Brooding Chicks

Brooding of Chicks

Published on: 6/29/2012
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I am afraid I am going to make an eyebrow or two raise when I suggest that the concept of Brooding, as it is traditionally believed, should not be limited merely to the practice of providing heat, feed and water to day old  chicks. The science of brooding comprises of a more holistic approach where  every need of the day old chick is given it’ s due  attention and respect and then, translated into a detailed and practical day to day management. In other words, a manual of standard operating procedures  alone will not guarantee good brooding results, but rather, understanding fully, all the needs of a chick during it’s first three weeks in the order of their priority and doing things rightly will make a big difference. The HOW and WHEN will, then, automatically find their due place. 


At the outset, we need to understand what goes on inside the hatching egg from the time of fertilization while the egg is still within the hen and during the three weeks of incubation.  Starting with the process of gastrulation is something like the blue print of the growing embryo, the differentiation of all the organs, organization of the different systems, maturation and growth of the entire embryo and finally the emergence of the chick into a new and challenging world, the chick in it’s entirety, needs to be given the necessary supports to move on from there and develop .  Unlike in nature, where stress and disease challenges are limited and mother hen as well as a free  environment provide these necessary supports, intensive poultry operations are a different ball game. Besides, with mounting genetic improvement in poultry breeding, it is mandatory to exploit every bit of the entire genetic potential of the bird by fully understanding and supporting the physiological activities of the chick. In other words, the day old chick from the hatchery arrives at the farm with a great genetic potential but with limited capacity of it’s physiological systems as well as their functions. Thus, every organ and system needs to be promoted and developed in the growing chick.  Therefore, the focus as well as the efforts during the first three to four weeks should be on laying the foundation for good uniform growth of body tissues, a healthy immune system, an active Endocrine system, a supporting Body frame or Skeleton, the capacity to eat ,digest  and convert the right amount of feed for the given age and  finally, a good Feather cover.  I would love to call this responsibility  ‘BROODING’.  Let us move on from here. 

The  Respiratory System, Good Ventilation and Adequate Relative Humidity

If the need is to focus on optimum uniformity,  growth of all the internal organs, the immune system , feather cover, skeleton, the Endocrine system and capacity to eat, digest and metabolize  the right amount of feed for the age and keep growing, then the requirement of  oxygen for all these, especially in a broiler and the heavier breeds of chicken like the broiler breeder, should be given the highest priority. As I mentioned in the very first line of this article, most managers only consider providing heat as the top most item of priority because people tend to equate brooding with providing heat.  It is needless to mention the extent to which a chick that is approximately  40 grams in weight is expected to develop  in the next three weeks. Complex physical as well as chemical reactions take place within the chicken and this process consumes loads of vital oxygen. The Only way in which a chick can get it’s healthy requirement  of oxygen is through it’s respiratory organs which basically are the Trachea,  Bronchi,   Lungs and the Air sacs. During the period of brooding, it is important  to protect these organs from pollutants like Microorganisms, Dust, and toxic gases including Carbon Monoxide, Carbon Dioxide and Ammonia. People who neglect these areas end up seeing respiratory as well as other metabolic problems like Ascites etc. to which fast growing birds are naturally prone.  We should know that Carbon Monoxide which is released on burning conventional fuels like charcoal is, unlike smoke, colorless and odorless and  more hazardous, as it seriously interferes with the  oxygen binding process.  Contamination of the brooding shed  by these pollutants not only depresses  growth, but also leaves the growing chick with a damaged and faulty respiratory system that later on predisposes birds to all types of respiratory complications whose list goes unlimited on a poultry farm. Caring managers require a good level of sensitivity and judgment when it comes to curtain management in open sided houses. When considering ventilation and temperature management, please do not always apply only human standards.  To give you example, the human nose can detect the presence of  Ammonia in the shed only when the levels are above 20ppm. whereas  levels as low as 10ppm inside the shed can damage the chicken’s delicate respiratory tissues as well as the Conjunctiva. What, when and how much the CHICKS NEED should be the deciding factor.

A Minimum Relative humidity of 70 or even up to 80 percent helps both in preventing dehydration, and in maintaining a healthy mucous membrane in the respiratory tract which acts as  a protective barrier against pollutants including pathogenic microorganisms.  Measuring Relative humidity regularly in  brooding and growing houses also helps the timely cycling of Coccidial oocysts from the vaccine and provides valuable indication of the moisture levels in litter wherever birds are grown on deep litter. Unfortunately, there are very few takers for this fact.

