Canadian Poultry Magazine

Features 100th anniversary Technology
England’s Great Contribution to Poultry Health

June 1936

October 12, 2012
By Fred W. Beeson


In the last twenty-five years we have seen many changes within the poultry industry. Especially is this so in the methods of rearing chickens, and, of course, in the hatching of eggs. The greatest revolution has taken place, however, in the British Isles, and that too, in the last nine or ten years. Chiefly, it relates to the method used in caring for birds after the brooding period and also during their laying years.

Curiously enough, the system now in vogue is a throw back to times before commercial egg production, as we know it now, came into existence.

Sussex Arks


The Southern counties of England, principally Sussex and Surrey, have long been famous or the production of high class table birds and before most of us were born the birds that were destined for the London markets were raised—after the brooding period –in little contraptions know as Sussex Arks.

These arks were very simply constructed, being of an apex type with the roofs forming the side walls. The floor was made of slats, usually not more than two inches wide and spaced about an inch or an inch and half apart. The original idea was probably to counteract the tendency of the youngsters flying onto a roost with the possibility of crooked breast bones resulting, for they just had to sleep on the slats – and like it.

Well, they apparently liked it, for the system became generally adopted and the quality of table chickens produced was unsurpassed.

In those far-off days we are told that sickness and disease were almost unknown, and knowing what we do now, the remarkable health, in an age when ventilation was not the science it is today, and vitamins were unheard of, can be directly traced to the adoption of these slatted floors.

Fresh Air

Now what is so remarkable about a slatted floor? Nothing except that when birds sleep on a slatted floor raised several inches above ground level, and with nothing to stop the flow of air between the floor and the ground, EVERY BIRD HAS UNLIMITED FRESH AIR EVERY MINUTE IT IS IN THE HOUSE.

Of course, one could go too far on the fresh air idea and the young birds would become chilled through drafts, but these little arks were so constructed that no chilling took place. Later on I will quote from an authority on the subject of what he calls “Open Floor Houses.” But right here let’s look for the reason that birds do not get chilled in this type of house.

Sufficient birds were always put in these arks to entirely cover the floor when they were sitting down at night. More than enough would obviously have meant overcrowding but to fill the house was merely good economy. So, at night, a blanket, so to speak, was formed over the entire floor by the birds themselves. Now, air coming into a house from all sides does not cause a draft and only as much air can enter a building as is escaping from it. With these arks the only place air could enter was through the slats, and the only means of escape was either through the same slats or out of the apex, which was constructed just as are the majority of our present day large laying house roofs with a ridge ventilator. The heat generated by the mass of birds made the air warm and consequently it would rise and escape through the roof. Therefore, there was a constant filter of fresh air coming in, being breathed in by the birds and expelled, and sent out at the top.

Chickens were placed in these arks as soon as they could be taken away from the mother hen and around fifty would e put in a little ark say 6 by 3 feet, or 6 by 4 feet. As they grew they would be thinned out, always leaving a house full, however.

With these old type arks it is not on record that the reason for the extraordinary health of the birds was because of the abundance of fresh air and the system was allowed to go into the discard for a number of years, being considered archaic. It has lately been revived, as you will read.

Wilted Birds

And so, we will move on to more recent days, days when commercial egg production dwarfed the importance of table meat production throughout the entire civilized world. During this post-war period mass production came into being and during this time the chick and adult mortality was creeping, no, jumping up, and the various housing systems in general use commenced to be studied with the possibility that here at least might be found some of the trouble.

We all know the wilted appearance of young cockerels and pullets so often seen in large flocks. Pale legs that should be yellow or orange, faces white that should carry the pink of healthy blood coursing through the veins, and, particularly in battery brooders, that lopped-over comb of the your Leghorn cockerels. We’ve all seen hundreds and thousands of them, raised some them ourselves and lost plenty, felt sorry for the little beggars and more sorry for their owners.

California Experiments

Six years ago I was in California and visited a large broiler plant. Thousands of chicks passed through this plant in a season and all were raised in batteries. The owner told me that each room was perfectly ventilated and he showed me the electric fans forcing fresh air in and drawing out the foul air. This man told me that, by regulating the amount of fresh air he could wilt the birds in a period of 48 hours to a point where the cockerels’ combs would commence to fall over. Conversely, by again increasing the amount of air he could straighten up the combs in the next 24 hours.

I was intensely interested in what he told me for it demonstrated he power of fresh air or oxygen. It is easily understandable too, when one considers that a bird can live for weeks without food, days without water but only a few minutes without AIR.

Furthermore, the owner of the broiler plant had reached a point in his experiments where he knew definitely the air requirements of a chicken. Here is his formula. ONE POUND OF CHICKEN REQUIRES ONE CUBIC FOOT OF AIR IN ONE MINUTE.

The average person raising chicks has no means of measuring the amount of fresh air his chickens are getting, but it is safe to say that the great majority of young pullets raised today in large flocks, other than on slatted floors, DO NOT get sufficient fresh air at night.

Ready-Made Houses

Who it was who recommenced using the arks in England during the last few years I do not know, but in a very short time the system has taken hold to such an extent that today it is not news over there to hear of a farm where upwards of twenty thousand birds are raised each year on slatted floors.

