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Brooding Chicks on Deep Litter

Guest Article: © The material on this page is copyright by Jean Nick, December 2006.

I found most helpful Jean’s description of using a continually-maturing deep litter to start chicks in an artificial brooder; and received her permission to include it as a sidebar in my article “When Life Gives You Lemons. . .”, published in the Dec’06/Jan’07 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine. Jean broods more chicks than most of us (since she produces for a local market), and she finds that brooder chicks do very well on a deep litter which continues to build up and develop. She also confirms that a deep litter actually produces edible “critters” for the flock’s enjoyment.

Our deep litter brooder generates a suprising amount of gentle heat. The set-up is far from fancy, just a circular cardboard wall made from old corregated boxes set on a concrete garage floor bedded with commercial pine shaving bedding, over which we hang one or two 250-watt heat lamps for extra warmth. (We had a big metal electric brooder hood in it early on, but we like the heat lamps much better—easier to monitor the chicks and very easy to adjust the heat immediately by raising and lowering.)

It has had chicks or poults in it almost continuously since a week before Easter this year, and we just keep adding clean shavings as needed. Broiler chicks spend two weeks in it before moving outside. The pack is now almost a foot deep.

Once the pack got perhaps 6 inches deep (quite a while back since it settles a good bit) you could feel warmth radiating up from it when you held your hand over it.

And not only does the bedding pack provide heat, but it also seems to be generating food and forage training for the chicks. A month or so back we started to notice the chicks scratching more than previous batches had. We thought we must have gotten a particularly active batch (we pick up broilers from Moyer’s every few weeks so the chicks should be about the same), but closer examination revealed masses of wiggly brown critters anywhere the pack was a bit moist (not house fly larvae, I know what those nasties look like). No idea what they are but the babies love them. They now are actually digging down 4 or 5 inches (yes, week-old, “lazy” broiler chicks!) and creating great craters. And after we have moved the last two batches outside I think they do forage a wee bit more on the pasture than earlier batches did.

Deep decomposing bedding is also supposed to help prevent and combat disease problems. Does it? In the months since the pack started heating up we have not seen any diarrhea or pasted butts, and have lost just one poult to a respirtory illness and one chick that failed to grow and eventually starved at about 10 days old (not sure what might have caused that, but I suspect a defect in the chick rather than disease—the 50 other chicks in the same batch grew normally). Out of 25 poults and 250-300 broiler chicks that seems a quite respectable showing. Has the deep bedding helped? Who knows, but it certaily doesn’t seem to hurt.

It doesn’t smell bad either, in case anyone was wondering. Just a mild earthy-chickeny smell.

~Jean Nick, Happy Farm, Kintnersville, PA