As you'll know, I love to hatch- okay, I admit it, I'm a hatch-a-holic! It's true, I'll cave into the label! There's something so addicting about bringing those little lives into the world and watching them grow and develop into beautiful birds. Anyway, as breeders striving for the best birds we can create and getting as close as possible to the Standards of Perfection, a LOT of hatching is required so it's good that I enjoy it.
Hatching throughout the winter also sets us up for good timing. Winter chicks are ideal candidates for Spring pullets ready to lay and produce their own chicks. It allows them time to grow out enough for me to go through them and be able to easily "pet out" those that don't meet my breeding program needs when the Spring chick buying is in full swing.
Our challenge has been that my dear husband does not enjoy the dust and dander from having so many chicks inside the house. Inside the house? Yep! That's what he asked, but it's been a necessary "evil" (my evil grin here because I love being able to see the little ones at night) in order to keep them safe and healthy. Chicks are babies, after all, and they need heat, constant and regular temperatures, clean food and water, and since they haven't yet grown in their feathers, they can't be brooded outside in the winter! Right?
Before moving the farm, we had an unfinished basement, what use to be a garage, that we used for brooding the chicks. My husband wasn't thrilled about the idea but it didn't cause him to have to deal with the dust or poop so he tolerated it. Then we moved to our dream house. Here we are and SO unbelievably happy but we didn't have an unfinished basement. Luckily, the entire house is finished. What to do with the babies? I tried keeping them in the laundry room but he quickly decided that wasn't going to be a permanent brooding room. What to do? I simply suggested that if he wanted them moved, he should come up with another option for us!
To my surprise, he did! I love that man! He gets major husband points for building us a brooder that we can use to hatch throughout the winter OUTSIDE. Could it really be? I was skeptical, even up until the first night, rushing out to check on them over and over but it worked!
The real test came this past couple of nights, it has been COLD here, dipping in the 20's with a fierce, bone chilling wind but as Chance and I trudged out back to the goat shed where the brooder is kept, freezing ourselves, we only found little fluffy babies chirping away happily and running around without a care in the world! They're perfectly comfortable and healthy and I have a happy husband! Happy mama, happy husband, happy household, right?
It wasn't rocket science either. He built a large box essentially using 2x4s and plywood. We put it on legs to keep it off of the ground (away from mice and other pests).
I had him build it deep to keep critters from being able to grab at my babies but long because I plan on hatching a lot and I need the room to grow them out properly all winter. With the cold in Virginia, they'll need to be warm until they fully feather out.
He put two doors on the top so we can easily reach the waterers and feeders as well as any chicks. I had him add latches with locks to the side of both doors. This keeps out predators (human and animal) and protects them. You'd be surprised how smart raccoons can be, I've heard too many stories of them opening doors and latches to not add tough latches and locks.
He also added the ventilation to the doors. This part worried me the most at first. Frostbite on chickens is caused by lack of ventilation and too high of a humidity in cold air and not by the cold itself. Chickens also pick up respiratory infections from coops that are too tightly sealed and do not provide adequate ventilation. Many well intentioned flock owners create infectious and even colder environments for their birds unknowingly by not providing proper ventilation. You want to ensure your coops and brooders are free of cold drafts but adequate in ventilation. We all need fresh air flow, especially birds being cooped up together in cold weather.
Dampness can also be a detriment in the cold weather but we can ensure that's not an issue by keeping the brooder dry and clean. It's always a good idea to check the areas around the waterers especially well. We're using large flake pine shavings in our brooder and the chicks have a tendency to kick the pine into the water and then get the water in the pine surrounding the waterers. A quick and cheap remedy is to elevate the waterers (and feeders) slightly with something. We used a thin board we had left over on top of the pine. We put two waterers and a feeder on top of that central to the brooder.
Lastly, we needed heat! As I said, chicks are covered with fluffy, sweet down. Although adorable and cuddly, it's not a good insulation so the babies must be kept warm by external sources. Naturally, this would be a mama hen. Although I'm never short on broody mamas since we raise Silkies, I don't want all of my mamas tied to the coop in the cold. Instead, we added heat to the brooder. My husband cut a hole to fit the heat lamp in the center of the coop. This gives the chicks plenty of room on either side of it to back away from the heat source if they get too warm or move into it together if they get cold. This is very important to their health. A chick will die of a heat stroke as quick as they will freeze to death.
The general rule of thumb is to start your chicks off in a brooder around 95 degrees and then reduce the temperature 5 degrees each week until you reach a room temperature. When we first started out, we were VERY methodical about this. Each brooder had it's own thermometer (or two) and we checked it often. The more we brooded, however, the less we relied on the thermometers and the more we depended on the chicks behavior to determine the proper temperature for them. If your chicks are all dispersed evenly in your brooder, hanging out, eating, drinking, playing, and sleeping you're good to go. If your chicks are all cuddled up and piling together under your heat source- they're chilled and need more heat. Silkies are pilers anyway and it's nothing short of heart breaking to find a little chick smothered because they were chilled or in a draft and they all piled on to get warmer and accidentally smothered the chicks on bottom. If they're all huddled up in a corner as far away from the heat source as they can get, panting, and/or holding their wings out from their little bodies, they're too hot and you need to lower that source. Once you get the hang of it, you may certainly keep the thermometers to help monitor their heat for extremes but you'll quickly learn their signals.
***Safety Note*** These types of heat lamps (especially when using the red heat bulbs) are known to melt at the socket and drop the HOT red lamps into the bedding, starting fires. If you choose to use these, ensure you use chicken wire or other wire to cover the bulb so if it melts, it can not drop onto your babies or into your brooder and start any fires. Although we're currently using these, we fashion wire very well all around the lamps and plan to begin with the Sweeter Heaters in the new year. ***
The next step was painting the brooder so it would withstand the elements. We chose a Barn & Fence Paint in a classic Barn Red and I love the color! We moved it into the (empty) goat shed area and I now had my outdoor brooder and chick "room".
I'm thrilled with the new brooder and the ability to continue my year round hatching while making the dear husband happier having a chick free home!
How are you'll doing? Are there any other hatch-a-holics out there who are hatching all winter?