If you wait to order your young birds until local temperatures are quite stably warm—and if you have a draft-free place for the chicks—you can make do with a minimal source of heat their first week or so at night and that's it. This is the closest thing you could have to a non-brooding option. If you're going to raise chicks, you've got to learn at least a little about brooding them. Introduction to Brooder Structures: Newborn chicks are tiny, fragile, and fluffy The basic characteristics of an adequate brooder setup for your chicks are warm, dry, draft-free, clean and cleanable, escape-proof, safe from predators, and expandable. But it doesn't have to be expensive. Lane Morgan advised, "Distinguish between the ideal and good-enough reality. I've had good results with very funky setups, but then I never raise very many at a time." My mother started her chicks by the wood stove, then put them in the bathtub, then moved them to a shed. Many small growers start them in a basement or garage for 3-4 weeks, then finish them in a garage or shed. Big commercial growers may be brooding in narrow 100-foot brooder houses, one end blocked off by a plastic curtain, which is gradually moved down to make more room.
Whether you have borrowed chicks, bought them, or home-incubated them, your first concern, once they appear in your life, is to supply a mother's warmth. That's what brooders are all about. If your chicks are to be brooded in a special room or small building, it should be tightly constructed, insulated, without drafts, and able to hold a uniform temperature. And yet there should be ventilation enough to move moisture and waste gases out without losing too much heat. If you choose a room (or build a room) in an outbuilding that doesn't have electricity, you can use a heavy-duty extension cord to get power out there. If there is a risk of transmitting disease or parasites in your brooder house, give it a thorough cleaning about 2 weeks before the chicks arrive. Then let it air out a while; fresh, strong, cleaning agents can burn chicks' feet and eyes.
You can buy various styles: a battery brooder that is like a lidded box with a thermostat and heater, or a hover-type brooder that hangs from a ceiling in a brooder room and can handle large numbers of birds of any size. (The "hover" is a very large reflector around the bulb that keeps the heat focused down at the floor level.) Or you can make a homemade brooder. Or you can take the minimalist option.
Homemade Cardboard-Box Brooder. The typical homemade incubator involves a light with foil focuser, or heat lamp (or a box just the right distance from a heat source for the temperature you need if you have no electricity). If a bulb is used for heating, keep in mind that infrared is better than white-light because the birds are less likely to pick at each other under infrared. A cardboard box 30 inches square with high sides, situated in a room where the temperature doesn't drop below 65°F, with a 69-watt light bulb shining from overhead could handle 50 chicks to start. Make sure you're not using the type of bulb for indoor sun-tanning. Chicks can sunburn, too. And don't use a highwattage bulb, like a 100-watt, because that could be too hot, and bright light in a brooder can result in excessive picking. Such a heat-box arrangement is your brooder. Covering a half to a third of the box top will also retain heat in the hover area. It's ideal to have a 6- by 8-foot space for 100 brooder chicks to allow some growing room. Adding a "Room." You can add space for chicks who have started out in a cardboard box by cutting out one side of the box and taping on other boxes, as needed, to create additional "run" space, and to provide space in which to offer food and water. Where you cut away the side of the box, hang a piece of cloth. That helps keep heat in the hover box, and the chicks will run in and out of its warmth through the inch or two you leave between the bottom of the cloth partition and the bottom of the box, just as if they were running to and from the warmth of a hovering mother hen.
NOTE: Don't start afire! This may happen if you have the light bulb too close to flammable litter. Check on this by putting your hand about 2 inches above the brooder floor under the heat. If your skin feels uncomfortably hot, lower the wattage or raise the light or some such. Don't completely cover a brooder. The heat will build up in there and can kill chicks or cause afire. Overheated chicks will pant.
The Brooder House. A 250-watt infrared lamp, suspended about 18 inches above the floor level, will brood 75 chicks. Large brooder operations use a row of such bulbs with their individual hover areas. An advantage of using more than one bulb is that if one burns out, there is an alternative source of heat in the room. Inside this warm, draft-free building, arrange a little pen with sides made of whatever you want to rig up, and over it hang your heat light from the ceiling.
