See the above picture, assuming our shipment from Metzer Farms arrives tomorrow it will be full of 60, 2-day old fuzzy ducklings by about 10AM tomorrow morning. No brooder for us.
Now look I am not saying everyone should do away with the concept of a brooder just that we are in some ways and we have our reasons. In fact right now we have 130+ quail only a few days old in a “tractor” on grass and not in a brooder.
Over the years we have lost more birds in brooders than any other way, that is why. Today we lost three quails in a brooder.
Crushed as they all bunch up and form large throngs all seeking food or warmth or cool spots. Sometimes it is from getting wet and then pushed aside. Now I am not saying brooding is bad, or that it doesn’t work at times just that it often may not be necessary or as necessary as we are led to believe. What is necessary are the attributes we believe a brooder should supply.
What are these?
- Sufficient Warmth
- Protection from Predators
- A Dry Environment
- Clean Food and Clean Water
That is it! Nothing more, the theory is such can’t be provided or at least can’t be provided sufficiently unless we put small birds in a box or a stock tank or what have you. Yet if we can a much larger environment is much safer in my view. Let’s tackle each of the above in a “tractor” or in our case a small “yard” created with 4, 16-foot cattle panels.
Sufficient warmth – every article you read will say that baby birds need to be at 98-100 degrees constantly for the first few weeks to survive. But this isn’t accurate at all. When our ducks have babies they are out and about on day one often in temperatures in the 70s and lower.
But many say that the mother keeps babies warm. Now let me tell you, we have mothers hatch 12 or more babies in one go, 12 babies do not fit under one mom folks and they spend most of their days out and about.
What they actually need is a place to get warm and dry when they need to. This is easy to provide we simply put a few heaters under a portable table in the evenings, cover it with a water proof tarp in case of rain and during the day they just deal with it by huddling together, JUST LIKE THEY DO IN NATURE.
Protection from Predators – If we are honest here almost any predator that can kill a young duck or chicken etc. can also kill a sub adult or an adult. Actually I once lost 13 chicks to a rat that got into a brooder by chewing a hole in hardware cloth. That rat likely would not have entered a tractor, it attacked in the safety of a barn. Whatever predator protection you provide for your older birds is likely sufficient for your young ones.
A Dry Environment – This may be the most important thing period. I have found almost any bird suffering from cold is also wet. In a brooder box this often happens with drinking water, the wet bird then gets pushed into a corner and can’t get warm and dry. They then die of “cold” but it is the wet that makes the cold. In a larger space they can always find room to preen and dry off. They don’t get pushed into tight spaces and stay wet and cold.
When you have space the birds that need a warm spot can almost always access any heat you provide. More important the ground absorbs water, a brooder bottom holds water. It gets soaked, stinking and birds get matted fuzz. Not that this can’t happen outside, it just happens less and is easier for the birds to deal with.
We also provide a tarp over a simple folding table, that provides both shade when it is too hot and cover if and when it rains.
Clean Food and Water – This is actually far easier to provide in an area contained by a small tractor or cattle panels or what have you. Again spilled water isn’t a big deal, you can provide multiple feeders and waterers.
This does three things. First it reduces competition and there by conflicts. Second it provides a bigger buffer and prevents running out when one determined bird say causes a waterer to drain dry, trust me it happens. Lastly it prevents big clumps of birds which often results in the smallest birds being crushed to death by the scum.
In the end I am not saying brooding in a traditional brooder is bad or that you should not do it. Just that it may not be as important as many seem to think. Birds have been giving birth outside for a long time. Most birds we use as live stock like ducks, quail, chickens, geese and guineas give birth to active babies that largely see to their own needs from almost day one.
I am also not saying you can just toss young birds outside and let them fend for themselves or that you can do it any and all times of year. You have to worry about seasonal temperatures. In the north you have a more narrow window of warm temps to work with, in the south you also have a brutal summer period to avoid. Some birds are more adapted to early outside living then others. Rain can make cold dead baby birds anytime of year unless you provide good cover, care and oversight.
Ducks and geese can go out side almost at once, by two days they are fast moving, very capable or making decisions about where they want to be, etc. Chickens I have found need say 3-5 days before they are smart enough to move and thermoregulate effectively. I once put 50 red ranger broiler chickens in a tractor at a mere 2 days of age. They sat in hot sun too stupid to move to the shade.
So into a brooder they went for two more days, then back outside. From that point at 4 days of age they were fine, IN AUGUST in Texas. We lost 2 of the 50 and both after three weeks of age when they would normally be out of the brooder anyway. A loss ratio by the way consistent with most tractored and pastured broilers raised by professional farmers.
I was recently told by a very good farmer who does an amazing job with pastured poultry that he broods turkey polts for 6 weeks, I can’t even imagine this! I raised 3 turkeys this year for meat birds this year. We brooded them with some ducks, they were in the “brooder” for about 8 days, then outside and they never stumbled for a second.
Again I am not saying this approach is for everyone, what I am saying is all in all we have lost more birds in brooders than on grass even when we put them on grass at very young ages.
Our last run of 50 ducks we lost 2 in the brooder, and zero once on grass. They went outside at 12 days of age, stayed outside after that. This was in February, we even had ice storms when they were only 4 weeks of age. We just gave them shelter with heat lamps in them and all was well. Two years ago I brought up 8 geese, we lost zero in the first 12 weeks and guess what, they went into a tractor the day we got them at 2 days of age.
In the end you must make this decision for yourself and judge the timing and methods based on your goals and climate. There are a lot of really smart people that will say I am wrong about all this but in the end, the birds are the ones I aim to keep happy.
I frankly see a brooder as a box of death in many ways. Now at times you need to use it anyway, my goal is to use it as little as possible and get birds out into fresh air and sun shine as quickly as possible.