Help, my chicks have hatched – what should I do next?

First published in News by

JUST after emerging from the egg is arguably one of the most crucial times for the survival of the chicks. There are many problems that may possibly arise. After the hatch always leave the chicks in the incubator for at least 24 hours.

The reason for this is to allow the chick to dry and become nice and fluffy. The chicks will also need time to absorb their yolk sacks. The yolk sack does actually feed the bird for the very early part of its life. When the chick reaches 48 hours old onwards, they will fend for themselves very well, as long as they are reared correctly and are fed well with a proper chick feed - (Chick Starter Crumbs).

From this age they will also need constant access to clean fresh water. Before moving the chicks from the incubator to the brooder you need to carefully check the chicks. This is the ideal time to look at them individually and check their condition. You need to be looking for the major faults such as twisted toes, twisted beaks, ill or weak looking birds. These are what you need to cull out. I realise that this is an unpleasant task to have to sort out the chicks at this age, but it really needs to be done as most of these birds will not survive and if they do they will more than likely be deformed and weak.

This is unfair to the birds and in no way gives them a good quality of life. I am probably one of the worst people for trying to save birds, hoping that they may improve, but it is really a very bad idea, and like it or not this sorting out time is, in the long run, the kindest thing to do.

No parent birds to help survival Chicks which have been artificially incubated obviously have no parent bird to teach them what they have to do to survive, but a natural instinct kicks in and a little help makes life a lot easier for the chicks; these basics are the simple things in life such as eating and drinking. You need to create a situation where the chick is tempted to peck. You do this by sprinkling chick crumbs into the brooder from around six inches above the floor. This creates an interest and as the natural inquisitiveness of the chick takes over, they soon start to peck. This is usually nearly all that is needed to get the birds feeding. When it comes to drinking I always dip the beak of every chick into the water drinker; this gives them the idea of what to do. Be warned, occasionally after dipping the beak they do tend to topple over - this is caused by the sudden intake of water, but they do recover immediately and within minutes they are drinking for themselves. Obviously gentle handling and encouragement, not drowning are what is needed! What you do need for safety is a shallow chick water font with a narrow lip. There are special chick fonts on the market for a reasonable price normally around £2. This is what is needed to prevent the young birds from having any accidents, as using the small size font with a narrow lip prevents the chicks getting into the water. The type of drinker which is both too wide rimmed or too deep will just create problems, on many occasions the chicks will actually drowned in these unsuitable drinkers. If a hatch catches you unaware and you only have a wider rim drinker, then add pebbles round the base leaving just enough room for the chicks to drink as an emergency measure, but make sure they can only get their beaks into the water. A very simple idea but very effective. (This simple idea works very well when rearing Quail as they are so very small and tend to make a habit of drowning themselves, a sad fact but true).

I am constantly surprised by the number of people who do not know that to rear artificially hatched chicks you need a brooder and a heat lamp. It is the same type of heat lamp that is used for many purposes such as rearing puppies, kittens and piglets. The temperature in the brooder needs to be very slightly lower, just a couple of degrees less than the incubator. Make sure the chicks are draught free with fresh air in a warm environment, especially when the change over to the brooder is taking place. Over a period of time this temperature is reduced in the brooder by small amounts until the chicks are completely off the heat. Giving an exact time scale to this is not possible because we all have to operate in different circumstances - you obviously need more heat for longer time during the winter months, although heat is still needed in the summer you obviously have take the summer temperatures into account, I normally set the brooder temperature to approx 35* from day one, and then gradually drop the temperature steadily down by reducing it maybe a degree each week until they are fully feathered but this is only a very rough guide. Reducing the temperature is very easy either higher the lamp slightly or if you have a reducer unit just turn it down a little at a time. Watch the chicks, they will tell you whether they are too hot or too cold by their reaction. A thermometer placed on the floor of the brooder directly under the lamp will give you the correct reading, once that has been established remove the thermometer and add the chicks. Brooder lamps come in various forms, depending on the manufacturer. Normally there is a chain for hanging up the lamp, and a fairly good long wire extension.

Today's modern lamps come with a guard grille which protects the bulbs (these get very hot), and this prevents accidents to both yourself and the birds. Most of these heat lamps are used with a red infra bulbs for brooding. These special bulbs come in various wattages from 100w up to 250w; the size of bulb you need again depends on your circumstances most breeders tend to use the 250w bulb and use a reducer to cut down the heat as needed.

The dull emitter bulb Reducer switches are very basic, some lamps come with a reducer switch fitted but they do tend to be a little more expensive. The other reducer switches are the same as the ones you use in your house and these are simple to install, easy to operate and also give you total control over the heat required. There are other types of heating products available, there is the dull emitter bulb which is what they say on the box - these are a ceramic lamp which gives off heat, with no light. There are also normal white heat lamp bulbs which are very powerful and are infra red but give a pure white light - personally I tend to find these are too bright for my chicks and in the past I have found chicks reared this way to seem to have developed many deficiencies (this is of course my own opinion). I always use the infra red bulbs as shown in the pictures of my brooder and get excellent results, Just a note if you decide to use the dull emitter bulb then you need to be very vigilant because if the bulb fails there is no way for you to see this failure as there is no light to go out, just an instant loss of heat and then this can lead to the loss of chicks if not the problem is not discovered quickly enough. During the winter time if you lose the heat in the brooder, the chick losses can start to happen quite quickly. I've noticed on chicks that have suffered from being chilled in the past that they never seem recover properly and go on to be the runts of the litter with 'sticky bums' . Therefore keeping the correct environment at the start is of the utmost importance.