The Immune System and Bio Security:

As we know, chicks come out with  a very limited immune system whose capacity grows only with age and the ensuing vaccinations that follow during the  entire growing cycle. The only protection worth it’s name during the first few weeks before chicks can actively acquire immunity on their own,  is the maternal immunity which is provided through the hatching egg. Even this is not always reliable. If you wish to have a growing or laying flock with a consistently protective immune  status , one way is by ensuring that the supplier hatchery guarantees chicks that are free from hatchery borne infections which, are manifold these days.  The second is by enforcing a code of strict Bio security on the farm. There is no substitute for these two critical factors. Infections at a very tender age of the chick are immunosuppressive and are a cause for perennial problems throughout the cycle of the flock.  To put it in very simple terms, the immune system needs to be trained as birds grow in  age and an untrained immune system, like an untrained soldier,  is prone to serious injury and possibly, death from  possible attacks. Besides, any amount of cleaning and disinfection of the brooding shed before the arrival of chicks becomes futile if you bring in a batch of chicks that harbor and carry hatchery borne infections like Navel or Yolk Sac Infection into your farm. Once pathogens enter the brooding shed, they find the best of conditions in which to live, grow and multiply and, therefore, come to stay in the poultry house for good.  In such a situation, if we happen to see recurring  bacterial or other infections in your chicks or growers, we cannot blame  only the drinking water or air or even possibly, our own Bio security measures because one can never effectively disinfect litter or droppings that have already been contaminated. Among other factors that suppress immunity in chicks are severe stress,  toxicity in feed and high levels of Ammonia in the brooding shed.

The Digestive System, Water  and Feed Conversion

The chick takes it’s first drink of water and it’s first morsel of feed only after it reaches the farm. It’s entire digestive system comprising of the related organs as well as the digestive secretions have, therefore, very limited capacity for digestion and metabolism. We therefore have to ‘train’  this particular system by stimulating  water and feed consumption in that order, especially during the first few days of the chick’s life. Some caring managers have the practice of ensuring  good feed  intake In very young chicks by doing a’ Crop Fill Test ‘ which consists of checking the percentage of chicks with full crops as well as assessing  the extent to which the crops are full. By the way, an active digestive system with the necessary secretions also greatly contributes to the early and optimum cycling of the Coccidial oocysts  wherever vaccination for Coccidiosis is employed during the first week in the chick’s life. The system of feeding very young chicks several times a day is is also a good way to build up and develop a healthy and active digestive system.

The skeletal system in chicks

As we know , a major portion of skeletal  growth in a chick is completed by about 12 weeks and the initial three to four weeks form a significant part of this period.  Where chicks are fed on plates and in open feeders during this period, it is a common practice to discard the powdery portion of the feed because it is often contaminated with the litter material and feces  and is, therefore, not appealing to the eyes of the chick. It is precisely in this powdery part of the feed that the essential vitamins and minerals so vital for skeletal development are present.  It is also normal to see a percentage of chicks with signs of weakness or small in size and , therefore, slow in growing.  Such chicks should be promptly separated and taken special care of during the first few days before chicks advance in age and it is too late to correct the development pattern.  We should remember that it is more difficult to manipulate bone growth than body weight.  Chicks with a poor or slow developing skeletal frame, naturally are slow in body weight gain and therefore tend to develop fat tissues rather than muscles. This is absolutely true especially in Broiler breeder flocks.

Brooding Temperature and Feather Cover

Day old chicks have no feather covering. What they have is Down which they quickly shed, as feathers start growing  from  the first week onwards . A healthy feather cover helps to conserve body temperature and thus saves precious dietary energy which would otherwise be diverted for preserving body temperature  at the cost of  body weight gain.  Good feathering  helps the chick  to maintain the right body temperature which, in turn,  promotes all other functions including  general resistance along with the desired immunity, optimum digestion, good blood circulation, , metabolism etc., apart from protecting chicks from cold. This is a very important fact to be borne in mind  because the body temperature of chicks during their first few days is several degrees lower than the normal temperature which should be around 41.7 degrees Celsius in a growing or adult chicken. During the first few days of it’s life, the chick is poorly equipped tp regulate it’s metabolic process to control it’s body temperature sufficiently. It therefore, depends on the environmental or brooding temperature to maintain the optimal body temperature. Moreover, it takes almost three weeks for a chick to reach a constant and stable body temperature. It is here that providing and maintaining the right brooding temperature  plays  such a crucial role.

Not the last word:

The reason  why I have not listed out any of the conventional do’s and don’ts of Brooding Management  that are  generally found in articles on Brooding management, is,  that through this paper, I would like to  reach out to poultry managers who understand the chicken well and are knowledgeable in the subject .  However, I am also keen to share my thoughts on concepts that are so often not understood fully or taken for granted  -concepts that can make the difference between  AVERAGE  and EXCELLENT Brooding results.  I only wish that we poultry managers, like chicken, learn to scratch beyond the surface and keep discovering newer and better ways,  understanding  more and doing things right.  As Galileo Galilei in his days so aptly remarked : “ All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered.  The point is to discover them “.

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