BY DARBY SIMPSON
Getting your baby chicks off to a good start isn’t rocket science, but it is literally the single most important component of being successful in a pasture-based broiler operation. Good or bad management decisions during the first three weeks of a bird’s life will follow them from the brooder out to the pasture and through maturity. Every step we take to improve those first 21 days will yield exponentially good results from a production and economics standpoint. The same can be said if the brooder environment is stressful, with exponentially poor results. If you have lackluster overall results with your chickens, there is a good possibility that the issue can be traced back to the brooder. It all starts here — so be in the mindset of doing it right from the beginning. You’ll thank yourself later!
Prior To Arrival
Well before your chicks are even shipped from the hatchery, you’ll want to have your brooder all prepared and ready to go. You might be using anything from a large cardboard box in your garage to the corner of a barn to a standalone building, like we use. Depending on the region you live in and the time of year, you might even decide to brood your birds outdoors.
Regardless of where you “brood” your baby chicks, the conditions that you’ll want to have in place are the same: an appropriately sized warm, safe and dry environment with the proper feed, water and grit. In addition to these requirements, you will also want to make certain that you have the ability to control ventilation in the area where the chicks are living.
Let’s break each of these requirements down so you can be well prepared for your birds long before they show up at the post office or you bring them home from the farm store.
The overall size of your brooder isn’t as important as maintaining a proper stocking density in each area where you have chicks. For this bit of information, I’ll reference the stocking density found in the book Pastured Poultry Profits by Joel Salatin. We have basically used what Joel suggests since day one, allowing roughly 0.25 square feet per chick in the brooder. This is based upon the assumption that you will be keeping them in the brooder for about 21 days. If you are going to keep them in there for a longer period of time due to a cold snap or heavy rain, and that prevents you from taking them out to pasture on schedule, just know that you may have to add brooder space.
One thing I want to mention here is that you’ll need to be very careful about just how many chicks you place into one area of your brooder. In time, you might scale up your operation like we have — from 50 broilers to a point where you are ordering 600 chicks or more at a time. Putting that many chicks together in one big group can be a huge mistake, as I learned the hard way many years ago. When scaling up, you would be wise to remember that what works well for 50 chicks doesn’t always translate when we are talking about anything beyond 200. To avoid having chicks “pile” and suffocate one another, we keep our maximum group size to about 200 using three separate areas. This helps to mitigate massive losses should a problem occur, such as a heat lamp failing or a waterer not work properly.
Managing The Brooder
You’ll want to make certain oyur brooder is a nice and toasty 90-95 degrees on the floor during the week no matter the time of year. But there also needs to bee enough space for the birds to get away from the heat when need be. It’s a delicate balance; if it’s too hot or too cold, they’ll pile up and suffocate one another in an effort to stay warm. To help maintain this balance, there are four basic tools at your disposal: wood chips, insulation, heat lamps and ventilation.
We begin by placing a nice, thick layer of wood chips down on the concrete floor of the brooder. You’ll want a thicker layer — 6 inches or deeper — if you start your chicks while outside temps are still getting down into the 40s or below at night. Cold from the ground temperature can be just as big of an issue as the cool ambient air temperatures outside. If it’s a warmer time of year, then 2-4 inches of chips might do the job. It’s very important to monitor and layer new chips on top of the waste as required while the chicks are in the brooder. This keeps the chicks clean and healthy and absorbs the nitrogen from the manure. This layering of nitrogen and carbon also creates a composting action, generating a small amount of heat to help keep the birds warm.
Using commercial insulation to seal up our brooder was one of the single best investments I ever made in any area of our farm. Our brooder exists in an old chicken house originally built for laying hens that my ancestors built well over 100 years ago. It has a concrete floor, and we’ve put a new metal roof on it since starting the business in 2007. But aside from that, early on I just built some ventilation flaps and patched it up as needed on the outside. After a few seasons of frustration from drafty, wet and cold air hitting the chicks, I finally ripped out the entire internal setup and started over from scratch, with the goal of building an insulated “box” inside of the old coop. The first step was to use 2-inch insulation and framing to build a 24-inch-tall structure inside the old chicken coop that I could better control. This also kept drafty, cold and wet conditions off of my birds, enabling them to thrive.
For heating we use 250W bulbs in aluminum spring-clamp heat-lamp assemblies. We use anywhere from five to eight lamps, placed about 18” inches above the birds at night, depending on the temperatures outside. If it is really chilly outside, we’ll leave all the lamps on during the day as well. For what it’s worth, for some unknown reason, we find that the chicks seems to perform much better if we have the red-colored heat lamps as opposed to the clear ones. I do not know the reason as to why the chicks prefer the red lamps, but my guess is that it has something to do with the frequency of the light emitted from the bulbs. Through years of observation, it is my strong opinion that the red bulbs are the way to go. We’ll only use the clear lamps if the farm store is sold out of the red ones, which occurs frequently. This also tells me that other folks are noticing the same things I am concerning the color of the lamps.
Ventilation also plays a key role in managing the overall brooder environment. Make sure your brooder is as air tight as it can be, within reason, because you never want to have cold and drafty air hitting the chicks directly. Think of it like building an insulated box (brooder) within another box (building). But in the same way that we don’t want that cold air hitting the chicks, we also need to have plenty of flaps we can open and close to offer ventilation when it’s warmer outside during the day — or even around the clock at the height of summer. If you are starting chicks in late March or early April, when the overnight lows can dip down near freezing and the spring winds are blowing, a drafty brooder will cause you lots of problems. Conversely, a batch started in August that doesn’t have good ventilation air will suffer just as much due to heat stress.
