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Brooding Chicks

When you lift the lid off your incubator/hatcher to see your latest arrivals the rather daunting task of caring for them hits you.

The preparation for your new brood should begin several days before they hatch.

Whether you place them in a shed or a box the same principles apply. The box/pen should provide a draught-free environment which allows your chicks enough room to move around but not so much space that they are too far from drinkers and feeders. Their accommodation should be secure enough to keep predators such as rats and magpies out and your chicks in.

Housing and Environment

The brooding pen should be cleaned and disinfected after the previous batch of chicks have been moved out. In their ten first weeks of life your newly hatched chicks will be vulnerable to Mareks infection and because your new arrivals do not inherit immunity against coccidiosis it is advisable to use a disinfectant such as Interkokask or Bi-oo-cyst which is licensed to destroy coccidiosis and the Mareks virus.

Next you should bed your chick pen with suitable bedding material- Chicken Vet advises the use of clean dust-free wood shavings. These should be at least 2” deep.

Now sort your heat and light source and place in the pen. Infrared heat lamps are most commonly used. Make sure you use a ceramic bulb holder as the plastic ones melt and can be a fire hazard. If you choose to use an infra red bulb ensure it does not come into contact with water-especially splashes from the drinker as this can crack the glass.

Alternatively gas heaters can be used with 60 Watt household bulbs to provide light so the chicks can see their food and water. Ideally the temperature for the first few days should be kept around 32-33ºC (AT CHICK LEVEL). For a heat lamp or gas brooder the hottest area under its centre should be 40 ºC with the coolest area being 24ºC. You can use a thermometer to check the air temperature at chick height. You will notice even if you do not have a thermometer your chicks will tell you if they are too hot or too cold. If the chicks are too cold they will be huddled under the heat source and if too hot they will be at the edges of the pen to escape the heat.

Your chicks should be evenly spread around the pen with some eating, some drinking and some sleeping. As the chicks grow the temperature should be reduced by around 3ºC per week.

Switch on the heat source 48 hours before placing the chicks so their environment including bedding is warmed to the desired temperature prior to their arrival.

It is important to provide your chicks with fresh water daily. Ensure your drinkers are thoroughly cleaned and that they are low enough for the chicks to drink out of but make sure that the chicks cannot drown in them. Some people use the bottoms of old milk containers but these are so light, when empty the chicks can tip them over and become trapped. Anilyte+C, containing aniseed to give the drinking water a pleasant taste along with electrolytes to hydrate the chick, can be added to the water for the first few days. This should help get your chicks off to the best possible start. In their first week chicks should drink approximately 25mls of water per day.


Chicks should have fresh starter crumbs placed daily in clean appropriately sized troughs.  Always ensure the crumbs are in date as out of date crumbs may have less vitamins leading to deficiencies in your birds. In its first week a chick will eat around 90 grams of feed.  Feeders should cover around 50% of the brooding area.

Ideally feeders and drinkers should be red to encourage the chicks to peck them and discover their food and water.

When you come to remove the chicks from the incubator/hatcher only remove the dry chicks- leave any wet ones to dry in the incubator/hatcher.

Some of the eggs will still have chicks hatching- do not be tempted to break the shell as the chicks will bleed and be more prone to infections.  Chicks which do not hatch on their own are not meant to be.

When you have your chicks in their new home watch them and listen to them.

Happy chicks will be eating, drinking, sleeping and making a low pitched cheeping sound. High pitched cheeping occurs when a chick is not happy e.g. has been pecked by another chick or its environment is not correct. Observe the chick’s distribution in the pen. Are they huddled as they are cold or are they standing to avoid a draught?


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Yolk Sac Infection


Yolk sac infection is caused by bacteria (usually E. coli) getting into the yolk of the chick which remains inside the chick for the first few days (3-5) of life as a food source.

These bacteria can enter the egg during incubation through dirt on the egg’s shell; this is especially common if the eggs have not been laid in the nest or have been washed prior to incubation.


Bacteria can also enter the eggs during incubation from dirty incubators and hatchers, this is very common if an infected infertile egg explodes. Finally, the bacteria can enter the chick’s navel after hatching.

These chicks usually have a foul odour (smell like rotten eggs) and often are hunched up. Sadly most of them die within the first five days of life. Even if they do survive they will often be stunted.


