Just before New Year’s we received another barn full of chicks, which is one of my favorite days! All babies are cute, but none more than those fuzzy yellow and brown chicks. It’s a cold time of the year, but the chicks are housed inside, warm and dry. Actually, really, really, warm – about 35oC. We adjust the fans so that there aren’t any drafts, but they are still able to vent out the stale air and rid the barn of excess humidity.
We want to make it easy for the chicks to eat and drink. They are hand-fed for about the first 5 days, and the feed troughs are kept full as well because the chicks like hanging out there. We have two types of waterers in the cages – a nipple style and a cup style. The nipple drinkers are the type that they will continue to use throughout their lifetime, which mimics the way they would drink in the wild. There is also a cup style drinker that allows them to access water without reaching or struggling.
The lights are kept on for about 22 hours a day for the first week or so and the lighting is bright, so that they learn to find the food and water. As with most species, there are some stronger, more aggressive birds who try to “hog” the space. The initial long day-light hours helps give equal footing to all the chicks.
So, everything sounds wonderful, right? Unfortunately, some chicks are dying. There is always a small percentage, about 1-2%, that don’t survive the first week. Here’s a photo comparing two chicks at 6 days of age. The one on the right is bigger, is losing its fluff, and is starting to grow feathers. It feels plump and wriggly in my hands. The one on the left is small, and while it is growing wing feathers, it is dying. When I pick it up, it barely weights anything. When I check its crop and body condition, I only feel bones. I feel sad knowing that this chick will not survive another day.
We even set up hospital cages, where we can isolate small numbers of chicks; however, these ones haven’t learned to drink and eat well. That leads them to becoming weak and they won’t actively search for food or water. We farmers, as stewards of the flocks, try to ensure that all their needs are met and that they do not suffer in any way. When we find chicks in this condition, they are euthanized quickly. We don’t want them to be pecked on by larger, stronger birds, nor do we want to prolong their suffering.
With every flock, farmers ask themselves what we can do to prevent this, and what can we do better next time. I discuss strategies with the staff and note any concerns or suggestions that they might have. There are variations in each flock – how old the parent flocks are, delivery times and conditions from the hatchery, keeping the barn conditions as close to ideal as possible, and providing those 3 essential elements: air, water and feed. I believe that care is another critical component, and while we provide that, sometimes it just isn’t enough. SIGH!