This is my third and final post summarising how I raise chicks without medication.
You can find the earlier two parts here (part one) and here (part two).
Before I add a couple of final tips, I’d like to set out some of the variables that make providing clean-cut guidelines for raising chicks, whether on medicated starter or not, rather difficult.
One gigantic variable is weather. You might raise consecutive batches of chicks during cool, dry weather and never see a case of coccidiosis. Then one day it might turn hot and damp, and lo and behold, despite your best efforts the birds start to droop.
Interestingly, the above hasn’t happened here unless I’ve neglected some important facet of management (e.g. putting 3 week olds on the ground where chicks have been raised within the past few months, cutting back the kefir, then suddenly the weather turns both hot and wet).
These chicks have just been put on the ground after being in a brooder. Yikes! Summer rain hit!
Incidentally, websites tell me coccidia oocysts can survive up to a year (sporulated) in the soil. I don’t know if this is true, but in practical terms I’ve always found that leaving ground fallow for a few months seems to greatly lessen the coccidiosis risk. All soils are different (there’s another variable), but I work quite safely with 3 month breaks here.
Another variable: chicks may or may not be pecking at their own droppings. In my small experience, chicks that are on kefir don’t tend to peck their droppings. Kefir is high in the sorts of B vitamins chicks peck droppings for, so I feel it makes a neat safety valve. However chicks short in B vitamins, or if the parents were deficient, will peck droppings, and they’ll also do it if they’re overcrowded or bored. As you can imagine, the buildup of coccidia in the digestive system happens much quicker if chicks eat what has already passed through their own system.
Kefir: fabulous stuff. Here it’s yet to be strained. Once the blobby grains have been strained out (and put into new milk) the kefir (yoghurt left over after straining) is ready for use.
Then of course there’s the variable of breed or type. Meat hybrids are notoriously difficult to raise organically without coccidiosis losses. You know those racehorses whose leg bones have been made nice and light and thin so they run faster? Their legs break more often, right? Well supermarket meat hybrids have been bred to put all their productivity, all their food, into meat, not into membranes that help fight the invasion of parasites. The result? Their gut walls are thinner. Then there’s the issue of the sheer amount of food they digest, which means more droppings per bird.
Heritage vs hybrid.
Does this mean heritage breed chicks will always fight coccidiosis, whereas supermarket meat hybrids will always succumb when raised organically? No — while I’ve seen my share of sick heritage chicks, I’ve raised several dozen meat hybrids without medication. Actually their immune systems seem quite hardy. I just had to learn to be even more careful with my management choices when rearing hybrids (e.g. fewer birds per pen) and to watch the weather fairly closely when it came time to move birds to more dangerous ground, but on the whole it was easy to do.
Given all the above, it’s with a few caveats about doing your own research and keeping some coccidiocidal medication on hand and not taking anything I say as guru-gospel (only as what I do here) that I offer the last two tactics I use in raising chicks medication-free.
Again, I’m numbering consecutively from earlier posts, and not in terms of importance. My last tactics are:
5. Only heat the nest area when brooding.
Why? Because every brooder has to have a food and water container, and around that water container is a prime area for damp litter to accumulate. If you heat the entire brooder, guess what? You got it: coccidia sporulate (ripen) in overwhelming numbers around the water container, because you’ve made a perfect coccidia-incubator.
Heating the entire brooder is a fetish of those who can’t bear to think of a chick having to huddle with its hatchmates in between sessions of eating and running about. In the wild, chicks get cold all the time. They don’t chill, which is the dangerous kind of getting cold (the kind where organs are damaged and shut down). They run back to their mother and get warm again, because after all they’ve got a neat little chick-brain that can learn things like moving between warm and cool areas.
Don’t heat the entire brooder, only the nest area.
6. Beat coccidiosis by spotting its earliest signs. If you see the very first signs of coccidiosis, you can do something about it. Because you haven’t used medication so far, you may find that simply giving those chicks a little medicated starter (containing coccidiostat) provides a sufficient dose to keep them safe. You should definitely move them to new ground, or change the litter entirely (limiting the disease). Reducing the time a bird spends on heavily infected ground definitely reduces its intake of oocysts, and hence gives it a better chance of beating the parasite on its own.
The first sign of coccidiosis is a bird going off its food and sometimes off its water as well. Always act on that first sign, not necessarily to medicate, but definitely to reduce exposure.
The second (or often parallel first) sign is a paler face than usual. Don’t wait for the face to become really pale: act now.
Overall, the way to beat coccidiosis is to combine as many management tactics as possible. First and foremost is the general principle of graduated exposure from day one. Don’t make a fetish of hygiene; you won’t be helping your chicks to thrive. Don’t make a fetish of cosying chicks; you’ll only be making things better for parasites. Don’t try to mimic industrial systems of maximising chick numbers and minimising space, or you (or rather the chicks) will pay.
I hope this little roundup has been helpful. My ebook (only $2.99!) basically runs through the same material (albeit with more detail and more tips). But above all, do your own research.