Chick Fencing. The chicks need boundaries to limit their area at first, help them find their food and water, and keep them from wandering very far from the source of heat. Naturally, you need chick fencing only if you're brooding in an otherwise open area. If you're brooding a small number of chicks in something like a box, it already has sides. Baby chicks can't be put behind chicken wire; they're so little they'll walk right through it. You can buy a wire with finer mesh if you want to use that in your brooder design. You can't use anything very low to fence them in. Baby chicks can fly over short obstacles by the time they're a week old. One good system is to cut cardboard boxes into long sections at least a foot high, then tape or staple the sections together in a circular shape. Make it sturdy enough so it can't possibly fall over. The circle is so the chicks won't have a corner to crowd in, which could result in smothered chicks if you have more than a few in there. And it prevents drafts and keeps them close to the warmth, which should be focused at the center of the circle. Start out with the fencing 3-4 feet out from the heat source. Day by day, as they grow in size and endurance, you can keep adjusting their "fencing" outwards. After a few weeks, your chicks have outgrown the need for fencing and you can remove it and let them run all over their pen's area.
Commercial Brooders. You can purchase a ready-made brooder in the size that is practical for you. There is wonderful brooder equipment sold: infrared heat lamp brooders, or big commercial gas brooders and other non-electric styles. The most common and inexpensive style for small-scale brooding is an infrared light with a metal reflector to focus the light and prevent ceiling condensation from dripping on the bulb and exploding it, and a heavy guard wire under the bulb so that if the light fell the bulb wouldn't touch litter and start a fire. Another common brooder-style is the hover-type brooder, which looks like a small flying saucer suspended from the brooder room ceiling on a chain. Larger brooders are equipped with thermostats to control their heating. The principle of a brooder's operation is simple, and directions will come with your equipment. Wood Stove Brooding. If you have no electricity or fossil fuels, you can still keep chicks warm. Put the chicks in a cardboard box. Put that cardboard box into a larger cardboard box that has a layer of hay, or some other similar insulating material along the bottom; insulate between the walls, too. Cover most of the top with a cloth or some other insulating layer (allow ventilation!). Put the box at a suitable distance from your source of heat. If that isn't warm enough—and in cold weather, or on cold nights— fill a large jar full of very hot water. Wrap it in a towel to prevent burns, and place in the center of the box. Refill with hot water as needed. Check your baby chicks often, including several times a night, until they have outgrown that necessity. Solar Brooding. The concentration of America's poultry industry in Sun Belt states is partly because of chickens' dependence on warmth, more so than any other livestock. Solar poultry brooding research has been done by the government, and solar brooding has been found to be technically feasible. For details, see Raising Chickens by Cynthia Haynes (see "Poultry Books").
Temperature Control: Turn on the brooder the day before its occupants are to arrive and check to see if you can get the desired temperature.
Checking the Brooder Temperature. To control the temperature in any style of brooder, first you have to know what it is. Use a drugstore human-type oral thermometer or a brooder thermometer (mail-order from poultry suppliers for about $3). An oral thermometer is the most accurate sort. (Be sure and shake it down and wait long enough for the temperature to register fully.) Lay the thermometer just at the edge of the brooder's heat circle. When using a light for warmth, you adjust to get the right temperature by raising or lowering the light until the temperature where the chicks are, around the edge of the heat circle, is 95°F (but not if you're raising broiler chicks; see next paragraph). (Or you can put a smaller bulb into your light-heat socket.) An experienced brooder knows by a wave of the hand if the temperature is about right. The first week or two, while the chicks are at their most fragile, it wouldn't hurt to get up 2 or 3 times a night and check on them.
Broiler chicks should start at 85°F They don't tolerate heat as well as other breeds—need less brooding and more ventilation.
Chick Behavior and Estimating Temperature. Chick behavior, after they are one week old, is a very accurate indicator of temperature conditions in your brooder (before one week use a thermometer). If it isn't warm enough, they'll huddle directly under the heat source (or in a cold corner). Comfortable chicks make contented chirps. They may signal chilliness with a shrill peeping that says, "Mother, I need you!" If it's too hot in the heat circle under the lamp, they avoid it. They may also spread their wings and pant. Under ideal conditions the chicks will form a circle around the edge of the brooder heat. They won't be in the absolute center. If they are gathering at one side of the brooder, the problem may be a draft. Keep in mind that whenever a door opens, cold air may rush in at floor level—which is where the chicks are. And that draft can instantly and invisibly sweep away the accumulated heat from under the brooder.
