Turkey Talk

“I am going to raise my own Thanksgiving turkey someday!” Has this thought crossed your mind? With Thanksgiving just a few days away, we thought the time was right to give you a brief overview about raising turkeys and some of the key differences between commercial and heritage breeds.

Let’s review some quick turkey terminology first.

At the grocery store

Commercially raised turkeys are primarily white and bronze breeds. These turkeys typically dress (or finish) at 40+ pounds for a Tom and nearly 20 pounds for a hen. Tom turkey meat is traditionally used for deli meats, turkey bacon, or ground turkey while almost all whole birds on your thanksgiving table are female hens. They are a mix of both dark and white meat, and it is their large white breast meat that make them a popular choice for the commercial turkey business. These breeds of turkeys also are common for 4-H show projects. As a backyard flock, however, they are not ideal, unless you have a strict harvest date in mind. Bred for fast production of breast meat, these breeds are unable to mate naturally, so, in a commercial setting are bred using artificial insemination.

Heritage breeds for your backyard

Heritage breed turkeys are often a logical choice for the backyard poultry enthusiast. These birds dress at around 15 pounds, and include almost all dark meat. Breeds within the Heritage family include Black Spanish, Blue Slate, Red Bourbon, Royal Palm and Narragansetts. Heritage turkeys serve as an advantage due to their longer life-span and ability to breed naturally. If you’re looking for a smaller option of Heritage turkey, a great breed would be the Midget White turkey. These dress at around 8-13 pounds and are known for their friendly temperament.

If you’re interested in starting your own turkey flock, doing your research is vital. Turkeys require slightly more attention than your typical backyard chicken, so making sure your facility is ready to take on turkeys is key.

Some of the unique turkey-keeping aspects include:

  • Location: Choose a spot that has never had chickens grown on it – some diseases like Blackhead won’t impact chickens but will kill turkeys.
  • Feed: Young turkeys need an extremely high protein content feed. Without enough protein, turkeys have been known to eat eachother. Country Feeds Gamebird feed is a great choice. Don’t worry about limit feeding as turkeys can have access feed 24 hours a day.
  • Poults: Baby turkeys grow quickly, but, like chicks, cannot regulate body temperature well. Even though they may look like adult birds, don’t introduce young turkeys to outdoors until after 10 weeks of age
  • Space: Turkeys are much bigger than chickens, so allow an appropriate amount of space for them to grow without being crowed.

If you are raising for the purpose of harvesting the turkeys, it’s important to get your timing right. You will want to be purchasing poults in April/May for butchering at Thanksgiving time. Don’t forget to book your butchering far in advance, as facilities book up fast on these services.

Turkeys can be a fun and rewarding project with proper preparation and care.

So go forth and gobble!

 

Coop Upgrade – Automatic Pop Hole Doors

People forget but hungry raccoons never do. Keeping predators from decimating a flock is the best reason for installing an automatic pop hole door on the chicken coop.

Sunset signals bed time for chickens. As daylight dims they’ll leave their outdoor run, enter the coop through the pop hole and hop up to a roost for a good night’s sleep.   Unfortunately, just as chickens tuck themselves in for the night, raccoons, opossums, skunks, coyotes, foxes and even mink wake up hungry and begin seeking dinner.

Wise flock owners tighten up their coop so nocturnal predators can’t enter, but the weak link in predator defense is the pop hole. Forget to close it even once and odds are good sleeping chickens will become a tasty meal for a hungry wild creature.

Manually closed and clasped pop hole doors work fine for keeping predators at bay but they require someone to always be available to close it at sunset and open it the next morning. That’s not always possible for forgetful people or those with busy schedules who might not be home when chickens doze off and predators waken.

Automatic pop hole doors close without the need for someone to physically be present.  They frustrate hungry raccoons but save flocks. Automatic pop hole doors don’t do anything that human fingers closing a manual door do, but they work when no one is around or someone forgets to close the pop hole. Controlled by either a timer or light sensor automatic devices close the door at a set time and reopen it the next morning.   There are generally two types and each works well.

Timer Controlled Doors

An electric motor closes and opens the door controlled by a timer plugged into an outlet. This requires the owner to set the timer to close the door just after sunset and reopen it after sunrise. Because day length changes with the seasons, resetting the timer five or six times a year is necessary so the door closes and opens around sunset and sunrise. Not too early in the evening to avoid having a chicken left outside, and not too late in the morning so chickens are not unnecessarily cooped up.

Sensor Controlled Doors

Some doors are controlled by a light sensor so they close as light dims and open after the next morning’s sunrise. They eliminate the need to reset a timer as day length changes but often are more expensive than timer operated doors. Some users have reported that the light sensor controlled doors have closed on dark cloudy days with the chickens still outside, but generally they work fine.

