The Case for Mobile Brooding

December 10, 2018

The Case for Mobile Brooders

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Pastured Poultry is all about movement. Except when it isn't - but we wanted to change that. Brooding traditionally has been in stationary structures (at least once brooding begins) that are dedicated to the task and normally are in fixed positions on the farm so you are having to work around their locations.  There is also a newer movement to brood in the field using pastured shelters that can be adapted for pasture brooding - this shows some promise and practicality especially for large operations but definitely has it own set of challenges. We have tried both of these methods with mixed results, but decided we needed another option. Something that would give the logistical advantage of field brooding but provide the security and better environmental control of stationary brooding. It only seemed logical that since everything else on the farm is mobile, why not the brooder?

We know that the brooding phase is the most critical phase of chick development. If you want healthy chickens at harvest, you have to have healthy chicks coming out of the brooder. Our nutrition experts at Fertrell say they can fix just about any problem you're having, but if you mess up in the brooder there's not much they can do for you.  It’s very important to be able to control your brooder temperature, ventilation, and of course ease of access for feeding and watering. One big challenge to brooding is the movement of  it's occupants to the pasture and the dreaded removal of bedding materials. Having shoveled our fair share of brooders we have determined the best of both worlds would be a brooder that not only would be portable to the pasture for unloading chicks directly into pastured shelters, but to also make a stop at the compost pile, manure spreader, or even direct pasture application on the way back.  For our goals, portability is going to be key. Though there isn't a problem with deep bedding in a brooder but I suspect many of you like us, simply add more carbon to avoid emptying out the brooder as often as we should. Making these tasks less labor intensive makes it easier for us to farm with more consistency.

Evaluating brooding methods:

Stationary Structure Brooding:

Advantages:

  1. Monitoring - in the same vein location can be a disadvantage, however, at different phases of brooding it can be a strength since it is normally closer by and more easily monitored. Poultry health can fail quickly and being close by helps stay on top of issues before they cause serious losses.
  2. Infrastructure - Stationary structures are easier harden, insulate, and protect its occupants against the elements.
  3. Heat sources - Since you have better access to power and properly monitored heat sources you likely will be able to maintain proper brooder temps even during the cold seasons.

Challenges:

  1.  Location - No matter where you brood you will always be a distance from your field shelters which are always on the move.
  2. Stress - Moving chicks/poults to pasture means you are handling the chicks twice at the initial gather or crating and then again when going into your field shelters.
  3. Clean Out - When brooding is complete you have to remove the bedding from a stationary brooder and then haul it to a compost pile or spread it onto pasture.

Field Brooding:

Advantages:

  1. Stress - with the field shelters already in place in pasture you are not having to handle the chicks/poults more than needed. The stress of a move can stunt poultry more than most realize.
  2. Logistics - The bedding is left in the field though this may cause some nitrogen load issues / hotspots where brooding occurred.
  3. Scalability - If your field shelters can double as brooders this allows high scalability and great reuse of structures.

Challenges:

  1. Infrastructure - Since you are adopting field structures you have challenges presented by the limits of those structures. This may limit your field brooding to only certain times of the year when temperatures and weather permit.
  2. Heat sources - When in the field you may not have access to power or reliable/safe heat sources for brooders that are too far away.
  3. Monitoring - While brooding in the field you are by nature further away from the brooding and likely will not be able to troubleshoot issues as quickly since there is a delay in observation.
  4. Hot spots - Brooding may take 1 to 2 weeks during the warm season and even longer during the cooler months before your occupants are ready to begin moving. This accumulation of manure and bedding will create hot spots on your pasture with excessive manure load.
  5. Disease - Doubling field shelters as brooders will expose your chicks to disease and pathogens that their immune systems aren't ready to tackle yet and may cause potential issues early on in brooding especially if you don't have sufficient rest periods between use of the field shelters. Even then, disease and pathogens can be persistent in your structures.

