It’s been a cold wet spring, and this always makes us slow at putting chicks out on pasture, even though we know that keeping ’em in the brooder house too long will give them a nasty case of coccidiosis. We just encountered a mild case in the broiler chicks we put into their pasture house at four weeks of age.
Coccidiosis is a protozoan parasite that lives in your chickens’ intestines and will scar them up something fierce if you let it, killing some chicks and stunting others. It has a screwy lifecycle that can be broken if you prevent the chickens from re-ingesting their own feces, or by a variety of drugs. It can also be mitigated by the use of deep litter that’s more than six months old, because the ecology of the microbes in deep litter eventually includes things that eat coccidia. (See my deep litter guide.)
Anyway, four weeks in the brooder house on non-medicated feed is too long for broilers, and their manure showed the occasional pink splotch. That’s blood. Bad. They weren’t acting sick, though, which assuages my conscience. Still, damage is being done.
The pasture pens we use for broilers are moved to a new patch of grass every day, which effectively interrupts the coccidiosis life cycle. The problem will fade very quickly — I hope before any chicks stop acting perky and before any damage is done. But we cut it too fine. We shouldn’t allow symptoms to develop at all.
If you ask for advice about coccidiosis, a lot of people will give you home remedies for treating it after the symptoms get bad. Most of these don’t work, and you shouldn’t wait that long, anyway. Prevention is what you want. Others will tell you, in effect, that their chickens never get coccidiosis, in spite of their lack of precautions. Sometimes this is true — coccidiosis outbreaks tend to be sort of random — but usually it just means they don’t know it when they see it, and blame their sick and stunted chicks on the feed or the hatchery.
That’s why I recommend that beginners use medicated chick starter. The medication is aimed solely at coccidiosis, which is the #1 baby chick disease. Once you’ve raised a bunch of perkey, uninfected chicks, you’ll notice if your next batch does poorly on unmedicated feed.
I like using medicated feed, but Karen doesn’t. Part of the difference is that my chicks are egg-type pullets, which grow more slowly and have to spend more time in the brooder house, putting them at greater risk for coccidiosis. On the other hand, my pullets won’t start laying until they’re five months old, which is more than three months after I’ve discontinued the medication (which isn’t toxic in any event, especially at second hand). The timescale is a lot shorter with broilers.
The other trick is to have wire-mesh floors in the brooder house so the chicks can’t forage around in their own manure.
All this is covered in loving detail in my baby-chick book, Success With Baby Chicks, along with every other baby-chick technique I’ve ever heard of. Take a look!