Decreasing the Heat As the chicks grow older, they need less warmth. You decrease the heat 5 degrees a week by raising the heat source, say, 2 inches per week, until it gets down around 70°E With an electronic brooder, you lower the temperature by changing the setting of the thermostat. Thus their second week you'll have them at 90°F, their third at 85°F, their fourth at 80°F, their fifth at 75 °F, and then their sixth at 70°F Weaning Completely from the Heat. After the 70°F point (they'll be 6 weeks old), your brooder temperature depends to a large extent on your outside weather conditions. Probably you'll start to turn their heat-source off during the day, but put it back on at night. At this stage, with warm weather outside, you won't be needing the brooder any more at all, except perhaps if the nights are cool. Chicks come out of the egg with fuzz, then gradually grow feathers. In prolonged heat, they actually feather out a little more slowly. Their first feathers are a transitional set; they grow the "real" ones later. Exactly when you turn their heat completely off depends on what the weather conditions outside are and how completely your birds have feathered out— probably a few weeks after you began to turn the heat off in the daytime; it's a judgment call. But I'm getting ahead of the story here. Let's go back to what those baby chicks need. Chicks and Light: For the first week it will help your chicks to be in a lighted area 24 hours a day. It's during this period that they learn where the food, water, and warmth areas are. But make the night light only about 15 watts, since bright lights for brooding tend to create a pecking problem (they are also an inefficient and expensive heat source). Keeping chicks in a dimly lit place and using only small wattage green or red light bulbs in brooders will relieve a pecking problem. Chicks who have been raised under a brooder light, white or infrared, have to be gradually and gently introduced to true darkness when the time comes. They've been accustomed to associating light with warmth and safety, and they may be frightened when the light is gone and pile up and smother one another.
Of Flooring, Chick Litter, and Spraddle Legs:
You don't want the chicks to eat their own droppings. And you don't want them to eat the litter. And you don't want them to slip on their flooring. In the first few days of a chick's life, it is quite vulnerable to developing spraddle legs from slippery flooring. Long-legged varieties are most susceptible. Those early days their leg cartilage has not yet hardened and can easily be gotten out of position. Straw and flat newspaper are the slipperiest surfaces and the most likely to cause spraddle legs; their legs begin to turn sideways at the joint until finally they are turning straight out from each side. There is no cure for spraddle legs. Safe Flooring. The shipping pads in the bottom of chick mail-order boxes are designed to prevent spraddle legs. For the first week or so you'll want to come up with your own system. Thus, a good covering is clean burlap sacking. Put clean sacking down daily. Or clean rags. (If you wash these, don't load them with bleach. The bleach could interact with material in the feces and result in poisonous gases.) If you are using a battery brooder with a wire bottom and the chicks are so small their legs are slipping through, cover the floor of it with your clean rags for the time being, changing it as needed for sanitation. If you use rags, make sure there are no loose threads that could get wound around a chick and kill or cripple it.
Newspaper Floor Covering. Later, once your chicks have definitely learned what is and isn't food, and their legs have grown strong, you may want to evolve to a thick layer of newspapers. This helps prevent them from eating feces since every day you roll up and take away as many layers of the paper as necessary to make their flooring clean and dry again. Don't use any colored pages as they are loaded with lead. Don't let the newspapers get wet and slippery. If you put a layer of shredded newspaper on top of the flat newspaper it will be more absorbent and will eliminate the slippery factor. Just tear the newspaper in strips, stir it up, and lay it down.
NOTE: Don't ever use newspapers as floor covering for ducklings, goslings, or turkey poults.