Mobile Structure Brooding:

Advantages:

  1. Location! - A Mobile brooder can be placed anywhere. Near your home, in a barn, in the sunlight, or under a tree (this is starting to sound like a Dr. Seuss book). The benefit of  brooder mobility is simply being able to place it where you need it and have infrastructure to support it. In Florida, we have the threat of hurricanes during our ramp up for Thanksgiving turkeys and Fall poultry production. Having a mobile brooder allows us to move the brooder to a safe location to ride out the storm without having to disturb its occupants.
  2. Monitoring - Location flexibility allows the mobile brooder can be placed close by for observation. Poultry health can fail quickly and being close by helps you stay on top of issues before they cause serious losses.
  3. Infrastructure - Mobile brooders can be built with the same advantages of stationary structures when concerning insulation and physical protection.
  4. Heat sources - Since you have better access to power and properly monitored heat sources you likely will be able to maintain proper brooder temps even during the cold seasons.
  5. Stress - with a mobile brooder in one step you can move its occupants to a field shelter. Reducing handling is key to keeping their stress down. With some creativity, the transfer process can be very simple by using ramps and other gradual methods of moving chicks.
  6. Logistics - Bedding management is much easier when you can move the bedding where you need it with as little effort as possible. Mobile brooding allows this and is especially easy if you integrate roll out flooring in to your design.
  7. Brooder health - By only brooding young poultry in a brooder we limit the types of pathogens and disease they are exposed to. Simply being able to remove bedding between batches (if desired) helps with these issues.

Challenges:

  1. Build and design complexity - The mobile brooder does take in more design requirements than the other alternatives. Not only do you have the structure but the mobile platform to move it.
  2. Single use structure - unlike field shelters being adapted for brooding this will mostly be used as a brooder though I am sure some creative thought could be put towards it’s off season use.
  3. Maintenance - Like adding another trailer, this is another set of axles and wheels to maintain. Assuming your brooder doesn't leave the farm this shouldn’t be a significant issues but is something to consider.

Building the case for mobile brooding:

We wanted to leverage the benefits of mobile brooding to bring the best of both worlds into a single solution, not to say it doesn't have it’s own set of challenges. We are confident we aren’t the first to brood in this fashion but we felt like it was time for a good evaluation of the concept and moving forward with a proof of concept. In order to do so we need to establish parameters for our Mobile Brooder and the requirements that need to be worked in to its design.

Design requirements:

  1. Ease of access - Standing height (approx 6 ft)
  2. Ventilation - Many issues can occur from poor ventilation from high levels of ammonia to high levels of moisture. All things that can impact chick health.
  3. Low Stress - The primary purpose of mobility is to simplify and remove stress at the stage of moving occupants to the field.
  4. Clean-Up - Unloading / Rollaway floor system - This is a big one for us. For many reasons, this needs to be easy to clean out. Simply being able to move the brooder to a compost pile and then unloading its contents without having to manually shovel not only saves your back but your own personal health when breathing in bedding particulate as you shovel. This also eliminates the need of a front end loader to remove bedding.
  5. Power Distribution - Like the benefits of a fixed structure I would place a large RV style power connector on the brooder to connect a small power panel in order to distribute power to heaters, fans, appliances, and lighting without extension cords running from all over causing tripping or fire hazards.

Nice to haves: 

  1. IR Brooder Lamps (Solaira)
  2. Lubing Turkey Lines (Next year)
  3. RV style power connection to distribution panel
  4. Auger driven Feeder line - why we decided against it.

Building our Mobile Brooder:

This is not our first mobile brooder. In fact, we have used a converted hay wagon using a cattle panel hoop design as our first brooder for many years successfully. The irony is we didn’t build our first mobile brooder with its potential advantages in mind. All of our brooders were tied up so it was built out of need and a hay wagon was the most complete structure I had on hand at the time. However, shortly after we built it the benefits of not having a fixed structure was quickly recognized when it came to cleaning out the brooder. Though it was still by hand but we were at least able to bring it to the compost pile to eliminate the use of the tractor. Then it became even more popular when we didn’t have to crate up the chickens to move them to their field shelters since we simply moved the brooder to the pasture and backed it up to unloaded right in to the shelters themselves. Let me make it perfectly clear, a lot of these benefits were not thought of in advance but merely recognized in retrospect. I don’t suppose to write this article as if we are guru’s on all things brooding but observations made from our experiences having tried many methods. When combined with the desire to work as efficiently as possible (code for little as possible) we came up with modifications from our first design to be known as (1.0) to build our second design which we are sharing here.

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