Brooder Health Matters

There are things we apply to our livestock that we just don’t care to apply to ourselves because we are biologically different. For example, our cows can metabolize grass. We can not. But there are lots of biological similarities. Women won’t menstruate if they don’t have enough fat. Cows are the same. And I would love to share my observations about herd behavior in the airport vs. in the feedlot but I’m afraid it would not be well received.

Instead I’m going to talk about the chick brooder. Learning to brood chicks is BY FAR the most important thing to learn as you raise birds. If your chicks don’t get a good start in life, if they are wet and cold and catch pneumonia early on, they will never amount to much and you won’t have a quality product to sell. We don’t raise chickens for the companionship, we raise chickens because we treasure meat, eggs and manure. Any old bird will give you manure but to get the meat and eggs, the bird has to be healthy. To have a healthy bird, you need health in the brooder.

This post was inspired by an article I read about the recent increase in average human height. The article indicates that a lack of infection allows the body to focus more energy on growth. That seems pretty obvious. And that is the reason mainstream livestock production uses medicated feed in high-stress, high-density housing. So what’s a farmer to do if he wants to use the same animals used by the industry but deviates away from medication of any sort?

To raise a healthy Cornish Cross chick to the finish line in 6-8 weeks requires a healthy brooder environment. In February we took delivery of 303 birds, 3 were dead in the shipping boxes. 300 birds went into our brooder, 296 came out 3 and a half weeks later. In years past we have done better and we have done worse. The worse is always our fault…either because we neglected security and a cat got into the brooder or because we were not attentive enough during a cold snap and a group of chicks somehow got wet and died of hypothermia or piled on each other. A dead CX chick costs me around $1.20 and a couple of days of feeling bad and kicking myself. I can’t spare the cash or the emotions so we work pretty hard to keep them alive.

This year we brooded our chicks in the pig nursery in 300 gallon tanks. In a water tank there are no sharp corners for chicks to pile up in. Nobody gets crushed. There are no drafts. The pig nursery is a big, insulated box so cold weather and rain were not an issue and if the power had gone out we could have placed a kerosene heater or two in there and kept the space warm enough. The real trick was keeping enough fresh bedding under the birds to keep them clean, dry and healthy.

brooder health 1

I can’t overstate the importance of fresh bedding in the brooder. CX chicks poop a lot. Like, a lot lot. We used enough sawdust to completely fill each 300 gallon tank over the course of three weeks…obviously we scooped out a large portion of the bedding along the way.

To get started we put 5 or 6 buckets of sawdust and one 5-gal bucket of horse manure in each brooder space. The horse manure gives something for the chicks to scratch and pick at while inoculating the rest of the bedding pack. We are shooting for at least three things. We need clean, dry chicks, we need to feed and entertain the chicks (lots of tiny bugs live in the litter) and we need supplemental heat from the warm, composting bedding. To get this done we would add a bucket or two of fresh sawdust every day. Toward the end we were adding bedding twice each day. Every day the chicks would put down and scratch in a new layer of manure. Rinse and repeat.

By doing this we were keeping the chicks warm with heat lamps in an insulated building in brooders that were completely draft free. Beyond that, the chicks were warmed by the growing, living mass of compost beneath them. All we had to do was make feed available, keep the water clean and add in fresh bedding. Then, as a final benefit, we got three large loads of broiler litter to spread on our garden.

Obviously, animal health is a primary concern ranging far beyond chickens. Calf stress at weaning causes all kinds of performance problems. There are techniques we employ to minimize stress…everything from castrating pigs before they are 5 days old to weaning pigs by removing their mothers, not by removing the pigs. Lead, don’t chase or beat your cattle. Don’t yell in the corral. Keep your mouth shut, learn to read and leverage animal behavior.

So, OK. That stuff is not hard to understand. Is there a human application? Heck yes! Ever seen a politician work a herd of humans?

This is where I get myself into trouble. I’ll side step slightly by saying there are things we should monitor about our own environment and behavior to limit stress and disease. We don’t do this because we are concerned with maximizing human growth potential but, instead, simply because we are concerned with our own health. I want to raise animals without antibiotics and I don’t want to use them either. Not that I am some sort of science-doubting luddite (far from it), but because I would rather prevent a disease than cure it.

Is your brooder (home) a cold, sloppy mess or a warm, healthy environment that encourages development? Do you put yourself (or your children) in situations where you receive verbal or physical abuse (unhealthy workplace or bad public school)? Do you get regular sleep? Do you eat a variety of healthy food or do you eat wheat and sugar at every meal? Do you skip a breakfast now and then to throw your body a curve ball?

