Many smallholders will be rearing chicks at this time of year. This is very rewarding – even more so if you are aware of the hazards and avoid them! Victoria Roberts offers advice on how to steer clear of the pitfalls
Rearing chickens is fun, but certain hazards exist. If you have a reliable broody hen to do the brooding (keeping the chicks warm) and care, then all you will need to provide are chick crumbs, water and shelter against wind, rain and sun. If there is a run (wired over) attached to the broody coop, this will protect the chicks from aerial predators such as magpies and crows which are a significant hazard to young chicks. Chick crumbs (with coccidiostat to protect against coccidiosis) need to be in a container which the hen can neither tip over nor scratch them out of. Water needs to be in a drown-proof container, put some grain feed for the hen out of reach of the chicks which she may break into small pieces for them. Leave the hen with the chicks for about four to five weeks and then take her away. If the chicks are moved away from the hen, this can unsettle and stress them, potentially leading to disease and poor growth.
Chicks cannot regulate their own temperature, so artificially incubated chicks need a heat source, preferably one with an infra-red ceramic bulb so that they have heat and not light. This avoids feather pecking as they then have natural light and darkness to maximise body and feather growth during natural sleep (they can panic and smother each other if later encountering darkness for the first time). The heat lamp should be sited in a draught-free place and at one end of the rearing area so the chicks can choose the heat they need. If this is set up before the hatch, the temperature can be monitored under the lamp (39°C, reducing by a degree a week). If the chicks are too hot they will scatter to the edges, panting. If they are too cold they will huddle in the middle, cheeping loudly: chilling (lamp failure?) is a potential disaster as it suppresses their immune system, leading to disease and poor growth. The ideal scene is to have a small empty circle just under the lamp, but don’t forget that ventilation is important, so don’t enclose the brooder area. Transfer the chicks from the incubator when they have dried and fluffed up. Dip their beaks in the drinker (only use tepid water, the shock of cold water can kill them) and place them under the lamp. The brooder can be a large rectangular box (replace after each hatch). A boarded-off part of a shed can be used, but to maintain hygiene, put down a layer of plastic, then newspaper then livestock shavings (all of which can be renewed for the next hatch) to give a non-slip surface, free of pathogens from the previous hatch, remembering to disinfect the sides of the brooder. Chicks get splayed legs (not curable) if they are on a slippery surface during the first few days. Litter should be renewed every few days or daily if there are many chicks.
Provide chick crumbs and a drinker (as for natural rearing), a short distance away from the lamp. They can stay in this area either until they outgrow it or they are weaned off the heat lamp, at about six weeks. If they are overcrowded or too hot they will not only featherpeck, but get infected with E. coli from an excess of faeces: there is a strong smell and muck may be stuck to the vent, blocking it and making the chicks very uncomfortable. A pinch of Virkon powder in a 1 litre drinker from the time the chicks are hatched will keep E. coli under control.
Handle the chicks regularly to tame them. Make sure you have clean hands and wash your hands afterwards to avoid bacterial transfer both to and from the chicks.