Winter a nightmare for chicks

By Emilie Abraham

WINTER months present a significant predicament for poultry farmers, particularly those with chicks under the age of four weeks.

Unlike adult birds, chicks are more vulnerable to cold conditions as their feathers are fluffy and unable to sufficiently insulate the body. Under natural conditions, brooding takes place under the feathers of a broody hen.

However, in commercial farming set ups, large numbers of baby chicks are reared in the absence of a broody hen. It is in this context that artificial brooding becomes a pre- requisite. It is worth noting that, winter time demands that farmer’s focus on brooding in preparation to receive day old chicks.

To this end, it is imperative that farmers provide clean, optimum and consistent heat that can create a comfortable environment for chicks to thrive in cold conditions and minimize potential mortalities that can reduce income for the enterprise. Generally, chicks experience cold conditions when in close contact to the floor of the brooder house and when exposed to cold air temperatures in the brooder house. Poultry farmers are therefore encouraged to regulate the floor and ambient temperature of the brooder house to enhance the chicks’ ability to maintain their normal body temperature. Farmers are therefore advised to ensure there is sufficient bird litter on the floor, that the sides of the brooder are insulated and that the brooding area is pre-heated evenly to 33°C for

24-48 hours prior to the placement of chicks. This can prevent drafts, the chilling of chicks and eliminate major fluctuations. To this end, farmers are advised to regularly monitor and observe chick behaviour as it can provide important clues. This article targets poultry farmers that often wonder what causes high mortalities during winter and how best losses can be mitigated.

Brooder set-ups

Brooder set-ups should be prepared in ways that satisfies chicks need for warmth, feed, water, aeration and a clean atmosphere. Never place chicks in a well-ventilated house (main house), as they are fragile and require warmth and a sterile environment. Moreover, farmers are advised to create a disease and germ free environment to the greatest extent possible to ensure young chicks start their life with maximum comfort. In this way, chicks can grow into healthy and plumy birds that can give a good harvest at the end of their growing period. Brooder set-ups should be circular in shape and not squared. A brooding area of one (1) meter diameter per 100 chicks, is desirable.

Floor Temperature

Litter act as a blanket that can reduce the harsh impact of floor temperature. Litter provides warmth and comfort to the birds by absorbing moisture. Farmers are advised to spread litter at about 5 cm thick within the brooder unit.  The litter material can be clean dry chopped grass, sunflower hulls, wood shavings or maize bran etc. Overall, the best  litter materials  are  wood  shavings. When  chicks  are  too  young,  litter  can  be covered with newspapers to prevent the chicks from eating litter material, as they are too young to differentiate litter and feed. In addition, farmers can sprinkle feed on the newspapers so locating feed will not be a challenge in the first couple days of their life. Famers are advised to maintain and keep the litter fresh, clean and dry. Spillage of water should be avoided at all cost. Moreover, the use of correct drinkers in the brooder house is crucial to avoid drowning and spillage of water.

Air Temperature

It is observed with concern that some poultry farmers put chicks outside in the sun during the day, hoping that the chicks will feel warm and take them indoors at night. This practice can result in chilling particularly in winter, as temperatures can be very low irrespective of the presence of sunlight. Thus, proper heating during the day and night particularly during winter is critical, as chicks are very sensitive and vulnerable at this stage. Too much heat and or too low temperatures can cause mortalities in chicks. It is therefore imperative to provide ideal air temperature to birds during heavy showers and winter seasons. Farmers can consider using various elements to provide heat to the chicks, such as infrared lamps, which are very effective for the brooding of chicks. The recommended ratio can be 2-3 lamps (250w and 220 volts) per 200 birds, while 3 bulbs are desirable for farmers using ordinary heat bulbs. In areas without electricity, burned charcoal can be used. Charcoal should be topped up gradually instead of all at once and  only  the  burners  must  be  brought  in  without  smoke.  Remember  that  good ventilation and lighting must be provided as the birds grow. A heat source does not substitute lighting, as lighting is required to assist chicks to locate feed and water.

Chick’s behaviours

The provision of the right amount of heat is essential. Improper heating results in the slow growth of chicks, and can expose them to infections, emaciation and death. To avoid unnecessary mortality, farmers are strongly advised to observe and monitor chick behaviour every two  hours day and  night.  Preferably, thermometers can  be  used  to ensure the right temperature is provided at the right stage. Chick behaviour should be seen as a daily newspaper to farmers. Provision of the correct amount of heat is largely assessed by looking at the behaviour of the chicks within the brooding area. When too much heat is provided, the chicks stay away from the heat source, and usually are found at periphery of the brooder unit. In some cases, chicks will appear drowsy, and show signs of heat stress such as flapping their wings, opening their beak etc. If the heat is too low, chicks come close to the heat source and huddle together without moving to search for feed and water. When the right amount of heat is provided, chicks will  appear  scattered  uniformly  all  over  the  brooding  area.  They  will  be  observed jumping, feeding and drinking freely. Therefore, lighting control and the height of the heat source should be adjusted based on the behaviours and growth stage of the chicks.

In the final analysis, it should be taken into account that the profitability of the poultry enterprise depends largely on how best you can minimize mortality and how efficiently you can run the enterprise. Therefore, the power of observation is key in poultry farming success irrespective of the flock size you have. . The simple theory is that if birds are not comfortable in terms of water, feed, ventilation, correct stocking density and litter condition etc. the performance of the enterprise will be poor. To this end, farmers are advised to make sure that birds receive sufficient feed and fresh drinking water 24/7 and provide heat during the brooding stage to reduce losses.

This article is compiled by Emilie Abraham, Technical Officer within Agribank’s Agri Advisory Services Division.