Don’t fall at the last hurdle. Here’s some guidance on rearing chicks
Having done the hard work and finally got some chicks out – whether through artificial means or a broody hen – the last thing you want is to start falling at the next hurdle: the rearing process. It needs more consideration than most people give it, but many potential problems can be avoided with a sensible approach…
I’ve heard it said that chicks only need three weeks of artificial heat if hatched in an incubator. That seems a little premature in my view. Of course, this will depend on the time of year hatched, but a major mistake is removing the heat lamp too early. Few things are more stressful for developing chicks than suddenly being subjected to chilly conditions.
There is no hard and fast rule to how long you keep your birds under heat – as it will obviously be reduced in each progressive week. However, my yardstick is that growers should be fully feathered before the heating source is removed.
Those who believe that subjecting chicks to unnecessarily cold conditions when only three weeks old is ‘hardening them up’, often learn the ‘hard’ way. The best way of avoiding many problems is the application of common sense: the chicks will soon tell you if they aren’t happy and it usually isn’t too difficult to work out where you’re going wrong!
It cannot be emphasised enough how the environment of a growing chicken has an enormous impact on its level of immunity and subsequent susceptibility to disease. Although having said that, it is wise to source outcrosses cautiously and develop some history on your own land and with your own birds. Some strains are predisposed to mycoplasma-type infections which are transferred through the egg.
The ever-growing number of specialist poultry vets will tell you that there are many potential bacterial infections that your birds can pick up in their rearing quarters. They often have treatments available for birds that have been diagnosed as such – many of which are various forms of antibiotics.
However, there is no need for unnecessary panic; there aren’t a host of new bacterial infections suddenly around – it is just that there is a level of bacteria everywhere (even in the cleanest of quarters) – it only becomes a problem when allowed to build up, or there is insufficient immunity to fight it, often caused by stress.
This doesn’t just apply to artificially reared chicks. Some people keep broody hens and their offspring in closely confined quarters which means they are constantly scratching and pecking in their own faeces. You may employ this system, sometimes through lack of space, and encounter no problems, but I believe the sooner young chicks can get onto grass the better. Grass should be kept short – a golfing green length would be ideal, but an inch or so is acceptable.
Coccidiosis is a cruel and fast-acting disease that has left many poultry keepers heartbroken. Just when you think all is well, around the 10-week-old stage your thriving and busy little growers can begin to look listless, start hunching and rapidly become emaciated. What’s more, it can be really difficult to take because most of the time you cannot see what you’re doing wrong. Blood in the droppings is one sign of the disease, but there is another form (actually there are many) and this has little to no effect(s) on the faeces of affected birds.
The poultry industry has spent millions on overcoming this disease, and there is now a method of vaccination at day-old through the Paracox vaccine, which can be bought in backyard quantities for Poultry Club of Great Britain members. If you choose this route, your feed should contain no ACS (chick crumbs and growers pellets). Alternatively, you can opt to not vaccinate and use feed containing ACS (or feed that is ACS-free to allow naturally immunity to build). The choice is yours, but your approach towards mastering coccidiosis should be a decision made before your first chick hatches. By now, your chicks will be on a firm footing with your chosen variety of crumb, and it is important to remember that the growers pellets they progress on to also need to either contain drugs or be drug-free (as appropriate).
Any judge will tell you that a nervous and flighty bird is really off-putting, despite how good a specimen it might actually be. Some birds are so wild that they squawk incessantly for the whole duration of being handled (usually not long because they let out such a horrible, deathly noise): they sound like they are being murdered, and for anyone in range it comes across like the bird in question is suffering at the hands of the person handling it; it’s really irritating to say the least.
Fortunately, such birds are in the minority, but some could still be better trained. It all begins at day one. Obviously it is difficult to handle chicks regularly at day-old when under the clutches of a broody hen, and some people would argue that from 10 weeks old is plenty early enough, but the sooner you start handling your growers the better; it certainly helps when it comes to spotting any potential health problems.
This and many other articles cite that ‘stress’ is the main cause of poultry health problems. But what is stress? Unfortunately, our birds are sensitive little creatures – much more so than ourselves, and it doesn’t take much to stress them. Some examples would include: sudden removal of heat, bullying from older growers (that’s why age groups should never be mixed), sudden change of feed, dirty conditions, overcrowding, feather pecking (usually caused by overcrowding), erratic dogs running towards the pen, impatient children, lack of fresh water and irregular feeding.
Avoiding all of the above should help in providing a happy existence and allow for your growers’ immune systems to be as strong as possible. Of course, without knowing the history of the line in question, some problems you encounter may be unavoidable – probably in large part due to careless breeding by past custodians of the strain – but this is where selective breeding for the strong will help reduce such problems in future.