Feeding chicks while in transport is a controversial topic, but under certain conditions it can offer benefits, especially in terms of early survivability.
Nature has provided for nutrients and water to be readily available for the newly hatched chick in the form of remaining egg yolk sac that is slowly absorbed in the first hours of life. The absorption of these vital nutrients is of paramount importance for the correct functioning and health of the gut, and it speeds up as the chick starts picking up normal feed from its environment. But, commercial practice often interferes with nature.
As long as chicks are placed under brooders within 24 hours post-hatch, they can manage without any further help, assuming the pre-starter feed available is of suitable quality and it is readily accessible by all chicks. But, if chicks are to remain in their transport trays for a prolonged period of time, then the normal life cycle is impaired.
Transporting chicks to long distances, especially under adverse conditions, will first dehydrate them and then deprive them of body energy reserves. In result, upon placement, they will be exhausted, and at best, they will take longer to pick up feed and water — with subsequent negative effects on growth performance. At worst case scenario, mortality will spike.
Thus, when chicks are to be kept in transport cases for too long, it is advisable to use some form of nourishment and hydration. Several methods of doing so are available:
- Provide a gel that sticks to walls and provides both water and some nutrients. The only negative side, apart from the cost, is that chicks farthest away from the gel will not benefit from it as much those close to the supplement.
- Provide a regular diet, in powder form, at the bottom of the tray. This ensures all chicks have access to feed, but it does not solve the problem of water, unless special trays are used to provide water; something seldom convenient.
- Provide a slice of watermelon or pumpkin in the transport box. This is an easy and inexpensive way of providing both nutrients and water, but it is not as practical as a ready-made commercial product. But, it works and it is used by small hatcheries.
On placement, some experts advise keeping chicks on a water-only diet for a few hours. Adding some sugar and electrolytes in the water is considered beneficial, especially for dehydrated chicks after a long trip to the rearing facility. Certain other additives may be considered in hot climates, or if chicks are expected to be affected by certain enteric disorders. Following this gut cleansing diet that also rehydrates the birds, it is recommended to offer them a high quality pre-starter feed to help them catch up quickly.
In general, for normal practices, when chicks are not expected to be kept long from placement, there is little if any benefit of doing anything in terms of early feeding. Normal procedures will suffice, or the extra cost will not be paid back by enhanced performance. But, when adverse conditions prevail, providing extra care and nourishment will help chicks withstand the rigors of transportation, and even if they don’t grow any faster, at least mortality spikes will be avoided. In most cases, this is enough to pay back for the extra investment in materials and labor. At the end, what works for each hatchery and rearing facility is a combination of actual procedures, available means, and above all cost over profit.