to a very negligible rate. Other vaccinations are administered at various times during the growing period and may require booster shots during the laying period.

There are two basic types of vaccines, those which produce a temporary immunity and those which produce a solid or permanent immunity which will protect the birds for the remainder of their lives. The virus vaccines producing a temporary immunity are usually of low virulence, or, in some cases, have no apparent effect on the birds when administered. The viruses of vaccines producing a permanent immunity are of a more severe virulence and therefore, will produce more marked or serious symptoms of sickness.

Feather Picking and Cannibalism

Both feather picking and cannibalism are rather common vices which can develop in the brooder house and may be carried on into the laying house. A similar type of problem is toe picking which can start in a flock of chicks soon after they are put down under the brooder.

The exact cause of these vices is not always evident. Some factors that are thought to contribute to them are poor nutrition, overcrowding, or other faulty management practices. Overheating the birds, lack of floor, feed and water space, or even overlighting, are all thought to be factors. Sometimes the problem will occur even with apparently good management.

At the first sign of feather picking, action should be taken to stop it immediately. When blood is started the birds frequently pick each other apart and losses can be severe. In some flocks, the problem can be corrected by a change in management – providing more feed, water, or floor space, better ventilation, cutting back on the light, or any number of things that will improve the birds comfort or change environmental conditions.

In the case of small flocks, anti-pick ointments applied to the birds have been somewhat successful in curtailing the problem. The most widely used, and probably the most satisfactory method of cannibalism control, is to debeak the birds. Many producers debeak their birds routinely to prevent picking problems. Chicks can be debeaked at day old at the hatchery, using a precision debeaking machine. The beaks tend to grow out again. To be safe, most producers debeak again before the birds are put into the laying house. Unless the job is done properly, debeaking at one day of age can result in chick mortality due to starve-outs.

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A number of producers are now debeaking at 7 to 9 days of age. Special adaptors for debeaking machines make this a precision job. If done properly, this usually holds and the job needs not be done again. Debeaking can be done at any age to correct a picking problem. However, it is best done before the birds start to lay and should be done by 16 weeks of age.

Debeaking involves cutting off slightly more than one-half of the upper beak and blunting the lower beak. The upper beak should be shorter than the lower beak, making it difficult for the bird to grasp feathers or skin. A temporary debeaking job can be done in the absence of a debeaking machine. This is done by the removal of a small portion of the upper beak with nippers or dikes. The beak soon grows out and the procedure needs to be repeated.

A debeaking machine has an electrically heated blade that cuts and cauterizes at the same time to avoid bleeding. Properly debeaked growing and adult birds should look like the ones in the image below.

Lighting Programs for Young Stock

The first three days to a week, the birds should be provided with 24 hours of light. During this time they get used to their surroundings and learn where the heat, water and feed are.

After this time the chicks should be put on a controlled lighting program unless hatched during the April to August period. All pullet chicks grown in windowed houses and hatched between April and August can be exposed to natural daylight, because daylight length will be decreasing during the latter part of the growing period, thus delaying maturity. The rule of thumb to follow is never expose replacements to an increasing light day during the growing period. Pullets subjected to a constantly increasing photoperiod during the growing period come into production too early. Egg size and production suffers, and a high incidence of prolapse of the uterus may result.

After the first three days to a week, pullets raised in a light-tight windowless house may be put on a constant 8 hour light day. This lighting program will reduce problems with vices and delay sexual maturity. Pullets will come into production with more uniformly large egg size and better production when the light period is held constant or reduced to delay maturity.

Pullets raised in windowed houses are exposed to natural light conditions and must be treated differently. Those pullets hatched between September 1 and March and grown in windowed houses should receive a step-up, step-down lighting schedule. This lighting schedule is planned by determining the amount of natural daylight the pullets will receive when they reach 22 weeks of age. To this length of the day is added 7 hours to give the starting length of the light period. This light period is the total of the natural light supplemented by artificial light. This light period is provided for the first week and stepped-down 20 minutes each week until the birds reach 22 weeks of age. At 22 weeks the light is stepped-up one hour to stimulate egg production. Each week the light period is increased by one hour until a total of 15 or 16 hours are provided. There is no need for providing more than a 16-hour light day.

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