Rosemary Njoki feeds her two day old chicks in Kikambala, Kilifi county.

The universal aim of any commercial poultry farmer, is to achieve rapid growth rates as per the genetic potential of the bird, attain good flock uniformity right from the beginning and experience an excellent livability.

Any productivity of a flock is dependent on the successful attainment of body weight targets from an early age. Most farmers are certainly conversant with the need to provide chicks with adequate feed and water, the right stocking densities as the birds grow, ventilation and the right temperatures.

It is increasingly becoming important that the birds also need some time of darkness to replenish their energy or glycogen levels which fall during the light hours. Chickens deprived sleep lose weight despite increasing feed intake. Today I want to try to explain when and how to grow birds in darkness to ensure that they also rest and prepare for the next activity.

Commercial Broilers

Most broiler farmers are familiar with the four key components of a broiler house. They include proper house construction that will protect the birds from external weather changes, good heating system, minimum ventilation system to reduce toxic gases and maintain optimum temperatures and relative humidity conditions. Lighting should be oriented to provide an even distribution of light at the floor level. Attraction lights running centrally along the length of the brooding area, are placed above the heat source to attract chicks to feed and water.

During the first three days, it is important to keep the chicks under a maximum light regime (22 to 23 hours) with a high intensity (30-40 lux) to encourage the intake of water and feed. Bright light (30–50 lux) during day one to seven helps chicks quickly find feed and water and adapt to the new environment. The light hours should then be gradually reduced to minimum 18 hours/day, until slaughter. Body weights must, however, be keenly watched as you reduce the light hours.

If the birds are growing within expected standard weights, the darkness should be gradually maintained at four to six hours a day. This will provide rest periods for chicks, synchronizes chick’s activities and feedings, and hence establishes a more natural behaviour of rest and activity. This lighting programme will improve day seven livability and overall body weight and stimulate antibody response from vaccinations. If the body weights are below expected standards, DO NOT reduce light periods. Here is how it is practically done.

Provide 24 hours light on the first day of placement to ensure adequate feed and water intake. Turn the lights off on the second night to establish when that off time will be. Once set, this time must never change for the life of the birds.

Once the switch off time has been established for the flock, any adjustment should be by adjusting the on time only. Birds soon get used to when the off time is approaching and will “crop-up” and drink before the lights go off. Use a single block of darkness in each 24-hour period.

Commercial Layers

For layer farmers, for many years, these egg producers have put a lot of efforts in rearing these high genetic breeds for the vast egg market. The genetic potential of these birds will only be achieved through good management and know-how of experienced farmers. When it comes to lighting programme, the first one to three days is no different from broilers. As the birds grow, the light hours should be gradually reduced by two hours every week and by the sixth week, the birds should be on natural day lights of 13 hours in open sided housing system. Keep light bulbs and bulbs covers clean to prevent loss of light intensity.

Avoid very intensive light to minimise pecking and cannibalism behaviour.  Shades are an effective way to decrease light intensity in an open-sided house. Avoid direct sunlight on birds by using shades or roof overhangs. Black shades are preferred. Chickens are sensitive to changes in lighting period and in retrospect will influence sexual maturity. Do not rear birds entirely on full light or else you will encounter delayed sexual maturity and delay in egg production.

[The writer is Head vet at Kenchic, [email protected]]

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