Raising Adolescent Chickens
There can be little doubt that raising a group of baby chicks for a life of health and productivity takes a good deal of work, care, and knowledge about chick health and nutrition; much attention is rightly spent on this delicate and important part of a flock’s development. Unfortunately, many flock owners spend most of their efforts during the brooding period and underestimate a very important time in each bird’s life; adolescence.
Why is adolescence so important? The answers are clear: adolescence is when the structure, organs, and immune systems of chickens are developing, literally creating the foundation upon which the rest of the chicken’s lifelong health will depend. Knowing how to maximize the care given to chickens through nutrition and immune development at this time will mean having a healthy and productive flock for life.
While much attention is given to chick nutrition, sometimes that focus lessens after the first few weeks have passed. Many flock owners are tempted to rush into feeding birds the same feed that the adults receive for the sake of convenience; however, the type of food that growing adolescent birds receive is very important as it directly effects how their bodies will work for the rest of their lives.
Feed given to birds during adolescence should reflect the final purpose of the birds. For broilers whose lives will be short, meat growth food is the norm. For layers and future breeders, a simple grower or starter-grower should be used; these foods are designed to help the chicken’s body grow at a rate that is neither too fast nor too slow.
The nutrition at this time directly effects how well the bird’s reproductive system develops. Using the correct diet is vital to avoiding laying-related difficulties and illness during the hen’s adulthood. Switching to a laying feed before the bird has reached four months can be detrimental.
Every flock owner can determine when birds are coming closer to laying age by the pullet’s comb. Combs change from thin, pale, and dry to a more waxy, full, and red condition as the pullet nears laying age and her reproductive system readies. When these changes appear, only then should laying feed begin to be added to the ration slowly as the birds will still be developing up until the point of lay.
While every flock owner wants to provide all the good foods they can for a flock, the addition of treats or fresh foods at this time can change the effectiveness of the total diet. While these foods can help enhance a diet, the balance of nutrients and minerals in a formulated food can be thrown off by supplementary foods in excess of 10% of the total diet.
Immune System Development:
Although the immune systems of birds will constantly change and adapt during their entire life, the first few months of the flock’s life are the most important to future disease resistance and health. Flock owners are often tempted to put their younger birds in with their existing flock as soon as the birds are of comparable age. While birds hatched and raised under a hen are an exception, the majority of brooded chicks should be integrated with more care into the larger flock.
A stepping-stone type introduction to the regular flock allows young birds to be introduced to any air-borne illnesses more slowly so that they can overcome and develop immunity without being overwhelmed by soil-borne and chicken-carried illnesses. An overwhelmed immune system will fail leading to a lack of thriftiness or even death. Allow the babies to fight, overcome, and protect themselves from adult diseases.
Rather than introducing young pullets and cockerels into the flock straight from their raising pens, birds should be slowly introduced to the other flock and its unique immunity make-up. For example, at approximately eight weeks, younger birds can be placed in the general vicinity of the other flock while not being with the flock itself.
Closer to the age of lay, an average of four to six months, chickens can be moved to a pen that is literally adjacent or within the other flock’s pen. This allows for the next round of immunity development without the added stress of physical fighting as the pecking order is reestablished. Stressed birds are more likely to get sick when exposed to new pathogens and germs. Instead, allow them the chance to overcome new germs first.
Adolescent chickens are in the midst of a fight for their future lives while their bodies undergo the stress of important development along with changes in their environment. Paying extra attention to their diet and immune system at this time is the best investment a flock owner can ever make towards a future of healthy, happy, and productive birds.
Nathalie (Ross) Norris is a writer, animal lover, and native Texan. Her love of keeping chickens started at a young age. Many years later, she find that her favorite part of keeping chickens is helping others to enjoy it as well.
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