From rearing young stock the idea soon spread to the housing of laying birds and apparently the system has many advantages as long as the farmer has considerable acreage on which to range his stock. Such houses are inexpensive, can be easily moved, are fitted with wheels or skids and have such built-in features as mash hoppers, nests, dropping boards under the slats, water troughs, broody coops, etc. A house 8 by 10 feet will accommodate one hundred birds, but the usual size is somewhat smaller than this.

For many years it has been customary for the English farmer to buy his poultry buildings ready made. Manufacturers cater to this trade in a very pronounced manner and from the evidence I see in the poultry papers of that country, they undoubtedly form the largest single class of contributors to the poultry industry.

All the buildings are shipped flat and are ready to erect upon delivery. The various sections are bolted together and the manufacturers usually quote a price delivered. For a slatted floor house to hold 75 hens or 150 youngsters the prices range from forty-five to sixty dollars. Most of them are treated with creosote under pressure before leaving the factory.

Adaptable in Canada?

A hundred pages could be filled with illustrations for various types of these houses. There are many variations in design and ingenious space savers, but all have the one feature in common, a slatted floor (or a heavy gauge wire netting floor) with air entering from underneath and escaping from the top.

Much has been written in the English press about these houses and occasionally one reads something of a derogatory nature. The great majority of people, however, have found them to be far ahead of the long fixed house with the birds all roosting at the back of the house. They claim lower mortality, practically no trouble from colds or roup in laying hens, lower cost of buildings and equally as good egg production, even in cold weather.

For Canada, such a system could not be advocated for laying hens except on the Pacific coast., but for rearing young stock there is no reason why the slatted floors should not be adopted from one end of the country to the other.

The view of an authority will be interesting and the following is quoted from an article entitled “The Open Floor Method of Housing Poultry,” by H.E. Davies, County Instructor for Flintshire. Mr. Davies says: “The old type of farmers’ colony house went out of use some years ago. Few people regretted its passing for a number or reason. The ventilation left much to be desired, roosting space was not what it might have been, and no ne will agree that to have their birds constantly walking over their own droppings on the floor of the house was hygienic. With this type of housing low production and high mortality was experienced. I am not suggesting that the housing was solely responsible for the disease because I realize that other factors can play a very important part in this matter, but there is no doubt but what improved housing conditions are assisting in keeping down disease.

“For several years now Sussex Arks have been used all over the country for growing chicks. In every instance with a well-constructed ark, the health bill of the birds has been good. Encouraged by these results appliance makers have attempted to adapt this principle for the use of birds of all ages. Difficulties were encountered but the majority of these were in detail only and today the open floor house holds its place in the market on sheer merit in the face of sever competition from other systems.

“There are today a number of people who feel that this type of housing is draught and will not suit exposed conditions. Let it be realized that where one is situated with unrestricted ventilation on all sides, than no draught is experienced. Let that ventilation be closed on one or two sides and then a draught is created by the diversion of air through a given channel. In a good open floor house there is ventilation on all sides. When this point is clearly understood many of the objections to open floors will die away. The situation of the floor is important and the larger the capacity of the house, the higher up inside should the floor be. In all cases it should be six inches above the bottom edge of the sides, and in the larger house 8 inches to 10 inches is to be preferred.

“Experiments have shown that no useful purpose is serve by having the birds in larger units than eighty. A house 8 feet by 8 feet will accommodate these. Above this size the unit becomes unwieldy and difficult to move with the result that to a great extent control is lost. The ideal size is 7 feet by 5 feet with a capacity of 50 birds. Commercially however this size is not in such general demand wing to the increased cost per bird. In other ways, however, this house has much to commend it.

“Easy moving is a main feature to be considered. May I advise those about to embark upon this system that they thoroughly examine the construction of the house they contemplate buying. Remember that your house will have to stand constant pulling and if the construction is weak the shape will soon be lost, with the result that the doors, hoppers, and nests will become difficult to open, and wear and tear will thereby be heavy. The house itself should be a separate construction and should rest on a well-braced ‘chassis’ or undercarriage. When moved the pull must be exerted from this undercarriage. By this method of construction the house should stand many years of moving and should never lose its shape. There is no doubt but what constant moving will to a great extent keep land free from disease and will at the same time enable fields to be used evenly and in rotation.

“In minor details such as mash hoppers and nests, most houses are very well equipped. The purchaser usually has the choice of fittings to suit his own requirements or is offered a specification backed up by practical trail.

“A question frequently asked is how the birds in these houses stand up to hard climatic conditions. There is no evidence to show that hard weather has any detrimental effect upon the health or production of the birds. In fact the reverse is often the case. Snow in most parts of the country is negligible and in nearly every case it is possible to sweep a small space clear to allow the birds to drink in the open. Even if the birds should have to stay indoors for an odd day or so in the year, the space although restricted is far removed from droppings and disease.

“In conclusion, just a word from the economic side. Production is not likely to be worse that in any other type of housing. Health should certainly be very good, and mortality will thereby be lower. The labor costs will be lower owing to less cleaning out being necessary, and what is perhaps another costly item, which is entirely eliminated, is the cost of litter.

“There can be no doubt but what to those with space above that where purely intensive work becomes necessary, the open floor system competes successfully with an other method of housing.”

Note: Next month an illustrate article will appear, featuring the Folding System. This is an adaptation of the slatted floor principle and has the advantage that the birds are confined in a small space during the daytime yet have clean ground every day of the year. The Folding Unit is the very latest in field houses.