Delicate journey of rearing chicks to healthy birds

Overall flock performance greatly depends on proper brooding practice. During this period chicks are not able to regulate their own body temperature — a process known as thermo-regulation. Provision of a heat source is therefore fundamental.PHOTO: COURTESY

I recently visited one Mr Nzomo, a retired government officer who ventured into kienyeji poultry farming after receiving his golden handshake package.

Nzomo knew poultry farming is a worthwhile venture and with his 1.5 acre land, he was set. What my client lacked was information and know-how to jumpstart his new project.

Few days after receiving his batch of 400 kari improved kienyeji chicks, he started experiencing challenges. Mortality, slow growth rate and huddling of chicks together were some of the complaints he had.

Nzomo did not have a clue what a brooder was and its purpose. He had his day-old chicks occupying the whole poultry coop measuring about 30ft by 20ft. This called for an emergency brooder management training which I practically conducted at his farm plus brooder construction.

Brooding refers to the first two to four weeks of a bird’s life. This is the most important period of the chick and negative effects caused by poor brooding management are usually detrimental and irreversible.


Overall flock performance greatly depends on proper brooding practice. During this period chicks are not able to regulate their own body temperature — a process known as thermo-regulation. Provision of a heat source is therefore fundamental.

The immune system, digestive and vital organ development as well as long bones develop during this period. The most rapid growth rate takes place and this gives the chicks a good start to life.
Several fundamental factors come into play when brooding is being considered.

These encompass pre-placement preparation, temperature management, feed and water management, light, air quality and ventilation.


This starts two weeks before placement of the new flock.

Cleaning and disinfection are performed to eliminate any disease-causing organisms present from the previous flock. Once the spent flock is disposed off, the manure should be removed and cleaning of the entire poultry house done.

All equipment used by the previous flock should be washed and disinfected.

The old litter/manure should be appropriately disposed off away from the farm to avoid re-contamination. Cleaning of the house involves cleaning the roof, walls and floor.

Use water and soap, followed by a terminal disinfectant such as TH4 or ultraxide. The same disinfectants are also used to clean the feeders as well as drinkers and also applied in the foot bath.

The litter should also be sprayed with disinfectant and left to dry before the chicks arrive. Wood shavings are commonly used. Straw, coffee husks or rice husks can also be used as litter. Saw dust (fine wood particles) should be avoided since chicks can ingest and end up having digestive issues.


Inexpensive material such as tri-ply (plywood) should be used to construct the brooder. A plywood is bendable and is split into two equal parts of 4ft by 2ft.

The two are folded into a C-shape to make a circle- eliminating any possible corners where chicks can huddle together leading to death. The disinfected litter is placed on the floor. Litter helps in insulation against the cold floor and also absorbs moisture from the chicken stool.

Source of heat- mostly brooding jiko or heat bulbs are placed at the center of the brooder.

This should be lit two to four hours before chicks arrive. The temperature of the house should be between 30-32C for the first week, reducing by 2C every consecutive week.

Curtains should be placed around brooder and also ensure ventilation is not compromised by leaving some open space between the curtain and the ceiling. Thermometers can be used to monitor temperature. In cases where thermometers are not available- behaviour of chicks can act as a guide.
Cold chicks huddle together in a tight group mostly under a heat source or in a corner- they avoid drinking water and prefer eating.


Respiratory problems, pneumonia, diarrhoea and poor growth are some effects of chilling in chicks.
Overheating in chick is expressed as panting, appear drowsy, open wings, move away from the heat source and avoid eating; but drink a lot of water to cool down.

One of the overheating signs include watery crop — indicating the chick has consumed more water and little or no feed. Comfortable chicks are dispersed evenly in the brooder and are active other than when resting. Drinkers are provided with clean, fresh water- warmed to room temperature. Glucose, vitamins and liquid paraffin (not kerosene) are provided in the drinking water. Glucose provides energy, vitamins- reduce stress and also boost their immunity. Liquid paraffin has a laxative effect and assists in passage of the initial stool.

Feed is provided in feeding trays or on paper placed on the litter.
Supplemental feeder trays should be provided to ensure maximum availability and accessibility to feeds for all the chicks.

Free moving space around feeders and drinkers should be availed as well. Brooding area is normally enlarged as the chicks grow- to avoid overcrowding.

- The writer is a veterinarian surgeon and runs Nature Kuku, a farm in Naivasha that produces kuku kienyeji breed and trains small holder farmers.

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