Brooding chicks is a process of raising very young (less than 4 weeks old) poultry without their mothers. Brooding starts from the point of hatching either from an incubator such as the henmulator or from a clutch of chicks hatched naturally by the mother bird or a foster hen (in which case the chicks are separated from mom at or after hatching).
Birds need a suitable shelter, clean water, appropriate feed and supplemental heat to thrive.
Birds can be brooded any time of year, however springtime is the most natural since wild birds in temperate climates begin nesting in spring. At Jacob Springs Farm brooding begins with laying breeds of chickens and ducks in late February and transitions to meat chickens in mid to late April, before finally switching to turkey poults in Early July (in order to fulfill orders in time for Thanksgiving. The laying breeds are hardier, but they also grow more slowly - typically taking 6 months to really begin laying well - so it is useful to start them as early as practically possible in the spring so that birds begin laying before the days begin to get short in August and September. Meat chickens are more fragile and require less time to reach maturity. In many regenerative meat chicken systems birds are raised in portable chicken shelters that can only be used when weather is suitable so it does not make sense to start meat chickens much earlier than 4 weeks before the last frost date. Turkeys take 16-24 weeks to mature - those raised for the American or Canadian Thanksgiving holidays begin brooding at a date after the first of July.
Shelter for brooding chicks can be very simple - an un-heated shed can work in most climates starting in February or March. The location should have electricity or if not - propane or natural gas can be used. It should be roughly airtight (some cracks are ok) but be able to be ventilated. Natural light through a window is a plus. The main attribute should be protection against predators including cats and dogs.
The flooring should be covered in a material high in carbon to absorb moisture, ammonia from droppings and make for a good compost soil amendment when all is done. The best materials are those which are available free. Wood shavings are good (except for pure cedar which can irritate birds - small amounts can be mixed in without problems) the best shaving coming from carpentry operations with rotary knives such as planers and jointers. Second to that is shavings from ripping softwoods along the grain, sawdust from crosscutting operations can be very fine and is not as good - but can be useful if plentiful. Purchasing shavings is not economical for any but the smallest scales.
Other materials that can often be sourced for free are listed here in rough order of their suitability:
- pine shavings
- shredded paper
- rice hulls
- wood chips (coarse and requires changing more frequently)
- sand (no carbon - but can be used)