We have been raising animals on our farm for over 10 years—sheep, dogs, cats, chickens, turkeys, guinea pigs, ponies, donkeys, and a pig.
Few animals come with a step-by-step guide to raise them, but chickens are the exception. Chicks have very specific requirements to thrive, and to brood them successfully you simply have to follow these steps:
- Keep them in a well-ventilated, draft-free area that is 32-35 degrees Celsius with access to food and water.
- Reduce the temperature by about 5°C per week until they reach ambient temperature and are old enough to go outside (4 weeks old for broilers and 8 weeks old for most other breeds).
And that is about it. However, there are a million ways to follow these steps and how you go about it should suit your particular setup. Here are some things that we have learned that will hopefully benefit your own brooding experience.
Let a Hen Hatch Her Own Chicks
Everything I said about the step-by-step specifics of brooding is irrelevant at this point, and there is nothing more adorable than seeing a mother hen trotting around with a dozen or more chicks following behind her. It is amazing to see all those chicks disappear under her at the slightest sign of danger.
Of course, the little family needs protection from predators and the elements, and you have to provide easy access to food and water. But the hen will do a far better job brooding over those chicks than we ever could.
Don't (Necessarily) Use a Commercial Hatchery
We use large hatcheries when we want to get a large batch of chicks, but we have had good and bad experiences.
One year we had a high percentage of losses because the chicks got chilled when they were shipped. The hatchery would give us credit for a few of them, but that doesn't change the fact that the chicks died. Now, when we get chicks from the hatchery, we start driving the six-hour round trip to pick them up.
Another year, we lost way too many (almost 30% of the chicks) and the ones that did make it only grew to a few pounds each. I'm not sure if our brooding arrangement was partly to blame, but I found out years later that the hatchery had a significant disease problem that year.
Our favorite place to get chicks is from local breeders who hatch their own chicks on a small scale. Kijiji is a great place to find one of these backyard breeders. They might cost a bit more, but the health and quality of the chicks are noticeably better.
Brood Chickens and Turkeys Together
Chickens are delightful, but so is a big old turkey who likes getting pet! While turkeys and chickens have slightly different brooding requirements, they can be brooded together successfully.
Temperature and Diet Differences
The most important difference is temperature. Turkeys are extremely fragile until they are 8 weeks old (then they are nearly indestructible), and they require 35 - 38°C to start.
We kept our mixed brooding flock around 36°C. We still lowered it about five degrees per week but we always erred on the warm side if the temperature was questionable.
Turkeys also need higher protein food than chickens, so we generally mixed turkey starter with chick starter, and they both did very well.
Our full-grown turkey hen still lives with our hens, and though she is a bit of a bully, they get along just fine!
Don't Use a Makeshift Brooder
We have a few old sheds on our farm that used to be small grain bins.
One year we used them to brood our chicks, and it didn't work very well. It was July so I felt the un-insulated walls would be OK. The batch of hardy heritage birds did quite well. Their house was snug and dry, but it was still nerve-wracking worrying that the temperature would plummet. The Cornish Rock Giants, however, were not so lucky. It was a constant struggle keeping the temperature high enough, and the chickens never thrived. (We have since stopped raising the Cornish Rock for many reasons).
We now have a state-of-the-art brooder house: a 5ft x 10ft house on skids with a handy dutch door to keep the chicks from escaping and recycled wood interior so we can put hooks up anywhere.
It is insulated with raw wool from our sheep and is conveniently located on an ants nest to provide extra protein for the growing birds. This house is big enough to accommodate 50 chickens until 4 weeks old, or 25 birds until they are 8 weeks. It also housed a dozen turkeys until they were put on pasture at 4 weeks of age.
Get the Brooder Ready Before They Arrive
The most important thing for day-old chicks is a stable temperature without drafts. We like having the brooder house set up at least the day before the chicks arrive to make sure the temperature doesn't fluctuate. There is nothing worse than spending the first night with your chicks struggling to keep the temperature up. This can be fatal!
We like having the food and water ready beforehand. We initially put the food on strips of cardboard and we put the chicks right on the food when they arrive so they can start eating right away. We replace the cardboard with feeders when the chicks are a few days old. It is also important to have the waterers ready so the water can warm up. Putting in a jug of cold water will noticeably lower the temperature of the brooder.
It is a good idea to set up the brooder house so that a chick will encounter food or water whichever direction they wander.
Brood Them in Your Basement
We usually brood our chicks in May/June when Alberta gifts us with more moderate outside temperatures. However, this year we wanted to start them in March so the chicks would be old enough to go outside in early spring. But March was a cold month in 2020 (it was -30 degrees Celsius when I picked up our chicks on March 31), and we were worried our brooder house would not be warm enough. The solution: We put the chicks in our basement!
We attached cardboard boxes together to make a brooder about 2ft x 6ft with food and water, and 2 heat lamps hanging over the top.
The best part of brooding in the basement is that it is very convenient to continually monitor the chicks, especially during the night in the critical first week.
The worst part? The dust. When we moved the chicks out of the basement at 4 weeks old, there was a fine layer of dust on everything near their brooding boxes. If we do this again (and we probably will), I think we would move them to our outside brooder house at 3 weeks of age. They don't need to be monitored as closely at that age, and they haven't started flinging dust all over!
Don't Wear Your Shoes
Day-old chicks are very fragile, and they will always be underfoot. You will never be able to feel them under your boot, and you will end up doing a very awkward shuffle across the floor to avoid stepping on them. The best alternative is to take your boots off and walk barefoot for the first few days.
And it is adorable when they walk on your toes!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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