Some people recommend giving antibiotics to help them but in reality they often only prolong the inevitable. You will need to contact your vet if you wish to attempt to treat these infected chicks.

Prevention and Treatment

The best prevention is excelIent incubator and hatcher hygiene. Follow manufacturers instructions carefully with regard to cleaning and disinfecting, this will provide clean conditions in your brooding pen following a hatch.


For more information read our articles in the Breeding section.


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Along with yolk sac infection the other common problem with young chicks is starve-outs. A newly hatched chick has its yolk sac within it to help provide it with sustenance during its first four days of life.

Sadly, for unknown reasons, these chicks fail to learn to eat and drink so when their yolk sac runs out at four days of age they die.

Affected chicks appear much smaller than their counterparts, they often loudly cheep to complain and they will have a completely empty crop.

There is no one reason for chicks not to eat and drink but there are many possible contributing factors-

  • poor health of the parents
  • incorrect incubator settings
  • incorrect temperatures
  • incorrect humidity
  • poor lighting
  • not enough accessible drinkers and feeders

There is no treatment for starve outs and unfortunately they will not survive. You can help prevent starve outs by adding Anilyte+C to your chicks drinking water for the first few days as the aniseed extract will give their water a pleasant taste encouraging them to drink whilst the electrolytes will help hydrate them getting them off to the best start possible.

The chicks environment must be the correct temperature with a good source of light and they have access to feed and water.


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Brooder Pneumonia

Aspergillus Infection In Chicks

Aspergillosis is a fungal disease commonly found in the past to cause pneumonia in young chicks hence it was frequently called “brooder pneumonia”.

Aspergillosis is caused by a fungus called Aspergillus with the most common species being fumigatus

This fungus can grow in the environment including in feed, bedding and in extreme situations in animal tissues. The fungus produces spores which are spread in the air going on to germinate therefore completing the fungal life cycle.

Normally the environment contains some Aspergillus spores which when inhaled by healthy adult birds and mammals are harmless. However, there are a number of factors which can tip the balance in favour of the fungus:

  • an environment containing high levels spores can overwhelm the body’s natural defences which causes the disease such as day old chicks under brooders (hence the term brooder pneumonia).
  • animals ill with other diseases are more vulnerable to infection.
  • environmental factors such as extreme cold, high levels of ammonia or high dust levels can stress the chickens lowering their immune system. This reduces their ability to fight infection which increases the chances of developing aspergillosis.
  • antibiotic medication will result in a greater risk of development as antibiotics kill all bacteria on the surface of the respiratory tract leaving more room for fungal attachment and infection.

The fungus likes warm moist conditions in which to grow and produce spores therefore feed or bedding which has become wet then warm provides an ideal place for this fungus to grow. When this happens in a chicks environment and is heated with brooders the spore levels can become very high and go on to produce disease in young birds.

The other common place for the fungus to grow is within eggs in the incubator. These infected eggs can burst and release high levels of spores consequently infecting the other chicks in the incubator.

Once the spores take hold the fungus grows primarily in the affected chickens airways causing difficulty in breathing. These chickens often gasp with their mouths open. Unlike many respiratory diseases the birds do NOT sound chesty. The fungus can spread around the body often to the nervous system and eyes causing blindness, a twisted head and paralysis. 

The disease is diagnosed based upon clinical signs and post mortem with fungal cultures being used to confirm the suspicion of brooder pneumonia. On PM the birds will have white/grey/yellow nodules in their air sacs and lungs. Once infected, birds will rarely recover as there is no suitable treatment (antifungals such as Itraconazole may be tried but must be prescribed by a vet), antibiotics will not help. Such birds are best being humanely put to sleep. The next thing to do is to try and identify the primary source of the spores. It’s worth replacing the litter and feed.

Aspergillus cannot be spread from chicken to chicken but it is quite likely in a heavily contaminated environment that several birds will pick up the infection at the same time. It ought to be pointed out that Aspergillus can affect humans especially if immuno-suppressed.

The key with Aspergillus is prevention.  The environment and feed should be kept clean, dry, dust-free. We recommend bedding such as bales of shavings produced for horses. The chick environment should be cleaned and disinfected between batches of chicks.


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