Brooding is the management of chicks, from a day old to about eight weeks of age. During this early stage, it is important that the chicks should be provided with maximum care – particularly feed and comfort – up until their grow-out period. There are so many advantages to this. Primarily, good brooding produces a rapid growth rate and gives the chicks a good start in life. That good start is extremely important.
No failure to achieve optimum growth during brooding can ever be made up later in the grow-out. Both research and on-farm experience show that even a few hours of poor conditions during brooding can do significant harm to overall flock performance.
Modern poultry houses and management systems give us the ability to control conditions in the house and give chicks the good start they need. All it takes is paying proper attention to these basic aspects of brooding:
Brooding Basic 1: Litter Management
Litter is a combination of various materials such as poultry excreta, spilled feed, feathers etc., used as bedding for poultry. Litter helps absorb moisture, limiting the production of ammonia and harmful pathogens. It also improves the overall quality of bird performance.
Good brooding starts from having good litter management. For best performance, chicks must be placed on a consistent minimum of four inches of dry bedding at or around 88-92°F (31-33°C). Anything less will cause losses in performance. If chicks are not started on fresh litter, steps must be taken to reduce litter moisture and properly condition the litter to release as much ammonia as possible before flock placement. Allowing the litter to set in a house cold and wet between flocks is a recipe for disaster.
The goals of litter management are first of all to provide comfortable bedding conditions for the chicks but also to reduce the effects of litter moisture and ammonia. Litter condition sets the tone for air quality, heating and ventilation through the life of the flock. Good litter sets the stage for success.
Brooding Basic 2: Temperature
High or low temperature can affect overall chick health, behaviour and growth. Especially in the first two weeks of their lives, chicks cannot properly maintain their body temperature, and may be subjected to chilling, if not properly taken care of. The onus lies on you, their manager and owner, to provide them with the adequately warm environment they need to thrive. You should have a thermometer in the house, to monitor the temperature and make proper adjustments. Ensure that you have good heating equipment for the chick. There are different types of heating equipment. These include hovers (light bulbs hanging from the roof, with their light close to and reflecting off the floor), electric brooders, automatic heaters, and charcoal/kerosene stoves or kerosene lamps (if electricity is a problem). A good manager always monitors his chicks and makes appropriate adjustments.
However, do not expect temperature adjustments to fix every problem every time. Temperature is the most commonly monitored and controlled condition in poultry houses but the other brooding basics can be just as important to flock performance.
Brooding Basic 3: Air Quality and Ventilation
Excess ammonia or carbon dioxide, along with too high or too low relative humidity (wetness of air), can become serious problems for the chicks. The only way to solve or reduce air quality problems once they have occurred is to increase the ventilation rate. But you should assess the conditions of the brooding house before taking ventilation decisions.
Early morning is an excellent time to judge air quality conditions and make ventilation adjustments, if needed. If unsure, adjust only one brooding house and compare the next day.
Carbon dioxide is odourless, and it takes a while for humans to experience symptoms – headaches, nausea and sleepiness – of excess carbon dioxide levels. Therefore, you must make judgments about these factors based on your observation of the birds and their behaviour.
Fortunately, most ammonia and carbon dioxide problems can be minimised by proper litter management and adequate minimum ventilation.
Brooding Basic 4: Water Quality and Availability
Having high-quality water freely available can make a huge difference in getting chicks off to a good start. Water-quantity problems can be difficult to diagnose but a common-sense approach to making sure chicks have plenty of water available is to do a good job of routinely checking the drinker system.
The importance of getting water into the chicks as soon as possible cannot be over-stated. This means that cleaning water systems and activating drinkers before every flock arrives is extremely important.
Also, pay close attention to initial drinker height and make adjustments that reflect bird growth on a routine basis. Chicks will consume a lot less water than older birds so flushing drinker lines often in the beginning will keep the water fresh and promote greater consumption. Water filters, regulators and any possible water restriction points must be monitored before and during each flock.
Do not simply assume water quality and availability are adequate, verify them.
Brooding Basic 5: Feed Availability
Feed availability runs hand in hand with water availability and is of equal importance.
The quicker chicks have access to and consume quality feed, the better start they will have. The actual amount an individual chick consumes in the first seven days is very small, so the tonnage of feed in the house on day one is not nearly as important as providing access for every chick to easily get to feed.
Another way to say this is that feeding space/opportunity is most important. Chicks having sufficient access to feed is more than just feeder pan, chick tray and supplemental feed lid management.
Environmental factors also play a huge role in feed availability because if a chick is uncomfortable (too hot, cold or in a draught) near the feed trays or lines, it will not eat or drink sufficiently. This can be a severe problem that must be corrected. If a chick is given the choice between comfort and feed or water, it will choose comfort. Make sure every chick gets feed and water quickly and easily.
Brooding Basic 7: Lighting
Brightness of light has an effect on chicks and their egg production when they fully mature. Birds reared under increased daylight produce more eggs. You should spread light uniformly across the brooding cage, and avoid any dark areas. A 60-watts bulb should be just right for every 200 square foot of space.
The Bottom Line
Paying careful attention to these basic aspects is crucial to brooding a top-performing flock, because mistakes made during brooding are near impossible to make up for later. With this in mind, take the time to brood your chicks right. It will be rewarding when the time comes.