Attention to Brooding Can Help Get You to the Top of the Grower Pool

For thriving chicks and a uniform flock, attention needs to be paid to details of house conditions, biosecurity and feeding via careful monitoring, according to poultry veterinarian, Richard Jackson writing in 'The Drumstick' from the New South Wales Department for Primary Industries, Australia.
calendar icon 8 September 2014
clock icon 8 minute read

The first week of a broiler chick's life forms the basis of its health and productivity for its entire time on the farm. Creating good conditions and taking adequate measures will guarantee the chicks thrive and grow according to expectations.

A broiler's life is a race from the moment the chicks are tipped until slaughter. But while all growers want their chicks to grow as fast as possible, it is equally, if not more important, to get them to start the race at the same time and to run at the same pace.

If a large percentage of chicks start to eat and drink even a few hours later than their flock mates, then the consequences can be disastrous, with severe unevenness, though this may not become apparent until the birds are 14 to 21 days old.

Having an uneven flock is a nightmare to manage, both in terms of ventilation and drinker heights. The more uneven the flock, the greater the proportion of birds that will be unhappy with management decisions. And the more stressed the birds are due to environmental conditions, the more susceptible they will be to enteritis and other such diseases.

Flock Evenness

In order to ensure the flock is as even as possible, there are a number of crucial steps, particularly in cold weather

  1. Preheat the sheds three days before placement, so that when the chicks arrive the floor is 28 to 29°C and the bedding is 32°C across the shed. Remember that the majority of the chick's body will be in contact with the floor, and failure to have adequate floor temperatures will mean the chicks are likely to huddle and will be slower to start.

  2. Chicks at the centre of a huddled group will feed later than those on the edge, leading to unevenness. Furthermore, cold floors can lead to poor intestinal development, which will result in poor nutrient absorption and a bird that is more susceptible to gut health challenges. Equally important is to have even floor temperatures, as chicks that are in cooler areas of the shed will be slower to start and will therefore be smaller throughout their lives, again leading to an uneven flock.

  3. Many growers will have reservations about spending a lot of money on gas, but good pre-heating should be seen as an investment rather than a cost.

  4. When unloading chicks, turn off blow heaters as they could cause overheating. Have plenty of help to enable chicks to be tipped as quickly as possible, and tip directly on to feed paper placed around the shed. Chick paper should have about 80g of good quality crumb per chick, and should cover approximately 80 per cent of the floor area. However, do not place the feed out too early or it will go stale.

  5. Tap the drinker nipples to ensure that there is a bead of water on every one. These droplets will glimmer in the light, encouraging the chicks to drink. Additives such as electrolytes containing aniseed can be added to the drinking water to give it a pleasant taste.

  6. Lighting levels should be a minimum of 20 lux at chick height over at least 80 per cent of the floor. Use a lux-meter to check this, as low light levels and uneven lighting can lead to chicks being slower to start.

  7. Levels of carbon dioxide in the shed should not exceed 3,000ppm. High levels of carbon dioxide (and low levels of oxygen) can lead to poor chick development. Vents should therefore be cracked to allow carbon dioxide to escape, and levels checked using a meter.

  8. Humidity in the shed should be between 60 and 70 per cent. Chicks come out of a humid hatchery, and if they are transferred to a dry shed, they will dehydrate very rapidly, leading to unevenness and poor growth.

These points are guidelines only. Every stockman should monitor their birds closely to ensure a good spread of chicks and flock activity. If the birds are poorly spread or inactive then growers must urgently ascertain the cause and correct it immediately. However, any changes should be subtle, so as not to overstress the birds.

Intestinal Development

Apart from getting a good even start to a flock, it is important to consider the development of one of the bird's most important organs: the intestine.

Poorly developed intestines and those with relatively high levels of harmful bacteria will be less efficient at absorbing nutrients, leading to poor growth, feed conversion and gut health -as well as wet litter.

High-quality brooding and chick health is the foundation of good intestinal development, but it is also very important to consider where the potential bugs of the intestine will come from:

  • The shed. No matter how carefully growers clean out after final pick-up, there will always be bacteria (both good and bad) left over from the previous batch. Good disinfection will help reduce this problem. Use a suitable detergent at the correct dilution, and always allow surfaces to dry before applying disinfectant and fresh litter or stocking the shed.

  • The bedding. Quality is important. Wood shavings are ideal but due to availability issues, many growers are using chopped straw and other products like recycled wood and sawdust. Always check there are no pieces of foreign material such as glass or metal in bedding and ensure that the bedding is dry before spreading.

  • The breeder farm and hatchery. These sources are out of the control of broiler growers. But it is useful to find out if any particular breeder flocks are known to have chick quality issues. This will help influence the choice of starter medication, which has a major impact on intestinal bacteria. The use of antimicrobials should involve careful discussion with the serviceman to take into account the parent flocks, the hatchery and the farm history. If antimicrobials are given, they should be followed up with probiotics to fill the void created in the intestine.

  • Probiotics. The use of probiotics has seen a resurgence in popularity, as they can help establish a population of bacteria in the intestine, meaning there is less room for harmful bacteria to take hold. Furthermore, a gut populated with good bacteria will be stronger against challenges like coccidiosis later on. Probiotics can be sprayed on in the hatchery or introduced to the water. Over time, beneficial bacteria will build up in the shed, providing more protection to successive flocks.

  • The drinker lines. One of the first things chicks will do after tipping is drink. It is very important that the drinking water is spotless, so drinker lines should be flushed and sanitised during cleanout, preferably with a chlorine dioxide or hydrogen peroxide-based sanitiser to remove biofilm in the drinker lines — a mucus-like substance made by bacteria to protect themselves.

  • Water can be a huge source of bacteria and nutrient imbalances, and growers should test their water regularly, both at source and at the end of the drinker line. Adding activated chlorine to the drinking system continuously can help kill any bacteria present.

General Farm Biosecurity

It is very important to change foot-dips at least twice a week, and keep them covered from light and rain. Boots should be washed to remove muck prior to dipping, and ideally growers should have separate boots for each shed, to reduce the transfer of disease.


To measure the success of early chick management, growers should check them regularly and monitor flock behaviour.

Just 24 hours after placement, 95 per cent of the chicks should have feed and water in their crops. This can be identified by selecting 20 chicks each from the front, middle and back of the shed, and feeling their crop at the top of the breastbone − if full, it will feel like dough.

They should then be weighed at seven days old, by selecting at least 100 chicks per 20,000 placed and comparing them to the breed target for weight and consistency.

While the above steps will not necessarily guarantee a good even flock, without them the chances of poor flock performance is greatly increased. A broiler's life is so short that, if they are behind after the first few days, they will never catch up.

Attention to detail at brooding will help give your birds the launch pad they need to perform at their genetic potential and to launch you to the top of the pool.

This article is adapted from 'Adequate brooding for thriving birds' by Richard Jackson of St David's Poultry Team, Lympstone, Exmouth UK, published in World Poultry in November 2013.

September 2014

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