2011 21.2 Raising Chicks at Lincoln Creek Ranch

At Lincoln Creek Ranch, we are busy before our chicks arrive. We raise Cornish cross broilers for sale each year in batches of 500 birds. The birds’ overall vigor and weight gain relies heavily on a healthy brooder environment, and we spend a lot of energy on the first few weeks of our chickens’ lives. The following is a description of our operation’s approach to the brooder room and raising health chicks that thrive on pasture.

Getting Chicks in the Mail

The most affordable strategy to start more than a few dozen chickens is to use mail order. There are many hatcheries across the country that offer a variety of breeds of chicks. Hatcheries are an intregal piece of a successful operation, so find a trustworthy hatchery and establish a good relationship with them. When the chicks hatch, they are put into boxes and delivered, usually by the US Postal Service. Pay attention to the hatchery’s location before ordering because a trans-continental voyage with the Postal Service is very hard on a day old chick. We like to order our chicks from hatcheries close to home to keep the trip in the mail as short as possible. Be sure to check with your hatchery to see if they will be shipping by truck or air. The extra expense of overnight delivery will easily pay for itself. The Post Office will call early in the morning when the chicks arrive and ask for someone to pick up a particularly loud parcel from their sorting room.

Hatcheries may require the purchase of a minimum number of chicks in order to safely ship the birds; this is especially true in the spring. To raise a smaller flock of chickens, consider sharing a batch with a neighbor or buying a few at the feed store. It’s important to get the chicks as young as possible to ensure optimal health. The local feed store usually stocks a variety of egg layer and broiler chicks in the spring. If they will be certified organic, chicks must be purchased from the feed store before they have consumed any feed or water.

Feed and Supplements

We plan to have all of our chickens’ feed and supplements before they arrive. We calculate how much feed our chickens will need and place an order with our feed supplier. This avoids countless trips to the feed store. We purchase our feed from In-Season Farms, an organic feed processor in British Columbia. Their feed comes as a mash—a loose, unmedicated ground mixture of grains—which is unlike the pelletized feed commonly found at the feed store. We use a broiler starter feed, which is ground more finely and contains a higher level of protein than an adult chicken ration. For 500 chickens we order a half ton of starter (20% protein), 2 tons of grower (18% protein), and 1.5 tons of finisher (16% protein). This amount of feed will yield one pound of processed chicken for every 3 to 3.5 pounds of feed consumed.

We also have an ample supply of kelp meal, brewer’s yeast, chick and hen grit, poultry electrolytes, and pro-biotics. These supplements to the chicks’ diet and drinking water are essential to our operation. Be sure to have an assortment of sizes of waterers, feed troughs, grit pans, and supplement dishes to accommodate the chicks’ increasing needs.

Preparing the Brooder

Brooder rooms do not need to be complicated, but they do need to be warm, draft free, and, hopefully, close to stockpiled feed. We seal up a 12’ x 12’ stall in our barn. We staple plastic over any cracks in the wall, hang a tarp to lower the ceiling to 8 feet, spread out a foot of dry pine shavings on the floor, hang 4 heat lamps, and transform our cow’s wintertime quarters into a warm chick sanctuary. We set up the brooder at least two days before our chicks arrive so the heat lamps can warm the room and we have a chance to troubleshoot any problems. We clean and sterilize our feeders, waterers, and grit and supplement pans before each season. The final addition is a radio to accustom the birds to voices and unexpected noises.

Getting Your Chicks

The post office will call when the chicks arrive. Try to pick up chicks as early as possible; the post office really appreciates it and so will the chicks. Make sure to provide a warm and draft free environment on the way home. Count the birds as placed in the brooder to assure the full order has been received. Most hatcheries will supply 5 -10 % extra birds to account for some mortality in the mail. Call your hatchery right away if any birds are sick, cold, or a large number have perished.

