It?s a strange thing, but when chicks hatch they do better if they?re boxed off and left a few hours rather than put straight into the brooders under the lamps. Over the few hours that they?re in the box they gain strength and settle down. It also gives the last to hatch enough time to dry off and catch up with those that were the first out. With the lamps on, the shed warmed up, and the food and water already in place (see Ready for success, 6 June), pop the chicks in the centre of the hardboard circle in the sheds. They?ll feel the heat and as they get warm, they?ll go in search of something to eat and drink.

At this stage it?s important the chicks have plenty of light. Too little and they won?t be able to see the food or drinkers. This will increase the number of what we call ?starve-outs?. Starve-outs are the chicks that have survived for a number of days on the remainder of their yolk sac but either haven?t eaten, or haven?t eaten enough, to survive.

?Friday die-day? is a phrase often used to describe this die off, which usually happens between days three and five after hatching (most gamefarms and shoots hatch on a Tuesday). A loss of between one and two per cent is about normal and nothing to worry about, much higher and there may be a problem with the chicks or the environment inside the shed. Once the chicks are a week old it?s safe to assume they?ve all eaten and are using the drinkers. When ours reach seven days we reduce the light a little, as this helps prevent anti-social behaviour such as feather pecking, which can sometimes start for no apparent reason, even with access to a shelter pen. Reducing the light in the shed (leaving enough to feed by) will give any bullied chicks somewhere to sit, eat and drink unmolested.

A slow start

During the first week, the chicks eat a starter crumb (use feeds formulated for
pheasants, as poultry rations won?t contain the right balance of vitamins and minerals) and are confined to the shed. If the weather?s fine they can be let out into the shelter-pen/sun parlour during the middle of the day for a few hours as well. If you?re not about to keep an eye on them it?s probably wise to wait until they?re a week old before letting them out of the shed and even then try and get someone to check up on them at lunchtime. The shelter pen should have the grass trimmed (long, damp grass will chill the chicks), and have the same drinkers and feeders as in the shed. We place a half-circle of hardboard across the middle of the shelter pen for the first few days they?re out, which reduces the area available to the chicks so they can find their way back to the heat a little easier. We also place a spadeful of gravel in front of the pop-hole to make a little ramp, which makes it easier for them to get back in.

The chicks are best run-in and the pop-hole closed early afternoon, before the temperature starts to drop. This reduces the risk of them getting unduly chilled and piling up in the corners to try and keep warm, instead of going back to the heat of the brooder house.

Keeping the feeders and drinkers cleaned and refilled soon becomes part of the daily routine along with the opening and closing of pop-holes; it?s also a good time to cast your eye over the chicks and pick up on any potential problems. Just like a cow-man leaning on a gate, a keeper leaning on a pen section is still working.

Renew or top-up the bedding after the first week. You can use whatever suits: chopped cardboard, chopped straw or shavings. If you do use shavings make sure they?re poultry grade with no dust or sawdust. Don?t be tempted to use shavings and sawdust from a mate, even if they are free, because the chicks pick up the smaller particles and get compacted gizzards. The gizzard, when compacted, becomes so full of sawdust and little pieces of shavings that the bird can?t digest any food it manages to eat and slowly starves to death.

A new phase

Two weeks on and it?s time to change the food from a chick crumb to a mini-pellet. We do it fairly slowly over three or four days, starting with mixing a scoop of mini into a bucket of crumb. The amount is slowly increased, until on the fourth day the chicks are on straight mini-pellet. We use the same system later on when changing from mini to grower pellets. A slow changeover of feed types/sizes helps keep stress to a minimum.

When birds are three weeks old we ?bit? them. Bitting means putting a C-shaped bit in the mouth of the bird, and keeping it in place by putting the ends of the C into the nostrils. The ends in the nostrils simply rest in the nostril cavity; don?t damage the beak or nostril membrane in any way and don?t cause the bird any pain either when fitted or when being worn. They?re fitted to prevent the birds feather pecking and I?d recommend doing it as a precaution regardless of the size of the run or the number of poults in the shed. It doesn?t take long for poults to lose their feathers through pecking if they start and having fewer feathers on their backs will make them less able to stand the cold and rain in the release pen. This in turn will cause all manner of problems later on.

At three weeks with the birds now using the outside runs, it?s a good time to start turning the heat off during the day, but only if it?s warm and not going to rain. Keep them on heat at night for at least another week then sometime during week four turn it off at night as well. The change from mini pellets to growers can be done at this stage and as the birds harden off, the drinkers and feeders can be moved to the outside runs. The last stage of the rearing process is this hardening off. We let our birds sleep in the outside runs from about a month old if the weather forecast is good but still run them back into the shelter pens and huts if it?s not. Once they get to five weeks they should be well feathered enough to stand some light rain and a fair amount of cold in the rearing units, and by six or seven weeks they should be big and strong enough to start coping with life in the woods once released.