Poultry production: Ensure that your chicks get the best start

Any extra care during the important brooding period will result in strong, viable chicks able to withstand the stress of the early rapid-growth period.

Proper house sanitation, maintenance, rest and preparation before receiving the chicks is of vital importance. A minimum rest period of 14 days, after the house has been cleaned and sanitised, is recommended.

The term ‘brooding’ covers the period when the farmer takes care of the chicks after hatching, until they are fully feathered and can maintain their body temperature.

Here are some guidelines to ensure a good brooding period:

  • Ensure that the heating system is operating correctly and switch on the heat at least 24 hours before the chicks arrive. Set the system to achieve 32 – 34°C in the house. If spot brooding is being used, the brooders should be set on at least 34°C and the rest of the house warmed up to at least 26ºC. This will ensure that the litter, and the floor, are warm.
  • Place the chicks on fresh, clean litter that’s been evenly spread out to a depth of
    8 – 10cm. Be aware that mouldy litter could contain the fungus Aspergillus, and if the spores are inhaled by the chicks excessive mortality will result.
  • Remember that most heating systems have been designed to operate in insulated houses. During winter, in open-sided houses, the systems will not provide sufficient heat for the number of chicks, as specified by the manufacturer. So it is essential that you make sure your system can cope with the ambient temperatures in your area, without compromising the availability of fresh air.
  • Make sure gas cylinders do not freeze in winter.
  • Reduce the house temperature by about 1°C every two days so that, starting at
    34°C, the temperature will be reduced to 24°C after 21 days.
  • Keep a close watch on the chicks – they will tell you if the house conditions are too hot, too cold or just right. They must be able to move freely to obtain feed and water without being too cold or too hot.
  • Make sure there’s always adequate ventilation. Ensure that there are no draughts; and again, let the chicks be your guide – a contented peep and evenly distributed chicks around the feed and water indicate comfortable conditions.

  • Water should be put out at least 24 hours before the chicks arrive to allow it to reach room temperature. If you use sugar or vitamins and electrolytes for the first day it will help combat the negative effects of transport and placement, especially if the transport time is extensive.
  • A minimum of one chick water source per 100 chicks is recommended; 15 fonts per 1 000 chicks is a good option.
  • Keep the fonts free of shavings – covering them with chick box lids, masonite squares or ceramic floor tiles will help to keep out shavings.
  • When the fonts are removed, ensure that the drinkers are in place and that the chicks have had time to locate them. Remove the fonts gradually over two to three days so that the chicks do not go without water.
  • Nipple drinkers are being used successfully without supplementary fonts; check with the manufacturers regarding the correct number of nipples, especially if you start with half-house brooding.
  • It is very important to have the water analysed. Check for bacterial contamination as well as mineral content. There are very few areas where the water is not contaminated by bacteria.
  • Make sure the feed is always fresh and freely available. Use newspaper, chick box lids, flower pot bases or plastic feeder trays to ensure that chicks get started immediately after placement. Ensure that you meet the minimum specifications for pan or tube feeder numbers per 100 chicks.
  • Feeders and drinkers have to be correctly placed around the heat source to make sure there are no obstructions preventing the chicks from eating or drinking. Chicks huddling on feed pans under the brooders will prevent others eating.
  • Check the crops of about 100 chicks, 24 hours after placement. If 90% of the chicks have full crops it indicates that they have had a very good start.


  • It will help the chicks to have continuous light for the first week, if you have the lights available. After that, include a period of darkness of at least nine hours. In fact, many farmers use natural daylight only; consult your chick supplier to find out what the breed recommendations are.
  • Always check the chicks at night to make sure that all the systems are operating correctly.
  • Pay attention to the chicks; their behaviour will tell you whether or not they are comfortable. If they huddle to one side of the heat or the house, there’s a draught. If it’s too cold, the chicks will chirp and huddle under the heat source. If they move away and are drowsy, the temperature has been set too high.


  • This article was first published in the book: Guide to poultry production, published by Landbouweekblad.

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