Fill up just the chicks’ waterers with a one-time mixture of warm water in a 5 gallon bucket, 1 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon electrolytes, and 1 tablespoon probiotics. Before releasing the chicks into their new digs, dip each chick’s beak into the water solution to ensure they drink. We watch the birds to make sure they are warm enough and full of vigor. The chicks should be running around, drinking water and taking occasional naps under the heat lamps. If all of the birds are huddling under the lights they are chilled, indicating the brooder must be warmed. Fill their feeders with a broiler starter ration and let the babies grow. We will add a grit pan with chick grit after the first feeding. The key to a successful transition from the hatchery to the farm is a warm and draft free brooder room.

Health and Nutrition

The chicks call their brooder home for the first three weeks of life. There are a few required conditions for the brooder to raise vigorous chicks:
The temperature must be regulated. As the chicks grow, they generate more body heat and become less dependant on the heat lamps to survive. Hang the heat lamps with a chain, so they can be raised and lowered to accommodate the chicks’ changing need for warmth. We change from 250 watt bulbs to 125 watt bulbs during the time in the brooder. We have not noticed a difference in using red or white lights.
Keep the litter clean. A clean brooder fosters a healthy chick, and a dirty brooder fosters an unhealthy chick. We add a fresh layer of shavings at least twice everyday to keep the brooder clean and free of ammonia fumes. We see a direct correlation between brooder cleanliness and the birds’ overall health. Cornish Rockcross chickens have a bad reputation for leg problems, however, our birds seldom suffer from leg problems. We attribute this to a clean and dry brooder environment.
Provide adequate feed and supplements. We give our chicks as much broiler starter as they can eat, an ample supply of fresh water with added electrolytes and probiotics, and chick grit. We also offer brewer’s yeast and kelp meal once a day free choice in separate supplement pans for added B vitamins and micronutrients. The brewer’s yeast usually prevents a protein deficiency which can cause picking and weak legs. The chicks know what they need, and brief observation of their reactions to these supplements will give you clues about their nutrition. We use probiotics and electrolytes in the chicks’ water throughout the brooder phase and during stressful times in the field.
Dedicate a pair of shoes to your brooder room. We dedicate a pair of shoes for brooder room chores. This helps safeguard against bringing in disease from other flocks or other farms.

Raising the Chicks

After three weeks in the brooder, the chicks move out to their shelters on our pasture. In those few weeks, we must prepare the little ones to graze on pasture, brave varying weather conditions, and prevail through the most terrifying aspect of life on this planet: nighttime. We must introduce all of these concepts to our chicks in the brooder.
Eat Your Greens! We give our birds a large pile of freshly cut grass and pasture on their 7th day and everyday thereafter. It is important to introduce fresh greens to the chicks early, so they recognize it as a food later in life.
Stay Warm, but not too Warm. The chicks’ behavior will tell you when to adjust the heat lamps. If you see the birds are forming a donut under the light it is time to raise up the lamps or lower the bulb’s wattage. We want to keep the birds warm, but we also want them to be able to regulate their own temperature by the end of their time in the brooder.
Good night, Sleep Tight. We feel it’s important to introduce the concept of night to the birds before they leave the brooder. On their 10th day, we turn off the lights at about 10:00 pm. At first, they are silent, then they start to cry, and usually quiet down within a half of an hour. Turning off the lights also helps regulate feed, so the birds do not consume too much and grow too fast.
Everything keeps growing. We continue to expand the size of our brooder as the chicks grow. We add two additional 10’ x 12’ rooms to our brooder in the course of three weeks. These additions are our outdoor pens pushed up against the barn and access is given through closable doors. If it is going to be cold, we will usher the chicks into the main brooder for the night and give full access during the days. We continue to increase the size and number of feeders and waterers as the chicks grow and their brooder

The success of a poultry operation hinges on the chicks’ life in the brooder. Our successful brooding regime relies on a few basic tenets: warmth, cleanliness, nutrition, and avian life skills.

Tags: Brewer's yeast, Brooder, Chickens, Cornish Rock-cross, Feed, Hatchery, In-Season farms, Supplements