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Chick quality assessment and incubation optimization (5)

Part 5: Analysis of the beak and legs Learn how to improve chick quality by analyzing the beak and legs. 

By Frank Verschuere, Hatchery Development Department, Petersime NV

Optimizing the quality of your chicks is critical to give them the best possible start to achieve the genetic potential. Whether we are discussing complete integrations or you are providing the market with day-old chicks, the goals are equal. Integrations benefit directly from improved post-hatch performance while the independent hatcheries want to deliver the best chicks.

Due to the high volumes we have to deal with in commercial hatcheries, we have to investigate the general appearance of chicks. However, if you observe a significant amount of chicks with beak or leg issues, then a further in-depth analysis should be organized. The people from Petersime’s Hatchery Development Department are ready to share their knowledge with you. They will gladly help with analysis and advice.

Why is the beak important?

The beak is vital for physical well-being, since it is used for breathing, drinking and picking food. It needs to be healthy and fully formed. When the chick is eating at the farm and playing or moving its beak as if it is going to make noises, this is a good sign. If the beak is damaged or causing discomfort, the bird will reduce this activity. The nostrils should be clean and open so the chick can breathe normally.

Common visual beak issues

Red or dark spots on the nostrils indicate either that the temperature in the hatcher is too high, or that the chick struggles to emerge from the eggshell due to insufficient weight loss.

Crossed beaks are often hereditary or caused by a viral infection. Chicks with crossed beaks should be removed, as they will not be able to live comfortably at the farm.

Chick with red spots on the nostrils

Chick with clean, good nostrils 

Why are the legs important?

Chicks with good legs can move freely, look for food or drink and behave in a natural way. Furthermore, having good legs allow chicks to develop their muscles optimally. But red hocks, injuries, dehydration or spread legs may prevent the chicks from behaving naturally. To avoid these, we give you some advice on assessing the leg quality and guide you to specific areas that you can investigate.

Visual leg issues

Red hocks
If you notice that the hocks of the chicks are red, this could be an indication that the temperature during the incubation process is too high, that weight loss is poor or that chicks are not handled properly.

Let us dig into incorrect temperatures first. Having a uniform incubation setting is always best. But different breeds and different flock ages require different temperature programs. Therefore, try to limit variances in temperature programs by avoiding a big mix of flock age, storage time and fertility. To maximize chick uniformity and to limit the chances of red hocks, we strongly advise heat treatment during prolonged storage with BioStreamer™ Re-Store. Make sure the temperature program is in line with the stage of embryonic development. Petersime’s OvoScan™ automatically monitors this to ensure optimal conditions at each stage. Furthermore, a balanced loading and transfer pattern avoids unequal distribution of temperature in your incubator (click here to read more about how to load the setter in a balanced way: ). Technical problems, for example non-sealed incubators, also result in larger temperature variances. Regularly maintaining your equipment and using it correctly helps to get the most out of your equipment. To ensure optimal temperature uniformity, avoid the use of sprays.

Second, red hocks may be caused by poor moisture loss. If the embryo does not lose enough weight during his developmental stage, then at the time of hatch it is too large to emerge from its egg shell and its hocks rub against the inside of the shell. In this case, gently lower the CO2 levels to increase the ventilation and to lower the humidity.

Finally, red hocks can be caused by automation or poor chick handling during take-off. Investigate the automation to see if chicks can get injured somewhere in the process. In case of manual take-off, training of the staff is required so they can handle the birds without damaging them.

Chick with red hocks

Injured Legs

If you notice injuries at the legs of the chicks, investigate the automatization equipment, such as drop height, belt speed, the design of the equipment, etc. to check if nothing could injure the birds. Again, in case of manual take-off, training the staff to process the birds correctly in order to not injure them will prevent injuries. The toes should also be investigated for damage and given special attention in case de-toeing is applied.

An example of an injured chick toe

Dehydrated legs

Dehydration of legs is another means to evaluate chick quality. Dehydration can be caused by temperatures that are too high during hatch, because this increases evaporative heat loss with the birds. A narrow hatch window in combination with good set and pull timing limits the chances of dehydrated legs.

A well hydrated leg looks smooth and feels soft

A dehydrated leg looks more scaly and feels harder

Poor leg colouring

The colour of the legs will also help you assess chick quality. If the legs look reddish, it potentially indicates a recent period of heat stress. If the legs have a blue appearance, it suggests a possible recent lack of oxygen. However, in some genetic lines, blue legs are normal.

Spread legs

When chicks hatch on a surface that is too smooth, it is difficult for them to achieve a good posture, which can affect skeletal integrity. Avoid using paper in baskets with a structure that is too smooth for the chicks to stand on and avoid using a belt that is too slippery. Weak chicks have more problems with their posture, since they do not have enough strength in their legs.

A chick with spread legs

Leg strength test

You can test the leg strength of chicks. You should feel resistance or reaction and the effort needed to recover its posture, either when pushing on the chick or when the chick is on its back. When placed on its back, the chick should return in an upright position within three seconds.


In this article we have discussed the most common causes that influence beak and leg quality. Good beak and leg health are important for post-hatch performance, because it allows the chicks to move freely and show natural behaviour at the farm. It should be highlighted that, in this article, I suggest only the most common causes of each issue. Furthermore, it must be stressed that it can be the case that one factor is responsible for several different issues. Optimal and uniform chick quality is, after all, affected by numerous factors which we already discussed in the first article and is critical to always keep this in mind when analyzing the results.

Whether we are discussing complete integrations or you are providing the market with day-old chicks, the goals are equal. Integrations benefit directly from improved post-hatch performance while the independent hatcheries want to deliver the best chicks. Optimizing the quality of the chicks is critical to give the chicks the best possible start to achieve the genetic potential.