Loose Litter: Another option is loose litter, about 2 inches deep. It should be an organic, absorbent material—not straw, which is not absorbent. Don't use sawdust or sand as litter. Sometimes the birds will eat too much of it instead of their food and get an impacted crop and/or gizzard and starve. Sawdust also can become wet and moldy and cause disease. Hay or wood shavings, 2 or 3 inches deep, are good. The basic rule is to use litter pieces that are too big to fit into a chick's mouth—that way you're safe from them eating it—unless it's something utterly harmless, like potting soil, and that actually does work fine. If you use loose litter, turn it daily and remove wet areas. Small chicks are at risk from diarrhea organisms that thrive in wet litter. Large ones that cannot roost and must bed down in their litter (Cornish crosses) especially need it to be kept dry, clean, and fluffy to prevent them from developing dirty breast feathers and breast skin irritations. Once the chicks are 4 weeks old you can keep them safely on almost anything. Note: Some disinfectant and fragrance sprays will kill chicks. Chick Dust. If your initial brooder arrangement is inside your home, soon you'll be wanting to move them elsewhere, for the sake of cleanliness and your health. Baby chicks create a powdery, disagreeable dust that gets everywhere in their environment and is difficult to live with and to keep up with. Small traces of bird protein exit with the bowels. The droppings dry to a powder. Those droppings also tend to contain a microorganism that can cause problems for humans and other creatures who breathe it. Also, chicks molt twice while they are growing up. The first molt is their loss of the fine down they wore at hatching. Shed down, dried droppings, and chick feed all contribute to the chick dust. People who work with birds a lot are subject to hypersensitivity pneumonitis (an allergic reaction in the lungs), also and variously known as bird fancier's, pigeon breeder's, breeder's, or handler's lung disease. Bird feces may also carry an irritating microscopic life form that if it dries, turns to dust, and becomes airborne, can put longtime handlers at higher risk for cancer and any lung disease. This is true of all birds, from parakeets and parrots on; in fact, this latter problem is associated with birds that are kept in the house rather than with barnyard fowl. NOTE: If you are at all concerned about this possibility or bothered by the chick dust, don't keep birds in your house, and please do wear a dust mask while in the same room with and working with your chicks or adult birds.
Sick and Dead Baby Chicks: it's important to observe your young poultry closely every day. Professionals expect a 2-3 percent mortality rate for chicks. If you find a sick one, separate it from the rest and try TLC (tender, loving care), isolation, and warmth in its own private little hospital box. If you find a dead one, remove it from the pen and bury or burn the body.
Housing for the Older Chick: Brooder chicks grow rapidly, and as they grow they require more space. So your chicks will likely go through a series of different brooder arrangements. One common plan is 3-step housing: full-scale brooding for day-old to 6-week-old chicks (6-week-old chicks need twice the space day-olds do); less protective brooding arrangements from 6 weeks to 2 months; then a final shift to your regular chicken house for the pullets. The precise transition ages can vary a lot with your own particular situation. One option is to use a portable coop as a transition home for young birds that have outgrown the brooder, but are not yet ready for the chicken house. In experimental new housing arrangements, you can tell if they're chilled by watching to see if they huddle. If they are acting cold, you need to change something to provide more heat, like with a light bulb. Broilers will go directly from the transition housing to your deep freeze. They'll be ready at 7-10 weeks—whenever they reach 3-4 lb. (the exact weight goal and length of time to get there depends on your breed of bird and its diet). That will probably take about 8 weeks on commercial feed, a few weeks longer on home-devised diet.
Roosting Chicks. Chickens have the urge to roost from age 5 weeks on, and will hop up on a perch to sleep if it's available. Roosts (a long pole works well) 6 inches apart with about a 4-inch space for each bird will be suitable. Their first perch can be as high as a foot. They can hop farther as they get older. Roosts slanted from floor to wall like a ladder help them gradually make the grade. Some growers don't provide broilers with roosts because they say some birds scrape those big breasts on the roosts. They let them sleep on a floor. But Lane Morgan disagrees: "Even my Cornish stupids will roost if I give them a low enough roost. I encourage their roosting because they stay cleaner and it conserves space in their house at night." Moving into the Chicken House. It's best to delay the chicks' joining of the regular flock until they're big enough that getting picked on won't be a risk to life and limb. Somewhere between 10 and 12 weeks after hatching, you can put them out with your other chickens, depending on their size, the weather, and how well insulated or warmed your chicken house is. Move pullets into the hen house before they begin to lay to prevent throwing them out of the mood, as any major change is likely to do that to chickens. Pullets that are moved after laying has commenced may stop laying and go into a molt. To move larger birds from one housing to another, do so at night, placing them on the roosts in their new quarters so they'll have slept there a night before they go out the door in the morning. That helps them know where home is. If they're still not sure the next night, shoo them in there again, and shut them in for the night. If they're reluctant to go in, let them get a little hungry, then feed them in there. Chick Age and Appearance: When the chicks are a little more than 4 weeks and a few days old, you'll be able to distinguish the cockerels, who have grown pink combs and clearly visible wattles, from the pullets, who grow and color their decorations slightly later. The final adult plumage starts to grow when the bird is 12 weeks old and will be finished coming in by 16 weeks. To make a pet out of your bird, this 12-16-week period is a good time to carry and pet it frequently. Be gentle, and the fowl will learn to trust you and be your friend.
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