If you’ve ever ordered chicks, you might have noticed a statistic for the “survival rate” or “mortality rate” or something like that included with the description of the breed. This rate is to give us an idea of how many chicks will actually survive long enough to process. Typically people assume a 20% loss in the chickens they raise for meat, and thus make sure to order more chicks to overcome the inevitable deaths of birds that don’t reach market weight. I saw one hatchery proudly stating their chicks had a 70% survival rate. That’s 3 out of every 10 chickens dying! We need to do as much as we can to improve these odds.
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Could it be the breeding of the chickens that makes it hard for chicks to live long enough? Yes, I think so, especially when considering the high growth breeds like the immensely popular Cornish Cross, which struggle with issues connected to overeating after being bred to eat as much as possible to pack on the meat. And certainly health concerns at a hatchery that could result in diseases can also impact a flock, which is why many people order immunized chicks and even feed them medicated food. But we don’t do any of that because we want our chickens to be organic and free of any unnatural intervention.
So how can we ensure we don’t lose that many chicks, against all odds? We have consistently experienced better survival rates than those indicated by the hatcheries, and so far this year we are on course for zero broiler losses. See some of our tips below.
How to improve mortality rates in your flock
Maintain a clean living space from day one
Keeping the living space for your chickens clean is a must. For one, the reduced stink will attract fewer predators and that alone can be quite valuable. But this will also help keep your chickens healthier by keeping disease and respiratory problems at bay. And you don’t want your chicks sitting in their own filth, which can cause serious issues like blistering in the abdomen, which can cause infection. And from the farmer’s perspective, dirty chickens are less enjoyable to raise!
For the first couple of weeks you’ll want to use newspaper under the chicks and change it at least once a day. Don’t use pine shavings this early, as the chicks might eat them and experience health issues. You can upgrade to pine shavings or some other preferred bedding of your choice (sand, cardboard bedding, etc.) after a couple of weeks. Once they have their feathers, you can give them more space to spread the love around in a run or move into chicken tractors.
The beauty of a chicken tractor is that you can move it every day to a clean spot and not spend a moment cleaning anything. Plus they’re great for pasture raising your chickens, which results in healthier meat (click here for more on the benefits of pasture raised chicken!)
Make sure the chicks have adequate space
A common way for chicks to die is trampling by other chicks. This has never happened in our flocks, and I like to think it is because we always make sure they have plenty of space. We start our chicks in a small brooding enclosure but after a week will put them in one of our chicken tractors that we keep in our garage under a brooding lamp. The tractor offers good security and has more than enough space for the tiny chicks. We also make sure the brooding lamp is positioned in a way that would not force all the chicks to fight for a good warm spot in a corner or against the wall, but instead keep the lamp centered so the space is shared most effectively.
Much of your hard work raising and caring for your chickens can be for naught if a predator shows up and snags some birds. This can be a very costly loss, especially if the birds are almost at full weight. At full weight, the birds have consumed a considerable amount of pricey feed (a single Cornish Cross chicken can consume as much as 20 lbs of feed). To reduce the risk of attack, make sure the living space is secure. Here are some of our tips on using fencing materials. If you want to have free range birds, we still recommend implementing a perimeter fence around the area of your land you’ll be letting them roam to keep most intruding beasts out.
Make sure the chickens always have water
Just a few hours without water can dehydrate a chick enough to cause major health issues and even death. To eliminate the risk of them running out of water, we make sure to follow two rules:
1. Make sure the water won’t be tipped over easily by hanging it when possible.
This will require a waterer with a handle on the top and a solid means of hanging it. We use chain with S hooks, but strong rope can work too.
2. Make sure the watering vessel is large enough to last more than 24 hours.
You don’t want them to be fully dependent on you being able to check their water. You’re busy and shouldn’t have to make multiple watering trips to your birds.
We typically start our chicks on the little quart waterers while they get acquainted with their surroundings, and within a week upgrade them to a larger one. Just make sure the lip/tray of the waterer is at a good height for them to comfortably drink from–this is usually whatever the height of their backs are.
You can find waterers in a variety of sizes, and we have used 1, 3, and 5 gallon sizes to meet the needs of our flocks. Even if you are wary of spending more money on that bigger waterer, take into account the cost of losing chickens early to dehydration. How much have you invested in each bird so far, and would the cost of that adequate waterer have been worth it all along?
Regularly refresh the water supply
Even if you use a 5 gallon waterer for 10 chickens and it can last them a week, I recommend replacing the water frequently. We do it every morning as part of our routine. This is not as much work as it might sound like and it reduces the risk of getting your chickens sick with contaminated water. And in the case of metal waterers, sometimes it is difficult to determine how much water there is anyway, so scheduling refills will force you to stay on top of their water supply. And you never know how clean their waterer really is, especially after it has been in use for weeks and weeks. When you refill, take a moment to give a good strong rinse with the hose and also look and feel around for anything that might be growing in there. If you find anything questionable, do a thorough cleaning! We give a good cleaning to the waterers on a weekly basis.
Follow smart feeding practices for the breed
For heritage breeds, which take much longer to reach market weight than the fast growing breeds, you can typically allow them unlimited access to food and they will be fine. But for faster growing breeds like the Cornish Cross, overfeeding is a real problem. The chickens do not know when to stop and can easily succumb to complications related to overeating. Commonly chickens that develop issues related to overeating will have heart failure and die suddenly. You can catch this in advance in some chickens by paying attention to their breathing, watching for swelling in their abdominal areas, and noting the color of their combs. If they are struggling to breathe and their combs are a pale purple color, they are likely dealing with heart issues. Their abdomens (basically the area below the vent) may be quite swollen, indicating “ascites” has set in. If you positively identify a chicken is suffering from ascites, note that they are generally considered OK to eat as long as you process them before they die on their own. But processing early when you didn’t plan to is not ideal.
Preventing this is simple: don’t over-feed! Two ways to reduce the risk of overeating for fast growth breeds like the Cornish Cross:
1. “12 on, 12 off”: Allow your fast-growing breeds full-time access to food for 12 hours a day, and take away the food for the other 12 hours.
2. Allow your fast growing breeds to have access to food for 30 minutes for a morning feeding and 30 minutes for an evening feeding, taking away the food after the 30 minutes are up. Make sure to use feeders that are sized to comfortably accommodate all your chickens.
When we implemented #2 from above last year we experienced no losses in our Cornish Cross flock.
Check the birds at least 3 times a day
Even if they don’t need a replenishment of food or water and their living space is clean, it is a good idea to make the time to just poke your head in and make sure no serious issues have developed. We do this first thing in the morning when we replenish food and water supplies, again in the middle of the day, and a final time before dark. This regular checking will allow you to stay ahead of any issues. Water could be tipped over, a chicken could be getting sick, a predator may have found a way in, or the birds may have found a way out (if you aren’t free ranging).