Some sophisticated doors can be opened and closed remotely with a smart phone and they can be fitted with a battery so the mechanism works during a power failure. A solar photovoltaic panel can be fitted to keep the battery charged. These may be appealing options for people who love technology and aren’t concerned about cost.

Automatic pop hole doors aren’t foolproof and need occasional attention. Sticks can blow into the opening and snow and ice can form. Either can keep the door from properly closing. Power failures are threats to auto doors that don’t have battery backup. However, these problems don’t happen often and doors generally work flawlessly.

A Few Things to Consider

Automatic pop hole doors are ideal for busy families. Often, no one gets home until after school or work hours, which can be several hours past sunset. Having the device close the door gives peace of mind. Pop hole doors aren’t completely free of the need for a person to visit the coop daily. Someone should collect eggs, fill feeders and waterers and make sure the pop hole door is working properly every day. Nothing beats having a neighbor, friend, or relative available to care for the flock during vacations or long weekends away.

Automatic doors of many types can be purchased through the internet, and kits are also available that offer some cost savings. A few inventive people have designed and built their own.

Automatic pop hole doors save chickens owned by people who forget to close the door or who simply love the convenience of sitting indoors on a cold morning and watching the chickens troop outside when the door opens by itself. They make life a little easier and keep hens safe.

The Buddy System – Horses and Hens as Companions

Have you ever wanted to diversify with companion species? If so, do you find yourself wondering, ‘What species go well together?’ Well that answer can be as simple as horses and hens! Not only is it okay, it is actually a good idea! Keeping chickens along with horses is a time honored tradition that certainly can be manageable, and even beneficial – here’s why:

  • Chickens are opportunists. When a pellet or kernel falls, they’ll be there to pick it up. This saves your horse from mouthing around on the ground to find bits of feed (a practice that can lead to ingestion of dirt and sand) and it reduces the amount of feed that is wasted.
  • Chickens are good horse trainers. A horse that has had exposure to poultry won’t “have his feathers ruffled” by sudden movements, loud noises, or the occasional appearance of an egg…
  • Chickens help prepare your horse for the trail. If you plan to take trail rides where wild turkeys, partridge, chuckar, etc. populate it can be beneficial to have your horse used to the patterns and noises of fowl by keeping a few chickens around. A little exposure to flapping, squawking and scurrying can go a long way to desensitizing your horse to those types of events out on the trail.
  • Chickens are nature’s fly traps. You and your horse hate bugs – but chickens love them. Chickens eat flies, worms, grubs, bees; if they can catch it they’ll nibble on it, which means it won’t be nibbling on you or your horse.
  • Chickens are low maintenance. Provide them with a cozy place to sleep, fresh clean water, free choice oyster shell for strong eggshells, grit for digestion and some layer feed and they will be happy and healthy.
  • Chickens help with the chores! One of a chicken’s favorite things to do is scratch the ground for hidden treasures. Give them a pile of horse droppings and they think they’re in heaven! They’ll have the manure broken down, spread around and out of sight before you can even think of grabbing a pitchfork and wheelbarrow!
  • Chickens are pets with benefits. Besides being a colorful and entertaining addition to your stable yard, chickens provide one thing your horse can’t – breakfast! Now if they could only cook it and serve it to you in bed…

A few words of caution about keeping chickens with your horses – make sure that your chickens are fed separately from your horse and that your horse can’t get into their feed. This will eliminate the risk of your horse consuming layer feed that is not designed for his digestive system. Also, provide roosts for your chickens that are away from your horse’s feeder if they are not put into a coop at night to eliminate waste of feed and hay due to chicken droppings. Make sure both your horse and chickens have fresh, clean water that is easily accessible to them at all times.

Breezes and Drafts – Proper Ventilation Keeps Chickens Comfortable and Healthy

The only difference between a breeze and a draft is temperature.

Both people and chickens savor a cool breeze on a sultry summer evening but that pleasant summer air transforms into a knifelike January draft that slices through the coop and chills hens.

It can frostbite tender combs, freeze water containers quickly and make life miserable for the coop’s occupants.

Proper ventilation is critically important to keep chickens comfortable, safe, and productive. Well-made coops enable managing airflow to welcome summer breezes yet bar frigid drafts.

Managing a coop’s air starts with litter and manure. Almost as soon as litter gets wet odor permeates the coop.

Soggy litter, caused by leaky roofs or tipped over water buckets, generates ammonia that no amount of ventilation can transport outdoors.   Well managed coops don’t smell.

The secret in preventing odor is to make sure no rain can enter and that any damp litter is immediately removed and added to the compost bin. It also helps to keep chicken density low. Crowded coops are more likely to be pungent than those where chickens have plenty of individual space.

Managing Coop Airflow

A well-designed coop has at least two windows on opposite sides for cross ventilation.  Ideally the chickens’ roost is located between them so the birds enjoy summer breezes while snoozing.

