National Foods Stockfeeds :: From the Nutritionists Desk - Winter Brooding

The Nutritionist's Desk


Winter Brooding

Broiler Chicken Coup at Night with Lights On

It’s that time of the year again when our days are shorter, our nights are longer, and the temperatures are getting low. Most of us have dug deep into our wardrobes and retrieved pieces of clothes that only surface in winter. Everyone needs to go the extra mile to be comfortable in the cold weather and chicks, are no exception. In this article, I will explain why brooding is important and why it is vital to control temperature and provide good ventilation when brooding, especially in winter. Then I will highlight a few points to keep in mind when setting up a brooder.

Why the brooding period is so important

The brooding period is that time soon after a chick is hatched when it needs special care and attention to ensure that it survives and thrives to the best level possible. Much as the chick is anatomically complete at hatch, the digestive, thermoregulatory and immune systems are not yet completely developed. The development and maturation of these three systems is vital to ensure optimum function of the immune system and optimal health throughout the life of the chicken. The main aim of the farmer in brooding chicks is to efficiently and economically provide a conducive, comfortable, and healthy environment for the growing chickens so that these systems can be fully developed and functional.

The highest percentage of the feed consumed by a chick during the brooding stage is channeled towards growth, giving chicks a good start to life. When chicks are uncomfortable, especially due to low body temperatures, they do not take in sufficient feed and water. This will lead to retardation of growth and the poor development of internal organs, including organs that are involved in digestion. The digestive system plays an important role in the efficiency of utilisation of feed by the chicks. Better feed efficiency means more money for the farmer.

Temperature Control
Providing the right brooding conditions is important to obtain and maintain the right body temperature. A newly hatched chick is highly susceptible to chilling because it has not yet fully developed the mechanism to regulate its body temperature. It is only on day 14 that the chick is fully thermo competent such that the chick can maintain the proper body temperature. Therefore the brooding period is usually about 14 days long in the warmer months. In winter though, it is best to extend brooding to 21 days.

A young chick's body is covered only in down. Down is the name given to the layer of fine feathers on a bird that is found under the tough exterior feathers. Down has a poor insulating value, so if temperatures are not controlled, the chicks will rapidly lose heat through radiation and conduction. A chick also loses heat faster than an adult bird because the ratio of body surface to body mass is larger in the day-old chick than in the adult chick.

It is vital to monitor the following 3 temperatures:
1. Internal chick temperature – this can be measured by gently placing a child’s ear thermometer inside the chick’s cloaca. The ideal temperature ranges from 40°C to 40.5°C
2. Floor temperature – it is vital to achieve the correct floor temperature before the birds arrive. It is very important to regulate litter temperature because day-old chicks are highly dependent on floor contact to help regulate their body temperature. Brooding preparations should, therefore, start days before the arrival of chicks. Litter should be prepared and placed in the chicken house before the arrival of chicks. Around 12cm thickness of bedding is required in the winter months. 48 hours before the arrival of chicks, the litter must be preheated. Aim for litter temperature of at least 32ᵒC. This is especially important in winter when the chicken house floor is very cold due to the low temperatures. It is vital to measure the litter temperature at different points to make sure all litter is uniformly heated.
3. Air temperature – Table 1.1 shows the recommended temperatures during brooding. Minimum house temperature must be maintained at ±1°C of the recommended temperature at all times. Temperature readings must be taken at the level of the birds, below the knee.

Ventilation and its importance
In the winter season, a chicken house needs a much lower ventilation rate as compared to the warmer seasons. Even in the coldest weather though, a certain amount of fresh air must be allowed to flow into the chicken house. A minimum rate of the right kind of ventilation must be allowed to provide fresh air for the chicks and to exhaust undesirable gases from the chicken house. Hence when talking of ventilation in winter the term “minimum ventilation” is often used.

One of the most common problems in winter is high moisture in the poultry house. Moisture in the chicken house is produced by the heating system, the drinking system, and the birds themselves. Excessive moisture in the atmosphere within the chicken house results in wet litter and wet litter is associated with high ammonia concentrations, poor air quality, and respiratory problems. A good ventilation system prevents the problem of high moisture. To understand this better, let us first discuss humidity.

In simple terms, when we talk of humidity, we are referring to water vapour in the atmosphere. Relative humidity refers to the amount of water vapour in the air, expressed as a percentage of the maximum moisture the air can hold at a given temperature. As air temperature rises, the relative humidity drops, meaning that warm air can “take up” more water vapour than cold air. When we allow for minimum ventilation, we allow fresh cold air from the outside to come in and mix with the warm air inside the chicken house. As the cold air from outside mixes with the warm air inside, the relative humidity of the air reduces, allowing it to absorb and carry away excess moisture from the chicken house. Ventilation in winter is typically timer driven, not thermostat driven as is the case in warmer seasons. Table 1.1 shows the recommended humidity levels to keep in a brooder.

