by Don Schrider
It feels like spring here in Virginia, and thoughts are turning toward hatching and raising baby chicks. Many of you will be starting your chicken adventure by purchasing baby chicks. Here are a few tips I’d like to share to help you achieve great success.
The first thing to do is to build or purchase your brooder. There are many designs out there, from a livestock tank with a heat lamp to a cardboard box with a desk lamp. But basic brooder design provides an area that is warm, 95 degrees Fahrenheit, prevents drafts, and provides cooler areas with food and water. I have seen a wooden brooder 2 foot by 4 foot by 18 inches high with a ceramic lamp base mounted on the side. This design is nice and puts the bulb near the chicks. A 100 watt bulb can be used and replaced with a lower wattage bulb to reduce the temperature when needed.
Another good brooder is made from a single 4'x8' sheet of plywood and is called an “Ohio Brooder” after the Ohio Experiment Station which invented it in the 1940s. You simply cut a 4 foot by 4 foot piece for a top and then rip the remaining plywood into four 1 foot by 4 foot pieces which act as sides. Use 1x2 or 1x1 lumber to lightly frame this and make four 18 inch tall legs. I suggest using a set of hinges on one side so that the lid can be opened. Inside, mount two ceramic bulb bases in the center of opposite-side walls. Use 100 or 150 watt bulbs and your chicks have a brooder that hovers and can be placed inside any large pen.
One variant on this design uses the new insulation made of silver bubble wrap – a material made of plastic bubble wrap sandwiched between silver, reflective foil sheets. This stuff is nice to use with chickens as they will do little damage to it and it will reduce your heating bills.
A variety of heat sources can be used with the chicks. Incandescent bulbs are getting harder to find, but they have the advantage in a brooder of giving off both heat and light. I am not a fan of the large heat lamp bulbs – they can start a fire easily if too close to bedding, splashes of water from drinking chicks will cause them to blow out, they eat energy, and they are quite large. There is an infrared halogen bulb design that replaces these and is much safer and a better product – Syrvet offers these. My favorite heat source now is a product called the Sweeter Heater. This is a plastic rectangle that emits radiant heat. It does not go much above 95 degrees, but its height can be adjusted and even on the coldest days the temperature under it stays the same. I’ve put dayold chicks in a brooder in an unheated shed in January and they were happy. The disadvantage with this new heater is that you still need a light source near it, though you could simply use an appliance bulb.
Often you will see recommendations to brood at 95 degrees and then drop by 5 degrees per week. This is not the plan I suggest; rather, provide your chicks with a warm zone and a cool zone. Start by placing the food and water near the warm zone so that the chicks will venture out, without becoming chilled, to eat and drink. After day 3, start moving the food and water a little further out every few days. This will encourage them to exercise. They will come out from the warm area, eat and exercise, and drink, and when they get cool they will return the heat source. This imitates nature best – chicks going to mom when they are cool, and mom brooding them at the same temperature each time.
One of the best tools to tell if chicks are happy is to watch them in your brooder. Happy chicks will sleep in a group under the brooder, and when awake will spread out evenly around their pen. When all the chicks lay as far from the heat source as possible, then the brooder is too hot. When they crowd under the brooder and seldom come out, then they are too cool.
The biggest killers of dayold chicks are dehydration and chilling which occurs when their down becomes wet. When you first receive your chicks, you should have the brooder setup and warm (having run it for a few days to be sure it is up to temperature), and food and lukewarm water should be ready. Dip chick’s beak into the water as you add them to the brooder. In this way you ensure that some will know where and what water is; chicks imitate their parents and each other, so if some eat and drink others will follow them. Water devices should be designed to prevent the chicks from falling into the water and getting wet. If your water device is a bit too big, add marbles to the drinking area so that chicks cannot get wet.
To keep chicks from eating the bedding (pine shavings make the best brooder bedding) place newspaper or brown paper bags in the area of the feed. Be sure the material you use is not slick, as slick surfaces will cause leg injuries – usually pulled ligaments. You can remove the paper after a few days. Sprinkle a little bit of Omega Ultra Egg™ over the top of the feed – its color will attract the interest of the chicks and aid them in learning to eat. Keep the dosage low the first few days, gradually increasing over the course of a week.
As the chicks grow, their natural curiosity will cause them to peck things; when they become crowded, growing larger and the brooder staying the same size, they will sometimes peck at each other, even to the point of wounding and killing each other. Allowing plenty of space is one cure. When space is limited, simply building some visual barriers will help greatly. Visual barriers imitate bushes, giving chicks places to go where bullies do not see them and creating the feel of fewer chicks. You can nail boards or cardboard against walls, on an angle, to creating places the chicks can explore and hide in. You can make little a-frames that can be moved around. You can even clip bushes or branches and hang them from the top of the pens to create private little areas. Visual barriers work for adults as well as chicks.
Another idea is to give the chicks something to peck, thus positively applying their natural instinct, or reduce their pecking inclination. Hanging bits of wood or bone from strings just a little above their heads will entertain them for hours. Hanging cabbage from a string will give them a nice treat while focusing their attention. Millet heads or, for older birds, sunflower heads are also excellent treats and vent pecking instincts. You can also prevent brooder pecking and cannibalism by using yellow bulbs, a.k.a. bug lights. My experiences show that chicks exposed to yellow light alone will not peck each other even when badly crowded.
To medicate or not to medicate… I have never been a big fan of medicated feed. The chief aliment that medicated feed is designed to cure is coccidious – an ailment caused by the organism coccidi, which can be found anywhere. Coccidious is manifest when an overabundance of this organism enters the chicks’ mouths, make their way to the chicks’ intestines, and damages the intestine lining. Outwardly, the chicks express their discomfort by hunching up – that is, holding their shoulders high, tails low, and neck retracted. You will notice blood in their droppings. Coccidious occurs most frequently when there is wet bedding in the brooder, usually near the water fountain. So keep the brooder dry! A natural coccidistat (preventative) is apple cider vinegar. Simply add 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar per gallon of drinking water as a preventative. This may be increased to 6 tablespoons per gallon if you have evidence of coccidious. It will take 5 days at this level to cure the coccidious. Apple cider vinegar has the advantages of providing some vitamins, it provides riboflavin which causes the feathers to be more flexible and beautiful, and it will prevent algae from growing on the water fountain. Apple cider vinegar can be fed to poultry of all ages.
Some other good brooding tips: Add a handful of shavings each day. This will help keep the chicks from laying on their own manure and keep the brooder smelling nice. If you smell ammonia, clean the brooder. Ammonia causes damage to chicks lungs long before we smell it. Clean up feed spills. Feed in moist shavings begins to mold and molds are very bad for poultry, sometimes causing sickness and death. In general, keep the brooder clean and you will have few problems.
Feed the chicks treats from day one. Chicks will learn to eat many things, such as garlic, if offered from the beginning. Pulling dandelion clumps and placing them, roots and dirt and all, in the brooder will give the chicks something to peck at, teaches them to forage, and offers them healthy treats. Give them slices of soft vegetables, bits of cooked egg, and grains beginning after the first week. Just be sure to remove leftovers after an hour or so, so that these foods do not mold.
Last, but not least, spend some time watching your chicks. They will become better accustomed to you and you will find hours of enjoyment!