Windows should be easy to open and close so the volume of air that passes through them can be adjusted depending on the temperature.

During summer’s inferno, they should be wide open but cramped shut in winter.

Spring and fall bring mild temperatures and windows only need to be open an inch or two to let enough fresh air in.

Windows do more than admit air and light. They can be the entryway for raccoons, opossums, and even mink dreaming of a tasty chicken dinner. Windows should be configured to exclude predators while welcoming fresh air and light.

Good coop windows have three layers. The first is the glass that permits or excludes breezes depending on how far they are opened. The second is mosquito netting to keep biting bugs outside.

Insect screening is not strong enough to even slow a hungry raccoon, so the third layer is a mesh of wire strong enough to deter powerful predators.   A heavy-duty mesh screen can be made of 2X2 lumber with wire stapled onto it.

The frame is then screwed over the window. One half inch square hardware cloth will even keep out lithe mink.

Glass plus netting plus wire screen let in a summer breeze while frustrating hungry bugs and furry predators.

Breezes and drafts don’t just enter at windows. They discover every crack and hole in the coop and enter uninvited.

Even in the coldest weather fresh air entering through a few cracks brings the oxygen chickens need and voids moisture coming from their breath and manure.

A few narrow cracks are good but too many let frigid air in and can be an entryway for weasels.

Filling most cracks with caulking or expanding foam every fall helps keep both the cold and skinny predators outside.

Chickens have a high heat generating metabolism and feathers, nature’s best insulation, to keep the warm. In an uninsulated but draft free coop body heat raises the interior temperature a few degrees on the coldest nights.

When nature’s mid-summer furnace is going full bore roosting chickens pant to increase cooling evaporation from their throats, and they often hold their wings outward to void body heat.

Having plenty of roost space allows them to partly spread their wings. That and a cooling breeze helps hens enjoy a good night’s sleep. On the hottest and stillest nights hens may appreciate an artificial breeze from an electric fan.

Managing coop ventilation keeps chickens comfortable, clean and productive and is an important task of any flock owner.

Molt 101

chicken molting 101. What is chicken look like and why?

Are your chickens looking a little bare right now? It’s likely the result of molt, a naturally occurring process in chickens from August through December.

In the molting process, chickens lose their feathers starting at the head and neck and working its way down the body. It can take 4-16 weeks for the molting process to be complete.

But fear not, there are options to help speed the process along. Products like, Nutrena’s NatureWise Feather Fixer can help your birds get through molt quicker.

Additionally, educating yourself on the process of molt will help you and your flock get through this transition period seamlessly.

Take a look at the following resources to reference during molt:

 

Chicken Predators – What You Need to Know

Humans aren’t the only animal that enjoys a delicious chicken dinner.

Foxes, coyotes, raccoons, dogs, mink, owls, and some hawks also find chickens a meaty, easy-to-catch meal.

Discovering chickens killed by a mink or carried off by a fox is frustrating. Fortunately, predators can be foiled.

Predators are everywhere. No flock is completely safe from some carnivorous species that would like to eat them.

Raccoons and domestic dogs probably kill more chickens than any other animals and live in both rural and urban areas. Raccoons are surprisingly abundant even in New York City!

Often the first reaction a flockowner has when birds are killed is to seek revenge.

Shotguns and traps are sometimes used but killing a chicken-eating fox or raccoon can be both illegal and dangerous. Preventing predation is far more effective than shooting or trapping an animal or two.

Most chicken losses occur at night when raccoons, skunks, opossums, owls, mink, and weasels are most likely to prowl.

The best defense against night shift chicken snatchers is a sturdy tight coop. Chickens come inside at dusk and are almost comatose when sleeping. Once they get inside predators can easily pluck a plump hen off the roost.

The solution is making entry nearly impossible. That can be easier said than done, since a mink can ooze through a one-inch diameter hole while weasels can fit through even smaller cracks.

Some ways to keep predators out of the coop include:

  • At dusk and when you plan to be away until after dark, close and securely latch all doors, especially the pop hole door.
  • Cover all windows with sturdy wire mesh. Raccoons can tear through hexagonal chicken wire, so stronger wire is essential. One half inch square hardware cloth thwarts raccoons and even keeps mink out.
  • Fill in any holes or cracks in walls or around doors with concrete, caulking, wire, or expanding foam.
  • Watch for signs of animals digging tunnels under the coop walls. A concrete coop floor prevents this type of entry, but wire mesh placed on a dirt floor beneath litter and tacked to the coop’s side walls also works.
  • Eliminate predator hiding places near the coop. Piles of firewood, debris, old vacant sheds, and brush piles offer predators a safe haven as they approach. The fewer places they have to hide the less likely they are to invade.
  • Install a sensor activated light that turns on as a hungry raccoon approaches.

Preventing daytime predators from snatching chickens is more challenging as the birds are often outside.

