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Sourcing and managing day old chicks

Sourcing and managing day old chicks

Hatchery business is considered a highly specialised job and as such the industry in Kenya is characterized by a few accredited hatcheries mainly concentrated in some parts of the country. Poultry farmers usually place their orders for day old chicks from these hatcheries through agents and distributors across the country. However, given the current situation where demand for day old chicks is by far more than supply (sometimes orders take as long as a month or more before they are supplied especially during peak periods of demand), desperation on the part of the farmers and agents have resulted in sourcing and supply of chicks from unknown hatcheries to meet the demand making the source of day old chicks a very crucial aspect of poultry farming. Chicks from different hatcheries vary greatly in terms of quality and as such the type of chicks you stock on your farm have an implication on the success of your poultry farm in the long run, after all other reasonable conditions are followed.

For starters, you need to identify the hatchery of choice. It is advisable that a farmer without prior knowledge of a particular hatchery to carry out a comprehensive investigation of the hatchery before choosing the hatchery as the source for their day old chicks. Consider the following; does the hatchery maintain a breeding flock to produce fertilized eggs for incubation or does it outsource fertilized eggs from different farms. Also does the hatchery have a comprehensive history of vaccination and health management programme for the breeding flock? A reliable hatchery should be able to provide its customer with this information in addition to performance guide on production and efficiency of their stock whether layers, broilers or kienyeji. Secondly, the farmer should not at any time compromise the quality of chicks for the sake of costs as quality of chicks is crucial. Quality assessment of chicks should be done at the hatchery by observing that:

  • The chicks are clean, dry and free from dirt and contamination, with clear and bright eyes
  • The chicks are active and alert, have no difficulty standing on their feet and are capable to get up after being placed on its back
  • The navels are completely sealed since poorly closed navel is an indication of navel/yolk sac infection which result in mortality
  • The chicks are free from any obvious deformity such as crossed beak or missing eye
  • The body is firm to the touch and there should no sign of respiratory distress
  • The legs have the normal conformation, with no swelling and no hock or skin lesion with firm and straight toes

Thirdly, it’s also important to have knowledge on the vaccination profile of the chicks from the hatchery. This should include evidence of vaccination for Mareks disease. In most cases, the hatchery will issue a certificate of vaccination (that means the vaccination the batch already received) and further a vaccination guide that you are expected to continue with on your farm to ensure proper health management of your stock.

Once chicks have been purchased, transportation of day old chick from hatchery to farm site has to be done in the proper way to reduce or eliminate mortality during transits. Day old chicks are very tender and must be handled with care. Mortality during transits should not be more than 2% of the whole stock. This figure may vary because mortality rate during transportation is also a reflection of the quality of the chicks. During transportation consider the following:-

  • Use a vehicle that has free air circulation- a well aerated vehicle is the ideal
  • Transport the chicks when the weather is friendly to them; when it is cold. This should be done very early in the morning or evening when the sun has set but not between noon and 4pm.
  • During the transportation of the chicks, go straight to the farm. Avoid unnecessary stop over on the way.

Before arrival of the chicks, the brooder environment and equipment should be prepared 3-4 weeks in advance. This involves cleaning and disinfecting all equipment, brooder house and its surrounding environment. Thereafter, decide on the type of heat source that you will use. Artificial heat sources include infrared bulbs, heat lamps, electric hovers, gas hovers, stove and hot water radiators. Each of the heat sources works satisfactorily as long as it is set-up in a safe manner and maintains a constant temperature comfortable for the chicks. Choose litter material that takes part in temperature regulation of the poultry house and is easy to manage. Consider fresh wood shavings that are dry and clean. Ensure the wood shavings are spread out evenly (3 inches level) as an uneven litter creates uneven pockets of temperature, which may cause grouping of chicks to hide, depriving themselves of feed and water. Avoid saw dust as this may cause respiratory problems among the chicks while wet litter forms a conducive environment for coccidiosis. For the first week it is good practice to put feed on a spread out carton or newspaper to help the chicks distinguish feed from litter as well easy accessibility of feed. Remember that chicks should never be brooded on slippery surfaces; this is because if they lack good traction they may develop permanent leg damage. Six hours prior to the arrival of chicks to farm, the artificial heat source should be turned on to preheat the brooder house. If the period is during the rainy season, preheat the brooder 12 hours before arrival of day old chicks. This will ensure that shavings are warm and the environment /air temperature is conducive for the day old chicks since their performance and liveliness depends on this. Temperature on arrival must be in the range of 32-340c.