We’ve added flaps that can be propped open for cross ventilation to help aide in this. You want the air to move through the brooder, but not directly on the birds. I’ll also run a traditional box fan in the warmer months. I always have it set up on the south wall, oriented so that it is blowing out of the brooder. This is very strategic — the fan draws air through the brooder from the shaded and cooler north side of the brooder. We position the fan up high in an old window, with a flap down below the fan and another flap up high on the north side. This lets us move quite a bit of air through the brooder to help manage the temperature. It also helps to dry out the bedding and remove odors.
Hardening Off Your Chicks
After they are a week old, weather permitting, you can slowly begin to reduce the heat. If it’s in the warmer months of the spring or summer, you’ll most likel want to turn the heat off during the day and flip them back on at dusk. Once the chicks get to be around two weeks old, depending on the overnight temperatures, you should be able to remove the heat lamps completely — unless you have some really cold nights. Manyhatcheries will tell you to reduce the temperature by one degree per day after the birds are a few days old; this is not an obtainable goal if your setup is anything like ours. We don’t have automated temperature controls or thermostats connected to propane gas heaters in a well-constructed building to allow that degree of management. However, a carefully trained eye that can look in on the brooder three to four times per day can be just as effective at managing chicks.
While we aren’t able to lower the temperature down one degree per day, we can manage it carefully and still have excellent results. This is where all of our various tools for our brooder come in to play, particularly as the chicks age. Think of your chicks like tomato plants: before you take them out of their warm, cozy environment and place them in the garden, you need to harden them off. Depending on the high or low temperature, humidity, and other factors outdoors, we have a lot of variability within our system to manage our chicks. We can remove or add insulation and cardboard on top of our chicks, open and close our vent flaps, add fans and add or delete heat lamps. This helps us get the environment just right, no matter the weather. It has made our brooder operation much more successful, and our birds are performing way better than when we first began our business. Brooder management requires a careful eye, but these tools — along with daily observations — will help you get your chicks off to the great start they need to be successful.
Feed, Water & Grit Requirements
When it comes to feed, you’ll want to follow your hatchery’s recommendations closely. Most quick-growing meat birds of the Cornish Cross variety will require a minimum of 21% protein in the brooder. It could be more (and possibly less) depending on the particular strain, so ask your hatchery what to use. Laying hens, Freedom Ranger meat birds, turkeys, ducks and other poultry will undoubtedly have different protein requirements, and you’ll need to follow the directions for the starter rations carefully for the best results. Lack of protein early on can lead to developmental issues in the skeletal system and can wreak havoc on your birds, so don’t skimp out and try to save a buck here. A good-quality feed is absolutely essential to the development of your chicks!
There are two main issues we have seen with feed being effective in our chicks. First and foremost, you’ll want to make certain that the feed you are getting is finely ground and has a high-quality mineral supplement mixed in. Our grain mill uses non-GMO grains, along with a certified organic mineral mix and organic fishmeal, which we find extremely worthwhile in terms of the benefit to the animal. Healthy animals grow and gain weight, which at the end of the day is what we are really after. As such, the minerals, fish meal and other items more than pay for themselves. Having a certified organic mineral supplement also doesn’t hurt your marketing efforts, either, when speaking with customers and answering the numerous questions about what you feed your animals.
Secondly, you’ll also want to make sure and give the birds plenty of grit to get their gizzards going. Grit is simply small rocks that the birds pick up and have in their gizzards to help them “chew” and process their food. Buying small one-pound bags of chick grit at a farm store will run you $6-7 per bag. If you use the expensive store-bought grit, you’ll most likely find yourself doing what I did and cutting back on how much you use in order to save a dollar, when the opposite is what you should be doing. A healthy gizzard produces a healthy bird, which yields a better finished weight in a shorter timeframe. And isn’t that the name of the game? The change we made to combat this was to begin ordering 50-pound bags of the same small, crushed granite from our feed mill for about $7/bag. By simply having a conversation with our grain mill, we cut our cost by 98% and watched our birds flourish.
Lastly, keep lots of fresh, clean and cool water in front of your chicks and try to never let them run out! For watering during the first week, I use one-gallon drinkers and set them on top of some small wooden platforms I built out of 5/4-inch board. Otherwise those cute little buggers will fill the rim of that drinker with bedding and render it useless. The platforms keep the wood chips from clogging up the waterer and keeps the waterer level so it doesn’t spill or empty out onto your dry bedding. Water and nitrogen from chicken manure in the brooder make for a very smelly and toxic environment. After the first week or so you might consider switching over to a larger platform-based drinker, or even a bell-drinker. Filling up one gallon drinkers after the first week can be a huge chore, often taking place four times per day. If this is too much work, you or someone else is less likely to do it as often as you should, and that does not bode well for your chicks.
No setup is perfect, and you will no doubt suffer some losses. A friend once told me that any losses the first 72-96 hours were due to shipping stress, but after that it was on him. I think that is a good litmus test for success, and anything under a 10% loss in the brooder is acceptable, especially early on in your career. In time, you will reduce your losses and increase your finished weights. But it all starts here, in the brooder — so do it right, and your bank account will yield wonderful results!
Living on his family’s seventh generation farm, Darby began his own farming enterprise in 2007 after reading Pastured Poultry Profits by Joel Salatin. For more information, visit grassfedlife.co.