Dogs are probably the major daytime chicken killers, but several species of hawks may also prey on hens.

Mink, foxes, and weasels are occasionally active during daylight hours but raccoons, opossums, and skunks rarely are. Preparing the run in two ways will reduce predation.

First, confine the flock with a sturdy fence that keeps chickens in and dogs out. Usually a stout four-foot-tall fence will prevent heavy chicken breeds from flying over it while excluding dogs and foxes. Light breed chickens are adept flyers and a six or eight-foot-tall fence may be needed to confine them.

Second, provide overhead protection. A sure-fire way to keep raptors from snatching an occasional chicken is to cover the run with wire mesh. Small outdoor runs can feature a roof that also keeps rain and snow off the ground.

Chickens, like rabbits and other prey species, recognize that danger can come from the sky. They are safer when the run provides some overhead cover.

A few shrubs planted in the run give chicken’s places to safely loiter beneath their intertwined branches. A picnic table placed in the run also gives birds a safe haven from the bright sun and overhead predators.

Predators are crafty and often catch chickens and their owners by surprise. Months can go by with no loss and then many birds can be killed in just a short time. Preventing predators from accessing chickens is the best way to keep them safe.

The Scoop on Rhode Island Red Chickens

Looking to add crazy-good egg production to your flock? Then Rhode Island Reds are the gals you’ve been searching for! This breed produces large, brown eggs, with roughly 260 eggs produced annually! With all of these great attributes, this popular breed is sure to keep your coop happy.

Growing Meat Chickens at Home

 “Oh we’ll kill the old red rooster when she comes, when she comes. Oh, we’ll kill the old red rooster when she comes when she comes.” 

Back in 1947 when Gene Autry sang those famous lines in “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” a chicken dinner was a treat served mostly when hosting dinner guests. Traditional chicken dinners came from old hens past their egg laying prime or roosters from heavy breed chickens like White Rocks, New Hampshire Reds, or Buff Orpingtons.

Since then, poultry breeders developed an amazing hybrid that grows at an astonishing speed and revolutionized human diets, making chicken a common meat. In 1960 the average American ate 63 pounds of beef but only 24 pounds of chicken. By 2016 beef consumption had dropped to 56 pounds while chicken soared to 90 pounds.

A dual-purpose breed rooster takes about 16 weeks to reach broiler size, and by then his flesh is staring to toughen. He also lacks the thick breast meat featured in many of today’s recipes. In contrast, a modern Cornish broiler reaches eating size in only six weeks and his tender meaty body includes a deep breast.

Hybrid broilers are amazingly efficient. Back in 1925 an average broiler chicken ate 4.7 pounds of feed for each pound it gained. By 2011 a Cornish Cross broiler ate only 1.9 pounds of feed to gain a pound of body weight. Feed efficiency and rapid growth has made chicken an inexpensive and healthy meat.

Big commercial growers enjoy the cost advantage of scale by buying thousands of chicks and hundreds of tons of feed. Small flock owners must spend more for chicks and feed to produce their own broilers. Then they must slaughter their birds. It likely costs more to raise broilers at home than buy them in the store, but there are outstanding reasons to do it.

Nothing beats the pride of producing food at home, whether home grown tomatoes or broiler chickens. They just seem to taste better than supermarket counterparts. Growing winter chicken dinners yields satisfaction as well as meat. Many hatcheries sell Cornish Cross and Red Ranger hybrid chicks all year. Ordering some to arrive in early fall will fill the freezer before Thanksgiving.

Cornish Cross Broilers are super achievers that produce the most meat on the least feed in the shortest time. These are single purpose chickens bred for meat only. Hens are slaughtered when they reach eating size and aren’t good layers. Cornish Cross Broilers get so heavy so quickly they have a hard time walking and prefer to stay by the feeder and eat. They need a special high protein diet and careful management.

Red Rangers or Red Broilers are a hybrid well suited for small flocks. They grow slower than Cornish but faster than dual purpose breeds and lack the health problems of faster growing broilers. Rangers enjoy foraging outdoors and can be raised with standard breeds. They produce the meaty breast most people enjoy and are ready for slaughter by 12 weeks. Hens can be kept and will lay about 175 eggs a year.

Before anyone buys broiler chicks they should determine how they are going to process them. Slaughtering and dressing chickens can be done at home for personal use. Several You Tube videos show how to do it in graphic detail. Another option is to bring live birds to a processing plant. Usually state laws require that dressed birds offered for sale be processed in a licensed plant.

Most urban chicken ordinances are written allow homeowners to keep a few laying hens and prohibit slaughtering. However, many families who raise chickens are part of a network of other poultry raising families. Some may live outside city limits where birds can be brought for processing.

Growing broilers in a small flock is more challenging than tending laying hens, but growing healthy in a backyard coop is satisfying and makes delicious winter meals.