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Raising chicks is tricky business, especially if you’re new to it. Your new, tiny, feathered charges are susceptible to all kinds of dangers early on, and the health that they establish now will follow them throughout their lives. From getting the right temperature—not too hot, not too cold—to maintaining quality standards indoors and protecting chicks from predators, there’s plenty to know about the inner workings of a brooder house.
By taking care to avoid five common errors in managing a brooder-house environment, you can help raise a healthy clutch from chicks to adulthood.
1. Too Hot
The ideal temperature inside the brooder house is 95 degrees F for layer breeds and 90 degrees F for meat breeds. The temperature discrepancy is because meat breeds are larger chicks that grow faster and create their own heat.
“As a rule, the temperature should be lowered 5 degrees F per week during brooding until you reach the daily temperatures that the chicks are living in,” says Phillip Clauer, Penn State University senior instructor and extension specialist. “Also, you need to remember that it sometimes gets much colder at night in spring, and the chicks may need supplemental heat at night.”
Often this supplemental heat comes in the form of a heat lamp. An easy way to control the temperature is to continue to raise the heat lamp each week, suggests Wayne Martin, extension educator in alternative livestock systems at the University of Minnesota Extension Service. Keep a thermometer at ground level to be sure the brooder house stays at the right temperature. Apart from using a thermometer, you can tell right away that the temperature is too hot when chicks are staying far away from their heat source and are panting to regulate body temperature.
Overheated chicks can dehydrate, will grow slower because they’re eating less and become stressed, making them more likely to get sick.
2. Too Cold
To get the brooder house to the correct temperature it’s important to heat the area—including bedding, feeders and waterers—at least 24 hours before the chicks arrive.
“People tend to not preheat the brooding area long enough or properly,” Clauer says. “It takes longer for the floor and litter to warm up than people think.”
If chicks are too cool, they’ll huddle together close to the heat source. As discussed above, a thermometer is important to regulate the brooder-house temperature. Chilled chicks will grow slower and gain less weight and are more likely to contract diseases. They have to eat more to keep warm, so they’ll be more expensive to keep, too.
Coccidia, parasites and bacteria are lurking around the farm, waiting to infect young chicks. To protect them, provide bedding in their brooder house to absorb waste and provide footing. Wood shavings, chopped straw and rice hulls make good bedding choices. Martin cautions against using paper because paper gets slick when wet, and the chicks can fall on it and become injured. Fresh litter should be added as needed, when bedding becomes wet and soiled.
If using a deep-litter bedding system, be vigilant about adding several inches of bedding in between each batch of chicks so that new chicks won’t come in contact with pathogens left by older chicks. If not using a deep-litter system, entirely clean out all of the litter from the batch before and sanitize the space several days before adding the new bedding and chicks.
Waterers and feeders need to be low enough for chicks to reach them, but not so low that the chicks will poop in them or scratch waste and bedding into them. Keep them at the birds’ back-height, and clean them out twice per day. In between groups of chicks, sanitize feeders and waterers.
4. No Rodent-Proofing
Chicks are susceptible to attacks from rodents. Rats, especially, love little-chick snacks. This is a sad reality of raising chicks. Predator-proof the brooder house by ensuring there are no holes that even the smallest predator can enter. Seal up any gaps in walls and doors, and put 1/2-inch wire mesh over window openings. Entering the brooder house after a predator attack is not an experience that any farmer should have, so take precautions ahead of time to ensure the space to raise your chicks is safe.
5. No Ventilation
While you don’t want a draft blowing on your chicks, you do want good air exchange. A poorly ventilated brooder house will harbor ammonia and humidity, promoting respiratory issues and disease. Vents above the chicks should allow brooder-house air to escape and allow fresh air to come in; however, cracks in doorways and windows or poorly sealed openings at chick-level will cause drafts, which are not good for chicks’ temperature regulation.
Whether this is your first run of chicks or your 10th, remaining vigilant about brooder-house maintenance will help you to raise a healthy flock every time.