The first seven days are a most important time in the life of a broiler. It is a period when the producer needs to give extra attention to watering and environmental conditions to get chicks off to the best start possible. 

For today’s rapid-growth broilers, this first week accounts for as much as 20 percent of their lifespan. What happens during these early days has a direct impact on the fully grown bird in terms of health and weight. If problems develop during the first week, there is little time in the bird’s short life to compensate for them.

Need for care

This first week presents challenges because the birds are in their most vulnerable state. Just hatched, their digestive system is not fully formed. Their immune system is also still developing, making chicks highly susceptible to disease.

A newly hatched chick is not able to regulate its body temperature and must rely on the environment to maintain the temperature level needed to survive and grow into a healthy, mature bird. The development of these physiological functions all happens in the space of a few days. Anything that retards the development of these functions during this time can lead to irrevocable damage in terms of poor performance, condemnations and high mortality rates. 

The farmer must prepare the bird’s environment to provide the best conditions possible for every chick to achieve its growth potential. 

Proper preparation includes a number of tasks, beginning with a proper clean-out from the previous flock. Any wet, old or caked litter needs to be discarded. Litter should be evenly spread and top dressed if necessary, especially under drinker lines so all the chicks are able to find the drinkers at a height that facilitates drinking without excessive spillage, which can make the litter too wet. 

Along with harboring pathogens, wet litter can cause chicks to lose body heat through their legs and feet. In this regard, it is very important that floor-level temperature is warm (the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service recommends 86-90F/30-32C; chick body temperature is 106F/41C) with good ventilation as well.

Proper checking

Watering lines demand special attention. First is an equipment check before bird placement. All drinkers should be manually operated to make sure they are working. The drinkers should also be checked for leaks. All regulators and other watering equipment should be checked and functioning properly. The drinker trigger pins should be easy for the chicks to move. The first week is not the time for equipment problems! 

Second, the watering lines need to be cleaned, especially of harmful bacteria and pathogens in the existing water or in the biofilm inside the lines. Charging the lines with a solution of hydrogen peroxide combined with high-pressure flushing after several hours to thoroughly clean out the biofilm and other contaminants without harming the drinking equipment is recommended.

Once the chicks arrive, they need to begin drinking and eating as soon as possible. Drinking is especially critical, because water will assist in the quick development of their digestive tract and spur them to eat. At this point, farmers need to have the drinkers at the bird’s eye level -- so chicks may actually run into the drinker trigger pin -- and use very low water pressure so it is easy for the chick to move the drinker’s trigger pin without spilling much water as they learn to drink. Check your manufacturer’s instructions.

Lighting is also critical. It should be bright enough to produce a shiny reflection from the stainless steel drinker pins, as this will attract the birds. With low light levels, some chicks do not find the drinkers before they are dehydrated. Remembering the birds unregulated body temperature, your heat sources will be warming the slow-moving water in your lines to a moderate temperature (80-85F/27-29C per the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service) so as not to shock the bird’s system with colder water, causing them to stop drinking. 

The first place you should start placing chicks is right under the nipple drinkers with plenty of space for them to operate in. Close observation is needed to see that all the chicks are getting the idea of how to get water. As the birds succeed in finding their water, start to inch up the water lines so the chicks have to stretch their necks up for a drink, which will reduce the amount of water spillage and reduce wet litter problems.

Time and place

This is also a time when many farmers choose to vaccinate their birds. However, what looks like a quick and easy operation through the house drinking lines actually requires a bit of diligence if you want all the birds to get the vaccine. Timing, amount of vaccine and temperature considerations must be taken into account.

It is best that the birds get the vaccine within two hours of dilution. A successful vaccination involves getting all the birds to drink water when the vaccine is in the drinker line. To encourage all birds to drink at the right time, it is helpful to first restrict water intake for a time before the vaccine is put in the water. This way, all birds should be ready to drink when the water is turned back on with the injected vaccine. In most cases, turning the water off when the lights go off the night before a morning vaccination should make all birds thirsty enough to head to the drinkers as soon as the water is back.

However, if the outside temperature is high, around 95F/35C, the time without water should be reduced so as not to make the birds too thirsty. If birds are too thirsty, the first birds to the drinkers will drink nonstop and consume most of the vaccine. To further manage the vaccination, it is helpful to walk along the drinker lines to see that all birds are getting a chance to drink and to move more dominant birds away from the drinkers if necessary.

The bird’s intestinal structure is formed during its first week of life, and it cannot truly take off in terms of growth without a well-prepared and supportive environment, of which your watering system is a key component. Manage it well, and your birds and your profits will also be healthy.