What is a brooder?

The brooder itself can be a variety of different units. There are special ones which stand on legs with heat and light (these are factory made and work very well), constructed from plastic with a see-through top. They are a very good unit but there is a limited capacity. They can also be quite expensive so therefore it depends on your budget but lovely to have if you are planning to hatch chicks regularly. The next type of brooder is the metal type. These stack on top of each other for both space saving and convenience. There are heater elements in these but no lights and as they have solid tops these are, I think, some of the best available but chicks will need some form of light added for them to be able to both feed and drink normally. Again these are excellent but can be quite expensive although the units are very well made and will last for years. Then there is the obvious alternative - why not making your own? Home made ones are fairly easy to construct and you have the option of creating a brooder to a size that suits your own circumstances. My own brooder is home made and works extremely well, it is 8ft long but divides into two sections. This is possibly too large for most people, but we do hatch quite a large number of chicks. I made this brooder from three quarter ply wood and it has been designed to be easy to work with and made to stand on legs which also makes life easier. The brooder is normally set up the day before I add the chicks. We take the chicks straight from the incubator and put them into the brooder where they are fed and watered as described earlier and the lid is closed to help keep in the heat. This is where they are reared until the time that they are ready to be moved into a large shed. .

There is one other alternative which is the Electric Hen. These are now available in various sizes to suit all types of breeders both large and small. The unit is basically a heat pad on legs, adjusting the legs adjusts the heat under the brooder. There is a new range on the market now which is both economical to buy and has the extra addition of an adjustable heat switch included - great idea and they work very well. The electric hen works on just heat and as with the dull emitter there is no light, which means additional light may need to be added depending on were you situate your brooder. The latest electric hens now have a plastic covered top which is excellent and easy to clean, much better than the old wooden finished units which always seemed to be dirty as it is inevitable that the chicks will roost on the top of the brooder causing it to become soiled. The cost of these brooder units starts from around the £35 mark upwards subject to size.

When the chicks are approx 6/8 weeks they are put into the larger pens but I still like to keep them under a lower wattage heat lamp. The length of time you keep them under a heat lamp depends again on the time of the year and the weather conditions so therefore commonsense is all that is needed. A good indication of the correct heat is normally easy to spot and this is true from day one. If the chicks are huddled together in a heap under the lamp the chances are they are too cold, a loud cheeping can also be heard which is a sign of distress. If the chicks are all spread in a ring with the heat in the centre then the chances are it is too hot. What is needed is an even spread of chicks all happily going about their daily routine or in most cases they are fast asleep. If you carefully watch their behaviour from the first day you move them from the incubator to the brooder you will not go far wrong. Follow this system right up until the time they are taken off the heat and are in normal temperatures.

When I do the transfer into the larger shed, I always start the chicks off under the lamp to give them time to adjust, but I also try to keep them within a brooder ring for the early stages. This both helps to keep the heat into the one area and also ensures we do not get chicks wandering off into a corner to get cold and become ill or worse. The ring is nothing special and can be made from variety of products, but the ones I use came from Interhatch and are a plastic sheet about 60 cms (two foot high), complete with clips to create the circle and are very easy to use and clean. They are only needed for a short period of time to help get the chicks used to being out in the colder air, but I do find using this system of brooding does save me unnecessary casualties.

During this brooding time you need to check the sex of the birds. This will depending on the breed as it is not always possible to sex some breeds until they are a lot older. The reason for this selection is quite obvious - you always really hope to hatch more pullets than cocks, I wish it was that simple and you must take into account that there are very good odds that you will hatch more cocks than hens, then the question arises what do I do with the cocks? There is very little chance of getting rid of cockerels, therefore removing them earlier is not only economical sensible but also takes away the problem of culling full grown birds, this is of course unless you want to raise the cockerels for meat. If this is the case then you do not have any problems. Always remember that cockerels upset the neighbours and can cause grief especially if you live in a built up area.

It is not an option to take the cockerels to market or put them in the paper as 'free to good home' thus off loading your problem and providing an uncertain and probably stressful future for what is your responsibility. All poultry keepers should learn how to kill stock quickly and humanely and this needs to be done from practical demonstration, not from books.

Look out for coccidiosis!

During the rearing period one of the worst killers of chicks is a disease/worm called coccidiosis. This is a very common problem which Smallholder will look at in future issues explained but the signs are blood in the droppings with the chicks appearing dull and listless. This problem needs immediate treatment as it spreads quickly and does a lot of damage. One of the main causes of this problem is normally down to damp conditions and overcrowding. Allow as much space as possible for rearing and take cleanliness very seriously; prevention is always better than cure.

One of the other major problems are feather pecking which can be rife among many breeds but seems to especially common with young birds. When hatching just be vigilant and enjoy your hatching and rearing, the pleasure of both a good hatch and a nice selection of healthy birds as an end result is in my opinion reward enough.

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