Look, I’m a computer guy who pretends to be a farmer. I am not pretending to be a health professional, a nutritional therapist or even a lifestyle coach. But are you aware of the average level of health in your community? Are you above or below the average? Does your shopping cart look like the average shopping cart?

If you need a little help making changes in your home brooder I encourage you to follow my wife’s blog. She regularly (well, maybe not regularly) writes about her continuing efforts to limit household clutter, encourage emotional development and enhance our health. If you have a problem with your chick brooder, feel free to ask.

7 thoughts on “Brooder Health Matters

  1. My broilers just went out on the field yesterday. A little (lot) later in the day than I intended, but the option was to wait till Wed (my next day off), when it is supposed to rain – and I want them to have a couple of warm dry days to acclimatize. They are exactly 3 weeks old today. I had 156 to start, I’m down to 144. Yup, at least 8 of those are my fault entirely. I entirely endorse your emphasis on the dry bedding, which has been my nemesis for the second year in a row (slow learner). I know the bedding being damp, despite daily additions of wood chip, is what contributed to some of these losses. I was tempted to take out the whole bedding pack and start over, thinking it’s the decomposition that’s causing some of the moisture, but then I started wondering if it’s the impermeable flooring underneath (old lino) that’s pushing moisture back up through the pack, so that putting down a fresh layer would only solve my problem for a day or two? I’m probably not adding enough chip when I’m doing it – and when I changed that up, it helped a little, and I know that they were too crowded in the brooder at the end, another cause. Any more suggestions?

  2. I’m thinking you would have the same issue with impermeable floor with the stock tank, so that’s not it. So maybe I should have taken the bedding out and started a fresh layer. It’s just so darn stressful for the birds…

    • Everything wants a dry place to lay down. Using more chips adds to your brooding costs but those wood chips are, in part or in whole, your fertilizer budget. Go to town. More is better.

      But be sure your structure has proper ventilation. If you don’t have enough carbon you’ll have a smell. By the time you notice the smell the animals are already suffering. Seriously. 10 gallons of dry sawdust, twice/day at the end.

      The brooder does get crowded at the end. We tend to start with 150 birds in a 300 gallon container. By the end we had maybe 60 in each container. Still using 2-4 buckets of sawdust. We’re talking a big volume of bedding. I am down to one tub full of bedding in the brooder. We have been spreading a little manure here and there this summer and it is always a mix of cow, horse, pig and chicken manure topped off with a little lime. That should provide our soil with a wide spectrum of fertility.

  3. Right, so more wood chip when I’m adding it. I think ventilation is OK – not perfect, but pretty good. I had trouble with that in my early days, and we’ve done better with it the last few years. I’m done brooding broilers for this year, but for next year, how much at a time in terms of depth? I was probably adding about an inch (2.5 cm) at a time, but clearly that wasn’t enough. And actually those bales of shavings are not very expensive – about $8.50/bale. Up till now, I’ve typically used 3 or 4 bales for 3 weeks of brooding. It does get spread later, too, as you say.

    I draw parallels between the farm animals and our human society all the time. And I say them out loud, though I’ve learned to pick my group of people to say it in front of :) Chickens and pigs are just scary in how familiar their culture is when compared to ours. I hadn’t thought of the home vs the brooder before….

    • I would think 2.5 cm would be about right. I was talking with Julie about it and it seems I left out an important detail. She would stir up the bedding as she was adding, preventing layers of crust from forming. The whole mass was kept loose and alive and oxygenated. But the real answer about depth is, “It depends.” You need to soak up the water and capture the nutrients. I was using course oak sawdust this year. Sounds like you are using pine shaving. Those are very different sponges so mileage may vary.

      There may be a design pattern in common between swine herd and human behavior. Or it may just be our way of looking for shapes in the clouds. I don’t know. But I am bothered when I find myself at the airport waiting in line to be inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected. I’m in a chute. There is no escape. No feed. No water. Waiting to be loaded. Wondering if I am a cull surrounded by other culls.

      I don’t think I am a cull. I think I am Sisyphus. But that’s another analogy for another day.

      • OK, that airport scenario is just depressing, thanks :). Sisyphus is just worse. The awful part of your airport thing is that we do that to ourselves, out of choice. Unlike cows, who have no dreams of travel or need to move from one side of a continent to another, but consider it a good day when they find the perfect clover, and the perfect place for resting in the shade to digest and doze.

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