Table 1.1

 Age (days) Relative humidity  Temperature °C 
 0 30-50  34 
 7  40-60 31 
14  40-60  27 
21  40-60  24 

Adapted from

In addition to removing excess moisture, good ventilation is essential to maintain the good air quality in the brooder. Ideal air for chicks would contain 19.5% oxygen, less than 3000ppm carbon dioxide, less than 10ppm ammonia, less than 10ppm carbon monoxide, and less than 3.4mg/m3. Sufficient oxygen is required by chicks during the early stages of growth as this will ensure the proper development of the cardiovascular system. Chicks are capable of inhaling sufficient oxygen even if oxygen levels in the air are lower than normal. A problem arises though when there is a combination of high concentrations of poisonous gases, high temperatures, and high humidity in the chicken house.

Some poisonous gases found in poultry houses are:
1. Carbon dioxide (CO2) – The carbon dioxide in poultry houses largely originates from the air exhaled by the birds. At times the level of carbon dioxide increases in the house because of poor ventilation. In an aim to keep the birds safe from draught, a farmer may close all openings thus leaving the house insufficiently ventilated.
2. Ammonia (NH3) –The ammonia content of the poultry house air depends on ventilation, temperature, relative humidity, and stocking density. Water is required to transform poultry droppings to ammonia; therefore reducing relative humidity reduces ammonia emissions. High ammonia concentrations irritate the mucous membranes and may cause eye damage.
3. Carbon monoxide (CO) – Carbon monoxide is an odourless, very dangerous gas. It is the result of incomplete combustion of fossil fuels due to a lack of oxygen in gas heaters or charcoal heaters.

The time chicks spend exposed to poisonous gases poses a danger to the birds. For example, chicks can tolerate levels of 600ppm of carbon monoxide for 30minutes, but a level of 3000ppm can kill the chicks within 2hours. It is therefore vital that air is allowed to circulate within the chicken house so that poisonous gases are carried out and fresh clean air is brought in.

Points to remember
Having spoken of the importance of maintaining and the right temperature and providing good ventilation, here are some points to remember when setting up a brooder in winter:

  • Ensure that the chicken house has been cleaned and disinfected.
  • Calculate the correct size of the brooding area needed. One can choose to have a brooding circle in winter. Use a brooder guard to secure the brooding circle. A brooder guard is a thin sheet of metal or hardboard that is approximately 40cm high. These guards are used to restrict the movement of chicks so that the chicks are kept close to the brooder so that they stay warm. They also reduce draught. The area surrounded by the brooder guard must be sufficient enough for chicks to move towards or away from the heat source to find their temperature comfort zone.
  • Place litter in the brooding area. Make sure to warm this litter starting 48 hours before the arrival of chicks.
  • Set up a light source over the brooding area to achieve uniform light distribution.
  • Select and set up the heating system that suits your circumstances. The brooder must be turned on 48hours before the arrival of chicks. 3 types of heaters are:
    • Hover brooders which can be used for a flock of up to 1,000 chicks. They can be powered by gas or electricity. Figure 1.1 shows a brooding area where a gas-powered heater is in use.
    • For smaller flocks, one can use infrared heat lamps. These need to be suspended with an adjustable chain or wire so that the lamp is approximately 50cm from the ground.
    • Charcoal stove –this is used where there is limited electricity. Care must be taken to ensure that smoke from these stoves does not negatively affect the air quality in the house.
  • Place chick paper or newspaper to cover 50% of the brooder space. Place drinkers and feed trays evenly in the brooding area. Do not place drinkers and feeders directly under the heat source. Excess heat may drive the chicks away.
  • Suspend a thermometer at chick height (as shown in Figure 1.2)
  • 2 hours before chicks arrive spread a thin layer of National Foods Broiler Triphase 1 Crumbles in the feed trays and on the chick paper.
  • Fill the drinkers with clean fresh water.
  • When chicks are being transported to the brooder, ensure box temperature is maintained at 32°C. When they arrive at the farm, do not let them face the direction of the wind. Quickly but gently offload them into the brooder.
  • Observe their behaviour and adjust the environment accordingly.
  • Set goals and seek to achieve these. Let the achievement or non-achievement of these goals indicate to you whether your brooding program is successful or not.

In conclusion, there is nothing to fear when it comes to brooding in winter. Please do not hesitate to get in touch with any of the technical team from National Foods. We are here to assist you in getting the most benefit from your poultry enterprise.

Broiler Chicken Coup at Night with Lights On

Picture courtesy of Dr G. Chatukuta

Broiler Day Old Chicken Coup with Thermometer

Picture courtesy of Dr G. Chatukuta

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