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Keep Your Chicks Healthy

By Erin McIntyre

Caring for a bunch of new baby chicks is about more than just setting up a brooder, a waterer, and a heat lamp. It’s also about giving those little peeping balls of fluff a good chance of surviving and setting them up for success.

One of the keys to healthy chicks is supporting their immune systems as they grow, which means understanding that gut health is vital for them to thrive.

Chicks have a bit of a head start on protecting themselves against problems, because they have some remaining immunity passed on from their mothers through the egg yolk, says Dr. Gary Butcher, a veterinarian and avian diseases extension specialist for the University of Florida. This initial immune boost lasts about three weeks, Butcher says. 

The immune systems of chicks rely heavily on their intestines and the gut bacteria that out-competes other, detrimental organisms that can populate in the gut. “It’s an incredibly complex environment,” Butcher says. “It’s not just feed passing through and coming out the back end.” 

One of the most common problems is coccidiosis, an intestinal parasite that is ever-present in barnyard environments and transmitted through fecal matter. Coccidiosis is particularly concerning because it can take 10 days to two weeks for a chick to demonstrate symptoms, and by then it’s often too late to save them. 

“This parasite is very, very durable,” he says. “Once it passes into the droppings, it can live in the environment for months.”

Butcher recommends a few best practices for limiting coccidiosis danger.  

First, limit the chicks’ chances of coming into contact with the parasite. This means not taking them to poultry shows, keeping a dedicated pair of boots to wear inside your coop so you don’t track in deadly pathogens, and being careful about combining flocks. 

The second line of defense is to use medicated starter to feed the chicks, which contains a coccidiostat. This fights the parasite just enough so the chicks’ bodies can start to build up immunity. “After three or four weeks, the chicks will have immunity,” Butcher says. At that point, the chicks can be fed regular starter.