On arrival of the day old chicks to the farm house, transfer them to the brooder gently to avoid damage or excessive stress on the chicks. Provide warm water that has been mixed with glucose, chick formula and liquid paraffin to give them energy and help them get off to a better start for the first 3-5 days. Do not feed them immediately; introduce feed on the 3rd day.

Management for the first 4 weeks of the chicks’ life is by far the most valuable skill a poultry farmer must acquire because the chicks are totally dependent upon you to meet its needs.

Key pointers on successful brooding management:-

Space requirement: - Provide brooder floor spacing of 25 chicks/m2 for layers and 20 chicks/m2 for broilers to prevent overcrowding. Ensure the brooder is corner free by using hard boards and wooden pegs to avoid piling of chicks in corners. Depending on the type of heat source being used, allow 1000 chicks per hover or 200 chicks per infrared bulb. Provide one drinker (water fountain of 3 - 4 litres) for every 50 chicks; use drinkers that chicks can reach but not fall into to avoid drowning. Use chick feeders of 0.5m for every 20 chicks.

Temperature regulation: - Consider using both a thermometer and chick behavior to guide you on regulation of temperature in the brooder house. The table shows recommended brooding temperature regulated on a weekly basis at the rate of 20c until room temperature is achieved by the 4th week

Period (weeks) Temperature (0c)
1st 32-34
2nd 30-32
3rd 28-30
4th 26-28
>4 Room temperature

Observe the following chick behaviors to gauge if the chicks are in their comfort level:

  1. If the temperature is right, chicks are evenly distributed throughout the brooding area indicating comfort. If temperature is low, chicks get cold and chilled and they tend to huddle under the heat source. If temperature is high, chicks stray far away from the heat source.
  2. You can also tell if the temperatures are too extreme by looking at the chick legs. If the chicks are chilled, their legs will be cold to the touch and appear puffy and swollen. If the brooding area is extremely hot, the legs will look dry, thin and dehydrated.

Before chicks attain age of two weeks, strictly adhere to the temperature range. At this stage, they cannot adjust to wide range of temperature fluctuations on their own. After two weeks, they are capable of regulating their own body temperature due to feathering and increased physical activities. By the 4th week the birds would have started eating large quantity of feed and their body totally covered with feathers therefore, heating should be discontinued. Provide dim light 24 hours to maximize on feed intake (bright light is not advisable as it may cause toes to shine leading to toe pecking).

Feeding: - For layer chicks, provide chick mash at the rate of 35 – 75 g/bird/day increasing the amount gradually from the 1st to the 8th week. For broiler chicks, provide broiler starter at the rate of 35 – 90g/bird/day increasing the amount gradually for the first 3 weeks. Provide your chicks with feeds that are of high quality. Ensure the feeds contain coccidiostat to help control coccidiosis and for the broiler starter antioxidants should be also inclusive. Also check for the crude fiber content in the chicks feeds. Provide clean drinking water on daily basis.

Health management: - Brooder house should be isolated with restricted access to help reduce disease outbreak. Have a footbath with disinfectant at the brooder entrance. Do not close the brooder house completely to allow proper ventilation as well. Ensure to change the litter material every fortnight and in the case of wet litter, this should be changed immediately to prevent subjecting the chicks to diseases. The vaccination schedule should be done in the following order; a combined vaccine of New Castle Disease (NCD) and Infectious bronchitis should be done on the 7th day and on the 21st day while Gumboro (IBD) should be done on the 14th day and on the 28th day. The second vaccination of each of the diseases is done to boost the 1st vaccination. Ensure after each vaccination chicks are provided with water containing either glucose or anti-stress agents to reduce the adverse effects of the vaccine.

By following these tips on sourcing of chicks, how and when to transport the chicks and brooding management for the first four weeks, mortality rate should not exceed 10% of the initial population. Watch your flock daily for signs of unusual behaviour. Failure to eat, drink or react normally is indications of a problem. A quick diagnosis and treatment from a specialist can save your flock from unnecessary mortality.