When your hut?s up, repaired and disinfected, start your preparations for chicks from the bottom up. Getting the floor right is very important ? it must be level or the chicks will crowd on the ?downhill? side and some of them will be smothered and die as the others pile on top of them. An uneven floor can also cause chilling, because the chicks will only use one side of the heater.
Heat lamps are designed to have a hot spot in the middle, which the chicks can hop into if they?re cold. At night the chicks tend to avoid the central heat spot and rest forming a ring around the heat. If the floor and heater are level there?ll be plenty of room for them to spread out. Don?t put more chicks under a lamp than it was designed for. A lamp with too many chicks under it may be fine for the first week or so, but once the chicks grow there won?t be enough heat and some will get chilled. Chilled chicks stop eating and drinking properly, which weakens them, and this in turn will make them susceptible to disease.
If your floor is uneven, the easiest way to level it is with chick bedding. However, if there are huge gaps and it?s very uneven it?s probably wise to move the shed, or level it out with pea gravel. We used to use this under the old paraffin-fed Rupert Brooders when I started gamekeeping. It helps any water spilt from drinkers drain away, and it reflects the heat. On wooden floors we put corrugated cardboard down ? this helps in many respects: it reflects the heat, keeps the shed reasonably clean, absorbs spills and, most importantly, gives the chicks some purchase for their feet in their first few days. A smooth floor is difficult for them to walk on.
Cleanliness helps health
Cleaned and disinfected drinkers and feeders are a must. Use a hatchery-grade disinfectant, which you can get from most farm supply stores. Other disinfectants will kill some of the germs and bacteria, but not all. Allow one drinker per 50 chicks up to 200, then another one per 100 after that. Pheasant chicks sometimes seem to have a death wish and often drown in the drinkers. To help prevent this, place the drinker away from the direct heat. This stops the chicks crowding round them if they?re cold; it also keeps the water fresher. The second thing to do is put pebbles in the trough part at the base of the drinker or put a chain in it; both reduce the water?s depth and should prevent the chicks actually getting in. All a chick needs to drink is a gap to get its beak in.
Another thing the chicks might and do, which could end up losing you a few, is crowd into the corners of the shed instead of staying under the heat in the centre. The way to get round this is quite simple: make a circle out of hardboard or plastic. Using giant clothes pegs, made by sawing down the centre of a piece of batten, clip the pieces of board together. It should be a couple of feet high and fit around the inside edges of the hut, thereby changing the shape of the shed/hut from square or oblong to circular. The important thing here is to make the ring big enough to accommodate all the chicks and have enough space to fit the drinkers and feeders, while at the same time making sure it?s large enough for the day-olds to escape the heat when they want to.
Feeding the chicks
Feed trays can be made of almost anything ? we use purpose-made ones. You can use egg trays but there?s always the odd chick that gets stuck underneath them. Better to have a tray that is flush to the floor. The next bit might sound strange: don?t fill the tray. I?ve had better results tipping a little pile of food on to the centre of the tray. When chicks start pecking away at it the tapping noise made by their beaks at the base seems to attract the other chicks, and they seem to eat a little sooner. We also sprinkle a bit of chick grit on top of the food ? this will stay in the gizzard and help them digest their food.
Keep the chicks warm with whatever type of heater suits you, electric or gas. Turn it on a couple of days beforehand so it warms up and dries out the shed. A brief word of warning if you use gas: get the heater serviced, renew the pipes if they look as though they?ve seen better days and get the safety valve checked. Safety valves are pushed in by hand; this allows the gas through as you light the heater. They?re designed to cut out once the gas stops burning and the heater cools. If you go to a shed and the lamp is out, don?t relight it immediately. Turn off the gas at the bottle, open the door and windows and let any remaining gas out. Only try to relight the heater once the gas has cleared, not before. A friend of mine is still suffering from the burns on his hands and face after a gas blowback two years ago ? he saw the chicks were cold and instinctively relit the lamp without ventilating the shed first. It is all too easily done.